This week we interviewed Vaibhav Jain, a cisgender, gay man, who currently lives at White Plains, New York with his husband Parag Mehta. Vaibhav was born and brought up in Delhi, with a huge Indian joint family. We at Fifty Shades Of Gay, covered Vaibhav’s story of acceptance, love and his beautiful wedding.
Although together for eight long years, Vaibhav and Parag waited for both their parents to wholeheartedly accept them. The result was a magical ceremony filled with laughter, joy and happy tears. On March 30th, last year, the couple tied the knot in Central Texas, in a big-fat-Indian-wedding style. Let us hear the rest from Vaibhav, yeah?
Describe your childhood.
I grew up in a middle-class joint family in northwest Delhi with numerous uncles, aunts and cousins under one roof. The realization dawned on me that I was different from other boys, at an early age. It often made me feel alienated because of these differences at school. To be honest, school wasn’t a lot of fun for me as I experienced a lot of bullying and name-calling back then. Comments on how I walked or why I didn’t play any sports were a frequent occurrence.
One particular instance that is seared in my mind. Each year, we had to elect class monitors – one male, one female. I would put my head down in dread knowing that, when calls came for the female monitor, many of my classmates would shout out my name. It was the humiliation of choice for so many bullies, to call me a girl. As it turns out, I have grown up to find that women and girls are among my best friends, my greatest champions and the strongest people I know. Still, those experiences also affected my mental health negatively. Several years ago, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. But I’m learning to cope with it and choosing to be vocal about the mental health trauma faced by the LGBTQIA community.
When did you realize you were different and at what age did you come to terms with your sexuality?
I realized I was gay around the age of 12 when I started feeling attraction for other boys in my school and was very confused by these feelings. I didn’t have a label for it at the time and no frame of reference, but I knew enough to understand that it would not be widely accepted and should be kept hidden. And so, began my 15-year sentence in the closet.
How close were you with your family while growing up?
I was very close to my family. The many cousins, uncle and aunts who I grew up around contributed to my upbringing, one way or another – whether it was giving me a big hug when I was upset or helping me finish a school art project. My parents were always very kind and loving towards me. They trusted me and never questioned my decisions in life. But living with a secret was eating me from within. I so desperately wanted to tell them my truth.
Coming to terms with your own sexuality is not easy – how did you manage to do that?
I couldn’t be out in India. I didn’t feel like I could really confide in anyone among my family and friends. So, I kept it hidden from everyone and tried to suppress the truth until the end of high school. I was leading a dual life — pretending to be a heterosexual guy around friends and family. But, on the inside, I was despising this aspect of myself and praying that it would go away. Religion became really important to me. I’d go to my local Jain mandir and pray for God to make me normal. Little did I realize that God had already put in motion a far better plan for me — a life of love, happiness and acceptance.
After I moved to Bengaluru for my bachelor’s degree, I convinced my college friends that I had a long-distance relationship with a girl in Delhi, and whenever I returned home to Delhi, I would tell my school friends that I was dating a girl in Bengaluru. It was around that time that I got comfortable with my sexuality. I met a lot of new people from the queer community, had a tight knit group of friends, experienced my first loves and heartbreaks. I came out to a handful of my friends in college and started my journey towards self-acceptance.
When and how did you come out to your family and friends?
When I moved to the U.S. in August 2011 for my master’s degree, I promised myself that I would start to lead a more honest life. I was out to my friends, colleagues and professors at school. When I met Parag in June 2012, I realized, because he was very public about his sexual orientation, I could not remain in the closet if I wanted to build a relationship with him.
Parag guided me on this. He said that it would be best for my parents to hear it from me and not anyone else. So, I decided to come out to my parents in the summer of 2013.
My parents visited me in Switzerland, and I decided to make a trip out of their visit. As we were finishing the trip, I was also getting ready to have the “talk” with them.
THE REVELATION THAT WAS LONG OVERDUE
So, on the fateful night, I was in my parents’ hotel room helping them pack for their return to India. I was getting emotional to see them leave; my eyes started to well up with tears. My parents asked what was going on, and I said I wanted to share something with them. I told them that I didn’t want to get married. Mummy said that it was okay and there are so many people who wish to remain bachelors — nothing to worry about. I went on to explain that I was gay and attracted to men.
