As was mentioned in the Pride schedule, last Monday was the first meeting of family and friends of LGBT people in Bangalore. It was moderated by Vinay and organised by Docsid, and we are all excited at the response at the meeting. The discussion was honest and far-ranging, and the end, the participants decided to continue these meetings and also act as a support group for other parents. Vinay and Docsid did a marvellous job in pulling this off! Below is the report – it is rather long, but worth reading in full.
November Pride Event Report
Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People
Date: 15 November 2010
Venue: SWABHAVA, Sampangiramnagar
Timing: 6.00 pm to 8.00 pm
Members present: 18 participants–– including 8 LGB people, 5 mothers, 1 father,
2 brothers, 1 sister and 1 friend.
Minutes: Siddarth S, GOOD AS YOU
Facilitating: Vinay C, SWABHAVA
Languages: English and Kannada
Final Report: Siddharth N, GOOD AS YOU and Vinay C, SWABHAVA
The first formal PFLGBT––Parents, Family and Friends of LGBT––event was held on 15 November 2010. This was a closed event, in order to ensure the privacy of the participants, and provide a safe space.
The key motivation for this event was for LGBT families and friends to meet and share their experiences. In Bangalore, as in other metros, many spaces exist for LGBT persons to access resources and information. However such spaces do not exist for parents of LGBT persons.
A second, but related, goal was to provide such a resource for parents who wanted to express and share their feelings and concerns with other parents who were either going through similar experiences (for instance, the emotional impact when their son or daughter comes out to them) or had already come to terms with their son/daughter’s sexuality. We also hoped that this event would provide a springboard for many more such meetings (say, once in 3 months).
This is a brief report on the meeting. The comments by the parents, relatives or friends are only paraphrased here.
The meeting began with the screening of a short film Summer in my Veins. Directed by Nishit Saran, the documentary is an excerpt of the life of the then 22-year-old gay director. The main theme of the film––shot around the director’s mother visiting him during his graduation in the US––was his attempt to come out to her before she returned to India. Allowing the viewer a voyeuristic view into his mother’s very real reactions while he was safely behind the camera, the film hits a raw nerve for many parents who see this as being thrown into the spotlight by their LGBT children and being expected to have a proper adult reaction without being shocked. The expectation of the meeting was to enable the participants to enter into a discussion about this and the movie’s themes of coming out, pressures of marriage and expected heterosexuality, fears of rejection and illnesses, and other concerns. At the end of the screening of the 20-minute film, the facilitator spoke of the Nishit Saran foundation that had been set up by the director’s mother in his memory after his death a few years ago. Mrs Saran has been part of many projects through this foundation, one of which was talking to both LGBT people and their parents.
Extended family and Society: Can’t talk to anyone
While there were no reactions directly to the film, the meeting was thrown open by the comments of a mother who––while she was happy to attend the meeting and discuss these concerns with others, and had accepted her son as a gay man––was distressed about how to explain her son’s single status to her extended family.
“It’s okay for us, but it’s very difficult to talk to our other family members. We are a huge family. It’s not possible to make everyone understand. It’s very hurtful when people keep asking you why your son’s not getting married.” (mother of gay man)
Other parents responded very quickly to this assertion.
“There’s no need to listen to all these relatives. You should ignore what other people say. You’ll never be happy if you keep trying to meet other people’s expectations. Ultimately your child should be happy.” (mother of lesbian)
Sometimes physical distance from your relatives was a positive factor.
“Our relatives don’t live here, they’re all back home in another city, so I don’t have to deal with them or their pressures. It’s easy that way.” (mother of lesbian)
Another parent reported that the change in the law was an important factor to keep in mind.
“Now that the law has changed people will also change their attitudes. But you have to give them time. Eventually, they’ll change.” (mother of gay man)
However, the discussion did not end there. Emotional responses to their children coming out gave the group a hint about how much the mothers in the group had gone through.
“Even if the law changes, people and society are not going to change easily. Ours is a large traditional family of more than 75 members. My son is very successful and has made us very proud over the years with what he has achieved. But when he told us about this I was very hurt. For a whole month I would just sit around and cry. I couldn’t eat properly or talk to anyone.” (mother of gay man)
Another mother had a question to the moderator about the need to talk to extended family.
