Unlocking the claustrophobic closet

Unlocking the claustrophobic closet

Who will open this closet: the one in which a child is trapped – claustrophobic, searching for light, oxygen and his identity?

Anshu Arora

A person who has claustrophobia fears enclosed spaces, and may panic when inside a space such as a lift, a plane or a crowded room. Imagine if this space was one’s own body or home?

As a child when us cousins would play hide and seek, I would never hide in dark, under the bed or in the closet kind of areas because I used to fear claustrophobic spaces. As I write this, I wonder how many people have to live in similar spaces all or most of their lives. 

The angst

It was at a birthday party that I met a 13-year old, who was visibly gay. I being the one that children don’t mind sharing secrets with, they opened up about the difficulties he was facing at school and unfortunately at home as well. 

They were a gang of four girls and him. These girls shielded him like a solid rockface. No one would dare say anything to him. I was happy to see him have tremendous support from his peers. However, I was heartbroken when he told me the words his own family used for him and the treatment he got. 

There was angst, loud pitch, anxiety, a fidgety body language and a constant frown as he spoke. My thoughts went back to the research I had done for my book. In Candid Conversations with Anshu Arora, I have interviewed LGBTQIA+ activist ‘Krishna’ who opened up about facts that I could never think of. 

Many parts of his journey were beyond comprehension for me. However, while people like Krishna are always doing their part to convert these claustrophobic spaces into open and breathable spaces, there is still a lot that needs to be accomplished. 

A helping hand

I sat that bright youth down and started my candid conversation about the research I had done and what I discovered on this journey. I chose to pick conversations that were positive and hopeful in nature, as he seemed disturbed and even shattered. He had finished drinking a tall glass of coke in three sips and was now sucking on the ice without being aware of doing so. 

I started with what I had read, in the book Gay Bombay, authored by Parmesh Shahani. He wrote that he did not know a single person whose life turned for the worse after coming out, in the long term. It reads, “though it is challenging, I am a strong advocate of people coming out. I know of so many families that have become much closer after people decided to come out. I would say seek help of a good resource group and an LGBT-friendly counsellor if you can. When you come out, you are only sharing who you are. You are not seeking their approval or acceptance. Be willing to give them the time they need to process, ask questions, and accept you.” 

While I spoke, the young guy kept nodding his head in the negative. He said, that’s not true in his case, that’s not how it is going to be. He added that once his father said to him that being gay is in fashion, it’s a trend, you will get over it! His father pushed him away when he was trying to share an important part of himself. He kept staring at his father in shock. He felt trapped, jammed up and was unable to communicate. 

The need to look within

The thought that I wish to trigger through this article is: Who will open this closet: the one in which this 13-year old is trapped – claustrophobic, searching for light, oxygen and his identity?

In India we still place the family at the centre of the universe. My question is: How many queer parents have you come across at adoption centres, parent-teacher meetings or even eating ice cream with their children at the mall? Our laws, families and inhibitions need a review. 

I won’t say there is no hope or that things are not changing, but I want us, especially parents, to be mindful of the damage that happens if they spend too much time in their acceptance phase. In a society bound by a rigid set of social and cultural norms that dictate the terms and conditions of education, career and marriage, lack of family support can prove to be a big blow to the mental and physical health of LGBT people, especially teenagers.

Isolation and pressure to conform often lead to depression, thoughts of suicide and psychosomatic diseases. I do not know where this young person is headed. I could only hear him and share some points for 15 minutes. Post that he went back to the same home, same circumstances and to the same family.

That closet

The question now is, how and when should one come out of this dark closet? What should he do? Should he not have told anyone? Should he not have spoken to me or his friends? How does one decide what is the right thing to do?

Here is an excerpt of an article I read: “It was for no small reason that I was in the closet for 41 years,” he says. “I know of someone who got a sudden rush of inspiration from a TV programme and decided to come out to his family. It didn’t work. He lost his home, his job, everything. I always tell people to be fully aware of their own reality. Be financially prepared. Detach a bit from your family both emotionally and financially before you plan to take this step.”

