When I was 18, I attended my first meeting of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) student organisation in my college campus in North Carolina. At the time, I was barely out to anyone, not even to myself. For days, I had been trying to muster the courage to attend, and even minutes before I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to walk through the door.
Inside, there were about 50 students. The room was too small. There weren’t enough chairs. One of the organisers passed around a legal pad for us to sign. “You don’t have to use your real name,” she said. “We just need a head count.” When the pad reached me, I looked at all the names listed. I didn’t recognise any of them, but would someone else recognise mine? I scribbled the first thing that came to mind.
When the meeting started, I was shocked when the vice-president of the club introduced herself as Swati. Could it be? Another Indian? I stared at her for much of the meeting, barely paying attention to the proceedings. At some point I noticed her scrutinising the legal pad, then looking up in my direction.
After the meeting adjourned, I immediately bolted for the door. I wanted out quickly, but I got snarled up in a crowd. Waiting, I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Elvis?” I turned around. It was Swati. “Elvis Presley?” she asked. “Not my real name,” I said, blushing. She smiled.
She was a senior. She said she had never met another queer South Asian and was thrilled. Later that week, Swati picked me up from my dorm room. She drove me to her house and cooked rice and daal for me that tasted just like my mother’s. Then she took me to a local independent bookstore, where she bought me a copy of Armistead Maupin’s novel Tales of the City, set in San Francisco in the 1970s. It was the first book I’d ever read with gay characters. I felt like I was seeing myself for the first time.
Later that year I told my brother. A couple years after that to my mother. My father and the rest of my relatives in America would follow. It’s been relatively easy for me. In 18 years of coming out to people, I’ve never had anyone reject me. On the contrary, my family has offered love and encouragement beyond anything I could have ever imagined. I’m lucky. But when I think about how easy it seems now, I try to think of all the people for whom this isn’t the case. I also try to remember the frightened 18-year-old in the LGBT meeting in North Carolina who didn’t know who he was, who couldn’t even write his own name, and who finally found himself in the pages of a Maupin novel.