They were visibly shocked. My mother froze, but my dad took only a few minutes to reach out to me. He said everything was going to be okay and reassured me of his love. And so began a series of uncomfortable questions… but as uncomfortable or frustrated as I felt, I remembered: I had 27 years to understand my sexuality and come to terms with my truth. In fairness, I shouldn’t expect them to come to terms with it at all.
So, I sat with them until the early hours of morning and explained everything, making sure that not a shred of doubt remained in their minds. But I also made sure that they knew I was normal, that I needed no cure. Homosexuality is not a disease. A lot happened during “the talk” – tears, questions, discomfort, shock and yes, sadness. But the thing that sticks out to me all these years later is when mummy said that she felt she had failed as a parent. “Because I turned out gay?” I asked. “No,” she replied. “Because it took you so many years to tell us your truth. You suffered alone because you worried about us. But it’s our job to be the ones who worry .” That’s when I knew everything would be all right.
I knew that I would never be without their unconditional love.
Describe some of the major challenges you face or you’ve faced due to your sexuality.
The challenges have been many, but I think the important point is I learnt to adapt and cope. We are –most of us – more resilient than we realize. I always questioned myself and never felt good enough and overcompensated in a lot of things in life just because of my insecurities. The anxiety and depression I developed debilitates me in certain daily functions of life. Self-doubt, fear and stress is always around me. The point I’m making is that the greatest challenges I’ve faced didn’t come from the outside world, they came from within me. And those are challenges that I have to work to conquer – with purpose and intention – each and every day.
Would you say India has changed since the decriminalization of Section 377? If yes, how? If no, why?
The Indian Supreme Court’s verdict on section 377 was a truly momentous decision. For the first time, in a very long time, I felt that my country had finally accepted me and recognized me for who I am, regardless of whom I love.
Striking down this law is the first step in a long journey which will improve the lives of gay boys and lesbian girls in cities, towns and villages in every part of India, people who are still facing discrimination and bigotry. It was a first step, but there are many more that remain before we are fully equal and truly free. Perhaps, the most meaningful aspect of that verdict was in the final lines of the ruling when Justice Indu Malhotra noted that, “History owes an apology to the members of this community and their families, for the delay in providing redressal for the ignominy and ostracism that they have suffered through the centuries. The members of this community were compelled to live a life full of fear of reprisal and persecution.” I’ll take the apology. But I still want justice.
Finding a partner has always been quite difficult for LGBTQIA+ individuals. How has your experience been?
Growing up in India and living there until 2011 exposed me to a lot of challenges when it comes to dating. A no strings attached sexual relationship is what most men I knew were looking for. Most of them knew they had to ultimately get married to women and therefore did not believe in meaningful and loving relationships.
Congratulations on your wedding! Can you share with us how you first met your partner, Parag and how did things escalate from there?
I first spotted Parag marching and dancing among nearly half a million people at the annual Pride Parade in Washington, DC, on June 9, 2012. I managed to find Parag and contacted him on Facebook, and soon, we decided to meet. Our first date was in Washington, DC at a Thai restaurant. As Parag offered to walk me home to my apartment, it started to rain. We quickly found shelter under a nearby building and started chatting some more about one of our many common interests. We talked about our favorite movies and songs, and then I started to sing one of my favorite old time Mohammed Rafi songs — he claims that he was mesmerized.
So, our first date lasted almost 6 hours and we still didn’t want to leave and go home. We knew it right then, it was destined.
Who proposed to whom? Who went on their knee? Can you tell us what exactly happened that day?
We were over four years into our relationship and my parents, some extended family were also aware — so the obvious next step was getting married. We bought engagement bands together but were playing a game of chicken — he was waiting for me to propose and I was waiting for him. Things finally settled when Parag’s two best friends and I surprised him for his 40th birthday with a surprise trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico. We had a great time celebrating Parag on his milestone birthday, but little did I know that he was planning his own surprise — which was to propose to me the next day. He said he wanted to begin his fourth decade on Earth the right way — with me as his life partner. In September 2016, we got engaged
How did your parents and family receive the news of your engagement? How long did they take to accept it?
To be honest, my parents were still processing a lot of emotions from the night I came out three years earlier. They did accept me for who I am, but swore me to never share it with anyone else in the family. Over the years, I expressed my desire to marry Parag and wishing for it to be a public wedding. When we announced our engagement, they wished us well and slowly started to warm up to the idea of having another son in their lives.
