By Rupam Jain
“I first learned about the term homosexuality when I was in my eighth grade. That was the time ‘Dostana’ had released and one of the guys in school mentioned the term ‘gay’. I got to know that there are men who are attracted to men. Thanks to the film, I was also made to realize that such men are looked down upon,” begins Anwesh Sahoo, Mr Gay World India 2016.
Growing up gay in India is not easy, or for that matter anywhere in the world. However, where we live matter to us and in our country, people - those who actually can make a difference to the lives of the LGBTQ communities - are the ones making it worse for them, opines Anwesh. “In ‘Dostana’, Abhishek Bachchan tries to act gay and that is supposed to be funny! Imagine when a 13-year-old boy watches it, what is he going to think about the community? He obviously is going to look down upon it. And why would a gay boy, who is already fighting a dilemma within himself ever decide to come out when he is being shown how unfortunate it is to be gay? Oh wait! There is the song to top it all. ‘Maa ka laadla bigad gaya!’ Really? If one is gay, he is “bigaad gaya”? And it’s a film by Karan Johar! No wonder, there are constant jokes about him being closeted; in some ways, he has brought it upon himself,” Anwesh avers.
The 20-year-old Odisha boy, who is currently a student of Electronics and Communications Engineering, points out other examples of the continuous misrepresentation of the gay identity on the silver screen. “Very recently, we have had Fawad Khan playing gay in ‘Kapoor and Sons’. Though I appreciate the fact that he was not pushed to a mere caricature in the film, he wasn’t exactly representative of a gay man either. Same goes for Randeep Hooda’s character in ‘Bombay Talkies’. So, basically, when you bring a gay character on screen, you either have to make him a caricature or fit him into the heteronormative society. You will either have a gay character made the butt of all jokes or someone as good-looking, without a tinge of femininity as Fawad or Randeep, playing gay. Now that is misrepresentation of us gay people,” he says. “Just the other day, I was watching an award function and there was this actor talking like a homosexual man and instantly, it became a joke! This exactly is the problem and you are showing this on national television. To sum up, celebs don’t come out because there are always jokes surrounding gay men; and because celebs don’t come out, there are more jokes surrounding gay men.”
Well, that just goes to show that there is a reason why America has become a little more accepting of gay people – because there are celebs ascertaining their identities openly, and they are all being respected for it. “Celebs have a huge influence, their support matters. Of course, we have the likes of Sonam Kapoor and Celina Jaitley who have lent constant support to the LGBTQ community, but what about actors who are gay? It’s sad that we don’t have a single gay actor reaching out to the community,” points out Anwesh.
Having watched a film like ‘Dostana’ when he was already being bullied in school for his demeanor, Anwesh’s struggle to accept himself became worse. He was often called ‘chakka’, girly, sissy, et al. When he was 16, he realized that his attraction towards men was not going to fade out at all and this really worried him. Anwesh admits, “I was under depression for almost six months. The biggest problem I had was accepting myself as a gay person. I didn’t want me to be gay. I was disturbed by the way I felt”.
In the year 2012, Anwesh made a phone call to his sister, breaking the news that he was gay. “I was talking to her and crying the entire time as I kept questioning how can this happen to me! And why me! I would see all these kids around me so happy, studying, concentrating on their careers, going out with friends, and here I was in my room, all alone. I didn’t even have friends. I was even scared that my first crush was a man.”
What changed Anwesh’s mind into accepting himself were American shows that had audiences accepting and celebrating a person for who he/she is. He watched Steven Retchless, a male pole dancer in heels, on ‘America’s Got Talent’ and found the audience so appreciative of his act and the way he was. That was the first time he realized that being gay is not a big deal. He later got to know about Jim Parsons, the gay characters in ‘Modern Family’, about Neil Patrick Harris – and “I suddenly became aware that there are so many people like me and they are all living such a great life.” Though life is not easy for gay people in most places in the world, including America, such visibility and examples of social acceptance matter.
So empowered did he feel after accepting himself that he went out and announced it to his friends, family, teachers. “Of course, my parents were in complete denial when I came out to them. They told me a man is supposed to live with a woman. While my mother still hopes that I would become straight one day, my father was planning to take me to a psychiatrist. Luckily, ‘Satyamev Jayate’ aired an episode on homosexuality around that time and it had a psychiatrist on the show. That was the first time my parents accepted that homosexuality is not a disease or disorder,” says Anwesh.
To empower those who feel suffocated in the closet, Anwesh went on to participate in the Mr Gay India contest. Having won the pageant and after representing India at the Mr Gay World level, Anwesh is now using the title to make his voice more audible to the masses. “I run this campaign called Fitting Out, aimed at helping people to find themselves and come out early. I go to schools and colleges and educate them about gender, sexuality and tell them that it is absolutely okay for a guy to be feminine or for a girl to be tomboyish. Must say it’s been difficult to get through to schools. I have had awful experiences in Odisha. At some, I wasn’t treated well, others backed out saying it’s not cool for the kids to know about gay people. In Haryana, where my parents now live, I had to make a dozen calls, before a school allowed to me to talk, but they didn’t let me use the term LGBTQ.”
Anwesh however, is determined in his mission as he believes the solution to end stigma towards homosexuality lies in education. “I am soon going to be writing to the HRD Ministry, NCERT asking that chapters on gender and alternate sexuality be included in text books and made compulsory in schools. In fact, I am going to reach out to the UN as well – why not make this compulsory in the entire world. It will change things for the better when people become more and more aware.”
Questions that make Anwesh go What the ….! (He has been asked these in the past). Don’t miss his answers.
Q. Your favorite color must be pink?
Q. Have you been sexually abused as a child?
Q. If you are a gay man living in India, you are bound to be abused.
A. You seem disappointed that I have not been sexually abused.
Q. Do you have a partner?
Q. How do you then know that you are gay?
A. How do you know you are straight?