Following Karan Johar’s comments on his sexual orientation, Saattvic, a young television and theatre actor, comes out and pens down a powerful open letter to all his colleagues in Mumbai and every homosexual person. “I was told that the audience will not accept an openly gay actor, so nothing of this should ever get to the media. Casting directors would not cast you in a lead role because how can a gay man romance a woman?” he writes
Reams have already been written about Karan Johar’s coming-out-without-saying-it in his forthcoming biography, The Unsuitable Boy. While many are lauding his move as brave, several gay rights activists have taken umbrage at his refusal to explicitly say, “I am gay”.
The lines under contention are “Everybody knows what my sexual orientation is. I don’t need to scream it out. And if I need to spell it out, I won’t only because I live in a country where I could possibly be jailed for saying this.” Depending on how you look at this, it is a statement of cowardice or a comment on the sorry state of human rights in this country. Personally, I do not think it is my station at all to judge Karan – I have not lived his life, I do not have a huge business empire to lose by courting controversy, and I cannot lay claim to having done anything that has made an earth shattering difference to a large group of people. Karan is entitled to do whatever he wants, and I am no one to advise him about how to present himself to the world.
Karan’s post, however, has motivated me to say unequivocally “I AM GAY”. Let me explain.
Five years ago, in early 2012, following a postgraduate degree in Economics from the University of Oxford, I had a well paying job as an economist in London. While I loved being an economist, I had also always wanted to act, and I felt that the time was right for me to give it a shot. So, I resigned and moved to Mumbai, to chase my dreams.
In London, I was an out and proud gay man. In fact, I was an out and proud gay man when I was 20 – my first public coming out was during my third year at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi. My parents have always known, and they’ve always accepted it. At home, it was always a non-issue. I’ve been lucky throughout my life to find acceptance more often than not, and as a result being gay has never really been a big part of my life. It occupied as much headspace as me being Punjabi, vegetarian, a musician, an actor, etc. – it was just another part of me.
However, it was only the UK’s accepting atmosphere that fully allowed me to come to terms with it. There, I knew for the first time what it felt like for my sexual orientation not to raise any eyebrows at all. I remember during my first year at Oxford, I was acting in a production of Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink. The director asked me if my girlfriend was coming to the premiere. I replied, fully expecting an over-the-top-gasp type reaction, “I am gay”. Without batting an eyelid, he replied, “so, is your boyfriend coming?” Faltering, I replied I was single. “DAMN!” he replied. He was more concerned that there would be one less member in the audience. By the time my UK chapter was coming to a close, I had taken to walking in London Pride as part of the Naz Project London contingent.
Naïve little me was quite gung-ho about moving to Mumbai. After all, the Delhi High Court had delivered its historic judgement in 2009, and anal sex (and by extension, homosexuality) had been legal for three years at that time. Moreover, I was convinced that my ability to land roles would be completely unaffected by my sexual orientation.
However, almost from the moment I landed, I was told by insiders to hide my sexual orientation from the industry. I realised that society had not moved on as quickly as the law had. I was told that the audience will not accept an openly gay actor, so nothing of this should ever get to the media. Casting directors would not cast you in a lead role because how can a gay man romance a woman? This meant that any overtly gay Facebook posts had to come down. It also meant that you hid it from everyone in the industry, because you never know who might say what to the media or casting directors. Whether or not any of these concerns are real is not the point – for a young aspirant who is made to believe something like this can make or break a career, they were real enough.
And so, I took one step back into the closet. My family and my close friends always knew, but I hid it from those I worked with. I justified it to myself by saying “why must I stand on tables and shout out my sexual orientation? Straight people don’t do it!” All this came to a head once when I was travelling with a troupe to Jaipur from Delhi for a play. Our make-up artist was gay and out, and he opened up to us about his struggles. A small town boy, he is effeminate, and he regularly gets abused for it. He’d had so much that he was questioning whether there was something wrong with him. As he broke down into tears, I told him that I understood, and that he had to be strong and fight the abuse. He looked me in the eye and said “you don’t know what it feels like, you have not been through it yourself.” I wanted to tell him that I HAD been through it myself, that I understood what he was feeling, but I couldn’t. And it felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders at that point.
This, and other similar incidents, drove me up the wall. It got to the point where I couldn’t take it anymore, and without a thought to the consequences, I started coming out to those colleagues who I had established a certain level of ease with, those who I was certain wouldn’t go about bad mouthing me to the media because of my orientation. Slowly, I realised that my initial misgivings were more fear than anything else, and that as long as the media never wrote anything about it, I was fine. Of course, I wasn’t a celebrity, just a struggling theatre artist, and the media didn’t really care about me at all. Gradually it came to the point where I was pretty much out to everyone in my social circle.
