Coming Out: The Indian Version

October 11 is National Coming Out Day, a day marked by the LGBT rights movement in the US to celebrate the act of refusing to live a life hiding one’s true sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Even in this day and age, coming out is fraught with dangers for far too many. The negative consequences range from getting kicked out of one’s home by family to losing one’s job to far worse fates such as being tortured or even murdered. All this injustice and inhumanity simply because one was born different from the majority. My own coming out process started early in 2014. Luckily, I did not have to suffer such tragedies; for this, I am always grateful.

As part of this gratitude, I write this post about my own coming out experience, one that was shaped by my Indian / Hindu / Tamil background, as well as my life in the US. I write this because despite all the risks and drama, coming out was, and will always be, one of the most important episodes of my life. I write this because when I was desperately searching for such stories about gay Indian men during my own coming out process, I found a dearth of them to help me. I write this with the hope that this story is helpful some day to someone like me who is fearful and uncertain of coming out or someone who is helping such a person they know.

Background and Life in the Closet

I decided to focus on my education. Yet, I knew I was different. Luckily, I was not stereotypically gay in my mannerisms and appearance. Perhaps this explains why I did not face homophobic bullying in school, which apparently, is common here in the US. It was not until I started college that I learned about the terms sexual orientation, gender identity, homosexuality, bisexuality, etc. I even learned about how homosexuality was once viewed as a mental disorder but that modern science has now debunked such misconceptions. Still, I had never met another LGBT person, at least not one that was “out.”

Hijras in Bangladesh (Source: Wikipedia; By USAID — USAID Bangladesh, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35623308)

Alas, learning about those terms changed little for me. I think I went into a sort of deep denial. I refused to entertain the possibility that I was not like the people around me, that I was perhaps like those much maligned hijras, that I was somehow “abnormal.” I decided to focus on my studies and suppressed any further thinking or analysis. Essentially, I consigned myself to a life in the closet. Many Indian LGBT people, even today, make such a choice because of shame. They think it would bring some sort of “dishonor” to themselves and their family, if they identify as LGBT. This attitude is sadly true even today in most of India, and as I learned later, across most of Asia. In my case, however, the operating emotion was not shame, but fear. I was afraid of subjecting myself and my family to emotional pain, of treading uncharted waters, of facing social ostracism, of facing ridicule. I rationalized this decision as a necessity to help me focus on my education and career.

Another form of fear and hatred that many LGBT people face, especially in the US, is due to religion, typically Christianity or Islam. LGBT people are often told they would “go to hell” because the Christian/Islamic anthropomorphic God condemns homosexuality as a sin. Thankfully, I did not have to face this issue growing up as part of a Hindu family. None of the Hindu religious texts I studied, especially the Bhagavad Gita, even talked about homosexuality, let alone condemn it. Later on, I would learn of the tragedies of so many gay men and women who ended up in sham “straight marriages” due to internal/family/societal pressures, condemning themselves and their spouses to a life of lies. Although I dated a girl once, it did not last long and I am grateful I avoided such a tragedy.

Coming Out to Myself and Research on LGBT Perspectives

I had to switch advisors multiple times during my PhD and that was mentally taxing. My confidence in my ability to do high-quality research and finish my PhD nosedived. I considered quitting the PhD, leaving me with an existential crisis of sorts (this topic is worth a whole post another day!). This thought of “being a failure” (note the extreme self-judgmental thinking — not failing “at” something, but “being” a failure!) was emotionally traumatizing. I decided I needed to reach out to others and admit my helplessness. I reached out to my close friends and family and took advice from them on handling my situation. I cried over the phone to my dad like only a little boy would. Finally, I mustered the courage to get my life back on track. Thankfully, all my advisors were incredibly supportive of my research. In hindsight, for someone who had lived life with a stiff upper lip (no thanks to you, Britain!) this lesson on the importance of vulnerability was perhaps long overdue.

As part of my emotional recovery, I decided to meditate regularly. Yoga and meditation were part of my school curriculum in India. Thus, I had long known about their psychological benefits. While there is an unfortunate stereotype in the US about meditation being a “hippie” activity, things are changing and meditation is gaining popularity, especially in the tech world. Since I was a freethinker by now, I sought an environment where I could mind my own business without propaganda about imaginary supernatural entities. Thankfully, I found such a community, a sangha in Buddhist parlance, at the Madison Zen Center — an eclectic mix of scientists, teachers, artists, and others, mostly folks much older than me but delightfully friendly, funny, welcoming, and helpful!

