Today I came out in Rajasthan. It was a tense, meticulous, and emotional conversation – like telling my family – but this time in a village in rural India. The reaction of my colleague was exceptional: ‘It’s a private, personal matter. What matters is what you do and what you’ve done. You have made a difference here, this is what is important’.
It’s what you want to hear when you tell someone that you’re gay. But today, it wasn’t what I expected to hear. Today I talked openly about gay equality in rural Rajasthan, a bastion of conservatism. I told a friend the truth about who I love and I was prepared to hear the worst. I got lucky.
Rajasthan is one of India’s poorest and most underdeveloped states. Tourists marvel at the rich history and tribal traditions, traditions that continue to reign throughout the desert-state. It has the worst literacy rate in all of India and only half of all households have electricity. Here, women are owned; equality – and with it homosexuality – is definitely not on the agenda. So if being gay in India is difficult, then coming out in a village in Rajasthan is plain irresponsible.
May 17 is International Day Against Homophobia. The timing of my disclosure is coincidental; in India you might call it fate. In eleven years as an out, gay man – including four years working for gay equality organisations on both sides of the Atlantic – I’ve watched barriers fall as we worked towards progressive politics and social change. Back home in the UK – with a raft of anti-discrimination legislation and gay marriage on the cards – I’m able to celebrate who I love like anyone else.
The movement in India lacks such momentum. Two years ago homosexuality was finally decriminalized, yet tens of millions of Indian men and women remain closeted. Because marriage is so sacred and talking about sex is so taboo, Indian society presents an indefatigable barrier to homosexuality. International Day Against Homophobia will be celebrated in London, New York and Paris, but the message will dissipate the moment it crosses the Ganges.
When I accepted my Fellowship one year ago I made a decision to keep my sexuality secret. I remember responding to friends who wanted to work in international development but suffered a predicament: How can I help a community who will persecute me because of who I am? You make a sacrifice, I said. If you want to empower, support and develop poor communities the world over, then you should be ready to make that sacrifice. Which is more important? I made that decision.
I’m an avid advocate for social justice which is why the Indicorps’ Fellowship has been so magical. My work with disability has enabled me to provide opportunities to people across my district in employment and education. And my hearing impediment serves as a role model to worried parents that their child stands a chance. I’m lucky to be where I am.
But alongside my work, a personal fight for social justice has emerged. Through the internet, through personal errors, and through friends, I’ve lost ownership of the choice I made to conceal my sexual orientation. In this new scenario I face being ‘outed’ before my Fellowship year is over. Coming out in Rajasthan? Alarm bells are ringing.
Had I arrived in Rajasthan as a parading, rainbow-colored beacon of gay equality it is quite likely that I would not be here today. By coming out I risk being ostracized and ruining what I’ve achieved, being in the closet has kept conversation firmly on my work – fine by me.
But hiding my sexuality from close friends and colleagues in Rajasthan is made difficult by the sexual inquisition that befalls a liberal westerner. The denial of who I am is against everything I stand for, and by conforming to the norms of my community I induce self-disgust at my apparently obscene perversion. My encounters with gay Indians so far have been shameful cases of harassment. I know better, that a repressive sexual culture is to blame; but if manifested to society in this form, is it surprising that my community consider it sinful?
I speculate their reaction: You sleep with men? That’s not right, it’s sick! Get out of my home! When living through a lie – the lie consumes you. I am a pervert, this is sordid. Like inception, the morality of my community has become me. My relationship, my values, my work in gay equality; working in India requires a devaluation of everything that matters to me, my own cause. Isn’t it ironic: fighting for the equality of others at the expense of your own?
How do I reconcile my battle for social justice with the prejudice of those I’m trying to help? As a young, determined and conscientious man making an impact and fighting a just cause for the disabled, I’ve impressed my community. In light of recent events, I’m determined to prove that I can use this experience to serve as a role model for countless Indians.
So now I’m facing a juncture in my fellowship year. Should I commit to the decision I made a year ago? Should I restrain my pride and lock the closet door, confiding in those I trust to control the disclosure in a damage-control operation?
Or should I take control over what has become inevitable, using the confidence, trust, and respect I’ve gained, combined with the immunity of a foreigner, to challenge that very raw and untouched stigma in Indian society. Should I be (Am I?) an example of how things might be if only people understood?
On the second day of my fellowship I confided to my American mentor that I was not here to be gay; I reiterated the commitment I made before I came, that my cause was greater than my need.
But what if my cause is my need?
Today is International Day Against Homophobia. Many people around the world will rightly celebrate years of liberation and social change. But for hundreds of millions of men and women who face a lifetime of repression, isolation and persecution because of who they love, today is no different to tomorrow. Who is fighting for them?