Mala Nagarajan and Vega Subramaniam are often referred to as the “Indian-American Lesbian couple that sued Washington State.” The couple got married in the city-owned Seattle Aquarium in 2002, in what is popularly known as the first Hindu-Lesbian wedding in North America. Together for 13 years now, Mala and Vega are huge icons for the Desi LGBT community in the U.S.
We are honored and very excited to bring you an exclusive interview with this wonderful couple who are great role-models for our community. We are so grateful to Dr.L.Ramakrishnan from Chennai, who made this interview possible. Thanks so much, Ramki!
Where and how did you two meet?
Vega : Bellingham, Washington, in October 1996. Mala had moved to Bellingham from Seattle in early 1996, and wanting to connect with other people of color in that very white town, she posted to SAWNET (South Asian Women’s Network) to find out if there were any other SAWNETtors living in Bellingham. I responded. Mala thought I was going to be one of those “wives of a university engineering professor,” and after our first phone conversation, where we came out to each other (with much trepidation!), we met in person at Colophon Café.
Was it love at first sight?
Mala : Ha ha! Far from it. I was in a monogamous, long-term relationship – so wasn’t looking. Besides, I thought Vega was “too opinionated,” which was a total turn-off for me.
Vega: Yes! I knew Mala was in a relationship, and quite honestly attraction never even crossed my mind at the point. As we discovered in our friendship, neither one of us was the “fall-in-love-at-first-sight” kind of person, but we’re more the kind who ‘fall-in-love-with-the-person’ along the way.
Who was the first to ask for a date? How did it happen? Tell us!
Mala : Hm. Complicated. We’d been friends for almost two years before the notion of “date” even came up. Vega almost articulated our attraction to each other in an email in the spring of 1998, and mere minutes after sending the note, I showed up at her doorstep and we had a brief conversation on Vega’s balcony about having “a summer fling”
Vega : That is because Mala was in relationship-transition – considering various possibilities from just dating, to having her parents arrange a marriage, to not dating; She was also moving back to Seattle and I was not interested in a long distance relationship .
Mala : We ended up not actually making any moves toward said fling for a couple months after that conversation, at which point it went from “attraction” to “head-over-heels-in-love” in about a week.
Vega : Ha! Yes. I was so smitten and there was no going back, long-distance relationship or not! We did LDR for a while and moved in together in early 2000.
How did you come out to your parents about your relationship? What was their reaction?
Vega: Gee, I cannot remember! I had just come out to my parents as a lesbian the year before, and that was a pretty difficult conversation and time. I do remember that as a result, I didn’t want to tell them about Mala until our relationship was on pretty solid ground. I think it was about a year after we got together, I told my parents about us. My mom was quite concerned and unsupportive and wondered if Mala had negatively influenced/brainwashed me. My dad was supportive, and the concerns he had were the same as those he’d have in any case: is she good for me, will we provide for each other, is it a good match in terms of personalities and interests, that sort of thing.
Mala: I had come out to my parents as a lesbian in spring of 1993, when my ex-partner and I went to Washington DC to attend the March on Washington. But it was a difficult experience. My mom did everything she could to be accepting; my dad had difficultly even speaking to my partner. When my parents asked me in if Vega and I were together, I lied. Then I added to my dad, “Even if we were, I wouldn’t tell you because I don’t want you to start treating her differently. As long as she is my friend, you won’t completely dismiss her.” It was soon after that that I stopped talking with my father because of the way he treated my sister’s husband, with the same dismissal he showed my ex-partner. I must have told my parents sometime after my dad and I started talking again , when our family had a family retreat with all the spouses present.
Your wedding is popularly known as the first Hindu-lesbian wedding. You made history! Please tell us about your wedding, we want to know everything (Who proposed? When and where was the wedding? How many people came? How did friends, relatives react.. etc..)
Vega : Just for the record: I’m not sure we were the first Hindu lesbian wedding. I recall reading about one in India before ours. Ours was probably the first one in North America, though?
