This Is What It’s Like to Come Out as Queer in India
The real enemy in our fight to normalize queerness is ignorance and fear, not malice.
According to historian George Chauncey, the phrase “coming out” — commonly used to denote publicly revealing one’s sexual orientation as LGBTQIA+ — owes its genesis to debutante balls, at which young women presented themselves to society. However, rather than a ‘debut,’ coming out was more a phase of discovery. He wrote, “In the 1920s it referred to initiation into the gay world, and even when ‘coming out’ was used in a narrower sense, to refer to the process by which someone came to recognize his sexual interest in other men, it referred to something other than a solitary experience.”
In India, where conservative attitudes towards LGBTQIA+ identities often morph into stigma and violence, coming out to one’s family and loved ones can lead to a horde of terrible consequences, from disowning to honor killing to corrective rapes.
Coming out as queer is no pleasant sitcom scene, no Instagram quote affirmation. It is often as fearsome, gut-wrenching, and panic-inducing as it is an outpouring of relief and joy. But coming out is the bedrock of individual queer identity and is deeply intertwined with mental stability. This also makes coming out intensely personal, as in, there’s no correct way to come out. However, there do exist commonalities in experiences within the Indian context — both good and bad — that could perhaps make gearing up to come out a less solitary experience. We spoke to multiple queer people who have come out to family and friends and a queer-affirming therapist to understand the psychological trials and triumphs of coming out as queer.
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“[Sexuality] is the basis of one of the factors that make up your identity, and it’s possible that if you don’t come out, you won’t feel like your authentic self,” said Ishita Gupta, a queer-affirming counseling psychologist and founder of Breakthrough Counselling, in Mumbai. Because queerness is such a vital part of one’s identity and lifestyle, living behind a closet takes a toll on mental health. A closeted queer person — especially those married — could dissociate, or push the thought of their identity far away from their minds due to the stress caused by thoughts of coming out. A permanently closeted life could be populated with deep unhappiness, secrets, marriages of convenience, other, more dangerous coping mechanisms, and sinking into depression or suicidal ideation.
“I had no idea what to expect or what to even say — the language felt so ‘Western’ and foreign.”
Beyond sexuality, individuals who feel like they aren’t the gender they were assigned at birth, or don’t identify with one specific gender, or don’t want to be either gender at all (that is, genderqueer/non-binary and transgender individuals), may have to hide both their gender identity and sexuality — which can be incredibly difficult. Gupta added, “It’s extremely difficult with gender dysphoria of any kind,” referring to the distress caused by a mismatch felt between gender identity and sex assigned at birth. “Most kids only come to terms with this feeling of otherness rather than being told it’s normal. Plus, dysphoria might get elevated if you don’t come out.”
Since coming out can be a mentally taxing activity, waiting to do it is also quite stressful. “The lead up was unbearable — part of me just wanted to do it ASAP and get it over with, and the other part was so fearful of what both the immediate and long-term reaction would be. I had no idea what to expect or what to even say — the language felt so ‘Western’ and foreign, and I had to find a way to talk about gender and sexuality, which had never before really been discussed in my family,” said Priya Arora, 30, queer, nonbinary, and host of the podcast Queering Desi. Aditi, 36, who identifies as a lesbian, added, “I was extremely anxious, emotional, felt exposed because I couldn’t pretend everything was hunky-dory and this lead me sleepless nights, feeling vulnerable.”
However, coming out is not a one-time thing, unfortunately. It is a long, volatile, evolving, repetitive series of conversations about one’s sexual orientation. Over time, as one gets more comfortable with their identity, the process becomes a lot easier and a little less frustrating to explain. “For queer people, every new person is a variable that gets fed into a mental arithmetic of trying to decide whether it is safe to come out to this person, and how much of my identity I should share with them,” said Arvind, 24, who identifies as genderqueer and bisexual.
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While coming out, it is also important to note the immediate cultural environment, estimate the potential reaction and prepare for it accordingly. Multiple sources for this piece stressed the importance of financial independence, emotional stability, and a strong support system especially before coming out to one’s family. “In a few cases, where parents are ultra-conservative — and there are many — it might be prudent to wait till you are so far away that they can not physically harm you. I also believe it is better to find employment in metro cities if you are queer, as you get to meet more people from the community and it is more acceptable compared to Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities,” said Abhinav Devaria, 25. “The only reason my coming out had no repercussions was that I had spent years making it very clear to my family that they had no say, no control, over anything I did with my life,” said Anushka Sierra, 27.
“My first big problem after I came out was that I had to find a queer-friendly gender-affirming therapist as soon as I could. My emotional safety depended on that.”
While coming out, seeking out the right therapist is also pivotal to one’s mental health. “My first big problem after I came out was that I had to find a queer-friendly gender-affirming therapist as soon as I could. My emotional safety depended on that. My parents told me they wanted me to get certified by a therapist that I’m ‘normal,’ but I’d soon come to realize that what they meant was that they will first attempt to ‘cure’ me and only upon sufficient cause to believe that this can’t be cured, consider accepting me,” said Arvind. He added, “This left the field wide open for grifters and conversion therapists to start spinning their stories. One allegedly told my parents that he would cure me, but only if I cut off all contact with the LGBTQ+ community, which would otherwise ‘brainwash’ me.”
Another important potential occurrence to brace for is when someone else reveals one’s sexual orientation, or ‘outs’ one, before one can come out. “A man on a dating site threatened to out me to my parents. I was terrified of the consequences. I felt unprepared, unguided and ill-equipped to deal with the situation. [But] my truth was mine to tell. I was in a situation where I could be robbed of this opportunity and hence chose to take the step before anyone took it away from me,” said Parth Rahatekar, 20, who also added, “Your story is yours to tell. Your labels are yours to define. But, your physical safety is above everything else, so please do not feel pressured to be brave if you may be in danger of being hurt. Inside the closet or out of it — you are valued, loved and valid.”
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If coming out leads to feeling shame, guilt, and humiliation, Gupta uses tough love to recommend a survival mechanism. “If you are in a terrible situation and there’s no way out, you will be one of the millions who will have awful lives, and life is never fair. I understand that this is awful, but people will not stop being unfair to you, and there’s not much you can do. What little you can do, is concentrating on the parts that reward you. What you can also do is try to influence behavior — rather than controlling, say your parents’ volatile reaction to your identity by fighting back and making your situation worse, is there anything you can do to deflect focus and steer towards positivity?” Gupta says. “It may sound bleak and not right to work your way around your own identity, but consider it a temporary coping mechanism while you work your way towards independence.”
Coming out may sound terrifying, but it is also one of the bravest, coolest, most important ways a queer individual can come of age and stand up for themselves. However, it remains important to do one’s due diligence and protect one’s safety and mental health before attempting to do so, especially in a conservative environment.
Also, here’s an interesting tidbit: When asked if they regretted coming out, not a single interview subject said they regretted it or will ever regret it.
Aditi Murti is a culture writer at The Swaddle. Previously, she worked as a freelance journalist focused on gender and cities. Find her on social media @aditimurti.