The importance of being honest
23 December 2015
BOOK EXTRACT: A gay man comes out to his father in 1980s India.
(An extract from Siddharth Dube’s upcoming memoir No One Else: A Personal History of Outlawed Love and Sex to be published by HarperCollins India.
This is the first part of the web package on Himal Southasian’s quarterly on love, sexuality and marriage in Southasia.)
Eventually, in the summer of 1984, after graduating from Tufts, a few months short of my 23rd birthday, I resolved to tell my father that I was gay. I reached this decision on my own, without discussing the wisdom of this course with my brothers. I did not speak to my newfound gay friends about it either, as I knew that none of them – whether Indian or American – had told their parents. I had very personal reasons pushing me to tell my father, and they overcame my knowledge that he abhorred homosexuality.
Over my years abroad, my father and I had become ever closer. I was moved that he encouraged me to follow my passion on matters relating to social justice, whether this meant working in slums and villages or entering the poorly paid profession of journalism (which I had decided to pursue, getting a fellowship for an MA at the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism). Indeed, with my growing maturity, I had come to realise that he also genuinely cared about poverty and injustice, despite being a businessman and relishing the ﬁner things in life. I had also come to admire his ability to uncomplainingly cope with whatever diﬃculties he faced, whether it was his mounting business problems or the inexorable unraveling of his marriage. I marveled that he unfailingly remained cheerful as well as generous to others, regardless of the stress he was enduring.
I didn’t want to hide this vital aspect of my being from him, especially now that I had already told my brothers and several of my close friends. And, more than any other factor, there was the old imperative to be truthful with him because he had always put the highest stock on honesty, telling us children that anything could be forgiven if individuals remained unfailingly honest and trustworthy. (I didn’t feel a comparable need to tell my mother because though we remained emotionally close, our relationship had not made the transition to an evolving, adult understanding.) If anything, I believed that I had lived up to the letter and spirit of my father’s dictum that we must tell him first if we wanted to have homosexual sex. I knew it was only after being honest with him that I could go on to lead life as a gay man.
“Well, if it makes you feel any better, then just think of me giving him a blow job!”
Though I was determined to tell the truth to my father, I became anxious about doing so once I reached Calcutta for the summer holidays. The scenario that kept repeating itself in my mind was that he would be so consumed by anger that he would throw me out of the house, and disown me. I steeled myself for this. In a feverish, half-fantastical way, I made plans about which friend I could stay with if that happened, and then how I would ﬁnd the money for my ﬂight back to the US.
I should have had more faith in my father’s decency and aﬀection for me. But, at that young age, and faced with this particularly intense fear, I lacked the capacity to think it through calmly, and hence was overcome by my worst fears.
The right time to tell him never seemed to come. Two weeks of my vacation ticked away. And then one evening, on the way to our regular game of badminton at the club, my father asked in a tone that was distinctly purposeful, “Why didn’t you bring along your woman friend to join us this evening?” My heart skipped a beat and then began to thud anxiously. This was not how I had wanted to start my confession, by discussing women.
I said, “Dad, I don’t want her to get the wrong notion – to think that she is my girlfriend.”
He was driving, but even so he turned momentarily to look at me. After a few moments of silence, he asked, “Son, is there something you want to tell me?”
Now that I had been given a clear opportunity, all I wanted to do was to avoid it, to delay, to pull back from this precipice. I said, “Dad, there’s really no point, because your knowing won’t make either of us any happier.”
He pulled the car over to one side of the road, outside the luminescent, marble expanse of the Victoria Memorial. I was frozen with fear. He looked at me with an expression of sombreness and gentleness that I remember distinctly even today, and said, “Don’t worry. You can tell me anything.”
I buried my head in my arms, began to cry, and said “Papa, I like men. I like men, not women!” (My courage had failed me, and I couldn’t utter the word gay.) I waited, terriﬁed, for the anger and the blows.
Instead, through my disorienting anxiety, I could feel my father hugging me tight, kissing me on my bowed head, saying over and over again that I was such a special child, that he loved me enormously, that everything would be ﬁne. I could not have dreamt up a happier response.
