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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this story! Both Trey and I had somewhat similar difficulties with coming out to parents, all of whom have since come around very much since then. It takes some people a very long time, but it's so worth it and important, I think, to share our lives with them whether they are ready at that time or not. I posted a note to you on Trey's blog, but don't know that you'll see it. It was fun to read your blog and know you are well! Best to you, Guy (and Trey)

A.S. said...

Hi Guy, a very warm welcome to my blog!!
Bumping into Trey's (and your) blog was my first ever encounter with a blog. That was sometime in 2002, not long after Emma's adoption. I have been a very regular visitor on "Daddy, Papa & Me" ever since. As I have mentioned before on there, in many ways your family is an ideal for me, a dream even.

I agree with you completely, it is certainly worth coming out to one's parents and truthfully sharing one's life with them rather than them never knowing us. Rather, I probably regret why I didn't do it earlier.

Teju said...

A.S., hi!

I found the whole narrative (all 3 parts, plus the one about your friend in Pune) very moving.

You've acted with dignity and with honor, and no matter how difficult it was for friends and family, you did the right thing. The funny thing with decisions like this is that, afterwards, you rarely wish for the "innocence" of the past.

I'm not, myself, gay. But around the time you were undergoing your saga, I had to, in a sense, "come out" to my family and friends about a question of religion. It's peculiar, but the process was similar: the open-minded ones, the shocked ones, the ones who abandoned me, etc. My whole life had been organized around a particular and very intense religious identity. Once I realized that was wrong for me, the hardest thing wasn't leaving the faith, it was reconstituting a social life that hitherto had only been with other members of the faith. One emerges stronger and--most importantly--with no illusions about human relationships and loyalties.

Anyway, great writing here. By the way, do you remember me? Vienna, summer of 2003, I'm Nigerian (and no, I had no clue you were gay, but it wouldn't have made any difference--I really enjoyed our conversations, immensely so). Email for more details!

A.S. said...

Hi Teju,

I am amazed you found my blog. Actually I am almost shocked. I don't even visit Sepia Mutiny that often, although I do like it and should visit more often. And I rarely comment on blogs. On top of this my rare comment on that post on Sepia Mutiny was, I think, the 197th, and I didn't think *anyone* would read it or pay much attention.
And look, one of the few people who read it happened to be you. My verbosity didn't deter you and you even clicked on my name, and found your way to my blog. Read a few posts and identified me... almost like one of those coincidences of Thomas Hardy's stories that sound so unlikely and unbelievable!

But it's really good to hear from you. I too really enjoyed our great discussions , not to speak of the great introduction to art you gave me and others during your stay in Vienna. In fact before your KHM tours, I was quite ignorant about art... I still am, but I think I at least know how to open my eyes. And thanks for that.

It is actually my fault for not keeping in touch with you, I confess your egroup kinda overwhelmed me. I used to save all those posts to read later, and then had to delete them because they were clogging up my mailbox... those were the days before google started these almost limitless space for emails. So thanks for getting back in touch.

I see that your visits to my blog were from a Belgian IP address, probably meaning you're in Europe again. Is that right? I haven't read through your blog yet, will do that some soon.

Thanks, also, for your kind comments about the coming-out narrative in my blog. Yes, you didn't know. But then, that's also a point... as far as I am concerned there's no big deal, being gay is a part of me-- an important part-- but it doesn't define who I am.

OK, now off to search for your email address... if I don't find it, do message me on unrestrainedverbosity(AT)gmail(DOT)com

Vidya said...

Read all the 3 posts at one go. Made my eyes wet. Life indeed is really hard. I keep thinking that my insecurities were insurmountable when I was a kid. Reading yours, mine were just the size of a pebble compared to the mountains that you have borne all along. Wishing you all the very best in life A.S.

Making your parents be in sync with you makes you feel really happy and at ease with yourself. That’s the best decision according to me.

//Rather, I probably regret why I didn't do it earlier.// — I can understand the feeling perfectly well. I have to have my dad and me talk the same language. Helps me to sleep better :-)

p.s.: Been reading along your posts slowly. Love the way you express yourself.

A.S. said...

Thanks, Vidya, for your repeated compliments and the wishes.

Yes, life wasn't easy growing up as a gay kid, especially in not being able to talk to anyone about my problems. While I do regret the lost years, as far as I am concerned, that is all in the past. Things are improving in India too, there certainly is much more visibility about homosexuality in urban India, and with easy and early access to the internet, support groups etc, a confused child (and his/her parents) might not find it as difficult as it was until a decade ago.

Coming out to my parents was indeed a good decision, but the key decision in this matter, I think, was to be comfortable with who I am and stop caring what others might think.

Anonymous said...

I am surprised i hadnot stumbled upon this blog from any gay indian blog links.
In either case you have translated your expressions into words beautifully.
I am 28 and i am hopelessly trapped in my marriage.I just cant think of betraying the feelings of my
beautiful wife & wrt my parents and family,i shudder.
But the advent of internet and blogs ,have revolutionised the thinking of next-gen gays in india,
especially in urban areas.
There are many positive ,healthy outlets in india ,unlike when we were growing up ,feeling gay,
aalmost made us feel persoanally like perverts.I am happy for the present gen indian gays.
I just wish i was born 5 years later,I may have probabaly enjoyed growing up as gay.
Also keep us uped through your blogs,will try to regulalry catch up.

A.S. said...

@ Anonymous(2)
Actually I rarely visit and comment on other gay Indian blogs, so no reason why you would be able to find my blog via those links.
Thanks for your compliments, I am glad you liked reading this.
Unfortunately your story is similar to that of the majority of the gay guys in the subcontinent, which is a real shame. I totally agree (and I think I have mentioned it in these posts) that the internet has changed the lives of gay people all over the world, especially in this region.

I am 33, so you were born 5 years after I was... so my situation was worse. I did leave India in my mid-20s though.

As you can see, I am a bad poster.... it's been months since my last post. But I haven't given up yet, hopefully I'll start again. Thanks for the words of encouragement!

Broom said...

The longer I wait, the more I want to do tell my parents. A lot of people tell me not to, because "It's not fair to them" or "You'd be hurting them".
You give me hope with this post.

the mad momma said...

You and your parents sounds like amazing people... and why won't you be telling them that they are lovely parents? :)

A.S. said...

@ Broom: I seemed to have missed your comment-- glad that you found this useful. The question for me, as I mention, was whether it'd be fairer to them to never let them know the real me, or to hurt them by telling them. I'm positive I chose the correct option.

@ the mad momma: thanks... I am sure everybody is an amazing person in their own way.
Good question. I guess because I'm not really close to my parents, and also in a way, ours is a bit of a dysfunctional family, and we never explicitly talk about things like that :-)