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!
You can read the first part of the interview here : Part 1 ” A Hindu-Lesbian Wedding”
How is married life?
Mala : It is ordinary. I cook, Vega does dishes. I vacuum, Vega does the laundry. We share the other chores. We’re generally happier having people over for dinner than going out. I am bit of a workaholic, and Vega is not. I am an early bird, and Vega’s a night owl. We go on dates as often as we can. In some ways, we’re unhealthily joined at the hip. We’re still learning to be differentiated, to be exploratory, and to discover new things about each other. As in many long-term relationships, sex ebbs and flows. When one of us goes away on a trip, it’s hard to be away from each other. We talk a lot. One of our favorite times of day is our commute (I used to drive Vega to work occasionally just to have that time together; now Vega walks me to the Metro station). In our ideal world, we’d work together as well. We’re still hoping to make that happen one day.
Vega : We’re also involved in our respective families’ lives. We moved to the Washington DC area from Seattle in 2009 in order to be closer to our parents and spend some time with them while everyone was healthy and active, and so that we could already be settled here if/when something happens. Our relationships with our parents has intensified and deepened since we moved in miraculous ways. Over the course of the past year, as we take an active part in our parents’ lives and communities, help around the house, show our love and support on a daily, weekly, monthly basis, our “non-accepting” parents have increased their support of us. I guess it’s hard to hold a grudge against someone who’s being nice to you!
Most South Asian kids grow up in conservative families, with typical gender roles. At times same-sex South Asian couples struggle to come to terms with the new and unfamiliar structure. How was it for you?
Mala & Vega : We both grew up in what we would consider “typical” South Indian, Tamilian families in the U.S. We both had incredibly painful childhoods. Both of us grew up wondering what was wrong with us and whether we even deserved (or wanted) to be alive. In that sense, coming out was liberating and life-affirming.
Mala: I was the third of three girls. My parents had kept hoping for a boy, my tomboyishness went a little unnoticed. Or at the very least, I was given a lot more leeway, since I was the youngest child and the only child born in America.
Vega: I always knew I didn’t want and didn’t belong in the kind of role I was raised for (wearing “feminine” clothes, either Tamilian or Western, wearing makeup, having long hair, cooking and hanging out in the kitchen with other women, aspiring for a single-family home in the suburbs with one car per adult, an affluent career in the sciences, and a husband). But I had no other models at all, not that were “like me,” anyway: second-gen Tamilian non-traditional, progressive, politically and civically conscious woman. I came out to myself in 1983 when I was 18, during my first year in college, and I was always very involved in gay activism. But it wasn’t until I met Mala in 1996 that I came to understand that I could actually come out to my family and stay alive. In our relationship, I wouldn’t say I ever “struggle” with the structure of our relationship. Everything flows quite naturally in terms of our roles and responsibilities.
Mala: One of the earliest exercises Vega and I engaged in, was the butch-femme exercise. But instead of the two being on opposite sides of the same continuum, we saw them as two separate continuums. Vega was a 5 on the butch scale, 5 on the femme scale – a more gender-neutral position. I was a 6 or 7 on each. I liked exhibiting each of those sides of my personality. The way Vega and I engaged in this exercise, I think, speaks to how we viewed gender. I think in terms of gender roles and our roles and responsibilities, neither one of us assumed the other was responsible for one thing or another just because of who we were. But more, we looked for who enjoyed an activity the most, who could tolerate an activity the most. So for example, I don’t like doing dishes or laundry, and so my tolerance level is really high if things start getting dirty. Vega prefers things to be clean, and doing dishes is a meditative activity for her, while it’s a backache for me. I enjoy cooking, but Vega would prefer not to have to.
Relationships are lot of work, aren’t they?
Vega : Yes, they sure are. We have had our ups and downs over the past 13 years, including one point when it wasn’t clear to Mala that we were going to last (because I was behaving pretty poorly and not taking responsibility for it) and another point, when Mala was experiencing an especially severe period of depression, that it took me every bit of strength I had plus my innate optimism to know it would all be OK in the end.
In the end, what keeps our relationship strong is our belief that:
_ Relationships require a lot of attention and care,
_ Each of us is on an individual life journey, and
_ We must take time to reorient our relationship to the changing nature of our individual selves, and recognize it is in those very moments that each of us grows.
Mala : It probably helps that we’re both self-help fiends and love, love, LOVE reading relationship books and taking every opportunity we can get to learn and discuss, with each other as well as with friends and in workshops. Very early on in our relationship, we participated in a trial run of the Gottman Institute’s marriage workshop, aimed at gay and lesbian couples. The 4 sessions resulted in our first fight with each other, a fight that continued in some form or another for the next 5 years. We also went to couples therapy – trying two or three different therapists, before we landed on a fantastic therapist who was able to equip us with the right set of tools to open up our respective perspectives of reality, so that we could work through our communication issues.
Vega : In some ways we take ‘working at our relationship’ to an extreme. We do an annual personal strategic planning retreat, which involves setting goals for us as a couple and for each of us as individuals – looking 30 years ahead and working backward with more detail for the one year plan. We rely on it to remind us of our values and stay true to our commitments in our day-to-day lives.
