Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Coming Out III: to my parents

This is the third part of a three-part article. Check out the first and second parts.
My parents are not perfect-- I doubt anybody would say their parents were perfect. There is always something missing, there are grudges, things they could have done better. Hindsight is so useful. Because of several other things that I won't get into, and probably because of my being different, being gay, I have never been particularly close to my parents. However there are numerous aspects about them and particularly aspects about the way they brought us up, that I really like and admire, and that I'd unhesitatingly emulate if I ever fulfil my dream of adopting a child. One of these is the way they (particularly my father) encouraged us to think independently.
I remember, as a child of around 10, I had saved money and wanted to buy a popular book of quiz questions with it. I asked my father whether I could. He replied that since I was becoming a big boy, approaching teenage and adolescence, I should start thinking for myself. In matters like this I should stop asking for permission. I ought to take a decision, and consult them about the decision. Ask them for "suggestions, not advice". [In the matter in question my father's suggestion would be to go for an encyclopedia, and not a quiz book. I went ahead with the latter in any case, and after a year or so realized that I should have followed his suggestion.]
My parents have always trusted me and my decisions as I grew up, though they have had their suggestions which I was mostly free to accept or reject. And I respect them for this trust and freedom. I have always realized how fortunate I was in this matter, especially in the Indian context.

Once when I was in Germany (2000), my father jokingly mentioned marriage when I called up one weekend. I quite categorically said that I would never go for an arranged marriage, so they should stop worrying themselves or worrying me about it. [For my non-Indian readers, arranged marriage is a common system in India/South Asia where the parents and relatives would choose a bride for a groom, or vice versa. It does work in many/most cases and the whys and why nots are beyond the scope of this blog entry.] My father took that as a hint that I had someone in mind and was audibly thrilled and excited. I had to later write an email categorically denying that this was the case. But the thrill and excitement in his voice scared me. Not only was there no girl, there would never be any. There would never be cause to be thrilled or excited in this respect.
I made an SOS call to H. to discuss this. I didn't know what I should do, whether it'd be unfair to tell them the truth about myself or whether I'd keep lying to them. Whether I'd kill them (figuratively speaking of course) with the truth, or let them die without ever knowing their son. I didn't know. H. suggested not telling them. I discussed it with other (Indian) friends I had come out to. They were all of the opinion that there shouldn't be any harm if they didn't know. But then there were relatives and busybodies bothering them about their son who was of marriagable age, well educated and even abroad (the ultimate qualification). Wasn't that unfair and confusing for them to not know what they were fending off, what they were defending?
But even if I did decide to tell them, how would I? Here I was hyperventilating at the prospect of coming out to my closest friends (whom I had chosen, and who had chosen me--as friends) over telephone, and this was about coming out to parents whom I certainly hadn't chosen and who hadn't chosen me-- and this coming out had to be done in person, face to face. I couldn't think how I'd do that.

I decided it was time, when I finished my PhD. Before moving to Vienna, I was visiting India for a few weeks in Jan-Feb, 2003-- it had to be now. My father was embarassing me by insisting on introducing me to everybody as Dr. S. They were both very, very proud of me. Now was the right moment for them to know the real me and then decide exactly how proud they should be of their son.
I had been doing my homework. I had been reading up on coming out experiences, reactions, views. One thing was clear. I had been living with this fact for 24 hours a day for a decade before I had accepted it and was comfortable with it. It would be extremely unfair of me to tell them, and expect them to be happy about it immediately. I had had time, they were entitled to it too. I had made elaborate plans: I'd come out to them, stay with them for a couple of days, and then travel somewhere (as I always do when I visit India) and let them digest the information, come back home and stay with them for a few more days (provided their reaction wasn't negative enough to throw me out-- I doubted that would happen) probably take them to a counsellor/psychologist and then fly back to Europe. I had brought two books for them. First, Terry Sanderson's A Stranger in the Family, a support book addressed to the family when a member comes out to them. The other was The Science of Desire by Dean Hamer and Peter Copeland which is written for the layman and describes the research by Hamer's group towards identifying a locus on the human X-chromosome that tended to correlate with homosexuality. This book also explains the biology and research of sexual behaviour and is a very informative book in general.

Things rarely work out as planned. I couldn't get a chance to come out to them during the first part of my visit... a visit to India is always hectic because on has to visit and be visited by hordes of relatives. And this isn't a conversation one initiates when we come back at 11:30 pm after dinner at someone's place. I went to Bhubaneswar and Konark and returned to Kolkata. I hadn't gotten around to finding a counsellor/psychologist. And the day of my return to Germany was getting nearer.

