The Development of “Who You Are”

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 aIMG_0088nd 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.

IMG_0041Through­out 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.

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Sumon Ray
Young Lead­ers Insti­tute Fel­low, 2014