On a recent episode of How To!, Hema, a biomedical researcher in her late 20s, shares how ignorant she was about gay people—that is, until she moved to the United States from India a few years ago and realized she was gay. Hema’s family, however, is less than supportive. With the help of Sonali Gulati, a professor, filmmaker, and queer rights activist who made a documentary about the parents of LGBTQ people in India, can Hema find the words to reach her loved ones? This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Hema: Before I came to America, I was really scared of all this LGBTQ stuff. I’d never met a gay person in India who was openly gay. But coming here and meeting people, I remember suddenly walking down the road and tears started flowing down my cheeks as I realized, “Oh shit, I’m gay.”
I was really unhappy. I was so disgusted with myself. I didn’t want to live after I found out that I was gay. Slowly I came to terms with it. It’s, “I want to live,” and then it’s, “I need to find out a way to live happily with who I am rather than trying to act everybody else’s way.” After I accepted myself, life was much easier. It’s much healthier. I feel lighter. I’m not hiding anything every day.
Charles Duhigg: One of the big issues for Hema is that even though her identity is something she’s embraced, it’s a very different story with her family who still lives in India. In particular, Hema has struggled getting her mom, who is a big part of her life, to accept this. In fact, she can hardly even get her to discuss it. Five months ago, Hema called her up.
Hema: I told her, “Hey, mom. You’ve been searching for a guy, so I want to tell you something important. I don’t think I’ll ever get married to a guy. I’m not attracted to men. I’m gay.” And she said, “Are you going to marry a gay guy?” I said, “No, I’m gay. That means I’m going to marry a woman.” And she said, “I don’t want to talk about it. Don’t talk such stupid stuff.”
I think she thinks that I’m going to grow out of it, and she doesn’t want to talk about it. And she thinks it might be shameful if the relatives come to know about it. My brother keeps telling me that she was really upset for weeks after that. Sometimes she tells my brother she has bad health issues because her daughter is gay.
Charles: Growing up in India, Hema said she didn’t know any openly gay people. Her family would watch The Ellen DeGeneres Show every day, but she never realized Ellen DeGeneres was a lesbian until she came to the U.S. And Hema thinks this is part of the problem for her mom—it’s really hard to put the news that her daughter is a lesbian in the right context.
Hema: I tried bringing up Ellen to my mom. But the minute I brought up Ellen was gay, my mom said, “This is white people nonsense.” Then I tried to find people who are Indian and gay, and I can’t find a lot of examples to send her.
I can truly understand where she comes from because I used to be in that environment. I used to think like her. So, I can totally relate to why she’s saying stuff that she’s saying. It’s really difficult to navigate Indian families. In India, families make your decisions. They’re part of your life much more than like in a U.S. society or Western society. And there’s no pathway to have a happy Indian gay family.
Charles: But despite the fact that it was scary and hard, Hema knew she had to be true to who she was.
Hema: I told one of my co-workers I was gay, and it was not even a big deal. That was shocking. And then, I slowly realized nobody cares here.
Charles: Was your co-worker the first person you told?
Hema: Yeah, it was. After that, I tried telling two of my close friends back in India, but it did not go well.
Charles: So, tell me about that. What happened?
Hema: I told my school friend, and she said, “This is all American stuff. You’re getting Americanized. I don’t want to talk about this. We’ll find you a nice guy.” So, she’s still looking for a guy to get me married to.
Charles: What about your other friend? Did that go better?
Hema: Oh no, we’re not even on talking terms now. Sometimes you question yourself and think maybe I’ll get married and act straight. But then within two days of thinking that you know it’s not going to be possible. But how do you find the balance between not losing people and being yourself?
Charles: And it’s worth pointing out that India isn’t the only country that’s been slow to recognize various sexual identities. It’s only recently that gay marriage became legal in the U.S. India’s own law against homosexuality was struck down by the country’s Supreme Court less than two years ago after seven Indian citizens forced the country to confront the issue. And Sonali thinks that sharing their stories might be a way to reach Hema’s mom.
Sonali: And these seven people said, “We are Indian, we are professionals, and we have successful professional lives. And we have other lives of apart from just being gay.” That might be a good place to start—to say to your mom, “Okay, who are these seven people who fought this Supreme Court battle?”
Charles: Hema, what do you think? Would your mother react well to that, if you sent her an article profiling these seven people who fought to decriminalize homosexuality in India in 2018? How do you think she would react?
Hema: I think my mom might react positively, but I’m not sure. I think sharing about the seven people would be helpful because if they’re successful and they’re able to have successful lives in India, it will show her that being gay is not some affectation of being in America, that it’s just being yourself.
Sonali: I think the more we can share about other Indian queer people out there, that will definitely help to dispel this myth that being queer is a Western phenomenon.
Hema: Initially, I was scared to write to this podcast. If I put it out there, there’s no way I’m going back. But I’m done with being scared, and if it’s helpful to someone else who’s struggling like me or having thoughts that I had, and made them feel less isolated, I’d be really happy.
To hear more of Sonali’s advice—and Hema’s mom’s reaction—listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! with Charles Duhigg wherever you get your podcasts.