Finally it was the Sunday, two days before I was to leave. We had finished lunch. My parents were in a good mood. I said I wanted to talk to them, together, in the living room. They came and sat down with a knowing smile. They expected to be told about a girl, I could see that on their faces. Sorry, I'd disappoint them, but for the last time on this issue, I'd never raise their hopes again like this... at least not about a girl, ever again! That was the whole point. It went bad. I stuttered, I struggled. I said I am gay, homosexual, I prefer guys and I would never get married. Here are two books that you could read, that might help you understand. Impassive faces. My mother asked whether my brother knew about this. I said yes. No further reaction from her. Her lack of reaction made me wonder whether she had understood what I said. After all, I said "gay" and "homosexual" using the these English terms. I didn't know of a term in Bengali that could be used in polite language, and that my mother would be likely to be familiar with. My father said he was very upset. If I had said this earlier when I was younger, there might have been something that could be done. I said no, there was nothing that could be done, there cannot be, I am the way I am. He said he'd not read the books, he'd not keep these books at home. I said I'd leave them there anyways if they ever wanted to read them. He said he wouldn't keep them at home. If I didn't take them, he'd throw them out after I left.
End of conversation.
The next day he told me in the morning that he was naturally upset at my disclosure and didn't want to be at home. If I needed him or the car, I should warn him in advance, else he'd stay out. And he indeed did so.
I didn't want to risk Dean Hamer's excellent book being thrown away, so I brought it back with me. I had no use for Terry Sanderson's book, so I left it in the drawer of my desk in their house, hoping that he'd be tempted to turn its pages before he "threw it out". And after I left, my absence, missing me, might make things a bit different. I don't know if either of them ever read it. If it is still at home or it was indeed "thrown out". I never asked.
The day I left, my parents accompanied me to the airport like always. Both were tearful as I went in after the final goodbye.

I try to call up every weekend. I returned to Germany and stayed there for a couple of weeks and moved to Vienna. This period was understandably chaotic, and my calls to home were irregular and rare. I resumed my regular weekend calls a few weeks after I moved to Vienna. For the first few months, my father rarely came to the phone when I called. Even if he picked up the phone, he'd say the bare necessary politenesses and then say "ok, now talk to your mother." Gradually that changed. He began talking more and more often. Became his chatty self. Last Sunday I spoke to them for close to an hour, mostly to him.
I have made sure that my mother did understand my disclosure. I have introduced her to Vijay and his boyfriend, Daniel, during her visit to Vienna, and my mother loved them. She does understand what I meant.

Last winter, I called home and my mother asked what I was doing. I said I was feeling lazy and so was listening to music, lying under a blanket. She sighed and said, it'd have been so nice if I'd not been alone under the blanket. Wow! She sure knew that it'd have to be a guy if there'd be someone. Similarly a couple of months ago, my father asked me whether I had any special news for them, whether I wanted to tell them about someone special. Wow, again!
Sorry, folks, I am disappointed that I have to disappoint you about this blank in my life. But you're lovely parents, although I will never get around to saying that to you.


Coming Out II: to close friends

This is the second part of a three-part article. Check out the previous one first.
Kerstin was a postdoc in a neighbouring lab in Tübingen, and one of the smartest girls I have met in Europe. She was nice, although she could be quite bitchy. She was openly lesbian, and I had met her girlfriend too. One of my biggest regrets in life is that I didn't come out to her. Bitchy or not, gossipy or not, she'd have helped me, and may even have introduced me to a lot of people. In fact she may have taken me for a bit of a homophobe from some of my comments.

In June 1999, I had finished an important piece of work, that I had been struggling with for a while, and my supervisor insisted that I take a holiday. So I decided to visit H. in Berlin again. I heard that Kerstin was going to Berlin for the same weekend. When she came to know about my plans of visiting that weekend too, she was very curious about the reason of my visit.
That Saturday, H., a friend of his, and I were loitering around Berlin, and came across a huge parade. Noisy, crowded, outrageous costumes.. or nothing (or nothing much) on at all. A girl even asked me whether she could take my photo, and I "posed". None of the three of us desis spoke much German at that time, so we couldn't figure out what it was. H. said he'd heard of the Love Parade and this could be it. We didn't stay to watch, but moved on to the sights of Berlin. Later, a friend of his told us that it was the Gay Parade. Wow! My first encounter with a Gay Parade, one of the most famous Gay Parades of the world, and it didn't even register! The reason why Kerstin was in Berlin and her curiosity about my visit also clicked. I told H. that I'd tell her that we'd come across the "Love Parade" and see what she says. H. said he thought that'd be horribly nasty of me. If Kerstin is lesbian, that is her business. There was nothing wrong in being lesbian. Why should I make fun of her? Mentally, I stopped in my tracks. I was the gay guy, and I was being homophobic. The pretense was taking me too far. It had to be a straight guy who had to point this out to me. [Kerstin did ask me whether I saw the parade, and I truthfully answered that yes, we did, but we'd initially thought that it was the Love Parade. She got a bit agitated and explained that while the Love Parade had no significance, the Gay Parade had a lot. This was my first lesson in gay history. But I still didn't come out to her. How far can paranoia and plain stupidity take one!]

