‘There were these conflicts in my mind: did I bring her up wrongly, did [I] not give her the right input as a parent, was I not a good parent?’ – Mother (age 58) of a lesbian person1
‘You go to a party and people crack jokes about homos, and you are the only one sitting there. You feel angry that there is no sensitivity [or like] they are doing it purposefully.’ – Mother (age 82) of a gay person
On 7 February 2011, 19 parents of LGBTQ Indians submitted an intervention to the Supreme Court of India, which was in the process of considering requests to appeal the reading down of Section 377 and the effective decriminalisation of homosexuality. In the midst of a discourse that suggested queer relationships were harmful to Indian families, these parents took a stand to say that the existence of 377 had a negative impact on their family lives, because if their children were viewed as criminals, then to be supportive of their choices and relationships would, in effect, implicate parents too.
This intervention was an unprecedented demonstration of families coming out as public allies of the queer community in India, and opened up a range of questions: What does it mean to be the parent, sibling, aunt or grandparent of a queer Indian today? How do people react to the disclosure of a same sex orientation in a family member? And given the fact that numerous studies point to the family as a space of violence and fear for queer Indians, are others also as affirmative as this group of 19?
In a bid to answer some of these questions, five Mumbai-based researchers embarked upon a study entitled Making Sense: Familial Journeys Towards Acceptance of Gay and Lesbian Family Members, disseminated to the public on 2 August 2013. Interviewing 22 parents, siblings and one aunt of gay and lesbian people in Mumbai city – across class, religion, caste, and spanning an age range of 29 to 82 – the study is a first of its kind attempt to understand the ways in which urban Indian families make sense of queerness in a still largely homophobic society.
What does it mean, for example, for adults who grew up in a generation where homosexuality was not even the hushed word it is today to discover their child is gay or lesbian? Researcher Sangeeta Chatterji says, ‘Parents also go through their own process of coming out, where even acknowledging their child is gay is a first step in a long journey towards acceptance.’ Says one father (age 72) of a lesbian person, ‘I was stunned and I really didn’t know what to say because it was never expected, you know, like that kind of a thing. I could not believe it.’ Initial reactions experienced by parents after learning of their child’s sexual orientation ranged from shock and disbelief to silence, withdrawal or denial. For some, the idea of queerness was completely alien. ‘I was not even very familiar with the idea,’ recalls a 57 year old mother of a gay person. ‘At the time I could not make out what it was. But being in the medical profession, I could make out there [was] something serious about it, so at the time I felt very bad and I cried that night.’
Chatterji goes on to say, ‘The process of acceptance is so complicated in itself because it’s always a journey, so different parents are at different points in the journey depending on a lot of factors: how long they’ve known, what has their exposure [to queer people] been like, what is their relationship with their child, and so on.’
If acceptance is a journey, then one of the most crucial ways in which parents walk this road of discovery is through the child themselves. Says one 58 year old mother of a lesbian person, ‘I didn’t go to anyone for a long time. I was just dealing with it myself. Till she only kind of helped…Yes I read [and] watched films, but I think my relationship with my daughter [is] what helped me the most.’ Acceptance also appeared to be much higher amongst mothers: researchers managed to contact only four fathers, and several of the married women interviewed were hiding their children’s sexual orientation from their husbands. Siblings proved to be the most tolerant, which can perhaps be linked to their having had greater exposure to queer identities within their own peer groups.
Families, however, don’t exist in vacuums. Says researcher Chayanika Shah, ‘You cannot have an ideal family response in an unideal society. The onus is not on the individual family, [because] societal structures and stigma seeps into each one of us. So whether or not we have a gay or lesbian family member, the onus is on us as well.’ As citizens of an almost post-377 India – the final decision still rests in the hands of the Supreme Court – it is by collectively creating inclusive and tolerant societies that families and queer people can more easily navigate their individual journeys of coming out.
1 . Names and details have not been shared so as to protect individuals’ identities
A version of this article was published under the title ‘Parents take vocal stand on homosexual “normality”‘ in The Sunday Guardian on 10 August 2013