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Coming Out Of The Closet Is Still A Privilege In India, But It Was The Best Decision I Ever Made

Posted: April 2, 2020

“Because we live in a society where heterosexuality and cis-genderism is seen as the default ‘normal’, you are never truly ever ‘out of the closet’,” says this young man who came out as gay. 

I came out of the closet sometime in 2017 and I did so quite unexpectedly. I read someone else’s coming out story and after a brief conversation with that person, decided to come out publicly with my story as well.

As luck would have it, a journalist friend reached out to me and told me that she was interested in featuring my story.

Roughly three years have passed since that moment and I thought of writing this essay to reflect on how much my life has changed since then, and why I feel that coming out as homosexual was the best decision I ever made.

Coming out to mom

I was born and raised in India and spent most of my life in my hometown, Kolkata.

While I always knew I was gay, I kept my sexuality a secret because I instinctively felt that being homosexual was ‘wrong’. In hindsight, I realize that I ‘unofficially’ came out long before 2017.

I distinctly remember a very awkward conversation I had with my mother (who is my pillar of support to this day) when I was 13 years old. I remember sitting on my bed, weeping, telling my mom that I was attracted to boys. I did this very innocently and told her that I had a crush on a male classmate and that it made me very uncomfortable. I recall my mother comforting me, telling me that I was too young and that I needed time to understand my sexuality better. Little did we both realize that this was not a phase.

In 2017, nearly 12 years after that embarrassing encounter, I sat down with my mother again, this time as an adult and told her that I was gay. She was just as empathetic and loving as before and told me that nothing mattered more to her than my happiness. I was elated and I do admit, very lucky. I came out to my brother minutes later over a WhatsApp text and he graciously accepted me for who I was as well.

Life changing… BUT…

As I write this, three years later, so much has changed in both my life and in the lives of people around me. To begin with, I am still not out to my father and grandmother. I lost a close friend of over 4 years after he called me ‘mentally ill’ and cut all ties with me.

Also, homosexuality was still legally a crime in India back when I came out. It was only in September 2018 that The Supreme Court of India struck down parts of IPC Section 377, thereby decriminalizing homosexuality in India. That moment was beautiful and was the second-best moment of my life (the first best moment, of course, was coming out).

During the time I came out to my mother, I was also very unhappy with my job, so much so that I often felt frustrated, unhappy and ‘trapped’. I wanted to be financially independent but hated every minute of my professional life as a corporate HR executive. Although I was earning well, lived in my own apartment and was seemingly doing well for myself, I was miserable inside.

I abruptly quit my job and soon spiralled into a state of depression. I once again turned to my mother, telling her that my real interest lay in teaching and some form of social work. She smiled at me and told me that she knew that deep down, I wanted to work with the gay community and that I should if that’s where my interest lay. I felt uneasy hearing her say this and now I realize why.

Why this happened

I now realize that for years I had unknowingly suppressed my sexuality, and this caused irrevocable damage to my psyche. This repression of my sexual identity not only inhibited my self-confidence (I was bullied a lot in school for being effeminate) but also restrained my artistic and intellectual capabilities as an adult.

I liked to write, but never had the courage to write about queer issues because doing so would have forced me to reckon with my own sexuality. Similarly, I always wanted to date, but I never had the courage to ask a man out, because once again, doing so would reaffirm my own sexuality – something that I had tried very hard to suppress. As an introverted gay child, I never had the confidence to stand up for myself either, so I blocked those parts of my personality that were ‘different’. I stayed away from discussions with my friends and family about dating and relationships. I distanced myself from difficult debates on LGBTQ+ issues, if I ever encountered them. In short, I tried to make myself straight even though I didn’t realize it.

I honestly believe that till the age of 25 or 26, I never had any idea of who I really was and what I was doing with my life: personally, and professionally. I never dated, I hated my job to the core and had no idea what I wanted to do in the future. Deep down I knew that I wanted to marry a man and start my own family with him, but I forced myself to delete those thoughts from my head, so much so, that for many years, I lived like a machine. I would wake up, go to school, college or work, come back home, eat and sleep. It was a very hollow and meaningless existence and it was during this time that my mental health issues started to mushroom.

