‘What will people say?’: Indian Americans balance family with LGBT identity

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/25/indian-americans-lgbt-identity-gay-lesbian-family

For many gay and lesbian South Asians living in the US, coming out involves bridging gaps between culture, community and sexuality

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Sunu Chandy with her daughter Satya, her wife Erika Symmonds and Erika’s grandmother, Elaine Osbourne. Chandy’s parents attended their wedding after she conducted ‘a full campaign’. Photograph: Elizabeth Leitzell

When Parag Mehta came out to his parents, he had already been through two suicide attempts. At the time, he was in his final semester at the University of Texas and decided he had hidden his sexuality from his family long enough.

This was in 1999, well before Mehta became Barack Obama’s first liaison to the LGBT community – the first of three Indian Americans to eventually hold that post – and before his current appointment as chief of staff to the new surgeon general, Vivek Murthy.

In those days Indian Americans were deeply in denial about homosexuality, so when Mehta told his parents he was gay, he was worried they would sever all ties to him. Instead, something remarkable happened.

“My dad wrote a letter,” said Mehta.

The letter went out to the entire Mehta clan, as well as various members of the Indian community in Temple, Texas, where they lived: aunties, uncles, even the teacher of Parag’s Bhagavad Gita class.

“In just a few seconds our hearts sank to the lowest level. My role model was telling me something that I, being as homophobic as I am, always regarded as an aberration and a product of this liberated, western culture,” Dr Mehta wrote, recounting the first moments after his son came out. “Vinoo and Chirag were so shocked that they could not utter any words and could only cry.”

“We really do not know anyone personally in the Indian community who is gay,” the letter continued. “We do not know what the appropriate reaction is supposed to be to this kind of news. I cannot help but hope that this whole thing was a bad dream and when we wake up Parag will be his old self again. But we know that is not possible.”
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Dr Mehta then praised Parag’s many achievements, and appealed to the community to stand by his son.

“Your love and encouragement has played a vital role in his development. Thus, we believe you should know. We can never change his destiny, but we refuse to live in denial.”

“He is our son, our brother and our pride.”

Dr Mehta is a retired physician who served as general surgeon at the VA Hospital in Temple, and professor of surgery at Texas A&M Medical School. Despite his impressive credentials, he said he was “misinformed” about homosexuality until Parag forced the issue by coming out.

He said it was only after reviewing the scientific literature immediately after his son came out, in hopes of finding a medical “cure” for homosexuality, that he realized there was nothing to be cured. He has since spoken out publicly, in venues across the country, urging Indian Americans to confront bigotry within the community.

“There is a shame that’s associated with this,” especially among the older generation, who are all too willing, he said, to get their gay children married off to members of the opposite sex, simply to maintain appearances.

Dr Mehta had been warned by one friend that publicizing his son’s gayness could prompt a quiet backlash, resulting in some families questioning whether the Mehta home was safe for their children. But the letter had the opposite effect: friends immediately started showing up at their house, ready to stand by Parag and his parents’ side. Years later, Parag cites it as a classic example of “damage control”.

For a number of younger LGBT South Asians, the challenge lies in openly forging an individual path while maintaining ties to large, culturally conservative families and the communities in which they’re embedded. Parag, who frequently counsels younger Indian Americans before they choose to come out, stresses a need for “patience and understanding”, and a willingness to walk older members of the community through the landscape of gayness.

It’s a juggling act, and may appear unduly accommodating to outsiders more accustomed to an accept-me-as-I-am rhetoric.
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Parag Mehta and his longtime boyfriend Vaibhav Jain in front of the Taj Mahal. Photograph: Parag Mehta

“There’s a religious component, there’s a community component, there’s a shame component – ‘What will people say?’ All these things are playing in their mind,” said Sunu Chandy, a lesbian whose family is Christian. “And sometimes I’m sympathetic, and sometimes I’m ‘grow up. You’ve lived here for 45 years.’”

Chandy, an attorney in the Office of Human Rights in Washington DC, said her willingness to tolerate her family’s mixed feelings toward her partners and her lifestyle ended once she adopted a child from India.

At that point Sunu issued an ultimatum of sorts to her parents: they could only spend time with the child if they openly embraced Sunu’s relationship with her now wife, Erika Symmonds. They also had to inform the rest of the family about Sunu and Erika’s relationship. At this time Sunu says she conducted “a full campaign” on her parents, which included sending them a copy of I Am, a documentary by Sonali Gulati about being lesbian and Indian.

The campaign apparently worked. Sunu’s parents did tell their relatives about Sunu’s relationship with Erika, and they also showed up for her wedding last fall. A number of her aunts and uncles, however, were conspicuously absent.

For her own parents, raised in south India, she said it helps that the congregation to which they belong in Chicago has become increasingly diverse and progressive. There have been days when her mother would call to celebrate the passage of marriage equality in a state, declaring: “We won.”

“Progressive or even mainline churches are making this turn,” she said. “And I think that is helping to bring them along.”

But Indian weddings are more complicated affairs. Sunu and Erika were fully a part of one cousin’s wedding, with their daughter serving as a flower girl. But Sunu reasons this was partly because the cousin married into a white family, one presumably less shocked by the existence of gay people. They opted not to attend another wedding, because that cousin was marrying someone from India and the idea of confronting awkward questions or stares at the wedding reception was more than Sunu could stomach.

In addition to coping with homophobia, Indian Americans often have to deal with racial and class-based bigotry. For New York-based Radha Patel, that actually worked to her advantage. Her first girlfriend was Gujarati, like Radha herself, but came from a more privileged community.

“Her Gujarati was like Oxford-Stanford Gujarati,” said Radha. “And my Gujarati was like hick Gujarati.” So her family was relatively accepting.
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Parag Mehta, right, and Vaibhav Jain pose in front of the US Capitol in Washington. Photograph: Parag Mehta

She recounted how rigid her Gujarati Leva community could be, in the case of a Gujarati woman in the Bay Area who chose to marry a Hispanic man.

“She was not only disowned by the entire community, but her own parents disowned her. She’s just trying to live an isolated existence. So it became real to me.”

Radha went out of her way to allay the fears of her extended family, even inviting dozens of them over to a mass coming-out event she organized with her parents. She first spoke in Gujarati, then English, in hopes of making sure they all understood her.

“My job is to create visibility and to have patience with people so that they’ll realize there’s nothing wrong with being LGBT.”

The alternative, she said, would be her own isolation.

“If I lost my access to all my nieces and nephews and cousins, my uncles and aunts, that would be really hard. Which is why I put in all this work.”

In addition to influencing policy at the White House, Parag Mehta makes aggressive use of social media: his Facebook feed is filled with images of him and his longtime boyfriend Vaibhav Jain.

At a DC restaurant, the two of them laughed as Parag pulled up one recent photo: of his father on a sofa with Vaibhav’s parents at their New Delhi home. It’s not merely the fact that their parents are getting to know each other, but that they’re posing for pictures together, inviting the inevitable probing questions from domestic workers and others.

But even before the two started dating, Parag’s father had taken the unusual step (by desi standards) of trying to play matchmaker for his gay son. At one Indian American conference, when he stood up and announced that his son was single and gay, he said he was met with several offers.

“Of course, most of them were Republican so Parag would not click for them.”

Dr Mehta seems thrilled that his son has found another Indian, and called Vaibhav “a wonderful boy”.

“When Vaibhav showed up I thought, ‘He could be just like my second son.’”

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