At the center, I would sit on a zabuton facing a blank wall, and focus on my breathing in quietude — this was the crux of zazen, being present here and now by counting breaths. While it sounds simple, this is one of the toughest things to do! After several weeks of sittings, I experienced a surprising gift: kenshos, inexplicably spot-on insights about the nature of things in my life, an understanding of my reality, an acceptance of what is rather than my fantasies of what should be. When distracting thoughts arose, I simply observed and acknowledged them rather than engage with them, and they eventually dissipated. But some thoughts kept recurring across sittings. I realized these probably held deep significance for me. So, I started journalling and after a month, a bunch of questions had piled up. Most of these had to do with — you guessed it — my sexuality!

Zazen-style meditation (Source: Wikipedia; By Faverte — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3591389)

I tabulated about a dozen questions about my sexuality, from past assumptions and experiences to questions about my future. I finally mustered the courage to confront myself with long-suppressed questions. Am I gay? Or bisexual? Or transgender? Or something else? Since I did not have the requisite expertise on this topic (neither did my friends or family), I sought out a professional cognitive-behavioral therapist that specialized in LGBT coming out issues. Thankfully, my health insurance provider agreed to cover this. With the help of my therapist, I systematically analyzed and questioned my childhood assumptions and experience, my cultural conditioning, my life in denial, my fears, and much more. I realized a lot of my assumptions were false or at least, lacked evidence or grounding in reality.

I performed some research on LGBT perspectives in Indian / Hindu / Tamil cultures, legal perspectives, scientific perspectives, pop-culture perspectives, famous LGBT celebrities and public figures, and so on. For example, I was shocked to learn that Tamil has over 20 words to describe diverse gender and sexual identities! I learned about the stories of various Hindu deities that showed them or their avatars as being gay/transgender, exhibiting such tendencies, or having such family members, including such popular deities as Krishna, Murugan, and Varuna. I was shocked to learn that homosexuality has been documented in many other animal species, including primates and penguins. I was also shocked to learn that Iceland had an openly lesbian prime minister! Wow, parts of the world have so gone far ahead and here I was, being left behind in the closet. I wrote about my findings in a post on my personal blog in 2014, but I held back on coming out publicly just yet.

While all the research was intellectually helpful, it ultimately boiled down to me becoming emotionally comfortable with the fact that I am not straight, that I am different, and that my life will change irreversibly by coming out. To understand how others dealt with it, I visited and spoke to volunteers at Outreach Madison. There, I had a chance to learn about the coming out experience of a lesbian and a pansexual woman. I also inquired if they had worked with any Indian or South Asian LGBT people — sadly, they had encountered only one such man ever and he too had moved out of town. This situation was strange, since Madison has a large South Asian community, including many international students.

I realized I had to internalize that coming out was in my best long-term interest even if it caused shorter-term suffering. This self-acceptance is the first major step in the process — coming out to one’s own self. I distinctly remember the moment I commenced this process — I cried to my therapist and lamented at how unfair all this was. Why did I end up like this? What wrong did I do to deserve this? Why could I not have been born straight? Will I never get to have a boisterous and colorful Indian wedding like what my brother had? Am I destined to disappoint my parents, grandparents, and family by not marrying a woman? Why was I put in this difficult position but everyone else I knew — my friends, family, colleagues, etc. — are allowed to go about their regular lives? I wished I could “cure” myself of this “abnormality.” If you are a comic movie nerd like me, I wanted to be like Rogue opting to take the “cure” in X-Men, one of my favorite movie series. Eventually, I began accepting that life is not always fair and that everyone probably suffers in their own way, but maybe without communicating about it. Being closeted was my suffering, as repeatedly indicated to me by my own mind/conscience during my meditation sittings, and it was my responsibility to end this suffering.

