Almost half a century ago, psychologist Carl Rogers argued that simply loving our children isn’t enough. We have to love them unconditionally, he suggested, for who they are; not for what they do.
Accepting your loved one’s sexuality and helping them navigate through social and cultural difficulties is not easy, especially in a country where loving someone can be a crime. But communities of “rainbow” parents in India and around the world have not only accepted their child’s sexuality but are also celebrating and cherishing it.
“Jo bhi hain acche hain, ye humare bachhe hain (They are beautiful however they are, they are our children)” was the loudest voice at this year’s Gay Pride Parade in Mumbai – billed as the Queer Azadi March. On February 3, the group of parents, for the first time ever under one umbrella, approached the August Kranti Maidan with pride and courage and celebrated people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ).
“We were marching right in front, and with a purpose,” said Padma Iyer, mother of LGBTQ+ rights activist Harish Iyer. Padma has been a regular at the Mumbai Pride for the past five years, but marching shoulder to shoulder with fellow members of Sweekar – a support group for parents of LGBTQ+ children – their call for abolishing Section 377 rang loud and clear.
When Harish, as a 25-year-old gay man, came out to his mother, she didn’t take it too well. “She was angry at first and wanted me to keep quiet,” Harish recalled. “She suggested I get married, and I asked her if she would knowingly ask a girl to live a life of falsehood.”
“I belong to a very conservative family and was afraid my son won’t be accepted in the society,” Padma confessed.
One seldom acknowledges that besides LGBTQ+ individuals coming out to their parents, there is also the difficult process of the parents’ public acceptance of their children’s sexuality, which is accompanied by the fear of rejection and ostracism.
As the mother of an LGBTQ+ child, Padma’s journey of accepting – and cherishing – her son’s sexual orientation was a gradual one. She attended talks on gender and sexuality, read books and attends parents’ support groups.
“I couldn’t have come out if it wasn’t for Harish’s help in understanding sexuality,” she said. In their effort to resist discrimination against homosexuality, the mother-son duo even put out a matrimonial advertisement in a newspaper, looking for a suitable boy for Harish. The ad became a conversation starter in many families and Padma’s email address was flooded with proposals. “A Delhi-based man even asked me to look for a spouse for his son too,” Padma laughed.
Seeing the consequences of family rejection, particularly in the lives of LGBTQ individuals belonging to Asian immigrant communities, New Jersey-based mental health advocate and mother of a queer daughter, Aruna Rao, founded the Desi Rainbow Parents and Allies, a support, education and advocacy group for South Asian families. “It is important to be vocal and show parents that they are not alone,” she said.
Rao confessed that despite working for family acceptance, she didn’t know her own child was queer. “She was young and didn’t know of a queer woman of colour who she could look up to. She told me that she thought she was in the wrong and that is why she had to hide her identity,” Rao said. “It is very important for parents to initiate the conversation and leave the door open. Children need to know that their parents support them no matter what.”
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Other than holding family acceptance workshops and presenting their stories of coming out in public, Desi Rainbow Parents and Allies also conducts a telephonic support meeting for parents every month. This time, they’ve invited a therapist who has expertise in working with LGBTQ issues.
Kalpana and Madhu Sheth, who are also based in New Jersey and are a part of the Desi parents community, believe that coming out should be celebrated.
“Families should announce it with the same joy as when announcing the birth of a child or a marriage,” they said. When their child came out as a trans woman ten years ago, they accepted her with open arms. But they hadn’t attended any meeting or discussion on LGBTQ+ issues until they met Rao and joined her community. They are now setting up a local support group and are also planning to teach yoga to LGBTQ+ individuals and allies.
But a common fear that they share with parents of other LGBTQ+ individuals is that their child won’t be safe. Trans women face 4.3 times more risk of being murdered than cis women in the US. “Parents never overcome this fear. We hope awareness among parents leads to the inclusion of trans women in the mainstream society,” they said.
In Delhi, parents of LGBTQ+ individuals are setting up their own support group to share experiences with each other. “Homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality,” said one of the parents, who is a professor at Delhi University.
When the couple’s son came out over ten years ago, they were fraught with worry that he won’t ever have children. But their son parented them in understanding sexuality through discussion forums and reading materials. “Today, I’m more bothered about my son’s smoking and non-vegetarian eating habits than about his sexual orientation,” the mother laughed. Looking at their son’s relationship with his boyfriend, they claim they are happy to see the way their son and his partner celebrate life every day.
Whether the parents might embrace or reject their LGBTQ+ child, families naturally tend to avoid difficult subjects. Rao stressed the importance of having this conversation early in a child’s life, as parents need to find ways to let their children know their home is a safe place where anything can be discussed.
Let’s understand that it’s not enough to tell your child “it gets better”. There has to be active participation from parents in finding a more supportive and safer environment for their children. While this territory might be difficult to navigate, the role is not. It’s called parenting.