“I don’t discuss this with my family. Nobody asks me why he isn’t getting married, so I just assume that they know. It’s still very difficult to talk about this to anyone. Tell me this, should I talk about this to my relatives? Or should I keep quiet about this? I can’t tell my mother, she’s too old. But what about the others? Should I talk about it?” (mother of gay man)
The discussion that followed then covered why talking about your child being gay or lesbian might actually help since it would normalize the language around homosexuality and end the concern for marriage amongst extended family members. A sibling said that he was more open about his brother when asked.
“When my young cousins ask me why my brother’s not getting married, I’m pretty open. I tell them it’s because he’s gay.” (brother of gay man)
The discussion also pointed out the problem with viewing disclosure of the child’s gay identity as an issue.
“You will only feel that it is difficult to talk about being gay if you think that being gay is a problem. If you realize that there is nothing wrong with being gay, then you wouldn’t have a problem talking about it to other people, whoever they may be.” (brother of gay man)
Parents generally seemed to agree that the older members of their family were more difficult to approach. “I think the younger generation in most families are more open to these issues than the older generation.” (sister of gay man)
The crisis of marriage visits almost all LGBT people at some time or another during their lives. Most parents find out about their children’s sexuality when they decide to start searching for the bride/bridegroom. One concern that a mother had was about honesty in these situations.
“The one thing I was really hurt by was that he kept going with us to these different families to see the girls there and then would reject them. In our family the boy’s side goes to the girls’ homes, so we must have visited more than 10 families. He would keep saying no for some reason or another. Now when everyone sees that we’ve visited so many girls, it becomes very difficult to reply to their questions about why he’s not married. I wish he had not done that. It’s not fair to us or the girls we visited.” (mother of gay son)
The discussion that followed raised the concern that postponing such decisions as marriage does not help the family. Postponing a problem actually increases the intensity with which the crisis is felt later on. But others in the group realized the situation could not be said to be only the fault of the gay child. Preparedness was very important for coming out.
“This shows that your son was not ready to tell you about being gay. That’s why he was going with you to visit all these girls. Once they’re ready they will tell us.” (mother of gay man)
One gay man recounted his own experience of putting off marriage pressures.
“I thought the best way to deal with the marriage pressure was to set the standard––for the girl that my mother was searching for––very high. I said that the girl had to be a dancer, a singer, educated, and if she could play the veena, nothing like it. I thought that would be really difficult for them to search for. So for every girl whose photo they showed me, I would find something wrong. But my coming out only happened because they did manage to find the one girl who had all these qualities! I didn’t know what to do, so I told my brother and he helped me come out. But my mother has been very supportive since then.” (gay man)
Sometimes LGBT people discuss options of leaving their country in order to reduce the impact of the marriage pressures.
“My brother even suggested, and I agreed, that I should maybe migrate to Canada to stay away from these marriage alliances coming my way and instead of disappointing my parents I should just leave. But when I came out to them finally, the first thing my father asked was if I was leaving the country because of this. When I told him yes, both he and my mother said that I didn’t have to leave because they loved me and supported me. I’m really lucky” (gay man)
Another angle in the discussion on marriage pressures came from the assumption that marriages are difficult issue to broach only if you’re homosexual and that it’s less stressful for heterosexual people.
“I think everyone goes through those kind of family pressures. I’ve gone through a lot of trouble in my in-law’s family because my husband is younger than I am and he’s fair and gorgeous and I am dark and shoot my mouth off at the slightest chance. Also I have two daughters, which is another issue I don’t want to get into now. But generally marriage is not an easy affair even if you’re heterosexual. Even today people belonging to different religions and different caste backgrounds have to face immense obstacles if they want to get married.” (friend of lesbian woman)
Parents agreed that Indian society had changed a lot on the marriage front over the last several years. Divorces had increased and many gay men and lesbians were getting out of their marriages when they could. Some participants felt that with the change in the law it was now easier to be homosexual and not get married.
Additionally, counsellors were receiving calls both from LGBT people who wanted to get out of marriages and from women and men who were married to LGBT people. The moderator mentioned a case where a woman who had called the help line asked why, if her husband knew he was gay, did he get married to her? Such questions and the increasing number of divorce proceedings in relationships ranging from 10-month old marriages to 20-year old marriages breaking down was implying that marriage really didn’t enable LGBT people to “turn” heterosexual and could not be forced onto anyone.
