"You can love whoever you want."
With those words, Gitanjali (name changed upon request) found freedom from the chains that had bound her in a heteronormative world. Akash Panday hears the story of her coming out.
Gitanjali and I have a mutual friend and we have been talking virtually for a while. Then in February 2021, I met her finally. I was privileged to hear the story of her coming out to her parents and her best friend.
Gitanjali: I remember the feeling: my legs felt like they were chained. I felt like I was carrying a burden, something heavy over my head and shoulders. Coming out was like flying. I felt like a bird, heading towards a rainbow. But it wasn’t easy.
Artwork by Gitanjali, Animation by Bruvee Manek
I was born in a middle-class family in Delhi [place changed upon request]. I spent most of my life living inside places: school, home, or the metro. I didn’t have many friends but my future prospects looked good. ‘She is a brilliant student,’ they said about me.
Only I knew that this was a facade I had created to hide my deepest secrets.
I was in Class 8 when I first felt attracted to other girls. These feelings started intensifying as I inched closer to puberty. I couldn't express these feelings openly but my fantasies were another matter.
One day, those feelings spilled over. I had a close friend; we were together and alone one day. I don’t know what came over me but I tried to kiss her. When she rejected me, I was terrified but she allayed my anxiety when she said, ‘Gitanjali, don’t worry. It’s okay.’
But then she told everyone in our school. And suddenly the whispers began, whispers loud enough for me to hear: “Gitanjali is a lesbian, Gitanjali is a lesbian.”
I had never heard the word before. I did not know what it meant. I did not know what the label stood for in the minds of the other girls but I could sense that it was not something pleasant. My life changed after that. I didn’t stop being friends with my betrayer though I knew she had wronged me. Perhaps I felt that I had wronged her too, invaded her space, betrayed her version of a friendship. Years later, we did talk about it and we did apologise to each other.
But at the time, I found myself the centre of prurient attention. No one wanted to sit next to me in class. My classmates even invented a game called ‘Catching Gitanjali’; they would surround me and hurl abuse at me from all sides. The teachers who had once been my emotional support system also began ignoring me.
In Class 11, we went on an excursion to the hills. We were sharing rooms in groups of four. Most of the other students had formed their groups. No one wanted me with them. Finally, my teacher put me into a group where I was accepted reluctantly. But my classmates refused to share the bed with me, fearing I would ‘do something’ to them. In bone-chilling weather, I had to sleep on a mattress on the floor. In the middle of the night, I heard one of the girls speaking to her mother, ‘Yes, that girl is in our room but I didn't let her share the bed with us,’ she told her mother triumphantly. I was traumatised by this event.
As a result of all this, my grades dropped drastically. Being a single child, you can’t avoid attention. My mother was distraught with my performance but did not bother to ask why I was doing badly. I have always had a problematic relationship with her. She is not the sort of person who believes that parents should be friends with their children. She defines the role in terms of discipline, the stricter the better. She was not someone I could turn to when I was beginning to feel the pangs of sexual desire nor was she someone I could ask for help when I had difficulty coping at school. Perhaps it was all to the good that I did not speak to her; she believes homosexuality is a form of mental illness. My father is a government employee and due to his frequent transfers, he couldn’t be there for me when I needed his presence the most. My mother has raised me nearly single-handed.
In the middle of all this, I made a new friend, which was my ray of hope. We shared a similar taste in music, and we both loved to code. I admired her and enjoyed her company but it was a platonic friendship. I had no romantic feelings for her; it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but this could not continue for long due to my mother's insecurities about people she thinks of as ‘upper-class’.
But there have been moments when the sun shone through. I remember a rather gloomy day, not very different from the others. I was sitting in the school playground by myself, my head was completely empty. One of my teachers must have spotted me missing the class, so she confronted me. I thought I was going to be admonished but I was surprised when she hugged me and said, ‘I can tell you are going through some issues. But you are one of the most innovative students I know so you'll come through. In tough times, we have to keep moving while building ourselves.’
What she said gave me confidence. I decided that I was not going to bother about the way I was looked at. I was going to work on my strengths. I began to work again and it paid off. I was awarded a talent scholarship and stood 3rd amongst my classmates.