This episode got me thinking about my pretense bordering on homophobia, and also about why I'd need to pretend at all with people like H. Why would I have to pretend at all with people who are friends? They are not friends because they think I am straight! And to assume that would be to insult them and their affection for me. If someone did have a problem with my not being straight, would this person deserve being my friend at all?
When H. called up in Mar 2000 to wish me on my 26th birthday, I came out to him. I was terribly nervous, trembling, dry-mouthed, scared. Stupid, because I knew H., knew him well, and had decided to come out because of his correcting me! Nevertheless, the first coming out is never easy. He was shocked, but very supportive. I felt as if a huge burden had been lifted over my shoulders. [Interestingly enough, one of his first questions was about my behaviour in the Kerstin episode.]
From then on, coming out was like an addiction. I had targetted six of my close friends, scattered around the world, and one by one I came out to them. The circle widened. The reactions were varying. Most of these people were shocked, dumbstruck, some thought I was playing one of my tricks that I used to be notorious for. One argued with me that it was "not natural" and took his time to come to terms to this information, although at no point did he shut me out. I am really proud of the bunch of friends I have collected over the years-- proud of them, and proud of myself.

Chris was the fifth of the original six, the only non-Indian in this lot, and the only one I came out to in person at that time (all the other five were on the telephone as they didn't live in the town/country/continent). He was studying in Würzburg and had spent a summer in a neighbouring lab when we became very good friends. We visited each other in Tübingen (later Heidelberg) and Würzburg respectively a few times, and he introduced me to German history and we often travelled together to historical places. I felt myself falling in love with him (to this day, I think if he'd been gay, he'd be Mr. Perfect for me... and I'm not talking about looks here). I didn't want another "is he? he's not!", and other case of my fucking up a friendship. So once, just before returning from a visit, I came out to him in a rather roundabout manner. He was of course ok with it.

My brother's reaction was a classic one. I was in Heidelberg and writing my thesis, meaning I was spending (read: wasting) a lot of time on the computer and the internet on that pretext. During one of our long conversations on Yahoo Messenger, I came out. I asked him if he had a problem with it, whether he was shocked. This offended him, because he'd have thought I'd known him by now and that he is unshockable.

Of the girls that have been romantically interested in me, SM was one, though she insists that this is not true. Her initial reaction was of shock and complete disbelief when I came out to her (on the phone). I was already in Vienna, and it was a week or so before her PhD defence in Tübingen... she never fails to point out how inappropriate my timing for coming out to her was, and I do plead guilty. Later before moving to the US, she visited me in Vienna for the New Year (Dec 2003-Jan 2004) and she wanted to visit a gay bar. I had introduced her to Vijay, and she keeps repeating that if he'd not been gay, he'd be her Mr. Perfect. So Vijay and I took her to Cafe Willendorf at the Rosa Lila Villa. She liked it, of course, like most people do, but she found it no different from a regular cafe. And that's right too. We should have taken her to some place that's "more gay".

Once our Indian friends in Europe and I were visiting H. in Berlin for Christmas (2001). We had all gone for a movie, when H. who was sitting next to me told me he liked the girl in the trailer. Then suddenly he whispered that we'd always talked about the actresses he fancied, but it was silly he'd never asked me about the actors I liked. So who were they?
If I had to give just one reason for having come out to friends, it'd be this.
This is the second part of a three-part article. Check out the next one.


