“I am gay.”
As liberating saying these words out loud may seem, if you are from a country like India, the social dogma associated with them can be downright brutal. Where godmen and prominent personalities have denounced a non-conforming sexual orientation as a bonafide ‘disease that has spread from the west’ or as a ‘curable illness’, the conversations around and about LGBTQ are usually hushed.
There is a sense of immediacy, a tone of guilt and even fear underlying such conversations. Which is why it is important that there are discussions about the various perspectives of the LGBTQ community in India. Keeping It Queer, a podcast hosted by Navin Noronha, an openly gay comedian, has been striving to contribute to this dialogue.
“There’s nothing wrong with us. You don’t have to demonise people because they are gay,” he said, speaking to indianexpress.com. The 25-year-old realises the importance of bringing forth the stories of pioneers, supporters and members of the LGBTQ community in India.
“Such discussions are important because, as a 17-year-old anxious person coming out, if I had somebody around who had told me that it’s all okay, then I would have been much calmer,” he said. And when people like Harish Iyer; a journalist and an openly gay equal rights activist, Urmi Jadhav, Gauri Sawant — both transgender activists, come forward and assure those struggling with their sexual identities through spoken word, it becomes easier to accept oneself, he further explains.
Listen to Episode 1 of Keeping It Queer featuring Harish Iyer, a journalist and equal rights activist, here.
It is essential to spread the message that there are people who have gone through the same hell as closeted homosexuals, transgenders and trans-sexuals go through now, so that they know there are those who have come out of them just fine, Noronha said. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean acceptance by the ones around. “The idea is to accept yourselves first and talk about this integral part of your identity freely, before you expect the world to accept you,” he said. It’s imperative they know that slipping into depression or ending their lives aren’t the only options.
Noronha realised he wasn’t attracted to women at the age of 14. And as a child growing up in the early 2000s, his self-doubt and fear of backlash did not allow him to confide his ‘secret’ with anybody, until three years later, he came out to his best friend. “I want every youngster who is dealing with the angst of not being able to come out, like I did, to listen to people of the community talk, and feel inspired to follow their heart.”
He agreed it is easier said than done. But after the Delhi High Court struck down Section 377 that criminalised homosexuality in 2009, Noronha believes, the rigidity of people’s mindsets softened to some extent. Although the judgement was repealed by the apex court, the efforts to bring those with non-conforming sexual identities from the peripheries to the mainstream have only increased.
As a stand-up comedian, the Mumbai resident was inclined towards keeping the conversations light and funny, but couldn’t, because of the stoic nature of the subjects. Instead, ‘Keeping It Queer’ became a diary of the people who opened up, he said. “For instance when Harish Iyer came on board for the first episode, although he is a fun person, he talked about surviving child sexual abuse, which was a painful experience for him.” Hence, the tone of the dialogue had to be modified through the course of the show.
He understands podcasts are a “niche medium”, especially when comedy groups like All India Bakchod, East India Comedy and popular stand-up comedians are making Web series and sketches to find a connect with the youth. But he also asserts that podcasts are more intimate in nature than video formats, because you hear people talking about their own stories of struggles, which is the same limitation he faces during his stand-up acts.
“I cannot go on for thirty minutes talking about being gay and coming out, on stage,” unlike in podcasts, where he and the others can delve deeper, instead of just “skimming the surface”.
However, he recently released two of his stand-up comedy acts wherein he talks about being gay, homophobia and the ‘ultra support’ that certain people offer. “Their idea of being supportive is: ‘You are gay! I have a gay best friend. You’ll be perfect together,'” he says in his stand-up act video, amidst laughter from the audience.
Because he grew up in a traditional Roman Catholic family, coming out to his family was difficult for Noronha. He wants to change the experience for others, though. As he plans to take a sabbatical now that the first season of the podcast has ended, his idea is to take the discussion beyond LGBTQ members and get parents of people in the community involved in the conversations. “Oh, and also get Ellen DeGeneres on board!” he said.