Six years ago, if someone had told me that I could be writing an article talking about my experience of coming out as gay, I would have simply dismissed it as being impossible. Back then people finding out itself was a scary thought. Today, I am out to everybody - my friends, my parents, my colleagues at work, and the general public at large.
No more do I have to hide or carry the heavy burden of a secret that I kept all my life. Even after I finally started to reveal my most guarded secret, it took me a little while to get comfortable with myself. The feeling sunk in. After all, - I was just as normal as anybody else, wasn’t I? The last six years have been the most emotional years of my life, but at least now I can be myself fully.
Discovering my identity
I have known that I was gay since I was 12 years old. As a child, I was pretty girlie, and I would do all kinds of things that a straight guy wouldn’t, but somewhere I felt everything I did was rejected by society and the people around me. I got called out for crying like a girl, sometimes dressing like one, and even for drawing sketches of evening gowns or playfully using makeup of some kind.
Around my formative years between the ages of 12 to 15, when I was able to understand what being gay meant, I started to become more “straight”, and dropped my naturally girlish characteristics. This was not because I didn't feel comfortable with it, but more because of the demeaning comments hurled my way. I figured then that it would be easier to pretend than to be myself, to conform to what people generally expected of me, even if it wasn't me. This was something that I chose, so that I could fit in and seem more “normal” by their definition. I even tried dating girls.
Today, I believe that if someone has a problem with the way I am, it is their problem, not mine, and I can’t change who I was born to be.
Time has taught me well, and I have learnt a great deal over the past 6 years. I now know that everything that I have always been hiding didn't deserve to be that way.
When I was in the 12th standard, I went through a phase of depression and confusion, I was completely lost. It was that time in everyone's life in college, when people had started to date and have a girlfriend or boyfriend and explore relationships beyond friendship. I simply felt like I didn’t fit in. I liked girls, but not in the way a straight guy would, and this was utterly confusing. I was so conflicted within. I did not know how to proceed or how to tell people that I liked guys. This was probably one of the worst years of my life.
That year, I started to go for classes during the vacation, as most people do in their 12th standard, in preparation for the board exams. At the start of that year, I was doing really well in all my tests, but as the year progressed, I stopped studying and no one could figure out why. My professors asked my parents to meet them, because they couldn’t figure out why my grades had dropped so dramatically. My parents simply couldn’t grasp what was wrong either, and I wouldn’t confide in anybody. I even thought of killing myself, and eventually I failed in my board exams.
Back then the fact that I was gay seemed like a terrible taboo. I wasn’t a person who would fail, so I decided that I would keep this big part of who I am, a secret for the rest of my life. This was going to die with me. I was always very competitive, and I still wanted to do well in my academics and my career. I couldn’t let these feelings get the better of me and I had to succeed in life. So against all odds, I was going to have to put them aside and somehow suppress them.
While I continued to live my lie, and pretend to be as straight as I could, I started to do alright in my studies and went on to do quite well for myself in my career in Public Relations, as well. Obviously, I always felt that big void because everyone I knew was having fun with their partners, going on dates, talking for hours on phones, and I felt quite left out. I had no community to call my own.
Of moving abroad, coming back to a new realization and finding love
At some point in my early twenties, I thought that if I had to lead a normal life, I would need to leave the country. Somehow in my head, I felt that the country was holding me back, or society in this country was holding me back, and maybe if I moved abroad, just maybe, society will be more accepting of me. I dreamt of finding a partner, and doing romantic stuff together; just having company. It was then that I migrated to Australia.
I was 25, and I left behind a very successful career, leading PR for a reputed American company in India, at a very young age. It was a big leap of faith. It’s not easy to move to a new country, on your own, with no financial support from anyone, at 25. To my bad luck the global recession struck and a job that I was due to land when I got there was pulled back. I was left with no option and after 8 months of cleaning houses and offices and toilets, waiting tables and selling credit cards in Melbourne, I returned to India.
I was now back home in India, so I went back to my previous decision to suppress my emotional needs and focus on bringing my career back on track. I could revisit this whole decision at a later stage. At around 29, I was made global PR head for an Indian IT services company, for which I relocated to Bangalore. Bangalore was a much nicer city, much less competitive than Mumbai. I found it to be merit-based and non-judgemental compared to my previous experiences.
Quite evidently, we all have needs and from time to time, and I would think about coming out. I was 32, I remember, I had quit my well-paid, stable job to start an e-laundry business in Bangalore. During that phase, I was living with my co-founder at his parents’ home, which was really large, and in the heart of the city. We needed to save rent money and it seemed like a good idea at the time. I remember his dad had to undergo an operation in Delhi and they had all gone away for about 2-3 weeks. I was all alone in that big house, and for the first time in my whole life I felt so alone. I realised that I couldn’t do this any longer, and that's when I downloaded a couple of dating apps for gay people. That changed my life.
I met this boy very early on, on one of the apps, and he convinced me that I just needed to be myself, and that I had waited long enough. I suddenly realised that I had to accept myself, before anyone else could.
It was difficult and weird, but interesting. I slowly started to come out - first to my sister, some cousins, and then to a lot of my close friends.
A huge load was off my chest. I suddenly felt so comfortable with whom I was, but I still had a few inhibitions, which took me a while to get over.
Four or five years after I started dating boys, I met a really nice boy on Instagram. A date, a trip to Goa and a few months together, and I was in love - I think he was my first true love. It was like a romantic movie for me. It was a beautiful feeling and for the first time I knew what it felt to be in love with someone, beyond just friends and family.
It was the most beautiful experience of my whole life, and while unlike the movies there wasn’t a happy ending, it really, really taught me a lot - I loved and learnt from the whole experience. Ironically, I learnt how to cope with heartbreak too, and understood that you can't control someone’s feelings, and you can't make them love you.
My first public declaration
I have made some really good friends - Ashish Chopra my best friend, a well-connected person in the gay community, who is always helping people out. So when he came to me with an opportunity to feature in a tinder video around the pride month, during the lockdown, I obviously said yes to the audition. I did eventually feature in the video, backed by a song by Ritviz called Raahi. This was revolutionary for me, because for the first time, I was going to publicly declare that I was gay.
I also used the video to finally come out to my parents, who were pretty cool about it. They wondered why I took so long. It was really reassuring to see that even people much older than me, in their 60s and 70s were able to accept me and love me. It made me feel that I should have come out earlier, but I think everything happens in its time, and I am glad I took my time to do the things that I did.
If you've always felt you are not normal, for the first time in your life you will fear no more, and you will feel perfectly normal.
At the end of the day, it’s what this whole experience is about. When the Supreme Court recognised this joy that people have been deprived of, and decriminalized a 158-year-old colonial law (Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code on September 6, 2018), it was like an independence day for us all, in the LGBTQ community.
For many it might not be such a big deal, but for people like me, who have struggled under the weight of their heavy secret, not being able to feel normal for most of their lives, the fact that the apex court has normalised it, changes everything.
I am happy to be able to share this with you, because somewhere, deep down I feel that if I had read more stories like this when I was younger, I would have not taken so much time to come out. This is my way of giving back to those people who are still in doubt.
That is and always has been your life and your choice to make, and people will love you irrespective. This should not hold you back from being you - life is too short and you need to live life as a normal person, on your terms, just like everybody else.
(Dirk Lewis is a Bengaluru-based public relations professional. Views are personal).