Ace Fashion designer and Padma Shri awardee Wendell Rodricks passed away earlier this year to a heart attack at his Goa Residence. His seemingly jovial and selfless personality left an imprint on many hearts. With innumerable messages surfacing on the internet, from B-Town celebs to prominent figures of the Indian fashion industry crediting him for ‘transforming their lives’. While I confess to having little or no knowledge of him prior to his demise, I was reminded of an Instagram post from Condé Nast Traveller India, that I had saved at an earlier date. In this post, Wendell who was also an avid traveller, reflects on the perils of being an openly gay man in countries where homosexuality is still a crime, with imprisonment or death penalty as the consequence. And how he and his partner of 35 years had to strenuously police themselves; avoiding any physical demonstration that could draw negative attention. As I was reading this, a feeling of unrest took over me. Wendell was aged just 59 when he breathed his last! I began to wonder whether there could’ve been more to this story.
Michael Hobbes in his popular HuffPost article titled The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness writes “gay men everywhere, at every age, have higher rates of cardiovascular disease, cancer, incontinence, erectile dysfunction? allergies and asthma — you name it, we got it.” Which he further into the article attributes to “minority stress.” Minority stress as the name suggests, is the chronically high levels of stress faced by members of stigmatised minority groups. A number of factors like interpersonal prejudice and discrimination, poor social and familial support, and even the lack of representation in media and otherwise can be held responsible.
In a lengthy Facebook post from early 2018, National Award-winning filmmaker Apurva Asrani (also the writer on the Indian biographical drama film Aligarh, one with the most credible depiction of Indian gay male experience to this day) shared the shocking news of waking up one day with the right side of his face fully paralysed, unable to smile, accompanied by vertigo and an impaired vision. His condition was later diagnosed as ‘Bell’s Palsy’ i.e. a type of facial paralysis resulting in an inability to control the muscles on the affected side. The original post has long since been removed from the internet, but the pictures stay. And while the exact cause was unknown. Apurva linked it to stress, he wrote “Stress is a major factor and god knows I had more than my share of that in 2017.”
It’s no surprise that a large chunk of our childhood and even adulthood is spent in figuring out who we are, and then how we want to operate in this world. With the fear of exposure, and abandonment from our families, alongside a recurring sense of shame and lack of non-discriminatory legal infrastructures informing our every move. Eckhart Tolle in his book titled The Power of Now, writes about ‘pain bodies’. Which he goes on to describe as “emotional pain from the past alive in your life today” and how it manifests in more ways than one. While some of the features remain latent, others are rather obvious. Forgive me for sounding morbid here, but receiving a diagnosis of Complex PTSD came as a big relief in response to understanding my triggers and erratic behaviour, the unanticipated panic attacks, and perhaps even the aggressive hair fall I’m experiencing in my mid twenties.
As I’m typing this, seated comfortably in Starbucks on a sofa covered in leather upholstery, sipping on my iced latte. I’m cognisant of my privilege and a chance at life. With the release of the Bollywood movie Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan , long-awaited conversations around homosexuality can be believed to find a place in Indian households. Amidst this short lived celebration, what we cannot forget however are the new set of challenges that lie ahead of us. Even after the reading down of Section 377 by the Supreme Court in September of 2018, which decriminalised homosexuality and propelled people to come out in large numbers.
Pressing questions about our collective future concerning marriage equality, cohabitation and adoption rights remain unresolved. If there’s any truth to what famous author and businessman Harvey Mackay has to say: “The quality of your life is determined by the quality of your relationships” then stress is here to stay. Yet I feel compelled to find a plausible solution. And for the time being i’m settling with what Apuva Asrani had to say about forging deep friendships in a recent interview with Outlook India when asked how he defines ‘happily ever after’:
“The ‘happily ever after’ concept is flawed. Relationships, gay or straight, are complex, and both partners have to work to keep the fire alive. The biggest realization for Sid and me was that we have to define it for ourselves. There are hardly any role models for gay couples. The closest inspiration we have is our parents and family, and they are in heterosexual relationships. But
when a man and a man come together, the same rules and instincts don’t apply. We have no contract for marriage, and most of us will not have children, so it is important to define why we want to wake up with each other. We are individuals with unique identities. We are not here to merge into a singular identity. We wish to support each other to grow, and find what it is that we want. I think the keyword is friendship. It is more powerful than romance or marriage.”