Editor’s Note: Kashish Chopra is an amalgamation of many achievements: Miss Congeniality (at the Miss India USA pageant-2003), musically talented, MBA holder, law student and so much more. We’re pleased to feature her on GaysiFamily as a two-part interview where she speaks of her remarkable journey of coming out, her love for Priyanka Chopra and how she would love to be a listener while admitting she’s a tad too chatty. All this and more, as she speaks to Dhamini Ratnam.
Q. Did you face homophobia as a pageant contestant? The reason I ask is because, most people assume that beauty contests function on a very hetero-normative notion of femininity. You kind of shake that picture up a bit. What were others’ reactions – the contestants, the judges etc?
I was worried about facing homophobia when I first entered the pageant at a young age. The typical hetero-normative ideas of what is “feminine” and what is both feminine and Indian conjure many preconceived notions in society. I remember the first day of the Miss India USA pageant and not knowing if I should hide the fact I was gay. For so many people, there is a concern about whether they should hide their sexual identity or live openly. I was incredibly lucky with the pageant environment I found myself in.
At the end of our first day, when all the contestants met one another and we prepared for a weekend of events, I was standing in a hallway with a few other women talking about marginalized parts of the South Asian community. The film Bend It Like Beckham came up. One of the girls brought up the scene where a male character confides that he is gay. She then commented that she didn’t know any gay South Asians. I took that as an opportunity to say she knew one now! Immediately, she gave me a hug- not because I had become a token gay novelty, but because she wanted me to have a sense of genuine security and support. A former Miss India in attendance asked if the MC was going to mention my being gay on stage. I didn’t quite know how to respond. Although she was genuinely excited and supportive of me, I didn’t see how it was relevant. (And no, they didn’t announce it nor would I have wanted them to)
I don’t walk around with a name tag saying “Hello! I’m gay!” Sometimes people aren’t sure what to do when they find out, especially in such unexpected situations.
Although I had a predominantly progressive experience, it wasn’t all positive. Not everyone was OK with my identity as an openly gay contestant or as a Miss Congeniality, but I can understand that some people aren’t able to react with automatic acceptance. I immediately felt cultural friction and backlash from the Indian community. However, I believe that there is a difference between lack of tolerance and hatred. I never felt like an outsider or experienced hatred while part of the pageant. But I certainly felt people’s hatred and disapproval in life in ways I would never wish upon anyone. I think many of us are familiar with social disapproval and difficulty.
In the early 2000’s that was an amazing experience for me to go through. All the trials and tribulations made me a stronger Indian woman. Despite all the clichés people may associate with pageants and the idea of feminine Desi women, through Miss India I was able to stand proudly as a dignified, educated, Indian woman who understands how my heritage and culture empowers my identity. As time goes on, there is an increasing visibility for feminine lesbians. Sometimes people are less likely to assume we are gay because of stereotypes associated with gay women.
There are so many dimensions to the gay community, and particularly to the gay Indian community. It is easy to use stereotypes, but at the end of the day what creates femininity, Indian identity, gay identity, etc., is more multidimensional and complex than one single box can ever fit.
Sometimes we limit ourselves to the confines of familiarity in culture. We all do it. It is human nature. Courage and strength allow us to break through the comfort of what is familiar, and create new definitions for the world in which we live.
Q. You came out of the closet when you were a teenager. Describe what it felt like for you back then. Who did you come out to?
I was incredibly young and scared. Growing up, I always knew that I was gay. There is a point in adolescence when everyone around you is going through a similar experience of understanding their sexuality and emotions. It is very isolating when you are the only person NOT sharing the same experience with your peers. I felt emotionally claustrophobic and trapped when I was younger, both before and after I came out. How does one accept that they are supposedly going against the ENTIRE world they know around them? Against family, cultural acceptance, etc.? Growing up, I never saw openly gay Indians in the media. Growing up in the USA, my image of the gay community was predominately white and still taboo. It certainly was not Desi, Hindu, Muslim, or anything culturally familiar. I felt like I was navigating a river choked with ice and fog.
I came out to my older sister, who is also my best friend. She completely understood and supported me. There is never a day that I take for granted how important her support has been in life, especially when I was being rejected by other family members and my peers. As I got older, I was fortunate to find balance and acceptance.
Q. The act of coming out is never a singular one, but more of a repetitive process. Do you agree? Who was the toughest person to come out to (or the toughest circumstances under which you came out)?
Many of my friends and I joke about coming out in a South Asian family – You come out of the closet, your family says “OK Beta,” and then the ENTIRE family goes back in the closet with you! We are great at ignoring things that we don’t want to acknowledge.
We all have unique experiences coming out as LGBT South Asians. We all have different ways that we relate to our friends and families, and we all have different experiences in life. It is hard to say that coming out is ever the same for any two people, but I do believe that coming out has two stages. First, a person comes out to themselves and feels comfortable with who they are. Second, a person comes out to others and builds a supportive positive life where they are not ashamed or threatened to find happiness. Coming out is more than a single conversation, but rather the process of a person making the life they deserve to have.
I remember having to sit down and trying to talk with my parents. My parents have always known how important family is to me and also that I plan to get married and raise a family of my own. The idea that I didn’t want to marry a man was the hardest conversation I have ever had in my life.
A lot of the first people, that I came out to, told me that I should be ashamed, was going to hell and that they wanted nothing to do with me. It was hard enough to be honest and open about my sexuality, but was harder being shunned by the people around you. In the end, I know that there are key supportive people in my life who have given me the strength to create a positive environment. All the horrible moments of feeling isolated and rejected are moments that stay with a person through life, but those moments also remind us how fortunate we are to be able to support other gay South Asians and their experiences.
To be continued…
Kashish Chopra can be reached at : ChopraPhilly@gmail.com