One mother had a very simple question in the context of larger social attitudes.
“It’s also difficult to talk about this being normal because even doctors don’t have good things to say. There is this doctor who writes in local newspapers, magazines and comes on TV (Dr Chandrashekhar) who says that homosexuality can be cured just by getting married. Also some people say that this is all actually American culture that you see on TV regularly, which people are copying here. What do you say to that?” (mother of gay man)
The discussion that followed spoke of how there was absolutely no scientific basis for doctors to say that homosexuality was something that needed to be cured and that many doctors were actually providing their personal opinions not grounded in fact and perhaps motivated by publicity and finance.
With regard to culture, the discussion raised Indian cultural relics like the Konarak temple in Orissa or Hampi in Karnataka or Ajanta-Ellora caves in Maharashtra and many others where homosexual liaisons were depicted on the walls of these structures. In effect, the discussion concluded, that the culture question was more about how homophobia––and not homosexuality––became part of Indian culture due to British law.
Multiple partners–Why aren’t you happy with one person?
While issues around marriage were being discussed, one interesting question came up.
“When my friend was abroad, I used to talk to her often and every time I spoke to her she would be talking about a new girlfriend. And I’d get confused and ask-what about the previous one? Why is this happening in the gay and lesbian community? Why do you jump from partner to partner like that? It’s an argument I keep having with my friend. Isn’t it better to stay with one long-term partner?” (friend of lesbian woman)
“Is this true? Is that how it is? I thought that the problem of gay and lesbian people having many partners was a myth?” (mother of gay man)
“Yes, why do they require so many people? They should settle down with one person, no?” (mother of gay man)
The discussion that followed compared heterosexual marriage to homosexual relationships. In heterosexual marriages, choice is rarely a given. Despite increasing divorce rates, most women in marriages, even if they didn’t like their partner, couldn’t get out of it. It was considered necessary to “adjust” to the situation. An example of a mother who, on hearing that a close friend was getting divorced, said that she’d have divorced her husband long ago because they didn’t get along well indicated how the notion that what was needed was for people to “adjust” and stay in the marriage was so strong. There were numerous systems within heterosexual marriages that ensured that the marriage survived. Contrarily, in homosexual relationships there were no systems to keep the relationship together. If either partner had issues with the other then they could withdraw from the relationship without any problem.
While some participants in the meeting assured the parents that they were strictly monogamous in their relationship, this was not to say that multiple partner relationships did not exist. Nor was the discussion concluding that such relationships were necessarily bad for LGBT people. But being judgmental about gay relationships whether or not there were multiple partners would not facilitate more LGBT people to get into relationships. And believing that there was only one––heterosexual––way to conduct a relationship was also a stereotypical response. Especially considering that being in a heterosexual marriage was not a guarantee of monogamy in anyway. An off-hand remark by one participant had the group in splits.
“I don’t know how you mothers do it, but I don’t trust my husband at all!” (friend of lesbian woman)
However, both the moderator and some of the participants knew of, and were friends with, numerous LGBT people who had been in relationships for a long time ranging from a few years to more than 30 years.
“I personally know many gay people who’ve been in committed long-term relationships.” (brother of gay man)
Some of the parents had concerns about safety and physical security of their gay and lesbian children.
“I’m really concerned about safety. Physical safety and when they grow old, how’ll they be taken care of?” (mother of gay man)
The discussion that followed covered how physical safety and security of middle-class lesbian and gay men, while not completely assured, wasn’t worse than the kind of violence, harassment that the hijra community faced on a daily basis. The recent spate of hijra suicides owing to various personal crises was also mentioned.
In addition, the discussion covered concerns that heterosexual people weren’t necessarily more secure or safe in their old age. Many people die young and leave behind their wives or husbands and no one to take care of them. So being alone is not the only homosexual experience. Some gays or lesbians might find partners to spend the rest of their lives with and grow old together. Others access support systems of their friends.
“The question of loneliness is something that parents of LGBT children worry about. But I have a large set of friends that I’m very close to and who I meet on a regular basis. So really the way gay people handle being alone is by surrounding themselves with friends who become a kind of support group.” (gay man)
But one mother wanted to know if support systems like this were going to be permanent.
