Your teens are always a difficult time. We are trying to explore our rebellious natures, trying to find our identities, all the while trying to fit in with our peer group; and when we’re made to feel like we’re different and that we don’t belong – It’s challenging. It takes immense courage to stand up for ourselves and live our truth – even if that means we may not fully ‘fit in’. It’s okay to ‘fit out’.
Valerie – Welcome to LonePack Conversations. I’m Valerie.
Today, we have with us Anwesh Sahoo, an artist, writer, model and a TEDx speaker who was crowned Mr. Gay World India, 2016. He is an activist for LGBTQ rights and has written extensively to dispel stereotypes people have about the LGBTQ community. His campaign “Fitting Out” aimed at connecting with NGOs, schools and communities to spread awareness about the simple fact that straight men and women are only a part of the rainbow spectrum of sexual orientations possible.
Anwesh – Hi, Valerie. Thank you so much for having me.
Valerie– It’s great to have you here today.
Anwesh– Thank you. I’m happy to be a part and I hope that I can actually give out something worthwhile during our conversation. I still believe that I think I’m too small a being to actually be here talking about such big issues today but thank you so much for having me.
Valerie– I’m sure you will. I mean it’s been a very personal journey for you and I’m sure our listeners would love to hear about it and it will be very inspiring.
Anwesh- I hope so, I hope so. Perfect.
Valerie– – So, in a lot of the talks that you’ve given, you’ve shared your experiences about how you struggled to fit into the ‘typical masculine’ mould growing up. You’ve been vocal about the bullying and teasing that you faced in school. So, how did this impact your mental health and how much did it influence your decision to come out and tell the world how you really feel?
Anwesh– So, to be very honest, I think I was bullied almost all my childhood, especially at school. I think home was always like a safe space. My parents, while sometimes they would get a little annoyed with the fact that there were acquaintances who would always come and talk about, or mock me, or talk about how I should’ve been a girl but I’ve become a guy and I have such feminine traits which boys my age didn’t really have. I think all of this sort of aggravated by the time I turned sixteen. I remember I was actually going for a coaching class at that point in time. I was preparing for JEE and around that time, I was starting to realise that I was actually interested in boys and the fact that my interest in boys was not going to fade away. I think that was the point when I really started questioning everything around me.
I sort of went into this existential crisis perhaps because I think I was finding the education in that coaching centre extremely difficult and I think for any child who has grown up in India, around the time you’re in your eleventh and twelfth standard, it’s such a big leap from when you’re just fifteen and you’re in your tenth standard and I had done well and I was hoping that I would just ace everything that was coming my way but I did find everything in the eleventh standard perhaps a little difficult, also because there are already so many things that are going on in your head. Your body is going through massive changes. So, I do believe that I think the kids in my coaching centre, when they started teasing me, I think that is when it started affecting me because I felt like school was still a place where guys would tease and it didn’t really matter. I had been with those boys for a very long time now and I think that I had sort of trivialized their bullying.
When the same bullying continued in my coaching centre, that’s when I started questioning that okay, maybe there is something wrong about me, maybe there is something different about me. The more I introspected, the more I realised that I was sort of going into this downward spiral and I do remember this very day when I was just sitting on my table, I was supposed to complete an assignment for my coaching centre. They had given us a lot of assignments and I was really bogged down. I had switched off my lights and I was just there in that darkness, with a pencil in my hand and I had my desk right in front of me, and I was just scribbling on it – like a crazy maniac. It was almost as if I could not take in the mess that was going around in my head. I could not even channelize any of this because of course, I’m talking about 2012, when mental health issues were still not very talked about and I wasn’t even very active on the Internet to even understand all of these very massive concepts, very complex concepts for that matter, for me back then, at least. I had just gone into that phase where I just did not want to live any more.
