Growing Up Gay In Bombay: An Indian Woman’s Story Of Love & Courage

Growing Up Gay In Bombay: An Indian Woman’s Story Of Love & Courage
Prerna Menon

Love takes courage. Self-love more so. What is it but pure courage that makes us tell ourselves every day that we love ourselves, whoever we are, or that we love whom we love, no matter who they are? Part of societal conditioning is built upon the façade of rejection. We are taught to identify the ‘other’—someone who’s not like ‘us’. Identification and rejection follow fear. The fear of ‘what if I am like them?’

Growing up, 24-year-old Bombay girl Prerna Menon, who’s now a licensed mental health therapist in the Bronx, New York, was, in her own words, always an “LGBT cheerleader”. Thanks to her sister, whom she calls “a kid of the Internet”, Prerna was exposed to her fair share of Western queer culture and knew all along that love was, after all, love. However, growing up in Bombay, India, which was a curious jumble of Western modernity and cosmopolitanism, as well as what is dearly called the ‘Indian culture’, she was aware that homosexuality was still a subject meant to be hushed down. Add to that, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was still in place and more than anything else, there was fear. Prerna, like every other Bombay teenager, secretly kept hoping, “I hope that’s not me” until she realised “oh, that is me”.

A few weeks ago, Prerna decided that it was time to share her story with anyone and everyone who might need to hear it. This is why, when she approached Homegrown, we were more than certain that we needed her to tell her story to our readers.

So, here’s Prerna, in her own words.

“I sit here today on 04 May 2020, in my cosy New York City apartment beside my girlfriend of three years. This is a stark contrast to where my life was a decade ago living as a closeted, self-hating, queer person in Bombay (Mumbai), India. I grew up battling with the realities of my taboo sexuality conflicting with the culture I was raised in. To cope, I dated every boy I could find and hiked my skirt up as high as I could in an effort to prove to everyone around me, and myself, that I was just like ‘them’. Amongst drunken nights and stumbling teenagers, I found myself exploring my sexuality further. A kiss from a girl on a cold night in 2009 sealed the deal. I knew I was different and this feeling wasn’t going away. No matter how high my skirt went up, no matter how many guys I tried to date, no matter how many times I re-watched Gossip Girl just to want to swoon over Chuck Bass as much as the others did. I was different.

I dated my first girlfriend in secret when I was in the 11th grade. The two of us found comfort in learning this new dimension of ourselves together. We grew as people, overcoming ignorant comments about us being ‘just like twins’, to having the word ‘lesbo’ hurled at us by our so-called “friends”. My girlfriend struggled with her own internal battles and I struggled with keeping a secret this big from those nearest to me- my family. So, I told my sister. She was the one person that I knew, no matter what, would always have my back. I psyched myself up for weeks, thinking she would freak out, knowing damn well that this would not phase her. One night, I dared to say “I think I’m bi” (10 years later, I’m just a massive lesbian). Her response was, “Haha, okay, and...?”

For the first time, I allowed myself to trust my gut and I did what I swore I would never do—I “came out.” It was the first time that I had some semblance of hope that this could be my life. I could exist in this world, and not just survive, but thrive as a queer brown woman. So I made myself a promise, I would chase this dream, wherever it may take me.

Before things got better, things got a lot worse. My relationship ended, my family was uprooted and we moved to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. There, I had to bury my identity farther than ever. Although the sun started to set, and depression hit me harder than ever, I found my tribe in a place I least expected. I found people, other people, fighting this same battle, in silence. Four years went by, where my friends and I lived this underground life hiding out together, but desperately wishing to be seen. So I decided, I needed to be seen and I was going to make that happen. I decided to apply to grad school at NYU. I needed an out, even if just temporarily. This emboldened me to finally tackle my biggest demon. I came out to my parents. I would be lying if I said my coming out story was perfect. It was not. My dad took it really well, and kind of always knew. My mum on the other hand struggled. She was devastated. Not only because her daughter was gay, but more so because I kept this secret from her for over seven years. We were always close, so this came as a slap in her face. She felt as though the closeness was a façade the entire time and I was wearing a mask, hiding the true me. She struggled with how she would tell the family, people who knew us, how some of the people in our family would never attend a ‘gay shaadi’. She struggled because she knew that navigating the world as a queer Indian woman would be difficult for me and she wouldn’t be able to help.

The gay Gods must have blessed me, because that very night, my email pinged.

“CONGRATULATIONS, Prerna Menon! You’ve been accepted to the New York University Silver School of Social Work”. Despite the tension in my home, I ran to my mum and yelled: “I got in!”. She gasped, and hugged me, squeezing all the bitterness out of me. My dad ran in and did the same. I was going to New York!

Fast forward to January 2017. I walked into NYU orientation and sat across from my soulmate. The road to acceptance of our relationship was bumpy, but we made it through. Three years later, I’m watching my mother and girlfriend playing Virtual Ludo together from across the world. My family has come to not just accept us but embrace us fully. I would have never foreseen this to be my new normal.

I want to emphasize that none of this was easy for me. However, I recognise the protective privileges that I had that facilitated more positive outcomes in my coming out experience. There is no one size that fits all. I often get asked for advice from other brown folks about what is the best way to come out, and in all honestly, I don’t know. The few things I can share are to listen to your gut. If it’s cautioning you, but you still want to come out regardless, be prepared for all outcomes. Have a plan ready to support yourself if things go south or become unsafe. Have a friend ready on stand by to help you get out of the situation if it turns sour. If safety is not a concern, but you know you may be at risk of losing your family and home, prepare ahead, financially and logistically.

It would be careless of me not to say that I didn’t make sacrifices along the way. I did, and you possibly will too. There were things from my old life that I had to give up. I had to say goodbye to a city that I loved and friends and family that I cherished. Wishing my pixelated parents a happy anniversary and missing big birthdays never gets easier. Some may say that my decisions were selfish, but sometimes that’s okay because you and me both deserve to feel free to be fiercely ourselves, gay and all.”

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