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Culture Clash: An Intimate Look at Being Gay and Indian

posted Oct 23, 2010, 1:41 AM by Diana Rohini LaVigne   [ updated Nov 12, 2015, 6:41 AM ]

 

Diana Rohini LaVigne examines the

unique struggles and challenges that  

arise when juggling the two different 

lifestyles of being gay and being part of 

the Indian American community. 

Although acceptance has been gaining 

ground in past years, there still exists a 

wide gap between modern, open-minded  

thinking and traditional values that 

are centuries old. These bittersweet 

stories offer an intimate look at the 

secret society that has existed in the 

shadows for years.


Being a researcher for a powerful international organization, 28-

year-old Pune-born Jay Doe* looks forward to returning to his 

trendy Washington, D.C. apartment to catch up on some of the 

latest Bollywood movies while enjoying some chai and samosas. 

Being from a traditional-minded family, he has kept his Indian 

self intact, despite years living in the States. His struggles are 

mostly typical: from career choices to friendship issues to dating. 

The only difference is that Doe is looking for the perfect man, not 

woman. 

After years of shielding himself from the stigma of being 

labeled gay, Doe has finally done the one thing he feared most, 

telling his parents that he was gay. His love for his parents is 

strong but Doe is in the process of testing every part of his relationship 

with them. After coming out less than a year ago, the wounds

caused by the announcement of his sexual orientation are still 

open and bleeding. 

“It didn’t go down too well with them (his parents) at first,” he 

tells Indian Life & Style. “But I’m hoping that with time, they will 

come around. I’m a little awkward talking about it with them still.


For some reason, I feel that this has always been a big let down for 

them,” he adds.

After explaining to his parents what it means to be gay, and

spending days watching his mother’s tears fall without pause, Doe 

tried something different. He reached out to his mother and 

introduced her to his gay friends and community.

It was a radical move but allowed 

her to see first-hand how supportive his gay 

friends were of him. It opened her eyes 

enough to move their relationship beyond 

shock towards acceptance. 

Mumbai-born attorney Ravi Sharma (not 

his real name) spoke about his coming out  

in stages. Believing it was just a phase in 

high school, he denied his true identity and 

was deathly fearful of his disapproving family  

for not living a more traditional Indian 

family lifestyle. 

“My internalized homophobia didn’t 

allow me to completely let go of what society  

and family expected me to be, a normal 

straight man… the truth of the matter was 

that I was gay,” explains Sharma, who happily  

now resides in the more accepting environment 

of the San Francisco Bay Area. 

Sharma finally made the move to tell his 

mother. “When the words ‘I'm gay’ finally  

fell out of my mouth, she (his mother) asked

me if I was sure, and then insisted that I 

wasn’t,” he recalls. After explaining my lack 

of sexual attraction toward women, she 

asked if pornography would help. I laughed 

and said no because I was born without the  

attraction (towards women).” 

When Indian-born and American-educated 

Sarav Chithambaram first shared he 

was gay with his best friend, his friend told  

him to get over it. He went back into emotional 

hiding for years after. Fearing the 

rejection of his family, he is still trying to 

come to terms with revealing his homosexuality 

to them.

Battle Has Only Begun

Once an Indian has identified himself as  

being gay, it seems the battle has only just 

begun. In India, two men can live together, 

walk hand-in-hand, sleep in one bed, and  

be quite physical in public without any concern. 

But the minute anything is perceived 

as a gay gesture, the entire landscape  

changes. Male homosexual sex is forbidden 

by law in India, and is punishable with a 

maximum sentence of life in prison. India is 

still fighting this archaic law, which was filtered  

down from British rule. In fact, this law 

is rumored to be used by police as an open 

invitation to abuse homosexuals. 

Although there have been numerous  

studies, there’s no clear scientific finding on 

the origins of sexual orientation. Most 

homosexual men state their awareness happening  

in their teens, followed by a denial of 

those feelings, then some level of experimentation 

ranging from sexual contact to  

fantasizing. This is regularly followed by a 

striking realization of being gay, which is 

frequently a turbulent and self-defining  

time in the individual’s life and of his family 

and friends.

A Desi Recipe Yahoo group poll, which 

consists primarily of married Bay Area 

women in their 20s and 30s, shows that 

modern women today are still undecided on  

what makes a man gay. The poll results 

showed 68% believes gay men were born 

gay, 24% had no idea, and 6% believes gay 

men were born with more female characteristics, 

thus making them lean towards a 

more feminine sexual orientation. “Nature”

verses “Nurture” is the on-going debate.  

Juggling Two Lifestyles 

Gay Indians don’t have as many resources 

as their gay American male counterparts.  

Things are changing, though. Nowadays, 

gay clubs can be found in Mumbai and 

Delhi. Indiatimes.com and Indiandost.com 

are becoming two important sites for gay 

men in India. Even Bollywood is showing  

signs of change. 


“My Brother Nikhil,” directed by Onir 

Dhar, is one of the first Bollywood films to 

feature a homosexual hero. The movie 

shows a realistic glimpse of Indian’s intolerance 

towards gay men and how they are 

often abandoned by those closest to them. 

“It was not easy to cast (this movie) as

most actors weren’t willing to do this role… 

they were afraid of the perception that the 

public would have. When we approached 

various producers for financing the film, 

the universal reaction was to change the 

male lead to a heterosexual character and  

then they would produce the film,” notes 

Dhar. “At a conclave for the Indian Armed 

Forces, the film was screened and for the  

first time in the army, homosexuality was 

discussed… this makes me happy because 

somewhere the film has started a dialogue.” 

The American India Foundation, based 

in New York, has just begun tackling the  

issue of the stigma and discrimination 

against gay people in its their newly launched 

HIV/AIDS program. The nonprofit’s  

first action was to feature screenings 

of "My Brother Nikhil" around the 

nation to help raise awareness. 

“Overall, I believe it’s often more difficult  

to be gay and Indian,” says Sharma. “The 

Indian identity is almost invariably a communal 

identity. The problem of one member 

of the family is the entire family's problem."  

A Gujarat-born engineer, Mirage Thakar, 

who hasn’t told his family of his sexual orientation, 

expresses a similar view that  

Indian families tend to be more close-knit 

than most American families, and that even 

one’s extended family is very involved in  

one’s life and choices. When he finally 

decides to announce he is gay publicly, he 

worries not only about his immediate family, 

but the hundreds of other relatives he 

will have to answer to.


Kolkata-born Chithambaram says, “Lots 

of Indians are very prejudiced and they 

don’t know anything about (being) gay. In  

India, people think that gays are hermaphrodites. 

They’re viewed as sick and need to

be cured of the disease. In the USA…there  

is a sense of freedom, lots of gay-safe 

spaces, activist groups, social groups.” 

In the end, each man interviewed 

expressed a burning desire to be given the  

same opportunities as their heterosexual 

peers; socially, academically and professionally. 

“I just want to be treated like e

veryone else,” Doe states simply.


*Name changed to protect his identity. Please not that there are still many countries in the world that being gay is punishable by death.

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