A re-affirmation of what I wanted

I eventually experienced my first kiss at 25 and had sex for the first time when I was 26. I now realize that I was quite late as compared to my peers. It was only after I came out that things started to make sense to me.

Since that second reaffirming conversation with my mother, I started preparing for entrance exams with the hope of obtaining a Master’s degree in either Sociology or Development Studies. I eventually received an offer to pursue my Master’s in Development from Azim Premji University, Bangalore and during my interview, highlighted that my area of interest lay in the empowerment of gender and sexual minorities. During this time, I was also a core team member of Harmless Hugs, a Delhi based LGBTQ+ advocacy group, where my primary job was (and still is) managing their Facebook account.

Although I don’t see myself as an activist and don’t feel comfortable calling myself one, as I look back at my life, I realize that the past three years of my life have been the most authentic years of my existence precisely because I have since become more vocal about LGBTQ+ rights. My contributions to the movement have been minimal, but I am glad that I now have the confidence to say something, rather than nothing.

Coming out a ‘privilege’ in India

A close friend of mine who studied Gender and Sexuality told me that I was her go-to person for any queer related information. She also told me that when she told her father (who recognises me) about me being gay, he was shocked at first, but slowly started to rethink his position on homosexuality. Another classmate at my University told me that she was initially against the legalization of homosexuality back in 2012. But over time, her views started changing. I was intrigued when she told me that I was the first (and only) openly gay person she knew personally.

I am convinced that visibility is what will bring queer people like me from the margins to the centre. But, being visible is not an option for many people in India, and that is a great tragedy. My mental health therapist once told me that ‘coming out is a privilege in India’ and I agree with her. Pride parades and other similar LGBTQ+ related activities in India are mostly restricted to urban locales, leaving queer people from small towns and villages systematically voiceless.

At the Kolkata Pride Parade 2019

Life in a more liberal country

In 2016, I went to Canada to pursue a short course, and it was during my time there that I began to explore my sexuality. Despite living in a socially liberal country for close to a year, I still remember how afraid I was to tell my Canadian friends that I was gay. “What if my family back home finds out?” “what if my friends in India find out?”. These questions always haunted me.

I find social media very interesting because I once saw it as a curse and now see it as a blessing. The same social media application, Facebook, which today enables me to connect with gay people from all over the world, at that time scared me to death because I was worried about people finding out that I was gay and spreading the news to others.

At my current University, I am privileged to be surrounded by professors and classmates who are very kind, compassionate and open-minded. Although I do feel uneasy opening up about my sexual orientation to new people, I have slowly become better at it.

We’re never truly ‘out of the closet’

I have realized now, that the unfortunate reality of being openly gay is that you are never truly ever ‘out of the closet’. Because we live in a society where heterosexuality and cis-genderism is seen as the default ‘normal’, every time I meet someone new, I first need to gauge whether it’s ‘safe’ for me to tell them that I am not heterosexual and whether they deserve to know about it in the first place and only then open up to them. In a way, I still live in fear, but much less than before.

A poster on LGBTQ+ awareness at my University with my coming out story 

I vividly remember my younger days, and one evening in particular when I started getting random panic attacks. I was probably 16 or 17 years old back then and I realized that if my younger brother got married before I did, I would have had to answer to my family as to why I didn’t get married first. The thought of confronting my family and society horrified me.

Today, I have taken that power away from them. I am immensely proud of myself for coming out of the closet and living my best and most authentic life. I am not perfect, but I am getting there. But most of all, I thank my close family members and friends, especially my mother and brother. For without their acceptance, I would have killed myself a long time ago.

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Kanav Narayan Sahgal is a post-graduate student at Azim Premji University, Bangalore where he'

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