As a Master’s in Development Practice candidate at Emory University, I am always investigating the ‘development’ of gender empowerment, housing, disaster response, environmental sustainability, among other topics. A common mistake made in development, specifically international development, is that a good idea or method of implementation is assumed to work in every context and in all communities. As a gay South Asian male, I want to understand development issues in the context of the LGBTQ community. Is the LGBTQ community making the mistake of using a universal method approach in understanding who we are?
“Coming out” came up in many conversations during my experience with SAALT’s 2014–2015 Young Leaders Institute (YLI), which focused on LGBTQ issues. Some students were “out,” some were in the process, some had not even thought about it, and some don’t plan on “coming out”. At different times in their lives, people explore coming out and its impacts in different ways. At eight years old, I came out to my mom after watching a television episode of General Hospital when one of the characters came out to his mom after acknowledging his homosexuality. I told my mom, “Hey Maa, the son is gay just like me!” My mom chuckled, as she knew I loved relating television shows to my own reality. I chuckled as well, but somewhere in me I knew I was gay just like the son in the soap opera. My first kiss was with a boy just like his was. I would get nervous around my guy crush just like he did. And I wanted to tell my mom that I am gay just like he did. At that time, however, it seemed like it was not the right time for me to come out to my mom. Maybe because her chuckle meant that she wasn’t ready. Maybe because she told me that I was too young to know if I was gay. Maybe because I was scared of losing my family and community even though I grew up knowing other LGBTQ South Asians who were always so kind and welcoming. Maybe, just maybe, I was scared thinking back to a party where I overheard some Indian aunties and uncles having a conversation about the LGBTQ community saying, “They do disgusting stuff, very disgusting.” Then, an uncle pointed his finger at me saying, “Stay away from them, Sumon, stay away from them.” How could I stay away from them when I was just like them?
It wasn’t until 14 years later that I felt it was right for me to tell my mom I am gay by simply saying, “Maa, I have been attracted to Ricky Martin since his debut of Livin’ La Vida Loca.” At that moment, I knew it was right for me to tell my mom about a part of me that I wanted her to know about and understand. Ironically, this was around the same time Ricky came out publicly as a gay. Overall, I am happy with my decision to come out as it allowed me to understand a part of my identity and embrace the other identities and realities of my life.
Throughout YLI, I heard many stories of what it means to be part of the LGBTQ community. Each young leader that I met followed their own way of expressing who they are, even though they all had their doubts and questions when identifying themselves as we all do. They all had a time, or times, in their development where they discovered that there is no one true definition of what it means to be LGBTQ.
From YLI’s phenomenal students, I learned that I am truly living who I am when I embrace the multiple identities that make me who I am. I live life as a gay male, a South Asian, a graduate student, a Hindu, a son, an nephew, a sibling, a friend, a volunteer, and so much more. My roles and who I am develop by many factors in life and the responsibilities I take on. Seeing myself through the lens of only one identity prevents me from honoring my full self and from experiencing all of my qualities and strengths. When I see the intersections within my life, I live my reality and I allow myself to fully experience life’s journey. I have learned that sexual orientation—and exploring the role of “coming out” in my life—are important parts in the development of who I am, but this is not the only determinant.
I thank SAALT, the 2014 YLI students, Trikone Atlanta, Raksha, Inc., my aunt, family, and friends for helping me to understand that the development of “who you are” is not one path, but many paths that lead to this moment and the many more that lie ahead.
Young Leaders Institute Fellow, 2014