I lived in Mumbai, India for fourteen years, after which I moved to Northampton, Massachusetts to finish my last two years of high school. I’m currently studying at a college New York, and visit my family in India during breaks at college. My relationship with India has been strained for a while now, as I used to see it as a place that inflicted me with so much pain; but what I’ve realised now is that it was also where I learned the most valuable life lessons.
Growing up in India as a LGBTQIA person was the most isolating experience ever. I wish I could have gone back in time and told myself that I wasn’t alone, and that the situation I was in was because of how society had refused to change and grow for so long – not because there was something wrong with me. I studied in the same school for ten years, which means I pretty much grew up with all my classmates. High school started to get a lot harder as I learned more about myself and struggled with being gay. People slowly began to make derogatory comments and a lot of my friends distanced themselves from me. It was hard seeing people dislike me for just being myself. It took me such a long time to process how society was structured in such a different way, there really didn’t seem to be a place for me to be happy in the environment I was in. This changed when I moved to America to continue my education. I was really able to take a step back from everything I was going through and find a way to focus on finding myself.
I remember going to the movies with my mother in India. A lot of the Bollywood movies we saw had several homophobic references. It’s common for straight characters to use homophobic slurs or there’s always that one gay character dressed all in pink that serves a comical purpose. The majority of media representation in India for the LGBTQIA community is negative and derogatory. Those scenes in the movies always stayed with me after, I’d always think to myself that I couldn’t freely be myself, as any feminine behavior would get me in trouble. It took a long time for me to really see how deeply masculinity and homophobia had affected the society I was in. It was more about a lack of knowledge than hate.
Section 377 in the Indian Penal Code makes sexual activity between members of the same sex illegal. Same sex marriage is illegal too. The Indian media hasn’t given the LGBTQIA community enough reach or positive representation and because of this change is going to be a lot slower. What the LGBTQIA community really needs is for the government to stop criminalising our lives and give us representation to educate people on what issues people are dealing with. I started to realise how unfair things were over time, and the more I uncovered about the society I was living in, the more I felt like I didn’t belong. It’s hard to answer the question, “Where are you from?” when nothing you stand for reflects the reality of life there.
The environment in Mumbai really blinded me to so many things about myself that I hadn’t discovered yet. I was fighting a lot of injustices at once, it’s taken a lot for me to really be able to reach that point in my life where I can feel like I’m where I need to be emotionally and spiritually. Dealing with so much at a young age teaches you a lot about people and the world, but at the same time I acknowledge how privileged I am to be able to move to another country for education because of my parent’s support. Not everyone gets that opportunity, and I want to make the most of the platforms out there to share my story. Intersectionality has never been more important. The past four years have really shaped who I am as a person today.
I’ve been trying to find a way to make my time in India a lot more peaceful and establish a feeling of ‘home’ once again. I’m trying to redefine what my identity and where I come from means to me, as my emotions towards both have been conflicted for a very long time. I refused to let all the homophobic rhetoric bring me down, I made sure I fought my way out to get where I wanted to be. So many people I’ve interacted with and met have told me they cannot come out to their families because their parents don’t ‘understand’. People need to be aware of the situations LGBTQIA people are in all around the world. India is just a tiny microcosm of an example of what’s happening in so many other places around the world. I want to push the boundaries that people are held within when it comes to self-expression. I want to start a conversation, really change the way people think. Most importantly, I won’t ever stop fighting for equality.
Photography, Styling, Model & Words: Harshvardhan Shah
Technical Assistance: Nicholas Guillerault