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Kal Penn Has Come Out. Is It Time To Rejoice Or Reflect?

For a country whose judges once noted that queer people in the country form a “miniscule minority,” surely the coming out of a celebrity like Penn would create room for more conversations around LGBTQIA+ inclusion beyond the regurgitated pinkwashing during Pride month.

In an exclusive interview with the People magazine, the American actor and comedian of Indian origin Kal Penn (born Kalpen Suresh Modi) came out as gay. He revealed that he and his partner — Josh — have been together for over a decade and are now engaged.

The former White House staff member also shared that he has discussed their love story in his memoir You Can’t Be Serious. He added that he has been “very public with everybody” but people with whom he’s closest to — his family and his partner — “don’t love attention and shy away from the limelight.”

After Penn’s coming out, the BBC asked desi queers what this news meant to them. In response, one Naveen Kumar said:

“It is the most thrilling kind of surprise. It’s now a person in pop culture that I can point out to my parents. Here’s someone who they have been watching on TV and movies since the 90s.”

For a country whose judges once noted that queer people in the country form a “miniscule minority,” surely the coming out of a celebrity like Penn would create room for more conversations around LGBTQIA+ inclusion beyond the regurgitated pinkwashing during Pride month.

Also, in terms of ‘visibility’ and media representation, a lot has happened recently. DC Comics came up with a queer narrative around the character of Superman. Australian footballer Josh Cavallo too came out as gay. It may appear that there’s a cultural shift waiting to happen, in our lifetime. Sadly, it is not without hiccups. Take the Axis Bank fiasco, for example.

In September, Axis Bank, one of India’s leading banks, rolled out a campaign #DilSeOpen, asking queer people to #ComeAsYouAre and open joint accounts with them.

It could have been a watershed moment in making banking and financial services accessible to LGBTQIA+ people in India. But it was a colossal failure.

A twitter user Anisha Sharma flagged how hostile the associates at the bank’s Seven Bungalows’ branch were with her and her partner when they went to open a joint account as per their new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) policy.

When the couple informed the bank officials that they were partners, the staff enquired if they meant “business partners.” Baffled, the couple tried to bring to their notice their bank’s own campaign and press release on their official website to this effect, but to no avail.

It begs the question: Will institutions be compelled to translate their ‘campaigns’ into a functioning policies if more and more people come out? Especially those who are popular figures. Can coming out of influencers level up ongoing efforts to address everyday struggles of queer people to avail institutional support — be it finance, medical, housing? Is pointing out to a screen and saying ‘see this brown actor, he is gay’ enough?

Coming out can become more relevant if media houses — be it in India or abroad — couple such stories with issues facing the queer people. Else you’ve learnt nothing beyond some privileged person’s sexual orientation.

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Saurabh is working as a writer in a research and advisory IT consultancy firm. He frequently writes about gender and sexuality, and book reviews on an array of platforms.
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Saurabh Sharma

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