I had sort of started realising and understanding, and the more I questioned myself – thankfully, I was introspecting- I was questioning what was wrong about me because I could not live without having answers to these questions and the more I questioned myself, the more miserable I felt about the fact that perhaps I am gay and therefore, there is no hope in my life and I think this is it. I just felt that if I am not going to live a dignified life, then there is no point of me living this life because I am going to, perhaps, bring shame to both me as well as my parents. Above everything else, my parents might not even be there for me in the future but I will have to life with this body and the very fact that I am going to be gay all my life and therefore, it just didn’t seem like there was any meaning to my life anymore.
I remember going and standing right in front of my mirror, right above the sink. There was this phenyl bottle which was right below the sink and I would always look at it. After both my parents were asleep, I would go there and stand there for sometimes an hour and I would always be contemplating “Should I drink it? Should I not? Should I drink it? Should I not?” and then I remember once googling what are the easiest ways with which I can kill myself. Those were really dark times. Sometimes, maybe today when I think about it, they do seem funny but back then, I sort of laughed them off. That’s perhaps the only way I sort of combat all those very difficult times. Back then, it was a very difficult time for me and I would often contemplate what if I just kill myself and just done with this because I cannot take this any more.
But I do remember telling myself on one of those days when it had sort of become a cycle, you know sometimes when things become a cycle, you start questioning- Why is this becoming a cycle? This is not a good thing for my life, to have a cycle like this where every night I stand in front of the mirror and think about killing myself. Especially if I have exams coming up. Board exams are coming up and my parents were very particular that I should do well, and I was doing well in school so I didn’t want to lose out on my grades. So, I just told myself that if I die today, this is the end. There was nobody who was going to tell my story ever again and perhaps, there will be another Anwesh, if not today then maybe ten years down the line, five years down the line, who would probably go through the same dilemma that I am going through today and perhaps, that Anwesh does not deserve to die and so don’t I. I don’t deserve to die. I deserve to live. I deserve to tell my story, and I deserve to have access to every fundamental right and perhaps the most fundamental right there is, is dignity and happiness. I wanted all of those good things in my life like the way my straight counterparts did.
Therefore, I just felt like if I would die, it would be the end of everything. I didn’t want that to be the end. I had such big aspirations. I was so hard-working all throughout my life. I didn’t want my hard work to go down the drain. So, I just told myself that. I came back to my room and I do remember that over the time, that night was kind of me reaching the lowest in my life. I came across this amazing book by Robin S Sharma called ‘The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari’. That book also changed a lot of my perspective about life. It made me value the time that I have, it made me value the education that I have and it made me value my parents a lot more and I realised that I didn’t want to lead a life where I simply wasn’t being treated like an equal and I think by then, I was just being treated like a garbage bin where people would come and say random and very negative things to me and it would just break my heart and therefore, I just didn’t want to lead that kind of life any more.
Valerie– That is indeed very inspiring and it’s amazing that despite going through so much, you decided that this is not how it’s going to be. You’re going to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and say that this is who I am and I’m going to live my life with dignity. I think it’s really amazing that you’ve made this decision despite all of the hard times that you’ve gone through and that people have put you through.
Anwesh– Yeah, today when I sometimes look back at myself, if often breaks my heart when I think about those times but I’m very grateful that by eighteen year old self, my seventeen year old self, for that matter, had the maturity to understand that I deserved more and I think every great thing that has happened to me since, I feel so grateful for it because I know what it means to not have any of it. I know very well what it means to not have any hope at all and just go into that downward spiral and therefore I really value everything that I come across or everything that I experience, both good and bad, because they are why I am what I am today.
Valerie- That is a wonderful way of looking at things.
So, you’ve also spoken about how society, in India especially, is unprepared to deal with those who do not conform to gender stereotypes. Many parents adopt a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. A lot of other parents who mean well and accept us, still advise us to not tell other people under the guise of ‘protecting us’. So, what is your perspective on this? And how did your parents react when you decided to tell them?