From “XMen: The Last Stand” (Source: marxisforbros.tumblr.com)

Continued meditation revealed another kensho. My core bottleneck for my self-acceptance was — wait for it — my love of science! Being the avid scientist I am, I was deeply troubled by why homosexuality even exists in the first place! If it is antithetical to procreation, why has Darwinian natural selection not eliminated it yet? Why does it exist across all human cultures? Is it just random mutation noise — am I just a statistical anomaly? As a stunning co-incidence, the BBC came out with an article that week on this very question! :) It turns out that LGBT people might have historically had special social/tribal roles such as helping with raising children. Since humans are a communal species, our population-level sociology plays a major role in natural selection, not just individual-level biology. In any case, I realized that this is a major open research question in evolutionary biology, sociology, and genetics, and that scientists are actively working to solve this mystery.

It reminded me of a cliched poetic saying from the Rigveda, the most ancient Hindu religious text, “Vikriti evam prakriti,” which in Sanskrit means “What appears unnatural is also natural”! Diversity of all kinds is endemic in nature — from the many types of fundamental sub-atomic particles to the many types of galaxies! So, why would human sexuality and gender be an exception to this? In software parlance, non-heterosexuality is likely “a feature, not a bug” of evolution. Nature is so endlessly mysterious and beautiful! :) I internalized that I am not a statistical anomaly but as integral to nature as anybody else. In the face of this grand universal truth, any consequences of my coming out, including loneliness and death, seemed puny. Truth vanquished my fear and I made peace with the fact that I am not straight. Screw the “cure,” I am here, I am queer, let the world deal with it! I was now ready to come out to others in my life. Bizarrely, I was not sure if I was gay or bisexual or transgender although I suspected I was most likely gay. I did not want to rush into assigning a label just yet.

Coming Out to Friends and Family

I then come out to my brother and sister-in-law, who lived in another part of the US, again over video call. I knew they were fans of Modern Family, a popular US comedy show that I think has played a pioneering role in showing to the general US public that LGBT life can be “normal” too. :) So, when I told them I was gay, my brother laughed out loud and then said it was fine. They both said it was my life and it was up to me how I wanted to live it. Thus, over the course of a month, I had assembled my core support network for my coming out process.

From “Modern Family” (Source: pinterest.com/sabrinaschnare)

Upon my therapist’s advice, I also joined a group session and talked about my coming out process with an empathetic, non-judgmental, and supportive group of people working on their own issues. I had also learned of the Kinsey Scale that puts people on a spectrum from full heterosexuality to full homosexuality, as well as the difference between sexual orientation and romantic orientation. Through my meditation practice, I was able to tease apart what my sexual orientation and gender identity was — gay, bisexual, or transgender. I came to the conclusion that I was cisgender male (but also a postgenderist), mostly homosexual, but partly biromantic. This kind of explained why my mannerisms seem to be stereotypically straight to most people. A tongue-in-cheek term for this is “straight-acting” in LGBT circles! Unlike Tamil, English has only so many terms — I decided “gay” is the best label for me and that perhaps the most sustainable long-term relationship for me will be with another gay man.

Perhaps the most beautiful fringe benefit of my ongoing coming out was an outpouring of creativity. I started writing poetry, mostly in English and Tamil. Even my friends and family were surprised when I started posting my poems on Facebook. They enjoyed it and even encouraged me to start a new personal blog for my poems! My therapist was unsurprised that poetry became a mode for my creative expression, since, I “had a way with words,” as she put it. :) She pointed out that the coming out process dismantles fear, which is a major enemy of creativity. I think this also helped with my PhD in the forms of the research ideas and papers that I started producing.

Buoyed by my recent string of “successes,” I decided that it was time to head to deeper waters — my parents, extended family, etc. My therapist cautioned me to take it more slowly. So, I waited a few months before visiting India to come out to my parents and extended family in person. But since they were unlikely to be fans of Modern Family (haha), I decided I needed some material to help me. Being the researcher I am, I created a slide show to summarize my research — yes, I was going to give a mini-presentation to my family! :) My slide deck had five major sections: (1) Scientific view (what is homosexuality, what does the UN/WHO say about it, etc.). (2) Legal view (what is the legal status in India/US/others, what does UN human rights law say, etc.). (3) Hindu religious views (the Hindu stories I mentioned earlier). (4) Photos of famous LGBT people from all walks of life. (5) Photos of famous LGBT families with kids from adoption or surrogacy. I have included a link to my slide deck below, in case it is helpful for you.