I also saw what this partial closetness did to the world around me. It became EXCEPTIONALLY difficult to date. I came across an entire network of ‘coordinators’ who were gay without saying it, propositioning me with the tacit understanding of subsequently giving work. I came across several actors who were gay, but talked about imaginary girlfriends. There were those who were so paranoid that they were out to no one at all. They would want to meet alone, at their place, when their flatmates were away. There were those who were married, and fulfilled their desires by sleeping with men on the side. Among the few that were out, most were militant about it – as if being gay was the sum total of their existence. Even here, stories of non-acceptance, abuse and conflict were the norm.
And all this, remember, before the infamous Supreme Court judgement in December 2013. At the time I was dating a boy who was slowly coming to terms with his sexual orientation. I remember him coming to my house and hugging me and crying. He said, “All this while the one thing that had kept me going was that my country told me I’m okay. If the law doesn’t have a problem with it, it has to be correct, right? Now what am I to do? Now even the country tells me it is wrong.” What could I tell him? I felt the same way. I felt that my country had let me down.
The SC judgement turned a fairly apolitical me into a bit of an activist. I felt wronged, personally. I wrote and directed a play with a strong homosexual component that was well received in mid 2014. I performed at gay themed events. In the midst of all this, I shot for Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Everest, and did a blink and miss role in a film that most people missed, Badmashiyaan. Everest brought a little bit of mainstream popularity with it, and god forbid any of my new ‘fans’ figured out that I am gay! It would be a PR disaster for the TV show. So, I led this strange double life – my theatre was out and proud, and my screen work was old fashioned and closeted.
I had moved back from London to a house already rented by the family, but there came a time when I needed to rent a house on my own. Oh my goodness. Bachelor! Actor! GAY! In what was probably the most brilliant acting performance of my career, I donned a business suit, pulled out my old business cards and work contract, and told the society I was an economist working for my old firm remotely. When they asked about bringing girlfriends home, etc. I told them I was single and was completely focussed on my work. I remember having to think twice before even hugging my boyfriend while in that flat, making sure that the curtains were closed, lest the neighbours catch a glimpse and I get thrown out for indulging in things ‘against Indian culture’, something I had been explicitly warned about by the society.
The anecdotes could go on and on – friends being beaten up for being gay, being arrested and spending a night in jail just for attending a gay party, committing suicide out of depression. Like everyone, I have dreams. I dream of having a husband and children, of bringing our children up together and having the same happy family that I was a part of as a child. I dream of a life that most straight people take for granted. I came back to this country with hope – homosexuality was legal, and it looked like progress was being made towards civil unions and equal rights. Now, I know even a life of basic dignity is out of reach.
Many gay people have made their peace with the state of affairs, and adjusted their behaviour and dreams accordingly. They do not feel the need to come out explicitly, and I do not have any problem whatsoever with them – they are entitled to their belief systems. However, my experience here has convinced me that I need to come out.
If someone like me, who is so privileged that his family always accepted him for what he is, who has first class degrees from the best universities in India and abroad, who has made enough money to insulate himself from the hate and bigotry, if someone like ME cannot live a life of dignity in this society, then what about those who aren’t as privileged as me? What about the next generation of young gay children growing up in a homophobic country, constantly being told that there is something wrong with them? What about those young gay men who are tortured and forced into marriage by their families? As a country, do we not want to provide all our citizens a life of dignity?
In any society, meaningful change always comes from the grassroots. It is only when the common man feels that something wrong is happening that he will ask for change. Coming out accomplishes three things. First, the more LGBT people come out, the more we become a visible section of society and eventually, a vote bank. Second, every LGBT person who comes out forces his entire network of relatives, friends and colleagues to examine and refine their beliefs about homosexuality. It is an established fact the people who know an LGBT person are much more likely to support LGBT rights (see https://www.buzzfeed.com/annanorth/knowing-a-gay-person-more-than-doubles-support-for-marriage?utm_term=.yl1kdQ6Xn5 – .ax7j0xeYW4 for instance) – now they have someone to talk to and clear out their doubts. They can see for themselves that gay people are just like them, with similar dreams, similar beliefs, similar everything. I’ve seen many of my own friends go from mildly homophobic to completely accepting after I came out and had chats with them. Third, it rids people of the burden of having to build a web of lies around them. I have personally experienced how liberating coming out can be, and you would be surprised at how many people will actually support you.
The crux of my argument is this. Your coming out will help sensitize the people around you and add to grassroots support for gay rights. If enough people are sensitized, the laws will change, and society will change. This may take some time, but it will happen. When it happens, you will be able to lead a life of dignity, and the next generation will grow up in a more accepting environment, without having to endure the hardships that you had to go through.
You don’t need to be an activist and your life does not need to be defined by being gay. You just need to do your little bit by coming out, and sensitizing the people around you. Think about it – even if 2%, or 1 in 50 of India is gay, the average person interacts with well over 50 people through his life. If even this 2% came out and sensitized people, very quickly the entire country would be sensitized.
Will there be consequences? Probably, but you’d be surprised at how much you are overestimating them. People, at their very core, are good. Most of what you worry about is your own fear – it won’t translate into reality. For me, the consequences have been negligible. And I think these consequences are worth bearing to live a life of dignity.
So, please, if you are in a position to do so, come out.
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