Anwesh– That’s a good question. I have come across, in fact, a lot of people, who are not just from India but also from – I’m talking about gay men – from around the world who often, in fact men who I’ve dated in the past, who would often tell me that I have this “don’t say, don’t share” policy with my parents, or with my mother and I’m trying to do this to protect them from going through that trauma that I’m going through their my life and to be very honest, I don’t think it really works out. I don’t think it, in any way, is helpful for either the person who happens to be queer or the parent because it sort of leads to a very miserable relationship between both of you, because you have already created such a block for yourself between your parent and you and obviously, you’re never going to be transparent to your parents and therefore, any relationship for that matter, not just a mother and child relationship or a father and child relationship, or a parent-child relationship in general but any relationship cannot be based on lies or it cannot be based on half-truths.
Therefore, if you really want to build a healthy relationship with your parent, I would also suggest that you take your time, and see or examine when is the right time for you to really come out to your parents because perhaps in India, I have come across young sixteen-seventeen year olds who find it extremely difficult to talk to their parents because they’re culturally sometimes not a very accepting group of people. I mean, I have come across people where honor killing is still very much a big deal in parts of the country. There are parts where sometimes when kids come out to their parents, they come back to school or they come back to college with swollen faces and that’s not a very safe space to be in. In fact, acquaintances can sometimes be very mean and there is a reason why we still have corrective rape in India. There are still parents who perhaps take their kids to psychologists and sometimes psychiatrists to go through shock therapy, which is such an incredibly awful thing to let your child go through.
So, I think at least in India, I would say that you take your time, and realise and examine when is the right time for you to really come out. More often than not, it’s better to take your time to empower yourself financially and when you can take a stance for yourself, that is when you actually even initiate a conversation with your parents. If you really think that your parents are extremely headstrong about stuff, then I would really suggest that it is better to not actually share sometimes and perhaps find a safe space somewhere else. As queer people, we always sort of learn to build a chosen family. I do have a chosen family as well in the queer community, which I’m extremely grateful for. They will always accept you the way you are and they will understand the pain that you have been through, which perhaps a lot of our parents find very difficult to understand.
However, that said, if you can afford to come out, I would really recommend that you do come out because it really helps build a really healthy relationship between your parents and you over time, even if it does not lead to a very healthy conversation at that point in time, which is something that had happened to me. Both my parents were very shocked when I had come out to them. It was extremely difficult to even have a simple conversation with either of my parents when I came out to them. My mother would often say that “Oh my God Anwesh, I don’t know what I did wrong that I have to go through this”. It was no more about just me, it was also about her and the fact that she might have done something wrong which led me to being gay, which is something that I obviously didn’t agree with. I was born this way and therefore, I didn’t understand why I had to go through the negativity or all these very awkward conversations but I realised that I had to be extremely patient with both my parents and I’m grateful that I had that patience with them because now they are certainly a lot more accepting than they used to be.
I know that there is a part of them that still hopes that perhaps someday I would come back to them as their straight son, perhaps marry a woman and they would have a daughter-in-law and all of those aspirations that Indian parents usually have with their kids. But I think it’s a very unfair aspiration to have with your kids. I know that you invest a lot in your kids and therefore you have these dreams attached but your kid will eventually lead his or her own life and therefore it’s extremely important you let your child be and choose what the child thinks is the best for himself or herself. That is exactly where the parents will also eventually find happiness.
Valerie– Right. I’m assuming now that you said your parents also did find it difficult when you told them that you were gay and you said that they were not as accepting then as they probably are becoming now. What was it like for you when you to then, decide to then sign up for the Mr. Gay World pageant. I mean when you told them about it and when you aren’t feeling accepted, what was it like for you to decide to do this and take this step?
Anwesh– Well, there were many reasons why I decided to initially take part in the competition. One of the biggest reasons definitely was the fact that I just felt that the pageant was a platform where I would be able to represent myself and provide my voice with a bigger platform. Above everything else, I felt like it was going to give me a more dignified life, which I really felt was lacking massively in India. In fact, I still to a big extent feel that I’m unable to live my life to the fullest extent sometimes because I have to hide a part of myself while I live here, in India.
