Interviewee : Jerry Johnson
Q. What do you identify?
The short answer: My queer identity is gay.
The long answer: I eschew the notion of identity-definitions of my personhood. Personal identities are functional and effective means to navigate life, but one mustn’t forget that one can carry several identities at the same time; identities can change over time; identities are often accidental and unchosen, such as being an Indian male, for example. So, in answer to your question, my queer identity is gay.
Q. When did you first start to define your identity as such?
The formation of my identity came about much later in life than my lived-experience of being gay. I would say I articulated my gay identity around the age of 15.
I have. Both at home and at school. At home, often with family or relatives, it was fairly common back in the day when much awareness and sensitivity around LGBT issues were absent in society. Mostly these incidences involved snide or insolent remarks about being “pansy,” “using your hands too much while talking,” etc.
I used to deal with it with agreement and then suppression of my behavior, because, at the time, even I felt they were right. Why did I behave that way? I must align with the “proper” mode of masculine behavior, I felt.
Now, I would look back at those episodes with amusement. And empathy.
Q. When did you first out yourself?
I first outed myself when I was around 19 or 20 years old. I came out with my ex-boyfriend at the time. We used to live together in the United States and he would often join my family for holidays around Christmas and New Year’s.
Q. Who did you come out to & why did you come out to that person?
I came out first to my mom. A male cousin of mine had told her that my “friendship” with my ex-boyfriend looked suspicious. So, my mom told me to stay away from my ex-boyfriend, lest, she feared, that I would become gay. It was then that I had to come out to her and tell her the truth about me and about us.
Q. How did that person react?
She was visibly upset (almost furious), shocked, and annoyed. But she didn’t pursue the conversation at the time. These are topics that are incredibly awkward and taboo for a South Indian conservative Catholic woman like my mom to discuss. So she said nothing.
Q. Did your coming out change anything about your relationship with them?
I think it did. It has distanced me from my parents to a significant degree. I believe they still judge my “lifestyle” (although it’s not a lifestyle, it’s an unchosen aspect of my self-identity) as sinful and unfortunate. Partly because of this, I have been living on my own separately for almost 10 years now even though my family lives in the same city and own two houses!
Q. Have you ever been outed without your consent? If yes, how did you deal with it?
I think so, although I can’t remember a specific incident. But I have always dealt with the information of me being gay with complete nonchalance and agreement. In fact, I often go a step further and express shock and disdain if the other person even remotely expresses discomfort with my sexuality. I remind them, it’s 2017! Keep up with the times!
Q. Do you think being gaysi makes it harder to come out & that if you weren’t part of such a traditional & conservative culture you would have an easier time with your sexuality/identity?
Perhaps, yes. Perhaps being in traditional and conservative societies does make it more challenging and difficult to resist the pressure of the tide. But, having said that, there are plenty of cases of bullying, repression, suicides, and gay-conversion therapies in the West as well. So, in some ways, queer individuals around the world find themselves in varying situations of repression and struggle. A large part of this can be systemic and societal, but, I think individuals ultimately need to find their source of strength within themselves only. I know of heroic stories of queer individuals from downright dangerous societies like Uganda, Egypt, Iran, and Iraq, where they are out, where they run support groups, and where they are fighting homophobia literally with risks to their lives. A case closer to home is in Bangladesh, where the editor of a gay magazine and his friends were hacked to death. But they lived out and brave lives in their societies. They found the strength of character and integrity within themselves.
In contrast, I know of many shameful cases of gay men in India getting married to women and living double lives. They use the excuse of their “sick and dying mother” to justify the exploitation of their wives.
Q. Would you recommend that people stay in the closet or come out?
Coming out is a modern, specifically Western, form of social validation of your identity. It’s as if, if you’re not out, you’re not really being your true and authentic self. I, therefore, find little use for this idea of “coming out.” It is also unwise to publicise your queer identity in situations or environments where it may directly harm your self, limb, property, or loved one.
I would replace this notion with the recommendation that people live lives of integrity. In simple terms, it means, you walk the talk. If you believe you’re queer, then accept it and live accordingly. The rest is up to you to decide whom to tell how much about your life.
Q. Have you come out to any family member?
Yes, all my family members know.
Q. One Indian Celebrity you would love to see coming out as gaysi?
None, really. It wouldn’t matter to me or impact me in any way.
Q. Your favourite queer-themed movie?
A Home at the End of the World (based on a book by the same name).
Q. Your favourite queer-themed book?
“Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin