The good news is that more and more sexual minorities are coming out of the closet. They’re identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender to an increasingly wider social circle, trusting extended family, colleagues, friends and acquaintances even as India continues to criminalise homosexuality.
So what’s the bad news?
Much of India – yes even the educated, well-travelled, seemingly open-minded type – has no clue how to react. We’re a naturally nosy nation. Often, the curiosity goes too far, the clichés border on insensitive. "Many people act like they’re okay with homosexuality," says Alifiya G, 35, who revealed herself as lesbian to close friends and colleagues eight years ago. "But without realising it, they’ll say things to me that they’d never say to a straight person."
Don’t get graphic
"The most common thing I get asked once people know I’m gay is whether I’m the man or the woman in a relationship," says gay rights activist Nitin Karani. “But it’s none of their business. They also want to know the ‘how’ – that’s something you should read up, not ask someone."
Abheena Aher, a transgender activist who was recently elected chairperson of The Asia-Pacific Transgender Network, says that there is a persistent misconception that every gay person is sex-starved, seeking only casual sex. "We’re likely to be, or looking to be, in a serious relationship just like any other straight person," Aher says. "Stop asking us what we were up to last night." Alifiya finds that straight females often assume they can ask more intrusive questions to a lesbian. "Just because a person is open about their sexuality does not mean they are open to interrogation about their sex life,” she says. "It’s still my private life."
Don’t jump to conclusions
No gay person is interested in that “one other gay person” you know (or that one time you "experimented"), so don’t bring it up. Likewise, don’t assume that the one or two (or two dozen) LGBT people you know are spokespersons for all sexual minorities. "Stop asking us why so many of us have creative jobs," Alifiya says. "We don’t know!"
As for other pop culture stereotypes – a gay man’s dapper dressing, a transgender’s obsession with fishnets – they’re wholly unreliable in real life. Alifiya’s long hair and feminine wardrobe often come as a surprise to those who expect gay women to be more androgynously styled. “People look at me and say ‘But you don’t look gay!’ almost accusingly," she says.
"I’m tired of telling people there is no ‘gay look’ just as there’s no ‘straight look’."
"More importantly, don’t assume that a gay man is looking for a nice gay woman to marry and keep society happy, says Aher. "Offering [to engineer] this kind of set-up only highlights your insensitivity and your own lack of courage," she explains.
Don’t be disrespectful
Perhaps the worst reactions are the ones that are tossed around casually. "A colleague might single a gay man out, saying ‘Look at him, checking the other guys out’ one day at the office," says Aher. "They’ll think it’s okay to make a joke about someone who is publicly out. But it’s not okay. My personal life is not somebody’s punchline."
It’s also not somebody else’s revelation to make. "It’s not your business to out someone and tell other people about their sexuality," Karani points out. “Treat it as a matter of fact, which is what it is. And watch your language because even if you don’t intend it that way, a closeted person may come to think you’re homophobic and never open up to you at all."
|Coming out to your family needs tremendous courage on both sides, says transgender activist Abheena Aher. |
"Don’t expect your family to accept it right away," she says. "They need time to process it."
Parents need to understand that their child is not mentally deficient or impotent. "They should tell them that they have their support, even if they have not understood what’s happening."
Most relatives and friends take their cues from the immediate family. So how you handle the news (even if you are privately grappling with it) will determine how many lines the others cross, says Karani.
STAR SPEAK OUT
|Ricky Martin (who came out as gay in 2010) |
"I am blessed to be who I am. To keep living as I did up until today would be to indirectly diminish the glow that my kids were born with."
Elton John "[Coming out] gave me the freedom to be who I was for the rest of my life. I don’t have to hide around corners. The worse thing is to be afraid of who you are. It’s horrible." Ellen Page (who came out this January) - "We deserve to experience love fully, equally, without shame and without compromise."
"There is no gay agenda – it’s a human agenda. All of us should be treated the same… Long live love."
"There are so many qualities that make up a human being… by the time I get through all the things that I admire about people, what they do with their private parts is probably so low on the list that it is irrelevant."
|Ellen Page (who came out this January ) |
"We deserve to experience love fully, equally, without shame and without compromise."
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From HT Brunch, May 25
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