I wanted to study science, so I enrolled in an institute to prepare for the entrance examinations. While I was at the institute, I developed feelings for a fellow female student. She was heterosexual. To put a check on my feelings and avoid being kicked out of the institute, I started missing classes. I couldn't make it to the Indian Institute of Technology, my dream college, though I scored 96% in twelfth standard.
I moved on with life as I secured admission to another prestigious college. The college exposed me to like-minded people who belonged to the LGBTQIA community. This was a turning point for me. There were others like me. My experience was normalised. I also began reading other people's experiences on Quora and even used popular dating apps to talk to some of them. They had been through worse situations. But still, these conversations were limited to a close-knit circle in college. When I tried to raise issues about LGBTQIA issues, I became the centre of homophobic jokes.
Jokes? These aren’t jokes. They’re weapons. In the last few years, there have been so many suicides in the community. Some of them have been friends whom I dearly loved. The jokes are the death of a thousand tiny cuts. You bleed a little each time. You don’t notice. You think you’ll survive. Some of us do. Many of us don’t. If you want to know why I haven’t come out to the world at large, it is because the world can be a frightening place, it can terrify someone who it perceives as ‘abnormal’. And it doesn’t have to be a broadside or an insult. It can be a knowing smile, a sly wink, a nudge-nudge remark…I have heard all of these and I have the scars from them. Yes, my many terrible experiences have made me strong. But surely we can find other ways to become strong. Surely you need not hurt me to make me strong? Nurturing me can give me as much strength. Harassment can make me savage with strength.
Harassment is a frequent phenomenon that troubles the LGBTQ community. I have tried to self-harm as well. It is as if I was saying, ‘You cannot hurt me any more than I can hurt myself.’ Trauma builds up and takes a toll on your mental health. Once again, I was left to fend for myself. But I reached out to a website and spoke with several people who rescued me from that phase.
I always wanted to tell my parents and friends that I am a homosexual. It would put an end, I knew, to the dreams my parents had of a future son-in-law but it would free me from the pretence. I could also dispense with the questions my friends asked: ‘Why don’t you have a boyfriend?’
So I tried a pilot project. I tried to tell the truth to my best friend in college.
She turned out to be a homophobe and spread this around on the campus. The very next day, I was traveling by bus when I saw the boys sitting around me constantly posting memes and dreadful stuff about me in our college WhatsApp groups. I tried to explain to them that ‘lesbians’ are just people, that all their misconceptions about homosexuals came from the pornographic content they watch which is hardly a place where you’re going to find real people. This didn’t work because they didn’t want it to work. They didn’t want to hear me. They were discomfited by me and they turned their discomfiture into cheap jokes.
Photographs of me were turned into memes and circulated in the college WhatsApp groups. I weathered the storm. I learned my lesson. I have learned it's best to cut off these people from your life.
I had to prepare for two years before I could come out to my parents. I chose the Durga Puja of 2020 since they would be in a festive mood. At the dinner table, I looked so nervous that my parents sensed that I had something inside to spill. It wasn't easy looking them in the eye and telling them the truth. I finally found the words and told them I was gay. There was absolute silence as if the sky had fallen. But the very next moment, my father told me something that I would never forget:
"You can love whoever you want."
My mother chose to behave as if this has never happened. She clings to her dreams of having a son-in-law and grandkids. But we have a better relationship now, oddly enough.
The following day I woke up feeling liberated. Singing and dancing to the tune of Taylor Swift's "You need to calm down". I did not want to!
I now look forward to doing things that make me happy because I feel it helps to forget the melancholy and the absurdities of life. The people who bullied me now look up to me as a role model because I could achieve so many things. In the past few months, I scored the perfect internship and published a research paper. I secured a good mentorship program from a reputed foreign institute in research methodologies. I also work as a volunteer for the organisation that helped me manage my lows. I share my experiences with people who are going through the same trauma. The conversations still help me.
My coming-out experience has been no less than an epiphany. It taught me that we shouldn't be taking things that happen to us too seriously. We need to get on with life. Our sexuality is merely 2% of our personality, 98% of it is for us to carve out.