Coming out as queer during the lockdown7 min read . Updated: 20 Jun 2020, 10:00 AM IST
For members of the LGBTQ+ community in India, coming out to their families during the lockdown has been a double-edged sword
I am a Dalit queer person—I identify as gay. There are people who know this in Mumbai but so far, where I live, no one knew," says Ritik Lalan, 19, who is from Gandhidham in Gujarat. “You get used to it—you are not out and you won’t be out for a long, long time. But it was eating me (up) inside. I was in a very bad place."
After he left for college in Mumbai over a year ago, Lalan would go home as infrequently as possible. When he did, it was only for as long as was absolutely necessary. College was a safe space—his activism and association with Pink List India, the country’s first archive of politicians supporting LGBTQ+ rights, kept him busy and the city allowed him to be “more authentic" than he could be back home. Even though “heteronormativity was everywhere", Lalan believed that coming out as queer in college would not mean “being beaten to death like it might in Gandhidham".
But a few days ahead of the lockdown, which began on 25 March , he had to go home. He has spent the last few months dodging questions about marriage from relatives and struggling both to find moments of privacy and the ability to assert his own identity. “In lower middle- class Indian families, there is no concept of privacy. My sister would keep taking my phone because my camera is good and I have great storage," says Lalan. “But I didn’t want her to do that. I have my own pictures, I have memes which are ‘very gay’. And then I have pictures with guys…."
Late one night, when Lalan was smoking a cigarette while speaking to his partner on the phone, his younger sister walked into the room. For a moment, he didn’t know what would shock her more—the cigarette or his sexuality. “I threw the cigarette and asked her, ‘Did you know?’" “No, I never assumed," she said.
When Lalan told her he didn’t usually smoke, his 17-year-old sibling revealed she was talking about his identity. “Then I had to tell her about my sexuality. She said yes, it’s fine, and asked if I had told our mother. When I said I hadn’t, she said I should tell her when I was comfortable. It was everything you wanted to hear." He hasn’t told his parents yet, however.
For most members of the LGBTQ+ community, the lockdown has not been easy. Living with families who may not accept their identity has aggravated existing mental health issues or resulted in new struggles. “Queer people have had to hide their sexuality, pretend to be straight. That’s why loneliness, isolation and complete erasure of one’s authentic reality has become commonplace," Mumbai-based mental health practitioner Shruti Chakravarty told Mint in an interview recently.
In this context, Lalan’s experience is fairly unique. For several people who have come out during this period, the lockdown has been a double-edged sword—debilitating, with fleeting yet overwhelming moments of relief.
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Take the example of 18-year-old Diya Unni from Bengaluru, who came out as bisexual to her parents a few weeks ago. “The lockdown hasn’t been great for me. I have just been stuck in my room and thinking about a lot of stuff in my life and the past, things that have happened to me, things I haven’t come to terms with. A part of this was my sexuality because I hadn’t come out so...that was kind of bothering me," she says. One day she just told her mother.
Unni remembers the time her parents responded with aggression when she asked what “gay" meant.It was only after her elder sister encouraged their mother, an engineer, and father, a film-maker, to read up and sensitize themselves that they came around. This was particularly true for Unni’s mother. “Since I am spending a lot of time with her right now, it was a lot more tempting to tell her, and I finally gave in. I didn’t have a plan on how to go about it but it just happened," says Unni.
“She was in my room, giving me something to eat, and I just made her sit down, said I needed to tell her something and straight up told her. I don’t think I would have done it if there was no lockdown right now because I would have been busy with college stuff. But since I have nothing to do and I am kind of just submerged in my own thoughts, I caved."
These are certainly not ideal circumstances and experts say it could go either way. The lack of space could drive frank discussions, an exchange of resources and effective communication; or it could result in a spiral of abuse. One common thread, though, is that those who did come out did so when the lockdown was well under way. Delhi-based queer-affirmative psychologist Aanchal Narang has an explanation for this.
“This is because now it almost feels like a never-ending phase. I personally think coming out at this time may be putting yourself in danger but I understand why people would want to come out—they want to be authentic to the person they live with," Narang says. “If people are locked in and don’t have any space to be authentic, it might seem suffocating to them."
This has been the case with a 17-year-old from Indore, who studies in class XII. He came out to his family as bisexual after repeated conversations about his “future"—both personal and professional—left him exasperated. “My parents would speak to me about my marriage and one day, spontaneously, I just said why do I have to have a wife, I could have a husband too," he says. He says he never wanted to have a particularly serious conversation about his sexuality and thought this was the best approach. Fortunately for him, it worked. His father has been supportive but the teenager has been spending time with his mother to help her understand his identity and what it means to him.
Growing up, discovering their sexuality was a deeply isolating experience for both Lalan and Unni. They found solidarity online. It was a space where they met people and read stories they could relate to, where they learnt about the community and understood the movement for equal rights. “My interaction with the queer world was so negative in the beginning. I used to google what to do if you are attracted to guys and how to cure it," says Lalan. And with news of 21-year-old Anjana Harish’s death in Goa last month—her experience with coerced conversion therapy is believed to have been a trigger—many of his old fears came rushing back, reinforcing the possible impact of coming out to unprepared, conservative families.
Lalan explains that his parents—his father is an events organizer and mother a homemaker—are progressive in their views. Still, he knows his sexuality is not something they will accept readily, especially at a time when he is financially dependent on them. “There are a lot of fights with my parents because of the lockdown. My father used a very homophobic word recently and when I told him he shouldn’t say that, it led to a huge argument," he says. “In Bombay, my cousins know my activism is around queer rights and anti-caste, so they might have told him. So he snapped at me saying, ‘Do you think hanging out with a lot of gays is helping you?’"
So his sister’s reaction came as a breather. She intervenes whenever there is a homophobic or sexist comment directed at him from their parents—the siblings now have open and frank discussions with each other, even sharing clothes and clicking selfies.
Narang is also alert to the impact of “loss" for the loved one to whom a relative may be coming out. “The loss of the life they had imagined for their loved ones can be unsettling, and ideally, the way forward, particularly during lockdown, would be to take the help of a therapist or someone older who may have had a similar experience and could walk them through the process," says the psychologist.
The 2018 Supreme Court judgement which decriminalized same sex intercourse by reading down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code has helped. It may not have resulted in opening channels of communication between generations but for Unni it meant her parents could no longer term her sexuality “unnatural".
"So if you have a boyfriend, does that mean you are straight?" is one of the questions Unni’s mother asked her immediately after their conversation. It was well intentioned and Unni answered with patience. “There was something interesting she asked me—how would she know she wasn’t bisexual? She got married at the age of 24 and never really had the chance of freedom to explore her sexuality," Unni says.
“But since I came out, she has been reading up a lot and understanding my sexuality has kind of become her personal project now." Little things have pleased her, like the time her mother casually used the term “cishet ally" in a sentence. It was a sign of progress and understanding.
While the stories of these three youngsters are perhaps not representative of a larger phenomenon, small triumphs in these turbulent times go a long way. The pandemic has been a profoundly isolating experience but sometimes the easing of burdens, no matter how small, can feel liberating during what seems like a never ending lockdown.