Wow, this is going to be a LONG answer, and we could go on about this forever. We had our wedding on June 30, 2002. Mala proposed on October 12, 1999 (three years to the day from when we first met), in our apartment in Olympia, WA, with no fanfare. She was probably sick of me bringing it up all the time!
Mala : Two years after the proposal, We started really planning for the wedding. You couldn’t believe how much fun we had in planning it, everything from the venue to our outfits to the vows to the guest list. It was the best time ever. It helps that we didn’t have family “interference,” so it was completely ours. I knew all along that I wanted a culturally-appropriate Hindu ceremony, despite the fact that I am agnostic and Vega’s atheist, as an act of defiance/reclaiming –our heritage, our culture, our right. Vega just wanted a big party with all her loved ones. As it turned out, we both got our wish.
Vega : We held the wedding at the Seattle Aquarium. We knew we wanted to be on the water, and since the aquarium was a city-owned venue, it was the only place on the water that we could afford – not to mention how fun it would be. We had 155 guests. Mala’s sister Vijaya officiated. Mala’s mother performed an Aarati and my father read a poem he’d written for the occasion. At the last minute (in another long story), we managed to engage the services of a local pundit to perform the ceremony itself. We met with him and his wife a couple weeks prior to the wedding, and in preparation for our meeting he’d looked up wedding-related Sanskrit mantras and assured us there were many that referred to the union of “two souls” without identifying gender. We discussed the various rites we wanted included in the wedding, all gender-neutral, feminist, and non-casteist. During the wedding itself, we found that a number of changes had been made, perhaps by the pundit or one of our family members, and that the pundit had inserted other rites that he decided no proper wedding could be without. While our first instinct could have been to be irritated, we felt instead honored that everyone felt invested enough in it to make additions they thought were necessary. The wedding was followed by a reception in the “dome room” of the aquarium (circular space with the tank encircling the floor), where we danced with the fish.
Mala : The wedding was very much a community event. All of our close friends and participating family members helped out in every way imaginable, big and small: designing and making our invitations, designing and printing our programs, selecting our music, making our garlands, making our wedding cakes, photography and videography, poetry, decorations, singing – and on the day of the wedding, taking care of every minute of the day, from morning until the wedding itself and through the reception, and finally packing up our various cars and delivering all of our stuff to our home – at 2:30 a.m. in the pouring rain. One friend managed to get into our bedroom and light candles and spread rose petals on our bed. We also had numerous performances.
The wedding could not have happened without the love and caring of so many friends and community members. Here is the program list that outlines the various performances and roles.
Vega : Everybody we told was happy for us and so supportive except one of each set of parents. At first, we were saddened by the absence of one of our parents from the wedding, but as the day approached, we realized that if they could not be happy for us and support our marriage, then it was better for them not to be there. It was a day to fully celebrate our relationship. (It was only in 2010 that each of us has felt the one previously non-accepting parent-in-law come around and show familial gestures that convey acceptance and love.)
Mala & Vega : We didn’t anticipate the extent to which the ceremony itself would transform our relationship. Prior to the ceremony, we thought our relationship could not get any stronger. But something about the nature of pronouncing one’s commitment to each other in front of a friends, family, and community, with a representative of a religious community performing the marriage ceremony – well, we felt a rise to an unexpected level the trust, commitment, fortitude, strength, and connection between us. Something we would have never imagined.
[ Editor’s note : Don’t miss the program list of Mala & Vega’s Wedding ]
Would you like to have kids?
Mala & Vega : We were planning to adopt children in the beginning, but over the course of time decided against it. We’d still consider fostering children once our lives here on the East Coast are a bit more settled. That said, we’re neither of us getting any younger. Until then, however, we offer ourselves up to friends for babysitting gigs!
To be continued.
In the next part of the interview, to be published tomorrow 15th Feb, Mala and Vega talk about their life after marriage, the secret behind the success of their relationship and more. We also asked them about their case against Washington state and their fight for marriage equality. Their story is very inspiring and one that you don’t want to miss! Stay tuned.