Recently, I was reading about Anwesh Sahoo, Mr Gay India 2016, who came out to his family at the age of 16. He said, “I would not recommend waiting for the perfect time. Staying in the closet is a huge psychological burden. If you and your family have access to information, I suggest you do it whenever you feel strongly about your identity.”

Therefore, what is it truly about? I told the young man who was still sipping on ice, “You don’t owe it to anyone to come out. Take your own time and come out to only those you are comfortable with.” I told him, no stress, anxiety or trauma is worth it. I explained it through the example, when during my book’s research I came across a situation where many lesbian women would try to find a gay man who would be ready to put up a facade of marriage. That way they won’t have to worry about coming out or face sexual abuse while satisfying their family’s obsession with marriage.

Is this even a choice for life? I added that he needs to firm up his thoughts about his identity first. Once he is sure about his preferences and desire, then that should be the moment to peep out of the closet.

A queer person has multiple struggles in all aspects of life. Fact is, parents can make children’s lives much easier if they don’t add to these struggles. We need to talk about Section 377. We need to talk about the new transgender bill, which the vast majority of transgender people find unacceptable. Parents, families and individuals cannot change much as long as the system supports oppression of LGBTQIA+ rights.

The pain and joy

Whilst my research brought about some heart-breaking facts, it also brought hope. I heard this from the father of a 14-year-old gay youth, “my son is a gift. I wish to give him the space to unfold – as he is – into a happy, caring person. He has in fact helped me grow as a parent and as a person.” 

I also realised that there are parents and families who want to help their LGBTQIA+ children, but do not know how. In the same context, I experienced rather mixed emotions when I heard a mother say, “When my daughter was 15, I spent so much time fussing over how she looked. I realise now that I should have been concerned about how she felt instead. We didn’t know about transgenders, we were confused and non-accepting. I realised how sad and depressed she got right before senior school. Help in our case came from the school. The school helped us find a LGBTQIA+ counsellor and that’s when we found out how hopeless and helpless she felt all the time and the struggle she had every single day. I wanted to make sure she wasn’t rejected by us or others any more. I’m so grateful I could change things before it was too late.”

Regret is hard, very hard. These are our children and we are talking about accepting our own children. What you will read next will break your heart as much as it broke mine. This is the mother of a 16-year-old lesbian youth. “When I put my head on the pillow at night, I think about my daughter and just hope she’s safe. I don’t know where she is. I haven’t heard from her ever since I threw her out of the house when she told me she was a lesbian. She might have left for Mumbai or Bangalore. I don’t know where she is. Back then, I didn’t know what to do. I wish I had acted differently. I would give anything to be able to change that now. What has slipped out of my hands, is my daughter, my only daughter.” 

Rejection, ignorance, bullying, non-acceptance, being ridiculed or being called names about one’s identity is an unimaginable pain. Research shows that LGBTQIA+ young adults who reported high levels of family rejection during adolescence were more likely to attempt suicide or have high levels of depression or even indulge in substance abuse. This surely is not the space we want our children to be in. It is time to address and accept, so that young children don’t have to search for someone outside their family to listen to their concerns.


Wanted: An Ally

The word ‘ally’ is a powerful one. It means someone who has your back and is on your side, because they know it’s the right thing to do. In the LGBTQIA+ movement, an ‘ally’ describes someone who may not be LGBTQIA+ themselves, but who are committed to equality and who speak out against discrimination. Can you and I be allies? All parents? Friends? Community? Schools? All be Allies?

Can there be a straight classmate who sticks by a friend questioning his gender identity?

Can there be a teacher who serves as an advisor for a gay-straight alliance (GSA)?

Can parents find ways to promote respect for diversity in their child’s school?

Can a counsellor make sure that LGBTQIA+ issues are heard?

By visibly supporting LGBTQIA+ youth, we can play a critical role in stopping and even preventing harassment and discrimination.

Let us make the time to listen and learn. 

Let us help open this dark closet, because it sure is a claustrophobic space to be in.