There are times when I would like to wear very fancy clothes or a big pair of heels, which I love wearing. Sometimes I do feel like I don’t get to wear all of that because I have to also take care of my safety. I have been stalked in the past, I have been groped. There are things that I would not like to put myself through again and therefore I’m much more thoughtful, mindful and careful about how I carry myself in public today. I just wanted to have a way better life where I didn’t have to hide myself from anyone.
Perhaps it was also a way for me to me to combat awkward conversations with my acquaintances because I knew that if I was going to win the pageant, I would never have to deal with awkward conversations with any of my acquaintances and they wouldn’t assume things like I’m going to marry a woman because that would often happen with most of my acquaintances. They would always ask me “What about your girlfriend?” or perhaps someday they would’ve also asked me “When are you getting married to a woman?” and all of that. I felt those questions to me were extremely uncomfortable. I felt like you know, I’m not attracted to a woman and you’ve already assumed that I’m attracted to a woman and therefore, I am going to have a girlfriend and I’m going to marry this person and they would often also do matchmaking for me with all these other girls my age. All of that was extremely awkward for me and I just felt like I don’t deserve to go through all of this.
I should be able to have a life where people know about me and don’t judge me for who I am. Therefore, even if they judge me after knowing I’m gay, then it’s actually their fault and it’s not going to cost me anything. At least I have put my life out there in front of them, they know about my sexuality and they are not going to have stupid assumptions about who I am. Whether they accept me or not is a very far-fetched question. They should at least know who I am, to begin with.
There was also one of the clauses in the Mr. Gay World pageant that in order for me to participate, I had to be out to my parents and that is usually done to that the organization doesn’t get into unnecessary fights with the parents of the participants later. I had to be nineteen and I had to be out to participate in Mr. Gay India. Therefore, I was like this is the right time for me to really come out to them and talk about my sexuality to them because I don’t see a reason why I should hide it. Straight people don’t have to hide their sexuality. So why should I have to hide it?
And my father did say that “I accept you as you are but I don’t want you to talk about your sexuality with others. You don’t have to wear it on your sleeve and put it out there for everyone to know and discuss” and I was like “Papa, you are not asking yourself to do that and therefore why should I have to do it? You have to understand that while my sexuality is not everything about me, it is perhaps a very small part about me but it is a pertinent part about me and therefore, I don’t want to hide a part of myself. Nobody is going to ask me to put my gayness out there for everybody to know. They’re never going to ask any questions about my homosexuality until I initiate that conversation with them and I educate them about it because there is a lot more to it and people can be very insensitive about it and people have been very insensitive about it to me all throughout my childhood, all throughout my teenage years and people sometimes still continue to be very insensitive and ask me very insensitive questions and therefore, I do not want to combat any of this anymore. I have had enough of it and I am old enough to decide what is right for me and therefore, if my conscience is right and I know there’s nothing wrong about me being gay, then I am going to talk about it, no matter what”. And that’s what I did and I have no regrets today at all.
Valerie– That’s really great.
So, the fact that we’ve got platforms like Mr. Gay World does show that ofcourse, we are making progress but as we can see, even many Indian movies and shows that we have, we are perpetuating certain stereotypes of the LGBTQ+ community or we’re using them as props for comic relief. So, considering the fact that there is a significant societal impact that movies have on people, especially in India- the Indian audience worships a lot of movie stars and you look at movies and you aspire to be like somebody there. What are your thoughts about this?
Anwesh– I think in popular media in particular, we have a massive lack of representation of the LGBTIQA+ community. We have of course had very problematic characters in the past, some of which have also affected me and my thought process about being gay. In fact, the very first time I actually came across the word “gay” was through Dostana. I think anybody who’s struggling to come out and is struggling with their sexuality should never be looking at a film like Dostana because it will only scar them further.