A few days before my trip, I broke down again to my therapist, since I realized that there was a high probability that my family could reject me and that I would permanently lose their love. She advised that the gravity of the situation was sinking in and that I give a heads up to my core support network. Once again, my meditation helped me make peace with a likely eventuality — being rejected by my parents and family. Thus, I had learned to develop some confidence that regardless of the outcome, my life can still be okay. At the least, I can live a life of openness and honesty rather than suffer the pain of the closet.

Ardhanarishwara, the half-woman God. (Source: Wikipedia; By Copyrighted to Himalayan Academy Publications, Kapaa, Kauai, Hawaii. Licensed for Wikipedia under Creative Commons and requires attribution when reproduced., CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2354602)

Finally, the day arrived when I had to come out to my dad and stepmom. I sat them down and said (in Tamil), “I have an important thing to share. I am gay.” I followed it with a brief explanation of what it meant. They were both obviously shocked and a pall of gloom descended on my dad’s face, while my stepmom broke into tears. My dad stood up and walked around quietly, while my stepmom lamented about the shock. After a short while, they both calmed down; I pulled out my laptop and started my presentation. They were surprised to see this but were curious to learn more. My stepmom stopped crying, while my dad asked more questions. Their top concern was: “Does this mean you will not have kids?” I explained to them about surrogacy and adoption options, including open adoption. I showed them my slides on the happy LGBT families. They were also surprised by my slides with the stories of the very Hindu deities they revered! After I was done, they had no questions left — my slide deck proved invaluable, it seems. :) No drama, no yelling, no kicking me out, they were really gracious!

The rest of the day went fine but apparently, they could not sleep well that night. I told them that I understood they needed more time to digest this news, and that I was happy to help them out — after all, as my therapist had pointed out earlier, it took me months (years?) to come out to myself! In one stroke, I had turned their dreams about about my wedding, their future daughter-in-law, etc. upside down. But I knew this was the best way forward for both me and them, since I knew what they wanted most for me was to live a happy life. I gave the contacts of a local LGBT rights organization and support group for parents of LGBT people (I have listed the links below). The next day, my dad also spoke with my brother. Knowing that he knew about this and was okay with this likely helped with my parents’ acceptance process. So, creating that core support network proved invaluable too.

Eventually, I decided to come out to my extended family (my grandma, uncles, aunts, and cousins) too. Unlike my brother and dad, I was aware that some of them had a penchant for making dramatic-sounding statements (no thanks to you, melodramatic Tamil soap operas!). So, I mentally prepared myself to be calm and stick to facts and the core of their concerns, while ignoring their personal attacks and not attacking them back. By now, I had enlisted the support of my parents. My dad spoke to some of them ahead of me to give them a heads-up. I spoke over phone with all my cousins and all of them reacted calmly, albeit surprised. Most of my uncles and aunts also reacted calmly, but with shock, since they had never witnessed a family member come out in their lives! Some of them asked questions about my future, kids, etc. A couple of them even expressed strong praise and support for my act! Apparently, Indian society is becoming increasingly familiar with LGBT issues.

However, I did have to deal with some drama, especially with some uncles and aunts asking me if I can be “cured,” say with “divine intervention,” or a psychiatrist, etc. There were also some homophobic jokes. My grandma expressed her fear that I was being too “corrupted” by American culture. I took all of this in my stride, knowing that they were all acting out of their genuine concern for my life and fear of the unknown. Upon their insistence, I went with them to a local Hindu temple so that they could offer “prayers” for me — the remarkable irony of this situation, especially given the prevalence of LGBT themes in Hindu mythology, was not lost on me. :) Things returned to normal in a day and we all hung out as usual, went to the movies, the beach, etc. I returned to the US, glad that I had completed another major step.

Dating, Coming Out Publicly, and Ongoing Process

By now, it was early 2016, and I was close to finishing up my PhD. I decided to come out to my colleagues and my advisors, and thankfully, none of them reacted negatively. I also informed my family about my boyfriend. My dad’s main concern now was that I should not let my relationship distract me from my career, while my grandma’s was that it was an American boy (not an Iyer boy) who might “corrupt” me by making me eat meat (I am vegetarian, as is most of my family) and drink alcohol (I am a pseduo-teetotaler). :) It reminded me of this hilarious video about the intersection of anti-LGBT prejudice with casteism, a long-running problem in Indian society.

