Equal rights activist Harish Iyer is the only Indian in the Guardian’s World Pride Powerlist of the most influential LGBTQ persons in the world, a list that includes Ellen DeGeneres, Stephen Fry and Elton John among others. There was widespread media interest in him after his mother put out a matrimonial ad looking for a boy for him. In I’m Coming Out, Iyer documents the lives of Indians who’ve ‘come out’ to the world, starting from Pallav Patankar, the Humsafar Trust’s director of programmes. We spoke to Iyer about his own coming out, and what it means to be gay in India:
What was your story? How did you come out?
I came out when I was 24 or 25. My coming out was a little complicated. Like around 50 per cent of children in India, I was sexually abused as a child. I grew up as a misandrist. It was most conflicting, as I didn’t like men, yet I would dream of making out with them. I would also get “night falls”, basically orgasms while I was sleeping, and there were always men in my dreams. When I watched Tarzan, I looked at Hemant Birje’s (Tarzan) thighs rather than Kimi Katkar’s (Jane) breasts. I knew I was different; I didn’t know it was called gay.
As I grew up, I had an uncontrollable urge to be with men. I had some sexual encounters, but always thought that it was the abuse that made me gay. Only when I met several men who had been abused in childhood and were heterosexual did I realise that sexual abuse and sexual orientation were not related. Also, some logical reasoning: if all boys who were abused became gay, more than 50 per cent of Indian men would be gay.
With every passing day, I became more sure about my sexuality. I loved women though, and I wanted to have a family. I wanted to be sure that I could have sex with a woman, so I visited a commercial sex worker in Singapore. It was a one-night stand, but it didn’t ‘stand’. That’s when I realised I should be standing up for what I need to stand up for. I came back to India and told Mom. She resisted, but I insisted, and she gave in with a word that I will not come out to anybody. As you can see, I am not good at keeping some promises.
What was the reaction to the matrimonial ad your mother put out?
We got responses from all over the world. But because it was the first of its kind, it became too sensational for it to yield any possible positive outcome. Also, people started reading too much into every word in the advertisement and derived all sorts of interpretations and fuelled intellectual discussions. Presently, my relationship status is ‘single’.
What does the anti-surrogacy bill mean for the Indian LGBTQ world?
I believe the focus of the discussion should have been on the merits or the demerits of the bill for the surrogate mother. As a feminist, I very strongly believe in the rights of surrogate mothers, and support any conversation that speaks about their welfare. In my personal opinion though, one should not be policing and deciding about a disempowered gender, caste, or creed based on their bodies. To be a surrogate mother should be their prerogative and no one else should have any right to say anything about it. Banning surrogacy would only lead to a black market. We definitely need more regulation and need to find mechanisms that empower women so that their decisions are theirs only, and not their husbands’ or their in-laws’.
But the government, through the external affairs minister, has made it clear they are against homosexuals and single persons using the method of surrogacy. It is highly demotivating to realize that a minister of a country that prides itself on its principles of equality and takes a stand against discrimination in its Constitution has explicitly taken a stand that paves the way for discrimination and ostracizing of a long-suppressed community.
Any Indian gay literature that should be read by everyone?
I am quite a lousy reader and don’t read too many books, but I am going to base my recommendations on my friends’ recommendations:
- Out! Stories from the New Queer India
- Same Sex Love In India by Saleem Kidwai and Ruth Vanita (This one is a classic!)
Coming out is a difficult process. Tell us about the support groups for Indians who want to come out?
Coming Out is often seen as an ‘event’. It is not. You are correctly when you call it a ‘process’; it’s a deeply personal process. Coming out to yourself and to be at absolute peace with that is more important than coming out to anybody else. Here are some guides:
For a person who is coming out, they may think they are the only queer individual. But that’s not so. Humsafar is one of the most active and proactive organisations in Mumbai. You could also write to firstname.lastname@example.org, a popular portal for everything LGBTIQ. Gaysi organises some fabulous events in Bombay as well. Keep an eye on their Facebook page. You could also write to me at email@example.com I am not a professional counsellor, but I am a listener. If you would rather speak to a mother, please feel free to write to my Mom at firstname.lastname@example.org; she is very active on Facebook as well. Look for her as Padma Iyer.