The way, for example, the character of Abhishek Bachchan was caricaturized, his character was this effeminate character. Let’s also break this down- there is nothing wrong about him being effeminate. There are a lot of gay men who are effeminate. I happen to be on of them and I have absolutely no regrets about being a proud gay fem man. However, I have lived most of my life knowing that I am brown, gay and fem and all of these three things, when they come together, they sort of unfortunately strip you off of a lot of your privilege growing up. Therefore, I didn’t even know what privilege meant growing up because I was always looked down upon throughout my childhood for being all of these three things.
Unfortunately, of course, when I looked at the film, I felt that the fem characters were not represented in a dignified way. I often come across a lot of conversation about how gay men are so much more than effeminate, there are also so many gay men who are not fem. They are like any other men. Well, that’s fine and we’ve had enough of that representation. There is a reason why people accept straight acting or masc, as they say, masc gay men very easily because somewhere down the line, they also fit into their hetero-normative mindset and it always becomes very problematic when people in general do not fit into the narrow, normative behavior that the society has sort of chalked out for us.
Therefore, if a man is a little effeminate, that becomes very problematic because you’ve already been conditioned in a certain way that “This is what a man is supposed to be”. “This is what a woman is supposed to be”. And if you blur those lines, it suddenly becomes so problematic to this entire societal structure that we live in. I genuinely have a massive problem with the way fem gay men, or even trans people are represented in popular media.
Therefore, I really feel that fem gay men also need representation, and dignified representation. Not all fem gay men are sex addicts or sex maniacs or sexual assaulters or side-kicks! They can be the central character of their own stories and they should be represented as strong dignified characters who have a job, who perhaps have all these jobs that we do not even know a lot of gay men have. A lot of the top leaders in our country happen to be LGBTIQA+ and therefore, I do hope that in the future, there is more equal representation and not the one-dimensional representation that has existed till date.
Valerie– Right. The fact that you said that the representation is not equal and obviously it polarizes people’s vision in the way that they now look at people in society. That is extremely wrong and there needs to be a massive change in the way people are represented on screen.
Anwesh– Yeah, absolutely. It’s high time.
Valerie- So for you, your journey from struggling with bullying to coming out and being crowned Mr. Gay World – I’m sure it’s been a rollercoaster journey for you. So what is the one thing you’d like to share with people who are struggling to come out?
Anwesh– For me, there were two important things that I would often tell myself when I was struggling with my sexuality. In fact, this was something that I had come across during one of my school assembly sessions, when one of the teachers spoke about self-pitying. I completely agree with the fact that self-denial and self-pitying are two of the worst things that one could do to one’s self. You cannot deny yourself who you truly are and it is extremely important that you live an authentic life. You don’t have to live a life that is so high on ethics because honestly, all this protocol that has been given to us has been defined by someone and everybody’s right and wrong can be very different.
Therefore, it’s more important that you invest in understanding your conscience and then truly live a more authentic life so that you also lead a more fulfilling life. It is extremely important that you also take yourself less seriously. Don’t get too involved in all the negativity that there is because there honestly is a lot of garbage, even on the Internet right now, at least on the social media platforms. There is a lot of noise on these platforms and I would want people to start investing in looking into themselves instead of indulging in these very meaningless conversations. Pick your conversations, pick your battles and you will lead a much more fulfilling life and that’s all that there is. Leading a peaceful life, leading a happy, fulfilling life. Yeah.
Valerie– Well, Anwesh, thank you for this conversation that I’ve had with you. It’s been lovely to listen to your journey, your experiences shared and I do hope that we become people that are more positive and receptive to other people and let them live their lives with dignity instead of judging and creating differences and all kinds of discrimination. I really hope that we become people who become more acceptive.
Anwesh- Absolutely. I hope so as well and thank you so much for having me again. It’s been incredible talking to you. It’s been a little emotionally actually, as well but yeah, thank you so much and I really hope that my words are able to make a positive impact in the audience listening to us today. Thank you. Thank you so much.
Valerie- I’m sure it will. Thank you.