Coming out in India: Queer and trans folk share joy, family heartbreak and hopes for the future

Side by side of Anjali Siroya and Ria Sharma

Aditya Tiwari, a writer and gay rights activist from India, explores the changing landscape of family and LGBT+ acceptance in the country.

Anjali Siroya, 23, is a trans woman living in the suburbs of Mumbai who has been transitioning under very difficult circumstances. Having her family by her side would have made her life simpler, better. Unfortunately, that’s far from her reality.

“It has been six years that I have been out to my family,” she tells PinkNews. But the “journey of their acceptance” has stalled, she laments.

“Accepting me as a trans woman and looking at me as a daughter has been difficult for my family. I come from a conservative, culturally-backward background. I feel that my family will never be able to fully accept me, and that scares me.”

Before lockdown, the amount of time Anjali would “invest every day in dressing up was exasperating”.

“Because I couldn’t be myself at home, I would change three times a day, often on public transport or in restrooms. The pandemic made my plight much harder, there weren’t any safe spaces left for me. I had to be homebound where I was constantly policed. I became very depressed.”

Anjali Siroya. (Supplied)

Despite India’s diversity and history of gender non-conformity, which stretches back thousands of years, homophobia and transphobia sadly remain common in society.

There is a dire lack of societal awareness and acceptance, and the more that queer Indians have come out and claimed space for themselves, the more vulnerable they’ve become to discrimination, it seems.

For many, a lack of visibility means they suffer in silence. In small towns, queer people often grow up lonely, without any idea of what their lives could be, stranded from any LGBT+ organisations and opportunities to thrive.

Eventually, Anjali – who works with The Humsafar Trust, one of India’s oldest LGBT+ organisation – had no choice but to leave her family home. Now, she is surrounded by her “family of choice” – her “gay dad”, the activist Charles Arthur Wililams, and her trans sisters.

“My community showed me that families are not always blood-related and that’s the beauty of our LGBT+ community,” she said.

However, she can’t shake the feeling that “it would’ve been life-changing to have just one person [from her biological family] believe in me”.

“It would’ve been a big relief from all the financial, mental, and emotional problems.”

My mother became my best friend.

Though many struggle with unaccepting families, some are hopeful that resistance against queer identities is slowly fading away into the obscure. Especially this during Pride month in June this year, one could not escape the fact that queer people exist, and for many, they’ve found allies in family.

Non-binary 19-year-old Chauhan, also known as the New Delhi drag queen Whacker Cracker, grew up in an abusive household.

“Those nights when my father would come home drunk and hit my mother was terrible,” he tells PinkNews. “As a kid, I would try to stop him and in turn, my father would hurl homophobic slurs at me and hit me.”

Born in a typical, orthodox, military family, Prashant experienced homophobia from a young age. But what empowered him was his mother by his side, and he truly is grateful for that.

Prashant Chauhan. (Prashant Chauhan)

“Because my father was in the Army, I spent most of my childhood with my mother, who later became my best friend,” she adds. “It was she who empowered me to be myself when I was discovering my queerness as a kid, and later when my drag came as a shocker for most relatives, supported me thoroughly.

“Drag as an art is a relatively new concept in India, and is slowly taking its shape. I feel that there’s a long time to see an India where drag artists are celebrated, appreciated, and accepted, but most importantly, acknowledged for their hard work.

“But I am optimistic for the future.”

For 21-year old student Ria Sharma, who lives in Mumbai with their parents, it’s been a dream come true to have the full support of their family. They recall a moment that arrived before their 16th birthday when they were struggling to articulate their queerness into words and enduring bullying by their peers at school.

“I feel that family support plays a pivotal role in my life in who I am today,” Ria tells PinkNews.

“It would’ve been difficult for me to be myself without my family’s unconditional support. Now, I have a sense of confidence that no matter what happens, they will always have my back.

“And that makes a huge difference. It also gives me great elation that my parents not just accept me but also actively take part in activism and social work related to the LGBT+ community.

“I do acknowledge that this is not something that everyone has and I’m grateful for that.”

Ria Sharma. (Supplied)

Parmesh Shahani, author of Queeristan, says that “parental acceptance is the new normal”.

“We have recently witnessed a huge change, hearing more and more stories of families who accept their queer children without making a big deal of their sexuality or gender, both in big cities and small towns, and are focusing on love and inclusion.”

This is a reality made possible in part by Sweekar: The Rainbow Parents, a group of Indian parents who made headlines in 2019 by coming out in support of their queer children, fighting stigma and proving that Indian society is changing.

Renu Sharma, a member of Sweekar, says: “As parents, we may not know everything. But we should navigate our way towards being more sensitive and aware. The journey of understanding will be difficult and sometimes long as well but it’s worth it. Slowly, everything will make sense and fall in place.

“I don’t think having a queer child is any different from having a heterosexual one in itself. It is just one part of their many identities and it does not define completely who they are.

“There is a long way to see a future where LGBT+ identities will be mainstreamed in India. But I hope for a society where we normalise such things.

“Even for me, it was difficult to understand the LGBTQ+ community but it would just have been better for us and our children if we knew about it earlier.

“Today if somebody asks me if it matters that my child is queer, I would say no. They are happy and are living their life unapologetically, that’s what matters.

Aditya Tiwari’s first book of poems April is Lush (2019) received international acclaim. Learn more about him on Instagram and Twitter.