Essay: Coming Out is a Revolutionary Act
I didn’t realise it at the time, but coming out in the Indian community is a revolutionary act. Revolutionary because each time one of us does, we say ‘fuck you’ to gender norms and yes to embracing a life beyond the binary.
I remember being nervous and scared coming out to my family. It wasn’t a fear for my safety, but a fear of rejection and being ostracised. The Indian community doesn’t talk about queerness, and when they do, it’s almost always disparaging. Add to that a lack of any visible role models, and you can see why I was worried. The blueprint for this fear stemmed from my childhood.
As children, we’re like sponges. From a young age, I’d absorbed a number of ‘truths’ about who I was supposed to be. These so-called ‘truths’ were policed and perpetuated by men, although womxn also played a role (whether intentional or not).
My first ‘truth’ was that men and womxn in our community play distinct roles that I needed to conform to. Men were dominant, had voice and agency and were typically seen as breadwinners whereas womxn were expected to take a supporting role – often to serve or be objectified. This binary view exists across many cultures, but its potency in Indian culture springs up more often than not, even here in London.
History shows that sexuality, identity and preferences have always been fluid in Indian culture, especially pre-colonisation. When we were colonised by the British, we became subject to their rules – one of which was Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that, in essence, criminalised same sex relationships. This became a deeply held view and norm in India, and was only repealed last year. The irony of freeing ourselves from colonisation and then using our coloniser’s laws to marginalise our own people isn’t lost on me. Nor should it be lost on you.
My second ‘truth’ is the avoidance of shame. This is beyond the personal shame or embarrassment you feel for yourself, this is the shame that you can bring upon your family and community. It can be like a prison because it regulates so many of your choices and actions. This notion seemed to apply mainly to womxn. I’ve seen men in our community often get away with bad behaviour scot-free. There is some gupshup after which their misdemeanours (drinking heavily, cheating, being abusive) were swept under the carpet. Womxn on the other hand were symbols of honour and their behaviour regulated by the very same men to avoid some kind of communal shame, as if the shame of an entire family was held within one person’s actions. But, as I saw it, at least womxn could moderate their behaviour in a certain way to avoid this apparent shame; as someone who was queer, I understood that being who I was, was shameful simply in and of itself.
By writing this today and creating a platform like colourfull 🌈, I’ve come through that shame. I’m not immune to it, and it can pop up when I least expect it. But I know I’m not shameful. I was born this way – my sexuality is coded into my DNA the same way that the colour of my eyes are. And importantly, I’ve become proud of who I am, especially if the work I do paves the way for making it easier for others like me.
My final ‘truth’ was conformity, and to follow the path well-trodden. My Gran would say that children are a map of their parents. And Indian parents are experts at ensuring that their maps have a clear route that leads to (heteronormative) success. This meant getting a degree (2:1 minimum, obvs), securing a high-flying job (ideally doctor or lawyer), marrying and producing multiple offspring (read: at least one boy to carry on the family name). On the whole, my parents struck a balance between traditional vs. liberal, which was actually more confusing than not. Underneath it all, they still subscribed to this path for their children – partly because they didn’t know any different.
I find my non-conformity to be a beautiful thing. Even before coming out, I chose arts and science A levels. I’ve tended to follow the beat of my own drum when it came to my career and life choices (I upped and moved to Spain for a year just because I felt like it) and since coming out, I’ve found a vulnerability that allows me to connect with people in a way that I couldn’t before, to allow them to express their own non-conformity.
I now have a stronger relationship with my family. I’m out and open, I refuse to conform yet I strike a balance in being respectful of our culture. Testament to this, my brother gets married later this month, and I’ve felt comfortable enough to play with my gender expression at the wedding reception. An earring that may be classed as too femme, henna on my hands and a slick of eyeliner are all in the works – and most importantly my family support me because I am more than my gender and sexuality, I’m their son.
This interplay between Indian culture, gender and sexuality means womxn’s rights and LGBTQ rights are intertwined. When any of us stand up for our respect, agency and freedom, we take another small step towards reframing gender expectations in our communities and building a future that provides a space for all of us, however we choose to live and be. Ultimately, your struggle and my struggle is actually our struggle.
And this is why coming out in the Indian community is a revolutionary act.