Coming Out Ib: coming to terms

Wild Reeds had an interesting post recently about an event they organized in Mumbai to get together parents and relatives of gay and lesbian people and discuss various related issues with them. The post has detailed transcripts of these discussions.
The post reminded me of the time I came out to my parents. I really wished there had been a support network for them, like PFLAG, that would allow them to talk to others like them. After all gay people have been living with their knowledge of themselves since their adolescence, and even then we take a lot of time to get to terms with ourselves (if at all), while when we come out, our poor parents are suddenly confronted with an often unpalatable truth. In the ensuing discussion with Wild Reeds, I promised that I'd blog about my coming out to my parents, and that seems to fit well as a sequel to my previous post about HRJ. But I'll discuss my whole coming out story, and this'll be long. So I am dividing it into three posts. The first (this one) will be a continuation of the HRJ story. The second one will be about coming out to my friends, and the final one, about coming out to my parents.
Ever since puberty, or probably even before that, I have been aware of my attraction towards guys, and an almost complete lack of it towards girls... the exception being HRJ. Probably like every kid, I used to develop curshes and fall in love very easily. But unlike other kids I could never talk about them to anybody else, not even to my closest friends. On the contrary I had to pretend. Pretend to be interested in girls, to fit in, to be like everyone else. I even invented code words to describe girls during my BSc (1991-1994)... the lengths to which I went to kinda reminds me of Woody Allen's film Zelig.

It was a lonely life. I did not know anybody else who felt like me. Visibility of gay people in India and in the Indian media is rare, and was non-existent then. Probably the only figure I knew was homosexual was Oscar Wilde. Although I had read his sole novel, his fairy tales and The Importance of Being Earnest, I wasn't even a big fan then (I am now, since I rediscovered his works some seven years ago).
I desperately hoped I'd be bisexual.

Then Pune happened. I had been selected in both JNU and Pune Uni (at that time Poona Uni), and was in a dilemma which one to join. I knew about JNU and had lived in Delhi and even visited the campus, but I knew nothing about Pune. At my father's suggestion I went to consult a cousin who had lived in Bombay and was familar with Pune. The cousin said Pune is a nice place and the uni is good, but he warned me he had been recently reading about homosexuals there. My heart skipped a beat and added a bias in favour of the city. Later on I visited Pune-- the beautiful Bombay-Pune train journey and the lovely campus made my decision very simple. But I digress. Unfortunately I didn't meet any of the homosexuals that my cousin had been apprehensive about, instead I fell in love with a girl, but at the same time that made me become clear about my sexuality: gay, not bisexual. Even while I was at Pune, I had big crushes on two other guys, friends of mine. Pune was good for me in several other ways. I used to be introverted, underconfident and terribly shy. That changed. I was also introduced to mountain hiking (we called it trekking) and Indian classical music (mainly Hindustani) and fell in love with both. I digress again...

At my next stop, two years in IISc, Bangalore, I desperately fell in love with a close friend, H. My being in love with him complicated our friendship and this complication exists to this day, although I have moved on. Once in a Developmental Biology class, the professor talked about Alan Turing, the British logician/mathematician. I had read an article about the fascinating Turing Test in a book about the mind. Prof N. told us about Turing's fascinating contribution to Developmental Biology. He also mentioned that Turing had done an amazing amount of work in solving the Nazi codes during the World War-II but was nevertheless persecuted and prosecuted because of his being gay and ultimately committed suicide. Here at last was a multifaceted man, a genius, who had been unashamedly gay. I had found my "role model". [For more on Turing, check out Andrew Hodges' excellent biography or website.]

H. moved to Berlin, and I missed him really terribly. I decided to move to Germany too, and got a position in Tübingen. These three years were really when I started accepting myself as gay, started coming out, started looking at life as a gay man, possibilities and perspectives of life etc. This process was terribly slow during the years in Tübingen (Nov 1998-Sept 2001) and picked up pace in Heidelberg (Oct 2001-Jan 2003). I am finally comfortable in my identity as a gay man in Vienna (Mar 2003-).

I am not out to everybody, because I don't like being gay to be my identity. It is an important part of who I am, but it is not who I am. I am not out at work (or I think I am not) but I don't lie. I don't laugh at homophobic jokes, in fact especially if it is an Austrian or German making the joke, I ask whether they prefer putting a pink triangle on the targets of their jokes and send them to concentration camps. When people are suprised at the vehmence of my reaction (any suggestion that anyone is emulating the Nazis, is understandably considered vehment in Europe), I say I have a lot of gay friends, and I certainly don't like them to be insulted like this. I use gender neutral terms when it comes to my personal life, and I don't care if people catch on or if they don't. Amazingly enough most people don't catch on. If I had a partner, I wouldn't hestitate to take him to official parties as my partner. But for that I'd have to have one first! Since coming to Vienna, I have attended all the gay parades here, and this year, I walked the whole stretch with a rainbow flag sticking out of my bag. I don't know if anyone I knew who didn't know saw me and I don't care if they did.
It is so nice to finally be me.
This is the first part of a three-part article. Check out the second part.