From your experience, do you have any tips for other Gay couples?
Vega: So many! Be as open and honest as you can possibly be (without messing with your safety or that of your loved ones). When we’re out about our relationships in all their variety and complications, the haters will have a harder and harder, and eventually impossible, time spreading lies or stereotypes about us, and it means they don’t have shame or stigma to use as weapons against us. And others will know they’re not alone. AND we’ll know each other well enough to really support each other appropriately when things are tough, which they will.
Mala: My advice to LGBTQ couples:
As an individual: Enjoy the process of learning about yourself, because it is in relationships that we learn the most about ourselves. Through relationships, we are each challenged to examine the parts of ourselves that remain hidden, understated, subconscious, unconscious. As I uncover more about myself, I find there are parts of myself that I don’t like or that I really like, that I am extremely attached to or that have come about simply through unconscious habit. And sometimes it’s difficult to see the ways that I need to change, not just how I want to change the world that I live in. Be gentle with yourself, but do take the challenge of going into those uncomfortable spaces, of understanding the values and value conflicts that underlie your attitudes and behaviors. Once you’ve unpacked your sh*t, then be true to yourself. Be intentional in being the kind of person you want to be.
As individuals in a relationship: Relationships can often overwhelm and subsume individuals, but remember each of you is on a journey and each of you is responsible for how you travel that journey. Do your best to know what you need. Be aware of your relative power and privilege in each interaction, and recognize when you have more privilege, that the onus is on you to let some of that control go and focus on making things more accessible for others.
Share your story and your dreams – it’s at the heart of understanding each other. If you tend to mute yourself in deference to the needs of others, then stop, and sit with the discomfort of putting your needs first. If you tend to get your way most of the time, then stop, and sit with the discomfort of letting life unfold as it will.
In my own life, I’ve had a difficult time expressing my own needs, so I often left decisions to Vega. She worked with me to figure out a way for me to fully communicate what I needed. Luckily, she was cool with adopting this 1-10 scale – 10 being what I really wanted, 6-9 indicating various levels of being happy with a choice, 5 being neutral, and 1 being what I really, really didn’t want. So even questions like, ‘what do you want for dinner’ were answered with a more complex response: “I’m at a 7 for going out for dinner, 8 for home cooked Italian food, and a 9 for home cooked South Indian. My 7 for going out for dinner would go up to a 9 if you, Vega, are at a 10 on that.” This scale thing doesn’t work for everyone. But the point of the story is that we have to learn how to communicate our needs with each other.
As a relationship: The relationship itself is its own entity, and it needs to be nurtured. And while it’s important not to let the relationship overshadow individuals, it’s also important not to let individuals overshadow the relationship. That’s assuming there’s no abuse in the relationship or an individual isn’t at the stage of needing to leave the relationship. But in general, I think there’s some sort of relative balance (in any given moment and over time) that needs to be achieved.
The relationships in relation to families, communities, institutions, and societies: I remember early on in our relationship, Vega shared with me some of the ideas about relationships that came out of the polyamory community listservs. It reminds me of the multiple levels of relationships that need to be attended to when we are in relations with others (whatever that looks like – sexual, romantic, or friendship).
So, let’s say, Vega and I are in a room together, and another person (person 3) enters the room. The number of relationships that need to be managed increases. There are the relationships each of us has with ourselves (Mala to Mala, Vega to Vega, Person 3 to Person 3), and then there’s the relationship we have to each other (Mala and Vega, Vega and Person 3, and Person 3 and Mala), and then there’s the relationship between the three of us. And while we are all in relationship, we have to honor and be present in all of those relationships. It’s not to say that these relationships can’t have a different balance though. As soon as Vega and I agree to have a primary relationship, that means for us that we are promising to each other that we will prioritize the ‘Mala and Vega’ relationship if there is ever undesired tension or conflict caused by any of the other ‘individual-to-other’ relationships.
Learning: There’s a whole bunch of things I’d love to say about learning, too, but not enough room. I find the more I know about how someone else learns, the more patience I have in interacting, the fewer assumptions I have about another person’s motives, and the more willingness I have in figuring out how to communicate and be in relationship.
Things you like most about your partner:
Vega: Where do I start…she’s the all-around smartest, most well-rounded, most interesting, most mindful person I’ve ever met. Our conversations and the ways we learn and grow together. Her creativity and soulfulness. Great eyes, great smile, great hair. She’s also a great cook, and luckily she’s a Tamilian vegetarian like me, so her cuisine hits my “comfort-food” sweet spot. I could go on.
Things you like least about your partner:
Vega: I’m so going to get in trouble. I laugh a lot, and I crack jokes a lot, and I can be sarcastic and appreciate sarcasm in others. I wish Mala appreciated that sarcasm is not inherently cruel, so that we could laugh together more. That’s it, though. She’s pretty much perfect otherwise. (/sarcasm)
To be continued.
In the final part of our interview, to be published on the 16th Feb, Mala & Vega talk about their fight against Washington State’s 1998 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Stay tuned!