Nikhil Aziz never really felt like he’d come out to himself as a gay Indian man, until he came out to his parents.
He didn’t feel out the first time he went to an underground gay club in Mumbai. He didn’t feel out when he first moved to the United States, to Claremont, Calif., or to Denver, Chicago or finally to his current home in East Harlem. The moment he really felt himself was in 1998, in Eerie, Penn., when he followed the family rule: always be honest.
His mother, Shaila Hemmady, was visiting for a family reunion, and as they walked together, Aziz took his mother’s hand and simply told her, “I’m gay.”
Aziz and his parents tell this story in the new documentary “I Am,” a film about gays and their parents in India, directed by Sonali Gulati. “I Am” is currently screening in the tri-state area, and was shown at the Queens Museum of Art in Flushing in late October as part of the Cinemarosa queer film series.
Queens has a sizeable Indian community: over 100,000 Indians live in the borough, according to the most recent Census data, with the largest population located in Elmhurst. But whether in New Delhi or New York, many Indian families maintain traditional views of marriage and sexuality in spite of the swirl of change around them.
In July 2009, India repealed a law that had banned gay sex since the British Raj, and in 2008, New Delhi and other cities started holding annual queer pride parades.
This year in New York, organizers for the annual India Day Parade, held every August down Madison Avenue, invited the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association for the first time, according to Aneesa Sen, a group member. Parade organizers and the group didn’t always see eye to eye in the past — some years SALGA participated, some years it didn’t — but this was a welcoming year, Sen said.
At the Queens screening of “I Am,” most of the 60 or so audience members were older gay men who were not Indian. The handful of South Asian people in the crowd was mostly young. The only proud Indian parents were those in the film. And even though Hector Canonge, director of Cinemarosa film series, said he invited the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association, only a few members came.
Because the group is small, they’re often over-committed, Sen said, making it difficult to attend events. The challenges the group faces in fostering a community for South Asian gays underscore the difficulty of mobilizing people hesitant to come out.
One Jackson Heights man active in the South Asian gay association said he doesn’t think he’ll ever come out to his parents, which is why he asked that his name not be revealed. He’s still young, in his 20s, and his family doesn’t bring up marriage very often — yet. If he told them he is gay, he explained, his parents’ response would be to pressure him to marry a woman.
It’s not his comfort that he’s worried about when he considers coming out. It’s theirs.
One viewer at the Flushing screening expressed his surprise when he asked after the film: Hasn’t acceptance grown among Indian immigrants in this city?
“I run the hotline and the short answer is ‘no’,” said Sen, who operates the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association’s local support hotline for people struggling with their sexuality or their family’s acceptance. “Very few people are able to tell their parents. Most people call in and say they are being pressured to get married. Sometimes it’s a very real physical danger, and sometimes it’s mostly emotional damage.”
Some of that physical danger is explained in the film. In one scene, Gulati goes to a New Delhi doctor who prescribes eye drops that will cure her lesbianism. Take 30 drops a day, every day for three months, the doctors says, or your “condition” will have recurring effects.
An Indian woman interviewed in the film, Lesley, said her father beat her severely when she came out to him. But that was nothing compared to when her uncle told her she would have to live “with total discretion and secrecy and in a climate of fear.”
“People know but will never talk about it, and your parents and siblings keep forcing you into getting married. And your marriages: one lasts two weeks, one lasts two nights,” Lesley said in the film.
After the Queens screening, Aziz answered questions from the audience. He was hesitant to make generalities about homophobia in Indian families. But he said Indian culture created the Kama Sutra, which glorifies different expressions of sexuality, and every family in every Indian community, on the subcontinent and in Queens, is unique.
In his own story, Aziz’s parents were shocked when he came out to them. But over the years, they grew to be among the minority of outspokenly proud Indian parents of gay children.
“When I came to know [Nikhil was gay] it was a little too late,” Aziz’s father Suresh Hemmady said. “He is a grownup. He knows what he is doing. So I accepted him as he is. By not accepting him, would I change him, make him a different man? It won’t happen. You accept your son the way he is. You accept your daughter the way she is.”