Interview: Gay Indian comic explains how invisibility fuels homophobia

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Nik Dodani, an up-and-coming gay indian comic, speaks to PinkNews about homophobia in Indian culture, LGBT comedy and coming out to an Indian family.

An aspiring comic, actor and activist, Nik Dodani recently gained internet fame when a video of his stand-up set criticising homophobia in Indian culture went viral.

Born and raised in the States, Dodani never grew up in India – his parents moved to the US in the 80s. However, through extended family and the experience of others, the comedian explained what he had learnt about the LGBT community in India.

He said: “The treatment of LGBT Indians is disheartening – in a lot of ways, it’s moving backwards.

“There’s so much misinformation, so much prejudice that – when combined with the issues of poverty, religion and gender – forms a unique issue in India.”

In December 2013, the Indian Supreme Court recriminalised homosexuality, re-enacting a Colonial-era law.

The actor continued: “There are 1.3 billion Indians which means that there millions, upon millions, upon millions of LGBT Indians – but it just blows my mind that there are so few openly LGBT Indians in entertainment or politics or business.”

He talked about the phenomenon by saying “the sheer numbers are baffling.”

The comic added: “I think that invisibility fuels the homophobia and keeps the homophobia alive.”

“Increasing the visibility will be one way – not the only way – we can help tackle homophobia in India and in Indian American communities.”

“Coming out to your friends and family can make an enormous difference.” The activist continued.

In his stand-up, Dodani talks about Indian culture and how that affected the response when he came out – he jokes that after he came out to his dad, his father responded: “that’s FANTASTIC Nik! But isn’t it pronounced lawyer?”

Interview: Gay Indian comic explains how invisibility fuels homophobia

The reality in fact was a lot more heartwarming than the comic makes out on stage. He explained: “I came out to my Dad and he was shockingly amazing about it, it was beautiful.

“I told him and he looked at me and said “Nikhil [my full name] I’ve never had a problem with gay people, but now it’s personal. If anybody ever says anything I will tear them to shreds”. And then he started tearing up, and we hugged, it was so great – it just blind sided me” he carried on.

His mother however was not as understanding straight away.

He explains: “She was confused, it wasn’t on her radar at all. Growing up in India, it wasn’t spoken about – so she just couldn’t process it in the moment.

“Now, my mother is very accepting and supportive. The initial confusion and hesitancy melted away after having many open and honest, and sometimes awkward conversations, with me. She opened up, and her transformation is a testament to the importance of visibility.”

“It was a lot of nobody speaking about LGBT people or LGBT issues, and when it was spoken about it was very much a condemnation of the issues”

Talking about how he encourages his family to ask questions, Dodani revealed: “Her first question was about HIV and about AIDS. It was coming from a place of concern for my health but it was…very disappointing.”

Although a serious topic, it’s bookended by cheeky quips such as the reason he chose to reveal his sexuality to his parents: “Before I started working on the Elizabeth Warren Senate campaign – my professors from school arranged an interview with the New York Times to talk about my work on the campaign.

“The reporter started asking me why I wanted to work in politics blah blah blah and one of my answers was ‘As a member of the LGBT community, I find this very important to speak out about these issues’ and when I hung up the phone, I thought to myself ‘Oh F*ck….I just told that to a reporter!’.

“So I was like, “I have to tell my parents before the article runs.”

He added: “Fun Fact: The article never ran with my interview in it.”

Interview: Gay Indian comic explains how invisibility fuels homophobia

Dodani embraced his sexuality, as many others do, in college. During freshman orientation, there was a team building exercise in which the students stood in four large circles and statements about privilege were read out over the intercom – with students stepping forward if it applied to them.

He reminisced: “Then there was one statement that was ‘if you can marry anyone you love in any state – step forward’.”

“My gut reaction was to step forward and but I saw that people around me didn’t, so I was like ‘F*ck that I’m not stepping forward – I’m out and proud’. That was a very emotional day but I decided ‘I’m Out’.

After recently performing with Whitney Cummings – known for her sharp feminist wit – at the Comedy Store in West Hollywood, it would be foolish to not ask the upcoming stand-up about his stance on political comedy, especially when it comes to the LGBT community.

Talking about his set, he explains: “it’s mainly LGBT material and a lot about LGBT issues and race particularly. I always thought that the best way to talk about serious issues is to poke fun at them.

“Sharing a laugh with somebody is such a bonding experience. When you’re laughing I think people are open to hearing other perspectives, and really absorbing other perspectives”

He continues: “I thought one issue that’s really personal to me, and isn’t really talked about a lot, is homophobia in Indian culture. I thought stand-up would be an awesome way to address that in a way that people would actually want to listen to.”

With many comedians and actors that he looks up to – Malik Pancholy, Parvesh Cheena, Vidur Kapur and Wanda Sykes to name a few – the stand-up told us that he does identify with the label of a gay Indian comic.

“I think it’s important to own that”, he explains. “Being gay is such a big part of my identity and it’s important to be honest and open about it. Be candid.”

“…and try to be funny.”

Nik Dodani might joke that he is the “disappointed gay” but there is nothing disappointing about his comedy.