I was now ready to come out publicly on Facebook. I posted about my relationship and my sexuality. As expected, it led to a flood of comments. Thankfully, except for a couple of cases from my extended family, all the comments were positive, some even celebratory. I did not have to do this, but the relief and reassurance of coming out publicly was a confidence boost. My boyfriend and I got engaged soon afterwards. I had informed my family beforehand and I faced some push back regarding my timeline, but they took it in their stride. They were mostly saddened that they could not witness this major step in my life.

After my job search, I took up my current position with the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). My parents visited me in Madison to attend my PhD commencement. My fiancé, my parents, and I went on a vacation and thankfully, they took a liking to him. His parents also visited us. We all had lunch and toured Madison together. My parents then visited his hometown and his family members. Family is an important part of life in Indian culture, and as it turns out, in American culture too. We were glad everybody got along so well. My fiancé’s grandma even made a sweet gesture of giving my stepmom one of her own artworks as a gift! :) After my thesis defense, my fiancé and I moved to La Jolla.

At UCSD, we visited the LGBT Resource Center, a great campus resource for LGBT people. I added my name to their “Out List” of out faculty and staff to help mentor LGBT+ students on campus. One of the great things about UCSD is its strong commitment to, and support for, diversity. I am now out to the faculty and staff at my department, my research collaborators, and my research advisees. I am planning to engage with and mentor oSTEM, a UCSD group to support LGBT+ students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). I am a donor to the Point Foundation, who offer scholarships to LGBT+ youth, predominantly from underprivileged backgrounds, to pursue a college education. I have more plans to help improve the representation of LGBT+ folks in computer science, as well as outreach work to improve the visibility of the LGBT+ community and increase awareness of LGBT+ rights issues in general. I view this post itself, my most public step in coming out (outside of Facebook’s walled garden and visible to Google’s spiders), as part of this commitment.

Statistics of recent Point Foundation scholarships (Source: pointfoundation.org)

Concluding Remarks

Alas, my struggle, and the struggle of LGBT+ people, is far from over. The political circumstances in the US changed dramatically in the end of 2016. LGBT+ people now face new threats to their hard-won legal rights and social acceptance. Thus, my fiancé and I decided to get married legally in a civil ceremony soon after. It is sad that we could not get our families and friends to witness this landmark event of our lives. But we hope to have a separate social ceremony in the future. I am now also a donor to the Human Rights Campaign and the American Civil Liberties Union, two storied organizations that continue the good fight against the forces of legalized discrimination. I will never forget how fortunate I was in my coming out process and how fraught with danger this process is for so many innocent people around the world. This fight will not end until the last LGBT+ person in any corner of this world is able to live a life free of institutional and societal violence and prejudice. I am honored to add my voice to this exalted global fight for human equality and dignity. I humbly invite you to join and contribute to this fight as an ally in whatever way you can. Thank you.

Resources and References

Orinam, an LGBT+ rights and support group in Chennai, India.

Srishti Madurai, a blog about LGBT+ life and rights, partly in Tamil.

PFLAG, a support group for parents and family of LGBT people, especially newly “out” people.

Outreach, an LGBT+ support group in Madison, Wisconsin.

UCSD LGBT Resource Center.

The Buddha’s Brain, a must-read book on how modern science is unraveling the long-known benefits of meditation.

Donate to the Point Foundation. I believe a good education is the key to self-upliftment, all the more true for marginalized communities such as LGBT+ people.

Donate to the Human Rights Campaign. Lawsuits in the US are super expensive and they need all the help they can get.

Donate to the American Civil Liberties Union. Marginalized communities, be it LGBT+ people, ethnic/racial minorities, religious minorities, disabled people, women, etc. are in this fight for human equality and dignity together.

Finally, to lighten the mood: Mr and Mr Iyer (partly in Tamil) and a Bollywood-style Hindi song video by the UN: The Welcome. :)

PS:

  1. This post is a slightly adapted version of the original post on my personal blog. I thank my spouse for encouraging me to share my story publicly after my initial dithering on the utility of doing so. I thank the UCSD LGBT Resource Center for encouraging me to go even more public with my story by posting it here.
  2. I do not own the copyrights for any of the pictures used in this post. I have acknowledged the source of each picture and if available, included the relevant license statements. If you own the copyright for any of these pictures and if you would like it removed, let me know and I will oblige.

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Arun Kumar

Associate Professor at UC San Diego CSE and HDSI. Research on data management and machine learning systems. Freethinker. Poet. Memester. Gay. He/him.