But then I also heard him repeat, almost as if trying to convince himself with a mantra, “Don’t worry, son, we can ﬁght this together. We can solve this.” Despite my gratitude for his loving response, I bristled inwardly. I knew he meant that I should go to a psychiatrist to change my orientation. My father was never the kind to give up on trying to fashion his life and that of his loved ones into exactly what he thought best. But, for the moment, I just gave myself over to the pleasure of being comforted by him, and the joy of hearing such deep love in his voice.
Of course, that discussion had left a lot unresolved. Over the next few days, I could tell from my father’s unusual quietness and the intent way in which he looked at me that he was thinking about the discussion we had. Not knowing what to do, I kept silent and wished the matter away.
But then, a week or so later, over breakfast, my father suddenly erupted with uncharacteristic rudeness, calling me “an unrealistic fool” and left the table – food barely eaten – slamming the dining room door on his way out. At ﬁrst, I thought his comment had something to do with my plans to spend the summer working in violence-torn rural Bihar, which we had just been discussing and which he was opposed to. By the time it dawned on me that he was actually referring to my homosexuality, and my anger surged, he had already left for his oﬃce.
Commandeering my mother’s car, I drove rapidly to his oﬃce on Shakespeare Sarani, incensed that he should think badly of me even though I had unswervingly followed his diktat to be utterly honest. He gave me a chilling look as I barged into his room without even knocking, but after seeing the anger on my face, asked his staﬀ to leave us.
I erupted, “Dad, I’ve never lied to you or done anything wrong, so if you’re ever rude to me again about my being gay, I’m going to walk out and you won’t see me again!” My father parried this threat skilfully. “How can you even be sure you’re homosexual if you’ve never had sex with either a man or a woman?” I said, “Dad, trust me, I’ve always known that I’m attracted to men, not to women.”
True to his forceful nature, he continued to direct the conversation. His strategy worked. I began to feel foolish, standing there like an angry child opposite his imposing table, my back pressed against the wall to keep my knees from giving way.
He asked me to not tell anyone else, that I could at least agree to this wish of his. I said I would consider it, but then immediately became angry at my acquiescence, because I knew that he wanted me to keep this matter under wraps more because of the social shame of having a homosexual son than out of concern for me. To my surprise, I also felt a surge of satisfaction that my father was now paying the price for his own ugly homophobia. This would teach him a lesson, I thought to myself. He would learn never to hate and condemn needlessly. This was sweet, ironic revenge.
He pushed further, saying I should get married, that this is what all homosexual men did in India and even in England.
“There’s no way I’ll get married, Dad.”I was relieved to ﬁnd some ﬁrmness in my voice once again.
Not one to quit, he said, “You must promise to go to a good psychiatrist when you get back to America.”
I said “no” ﬁrmly, adding that I didn’t see how a psychiatrist could be of any use. My conﬁdence began to return.
I went back to the point that I had been making at the beginning of our conversation, the point that was most important to me. This time, I spoke with a sense of calm and maturity that I never knew I possessed. “Dad, you have to treat me with respect. I’ve never lied to you, so don’t I deserve your respect?”
My comment must have hit at the nerve centre of his ideas of how homosexuality was innately degrading, because he lost control, shouting, “I feel sick at the thought of a man giving you a—blow job!”
“Well, if it makes you feel any better, then just think of me giving him a blow job!” I said that without any forethought, equally out of control.
He looked stunned. I had won.
To the end of his life, 26 years later, my father and I never fought or even argued again about my being gay, or my decision to be increasingly open about this matter. Though I was aware that he struggled to accept my decisions for many years, he kept his feelings to himself, never once voicing them for fear that it would mar our relationship. And characteristically, whatever his inner ambivalence, he was also my most unwavering supporter through the many crises I was to face in India because of homophobic discrimination.
~Siddharth Dube is a contributing editor at the Caravan. His memoir, No One Else: A Personal History of Outlawed Love and Sex, was published by HarperCollins India in November 2015.