Transcending identities: Narrative reflection on the ritual of coming out

The term ‘coming out’ is still unfamiliar to many Indians. It is safe to say that it is a new term known mostly to the urban, English-speaking world of India who are familiar with gender and sexual minorities. Coming out of the closet can mean different things to different people; it can be an emancipatory act for some, forced upon for others. The timing of coming out and to whom is a matter of careful evaluation of consequences and trust. It is a self-learnt process born out of an inevitable need and a survival tool to overcome mental health issues. With this background in mind, this blog revolves centrally around my own coming out experience, which I have analysed as a ritual. I attempt to explain the coming out process that I have developed over the years through reflexive learning. I use autoethnography to narrate how my identity transcends contextual spaces while navigating in and out of the closet.

I hail from a fast-growing metropolitan city in South India where there are safe spaces such as support groups and NGOs, which my rural friends do not have. As is the case in most countries in the world, criminalising laws on homosexuality have colonial origins. Despite having a rich history and queer tradition in India, homosexuality is heavily frowned upon in Indian society. Awareness about sexual health, let alone homosexuality, is still a far dream. For example, men who identify as gay are thought by society at large to become transgender in the future. Although the supreme court of India decriminalised homosexuality in 2018, it will be a long time before there is complete societal acceptance, and there are no explicit anti-discriminatory laws in India that will legally protect an individual based on their sexual orientation. However, post-2018, some multi-national companies in India have initiated diversity and inclusion policies.

From the outset, it appears that I have a dichotomous life, taking up different identities as and how the situation demands. Privately, I am chiefly a gay man (of late, I am questioning this identity, too). Yet for the outer world, I am a middle-class, polyglot, backward caste, urban-raised, English-educated clinician and public health professional, with little exposure to world travel due to work, and with varied interests including philately, Indian philosophy, pottery, among others. I use the word ‘transcend’ instead of ‘transform’. In my understanding, transforming is a superficial change physically visible to others. In contrast, transcendence involves an enormous shift in personality, which is susceptible to quick changes, involving a distinct private and public self (p 57) where the two are related.

The idea of coming out is an exhaustingprocess, often with both negative and positive consequences. I have come across friends who have been ostracised by their highly conservative religious families and friends in India, causing severe mental health issues ranging from depression to suicidal ideations. The thought of coming out makes me highly anxious. Growing up, I didn’t have any resources to help myself deal with bullying and the self-awareness that I am different from others. The socio-cultural conditioning of my personhood in the heteronormative society led to the othering of myself to the extent that I believed something was wrong with me and my behaviour. Personhood (p 57) is ‘acquired gradually from birth onwards as the child becomes increasingly familiar with the shared customs and knowledge of society’. The fear of rejection and ridicule has led to lower academic and work performance, and I also developed psycho-somatic conditions such as fibromyalgia. The social fears I have developed are linked to clinical health conditions. General prejudice in society, minority stress, lack of accessible help and stigma related to rejection and discrimination all lead to excessive stress resulting in a range of mental and systemic health and behavioural issues among the queer community that are largely unnoticed.

On the other hand, coming out to a few friends strengthened our relationships, and there was mutual growth and understanding of differences in sexuality and sexual orientation. It also helped me to overcome my internalised homophobia. So far, I have come out only to friends and to two cousins in my family. I come from a joint family which is holding onto traditional Indian family values and customs. Since my family is unaware of my sexual orientation, the pressure to marry a girl is always there. I have learned to dodge the topic by giving excuses such as studying further, sometimes telling my family that I don’t find marriage interesting, pointing to the failed marriages in family and friend circles, or sometimes quoting the Hindu monkhood as an ideal way of living. Despite changes in contemporary Indian society with rapid urbanisation and Western lifestyle influences, the family institution plays an important role in India. Though there is an intergenerational change in the marriage system in India where inter-religious and inter-caste marriages are on the rise, one survey revealed that middle-class Indian youth favoured the legalisation of same-sex marriage, but were still not attracted to homosexual marriages. Every time I manage to dodge the marriage topic, I am aware of the pricking lies that I tell. Deep within, I crave a boyfriend, possibly moving where there is no discrimination against homosexuality and gay marriage is legalised. Therefore, sometimes, coming out is an answer to those close and trusting friends concerned about my well-being and showing genuine interest in my personal life.  

The ritual of coming out is a step-by-step process, complex and not always linear. It is like working out the maths to find an answer based entirely on assumptions. Every coming out ritual is a rite of passage to that person. Gennep’s description of rites of passage finds familiarity here. Rites of passage (p 148) is an event in a person’s life such as divorce, retirement, and so on, where an individual goes through separation, trial, and reintegration, marking progress through life stages. Eichler has used an autoethnography tool to illustrate his coming out using vignettes ranging from materials to places. Garrick has analysed the coming out act of self-disclosure using the ritual theory and the rites of passage and offers a generalisation that ritual can be protective and act as a guide for self-disclosure.

My coming out ritual involves three stages: a preparatory phase that happens in my mind, the actual coming-out event, and the post-coming-out engagement. The first stage is the most challenging part for me. It involves answering an algorithmic pattern of questions in my mind. I deal with many uncertainties of ifs and buts. A slight doubt could cancel the ritual. It begins with a person in mind to whom I could come out and then follows a barrage of mind-numbing questions. Why should I come out to this person? What is the necessity? Is there a threat to my life, work, or future that necessitates an outing? What is it that I am getting back in exchange? Will I face any threats from this person later? If yes, what is my safety net? Are there any secrets of this person I know which would prevent them from putting me in a fix?