Friday, August 11, 2006

a new member of the next generation, and ramblings about the past

I just got off the phone after talking to HRJ... she has made her contribution to the next generation. Her baby, Arya (stupid name actually) was born on Monday.
She had told me way back in March, when she'd called for my birthday, that she was expecting a baby. Although I had not forgotten about it, it had indeed kinda slipped out of my mind... after all, we talk about twice a year-- in March and in September (her birthday).
She had told me about her previous pregnancy exactly a year before too-- again, when she had called up for my birthday in 2005. She had miscarried in January 2005. Not a lot of people know about it, certainly none (or very few) of our common friends. She had broken down on the phone. I was about to leave for my third date with T., and this of course made me call him and say that I'd be delayed.
Anyways, she announced her pregancy to the MSc batch/friends mailing list only in mid-July, just two weeks before the expected date. She emailed again towards the end of July saying that the baby was late and she was "waiting and waiting". I had been trying to call since the last few days, but always got the answering machine. I'd left a message on Wednesday asking them what the news was. Finally tonight her father picked up the phone (her parents are visiting them in Tennessee to help with the baby) and I got to talk to her. She apparently returned home on Wednesday or Thursday.
I am really, really happy for them!
HRJ. I haven't seen her for close to 10 years probably. It still brings a smile and a sigh when I think of her-- I was in love with her, and still am, like with most people I've been in love with. We both used to live outside the campus in Pune and in those early days neither of us had our mopeds, so we used to take the bus to the university. It often turned out to be the same bus and I liked her right from the beginning. The more I got to know her, the more I liked her, and then very soon fell in love. It was funny. I was a big flirt at that time, and among my female friends, she was the only one I didn't flirt with, though, as she told me later, she did know of my "fondness" for her but she'd always thought I was too much of a flirt... really funny how convincing one's acting can be.
It was also complicated... I knew there were several guys interested in her, and one of them was a very close friend. Plus there was the problem of my sexuality. I had always been interested in guys, and this was confusing. I was hoping that the fact that I was in love with her meant that I was bisexual, and that'd mean that I'd just have to suppress my attraction to guys. But again, since I was in love with her, and more importantly since she was a close friend, I didn't want to do anything that'd spoil her life or scar her or the like. And so it ended up my never telling her about my feelings, until much later when it was too late.
I am not bisexual, I have always been gay and being in love with her was an aberration. One of the things that I am proud of in myself is my restraint with her in those two years. That I did not attempt to take the seemingly easy way (out of my confusion about my sexuality) and woo her. It was of course good for me, but it was good for her too, as I am quite sure that I'd have been successful had I tried to woo her with even the slightest amount of seriousness.
She moved to Tennessee, and I, to Bangalore. We both liked writing letters and we'd exchange letters and emails with regularity for a few years. She would often use me as a sounding board during dilemmas, ask for my honest analyses of difficult decisions, personal issues and so on. And in the course of one of these letters, I told her about my feelings for her. She said she loved reading the letter and it made her feel like she was on the top of the world. But of course I had asked no question, and neither expected nor wanted any answer. In fact at that time I was in love with a (straight) guy: another very close friend, H. And she was seeing a Bihari guy.
Now comes a very interesting coincidence. Around the same time, K., a friend of HRJ and me from our Pune days wrote to me that a friend of her's, JE, was working in the campus, and not being a student was not eligible for a hostel room, so could I help him. Since I was in a double room without a roommate I offered to let him stay there. JE was a nice guy, but we never really hit it off. He was planning to go to the US, and finally found his way to the same uni as HRJ and even selected the same lab. They didn't quite get along in the beginning. HRJ broke up with the Bihari guy, and one day after I had moved to Germany, she called (probably one of the birthday conversations) to say that she'd been seeing JE and they'd get married. That was a bit of a shock, as she'd not told me about him before, and for I was also stupidly jealous of JE. Jealous?! I remember, H. was visiting me soon afterwards and I told him how upset I was and how stupid my being upset was. I had come out to both H. and HRJ by then. H. was the first person I came out to (long story-- another day), HRJ was the third.
Life, love, emotions, jealousy, can be so strange, funny, unpredicable and so devoid of logic!
A very warm welcome to the world of all this and more, Arya.