“Yes, but your friends are not going to be around forever, no? If they’re heterosexual they’ll get married and have their own lives to lead. Then you’ll still be left alone, right?” (mother of gay man)
The discussions gave examples of several older LGBT members in their 60s and 70s who, not being in relationships, depended on childhood friends, or new friends for all kinds of support, so such an arrangement was not at all unusual. Another example threw the delicate nature of heterosexual marriages into question.
“I have two young children and between taking care of them and my husband and my in-laws and all of that, it becomes too much. Sometimes I just want to be alone. Sometimes, I envy that you have so much more freedom than I do!” (friend of lesbian woman)
There were also concerns that the community itself was to blame for the violence or lack of security, especially the hijra community.
“But that is also why society is hostile to you isn’t it? Because of the way they (hijras) behave in public? They don’t treat you nicely.” (mother of gay man)
On discussing this, the group agreed that lack of awareness about hijras and the complete disdain that the general public have for them should bear the greater responsibility for the violence. Having treated them as second-class citizens for several centuries, it is unfair to blame them for the violence they face.
Disclosure and reactions
One friend had a question to the mothers in the group.
“Did you know before he told you that he was gay?” (friend of lesbian woman)
The reactions to this question were uniform. One mother’s emotional response was both touching and revealing.
“No, I didn’t know at all. It was a complete shock. I had no idea. Which mother would want their child to be gay? I could see something was bothering him, but I couldn’t understand what it was about. When he told us, I kept wondering if it was somehow my fault. I didn’t know how to deal with this. But I can see why it was so important for him. He is more comfortable now and much more relaxed, so I know now that it was a good idea for him to tell us.” (mother of gay man)
The initial reactions of not wanting your child to be gay, eventually turns into an acceptance that the coming out and talking about it was important. It also highlighted that parents needed a lot of support during this time.
“I too didn’t have any idea. He didn’t tell me directly. He was abroad and he got his sister to tell me. Then he asked her if she’d told me, after that he called me and we spoke. I was very upset for weeks.” (mother of gay man)
Concerns around having or adopting children were also brought up in the meeting.
“Is it legal for a gay couple to adopt children in India?” (brother of gay man)
“Is it possible for gay couples to have children through surrogacy?” (mother of gay man)
The discussion briefly covered these concerns. Although adoption in India clearly prevented gay or lesbian couples from being parents, single people were allowed to adopt. Additionally, surrogacy was becoming more and more accessible, even in Bangalore. And anyone who wanted to have children could easily do so now, regardless of their sexual orientation.
Parents also raised another red flag issue.
“Shouldn’t we be worried about other things also, like AIDS?” (mother of gay man)
The discussion briefly noted that there were many places to access information for LGBT people about preventing HIV. Although there were a large percentage of homosexuals getting infected with HIV due to the lack of awareness, the moderator rued that people refused to talk to their children about basic sexual safety to prevent such illnesses from becoming pandemics. The percentage of child sexual abuse cases in India was incredibly high (more than 50% according to the Department of Women and Child Welfare). This seemed to imply that families were less concerned about sexual safety and more about social morals and normative behaviour. The lack of discussions in families around sex and sexuality can clearly be identified as the crux of a lot of the crises that adults go through including illnesses like HIV.
“You’re right that there is very little conversation around this, but we can only discuss this with our family if we have all the right information. How do you normalize the issue if we barely understand it ourselves?” (brother of gay man)
The discussion around this question stressed on not perceiving homosexuality as needing either a special language or special understanding of issues and that becoming comfortable with talking about it requires taking the first step. Even by using the words “My brother is gay”, regularly and without extraordinary effort, can help persuade people towards understanding. But the discussion concluded that there are definitely many resources in Bangalore where information about LGBT people are available and accessible and that these are at the service of everyone in the meeting.
Wrapping up the discussion, the moderator asked the group if they’d be willing to be part of a regular meeting group (thrice or four times a year) both to discuss these issues in depth and to also be a part of a support system for parents who wanted to understand what other parents of LGBT people go through. The group agreed to this.
The participants were thanked, and applauded for sharing their time with the rest of the group.