Once I have convincing answers that fulfil the criteria of the first stage, the ritual preparation begins. How do I come out? Should I do it in person, write an email, or send a text? The first time I came out to my closest friend, I took more than four hours of talking to speak the three words that have defined my life – ‘I am gay!’. Nowadays, it has downgraded to a simple text message. The timing of coming out is another essential aspect of the ritual. It involves a lot of homework about the chosen person’s daily routine that leads to other questions about the selected person. For example, is this person going through any stressful situations at the moment? Will this person be able to handle this information that they might not have known? Do I have to inform anyone else and be prepared for any untoward outcome as a safety measure?

Once these questions are all resolved, then comes the second stage: the actual coming-out ritual. I have always preferred doing it in person. It gives me more confidence. It leaves me with a comfort that I have confronted my projected fear. It is also about providing a chance for them to clarify any questions about homosexuality in general and specific questions about myself, setting a stage to enter the third phase. While I come out, I take a deep breath, directly look into the other person’s eyes, smile and say the three golden words. In the beginning, I would prepare a speech describing how good a person I am (and so should not be discriminated against based on my homosexual inclination), and how this relationship is so significant to me that I cannot hide it.

The third phase is a continuation of the second with a self-imposed obligation to engage. I take the responsibility of helping the person understand my coming out. I have deduced that coming out is not a mono act since I involve the other person. I have realised that everyone, whether queer or straight, has to metaphorically come out of the closet.

Who better than me to answer questions on who else have I come out to, how sex works between two men, and so on? They only knew me as a façade. I also have to patiently listen to anyone’s unsolicited advice. All of this subsequently reduces any future awkward encounters.

After the ritual, I might not be reintegrated back into the person’s life. There is a risk of exposing one’s vulnerability to exploitation and to losing loved ones. The ritual is similar to the exchange of a gift except that there are no materials exchanged, only emotions. Coming out is sharing important information about one’s sexual orientation to gain support and solidarity, seeking a stronger allyship, overcoming deep layers of inhibition, shame, and guilt. For this is necessary to build a kinship network, a ‘chosen family’ of those who are accepting my sexuality, yet also open those who disagree.

I will illustrate this process using two examples. I confessed my sexual orientation to one of my closest friends, Shaantha, in 2016. I planned to meet her at a restaurant over lunch. We sat down over the table, ordered food, and were catching up about our work and other things. I had planned my conversation in detail. At one point, I mentioned my new project at work where my team were involved in developing a community health programme for queer folks. I mentioned it nonchalantly to observe her reaction. Knowing her personally for many years, I knew she would not judge me. Yet I wanted to be assured. The conversation moved to relationships and marriage. I brought up the issue of marriage not being an option to many individuals and she responded that it was unfortunate. I asked a follow-up question about what her feelings were about homosexual people. She said, without taking any time to think, that she would accept them for what they are. Taking advantage of the moment, I asked her how would she feel if anyone came out to her, to which she replied she would feel very happy that someone thought of her as trusting enough to share such personal information. At this moment, I revealed it to her. There was an instant shock on her face, but she got up from her chair and came towards me to give a tight hug. This was very assuring. She had many questions afterwards about my dating scene, personal journey, and so on. Throughout this conversation, I was on my guard and testing the waters slowly. I had to check every move, reassure myself that I was doing well, and be ready to abort the procedure if I sensed any red flag.

Almost three years later, I was visiting on one of my cousins who was going through a rough time and quit his job abruptly. He was visibly uncomfortable with my arrival. Sensing this, I prepared to leave, but he asked me to stay for a little longer. I obliged; yet the awkward silence continued. He suddenly popped the question and confronted me, asking if I was gay. He caught me off guard and I froze. I was speechless. I took a deep breath and just answered ‘yes’. By this time, I had performed many coming out rituals and I started to realise that it was a tiring process. A simple yes was easier than to carry out the laborious procedure. My cousin appeared flabbergasted. He told me to see a doctor to get rid of my homosexuality (he wouldn’t utter the word gay later in the conversation). I mustered up enough courage to tell him that I was fine and needed no treatment and then left immediately to prevent any further embarrassment. He cut off all communications with me. It did not bother me much but occasionally hurt me that a family member could stop talking to me because of my sexual orientation. I came face to face with one of my worst fears. This incident opened my eyes to the fact that people will choose to be homophobic because of the conditioning of society and I could do very little to change it.

From my experiences, coming out is a repetitive process and not a one-time event. It is an elaborate ritual involving lots of preparation and anticipating repercussions. I have found out that this technique resonates more or less with other queer individuals’ styles with whom I interacted through support group networks and random strangers on the internet. Using the language of queer people, ‘it gets better’ after every coming-out ceremony. I have become better with my choice of words, gained more confidence in uttering the word ‘gay’, and learnt from mistakes. Through this autoethnography, I have elucidated the nuances of navigating the in and out of my closet space. As I conduct this ritual often, I am at ease and perform it effortlessly, shedding the shame and guilt little by little, thus transcending to the true self. I have, over the years, broken the false sense of two lives and slowly accepted the fluid nature of life in general and, specifically, the spectrum of gender and sexual identity.

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