One of the first things most people ask when someone comes out to them is "When did you first know?" Through my teenage years in high school, I just knew I was a little different.
When I was about 15, I was drawn to this rather cute-looking boy in class. He probably noticed me looking at him and decided to 'teach me a lesson' in the only manner young boys know. He surrounded me with some of his close friends and pushed me to the ground, holding me by the neck, while uttering some expletives and probably, that was the end of it. The physical violence was not brutal - far from it - but it most likely drove home a message - a wrong message - but one that gay kids the world over learn from such incidents of bullying: that what I was feeling was 'wrong', 'bad' or 'sick', and if I continued to heed those feelings, it could provoke much worse violence - and so it was best to 'conform'.
That is probably why I went through my late teens and early 20s without feeling anything close to what can be called romantic attraction or love during my years at the National Defence Academy (NDA) and Indian Military Academy (IMA). By my mid-20s, when those feelings started slowly resurfacing, I started understanding that I was gay. I struggled really badly to accept myself - and the hyper-straight world of the army only made it that much more difficult for me. However, by my late 20s, after months of drinking and wondering and questioning why I was different and crying myself to sleep over it, I finally came to terms with myself and accepted myself for who I was.
However, I felt that this had to be my 'big secret' and there was no way I could tell anyone. After all, as far as most of the world is concerned, someone who is gay is basically a freak, a weirdo, someone fundamentally flawed. Or at least that's what most people thought back then. Besides, if I had told anyone 'officially' in the army, I could very well have been discharged dishonourably, kicked out. I loved the army, but I was beginning to feel that I would not be accepted for who I was.
A little later, when my parents pressured me to get married, I decided I would not be dishonest and lead a double life out of fear of society or relatives. So I wrote them a long, emotional letter saying that I had decided that I didn't want to get married and that it was my life and so, my decision. I further said, don't ask me why because I can't tell you. It broke my heart as it probably broke theirs.
Little did I know that my parents would not give in so easily; when I came home on leave from a posting, my parents had arranged a meeting with a young woman and her family. I wanted to tell them everything then and there and cancel that upcoming meeting, but that could have been very shocking and stressful for them. So I had no choice but to play along. As expected, my parents had done their homework - good family, educated girl, very beautiful too - but one look at her and I thought to myself, I don't want to cheat her and myself. But I wasn't yet ready to tell my parents, and since the decision of a life partner is something really important and complex, I must have made something up like "I didn't feel a connection". But my parents were just getting started and I wasn't willing to go through any more of that charade. And I realized the only way that I could stop them was if I came out to them.
But I was worried that I could be disowned, thrown out of the family (it is not uncommon; younger gay kids the world over are often thrown out of their families, rendered homeless, many go on to take their own lives; in many countries, suicides by young gay men account for a disproportionately large share of suicides by young men). In my case, it was not like I needed them for financial support, but I certainly needed them for a sense of belonging - something we all yearn for. Anyway, I was lucky that right around that time, NDTV was running a program - I think it was We The People - an open house discussion on the subject of homosexuality. So that day, I told them I wanted to talk to them, but before that, I made them see the NDTV program and then, choking with emotion, I came out to them.
My mother initially didn't understand, so my father explained, and her first reaction after that was, "So what, you're still my son and I love you no matter what". My father said that I needn't worry and that I would always be part of the family. That was obviously a really big relief for me - my parents had accepted me. And then, I came out to my younger brother, whom I love very much, and he was fine too, though he was sad for me. And then slowly, over the next few years, I came out to the few people in my life I was very close to - my best friend from high school (Yasas, a straight guy and a big support and ally), few cousins, a few of my closest coursemates in the three services.
As things happened, I realized my family needed me to be with them or at least be closer to home. So finally, I decided to leave the army. But I would be lying if I said that my being gay was not one of the reasons. And though it was not the top reason, the fact is I had got tired of my colleagues and more than them, their wives, constantly asking me why I hadn't got married yet. And in early 2010, after my second request for premature discharge was accepted, I left the army.
As I look back now, I must say I really loved the 11-and-a-half years that I served in the army - it made me a stronger person, it took me to different parts of this wonderful country, exposed me to different cultures and traditions, gave me an opportunity to serve the country in operations (including leading troops in counter-terrorist operations) in the most trouble-torn parts of this country (the North East and later, Kashmir).
After my army service, I was lucky to work for an MNC which was an 'equal opportunity' employer. And then after finishing my MBA (EPGP) at IIMB, I now work for another 'equal opportunity' employer - another multinational. I drew comfort from the fact that these companies called themselves equal opportunity employers - since it meant that, forget getting fired, I would not even be discriminated against if someone got to know I was gay or if I were to come out. Yet, I chose to not be open about it, not even with colleagues close to me, as I felt that it was a very private matter. But the burden of hiding has bogged me down for years and now, I'm done with hiding this part of me.
So, I have just got started with my workplace (I had already come out to my manager, my peers, my direct reports, and a few others at work). I then published a blog similar to this one on my company's Pride intranet site earlier this month and it has been very well-received. I was appreciated for having the courage to be my authentic self so openly and for inspiring other gay men and LGBT folks in the company.
For so many years, I struggled with reconciling the military/ex-military part and the gay part of my identity - as if the two can't/don't fit together. But I have slowly realized that this was an absolutely unwarranted struggle that I had subjected myself to - probably driven by lower social acceptance levels in India. I probably didn't even think of coming out earlier only because I was ex-military - as if my coming out would somehow be detrimental to the image of the army. I realize now I was so wrong to think that way.
From now on, I certainly will voice my obviously strong opinion whenever/wherever I get the opportunity. And my opinion is that with the Supreme Court having read down Section 377 of the IPC, and with improving social attitudes in the country, it is time the military kept pace with the change. The experience of countries in the west and south east Asia has proved that letting gay men/LGBT members serve openly has not posed any problems; instead, it has helped them prevent the loss of precious, well-trained resources like fighter pilots, linguistic experts, etc.
In 2018, after the historic Supreme Court judgement on Section 377, reporters asked General Rawat, the then Chief of Army Staff (and current Chief of Defence Staff) his opinion on what it implied for the army. He made this statement - "Hum logon ke yahan nahi chalega (all this won't work or won't be acceptable in the Army)". He accepted that the army is not above the law but maintained that the constitution does give it some independence. But he cannot take away the fundamental right of serving gay men to a life of dignity, honour and self-respect and he also cannot deny the right of LGBT military aspirants to serve openly in the future.
I feel that since I served in the military, my story can touch the lives of gay men currently serving - perfectly fine, professional, fit and disciplined officers and soldiers - who are being forced by homophobic policies to hide themselves out of fear of discrimination/persecution. Or it may touch people who served earlier and are now out of the military, but struggled like me. Or it could inspire gay men who are military aspirants. I am sure my blog will also help many to form an informed opinion on the question of gay men serving in the military. That's why I wished for my story to be published on the website of a major channel like NDTV - which is so well-known for its liberal values. It is my birthday today and this blog really sets me free.
The longer/complete version of my blog is here.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.