Did his parents/family react the same way as your family?
Parag came out to his parents in March of 1999, when he was in his final year of college. Although shock was the initial reaction, Parag’s father immediately embraced and supported his son – both privately and publicly. Over the past twenty years, both Parag and his dad have spent a lot of time sharing their experiences in order to educate others in the Indian American community, in the hope that their path to acceptance and pride would inspire others to do the same. When we announced our engagement, his parents were extremely happy and welcoming of the decision. The reason my parents agreed to support our decision to get married were them. They have been real champions for us.
Describe your wedding day and share some of the most important moments from that day.
The wedding weekend (March 29-30) consisted of three main events.
The first event was Sangeet and Garba, which took place the night before our wedding. It was a colorful night of music, street foods and dancing. Both our families and friends did choreographed performances. We also had a few friends give speeches talking about how our relationship progressed. Finally, both sets of our parents surprised us with an amazing group performance. We continued the night with all the guests joining garba and raas.
THE FAIRYTALE WEDDING
The next event was the main wedding ceremony itself, which took place on the morning of March 30. Since this wedding had two dulhas (grooms), we obviously had to have two baraats. So, both Parag and I rode in on a two separate horse chariots and came to the venue simultaneously from opposite directions. Both mothers welcomed both the dulhas at the same time. They did tilak and aarti for their soon-to-be sons-in-laws.
A Jain pundit (officiant) performed the ceremony, according to Jain and vedic traditions. I grew up in Delhi attending traditional Desi weddings of my brother, my cousins and my friends. Why didn’t I deserve the same?
So, with blessings from our parents and support from progressive and open-minded religious leaders, we built a meaningful and inclusive ceremony that kept what needed keeping and changed what needed changing. We made a few modifications to make them gender neutral, since Jain and vedic ceremonies are quite gender specific. The ceremony included a jaimala, four pheras around the sacred fire. We changed the traditional kanyadaan to a var daan — two words which, separately, translate to “giving of the groom”. To share marital advice as a substitute for the saubhagyavati bhava, we invited one married gay couple and one married lesbian couple, after the formal ceremony concluded. We called it chiranjeevi bhava.
HEARD WERE MY PRAYERS
Best moments from the wedding were when we were in the mandap and took the pheras around the fire. As I took the first phera for dharma, it dawned on me that God has finally given me what I always desired. A loving partner, a supportive family and community that will move day and night to stand by my side. And I’m finally getting to marry my love in the most traditional way, with my community and my God as witnesses. Seeing the smiles and tears of joy in my parents’ eyes was another powerful moment for me. The fact that they have come such a long way in these five years since I told them that I was gay.
How has your life changed after being married?
Parag and I moved in within a few months of dating and were living together for nearly seven years. I’d say our bond has deepened with the recognition of our marriage – both by our communities and under the law. Marriage has also given us more than 1,100 legal rights and responsibilities under state and federal law that we didn’t have before. But only in the United States. Not yet in India.
Describe your journey so far in five words.
Faith redeemed. Hope restored. Blessed.
What is your opinion on LGBTQIA+ platforms such as Fifty Shades of Gay?
I’m optimistic that people will change their attitude towards homosexuality, LGBTQIA people and same-sex marriage, if platforms such as Fifty Shades of Gay continue to promote our visibility and normalize our love and our lives. Over the last few years, we have seen that the Supreme Court of India decriminalized homosexuality among consenting adults, several news and media outlets have started positive campaigns to change attitude of the public on the subject, Bollywood film industry is creating movies tackling the subject in a serious and thoughtful manner — all of this development has happened over the last decade so I’m hopeful that Fifty Shades of Gay is on the right path and will ultimately help change every heart and mind in India.
Any advice you’d want to give to our readers on how to come to terms with your sexuality, some tips on coming out and how to find love?
For those LGBTQIA people who are still in in the closet and struggling to come out, I want them to know this: you are perfect and deserving of love. I have so much compassion for what you are going through. Please know that there is a world of belonging and acceptance waiting for you. But you will never know what is possible until you seek it. The fear of the unknown is understandable, but not productive. Our lives have value because we choose to give them value. I try to remind myself of that every day. And when I forget, I have people in my life who remind me that it gets better – if, an only if, we have the courage and put in the hard work to make it better. Be true to yourself and lead with love. Always.