Where Are the Gay Indians? Being Gay in the World's Largest Democracy

When I turned 30 my therapist asked me, "Are you OK with your parents dying without knowing you're gay?" I knew the answer instantly.

Exactly five months later I came out to them.

They were on a visit from India, where they live. In retrospect, it was all a bit surreal. We came home from dinner at a tapas place in the West Village, and I asked them if they wanted some ice cream. They said yes. I said OK.

And I dished out more than just ice cream.

I had played this scenario in my head about 700 times in an imagined filmic version. I had imagined almost as many different outcomes. So when the time came for the actual event, I was feeling calm and surprisingly unemotional. That was because I was somehow sure that it would be one of the optimistic outcomes.

I was wrong. And how.

My mother's first reaction was to place the ice cream bowl on the floor and head for the bathroom to vomit.

This was not an outcome I had imagined.

In that disembodied moment I worried about my expensive oriental carpet, which I had selected with such care at Bloomingdale's. It was a symbol of the life I had created for myself in New York City -- part of being both gay and Indian. It was on the obstacle course to the bathroom. This was not the reaction I had expected from myself, either.

Seven hundred and one, then. Who knew? The ensuing conversation, over the hours and then over the months that followed, is the reason I am writing this.

If Kinsey was right, there are anywhere between 50 and 100 million people in India who are gay, lesbian or bisexual. But the number of people who came out to all the Pride marches in India last year? About 5,000. And that includes not only queer people but their allies and supporters.

So where is the "gay India"? What does it do, and where does it live? Are there men and women leading closeted, largely miserable lives because they must guard as a shameful secret the truth about whom they love and how? Or does India have its gay meccas like New York City and San Francisco?

A country that is home to nearly a fifth of the world's population surely needs to confront these questions.

The misconceptions about homosexuality in India are as diverse and various as any. Some of them are simply banal: "You're gay? But you're Indian!" Others range from the bizarrely xenophobic ("Homosexuality is a Western disease that started with Stonewall") to the mildly hilarious ("Is your 'plumbing' OK? I mean, you do have a working penis?").

But the story in India is even more complicated than this. What most people don't know is that India is one of the few countries in the world where the third gender (the "hijra" or eunuch) is both feared and revered. They are also ostracized for being a sexual minority, the only visible sexual minority in India. The distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity is often not understood or acknowledged.

Beliefs in the Western origins of homosexuality are also widespread and intransigent. Ironically, however, it is tolerance of homosexuality that is beginning to be imported into India. And the biggest engine of change? Cinema.

Bollywood is the entertainment of choice for over 1 billion people. That means that, in global terms, it influences the lives and attitudes of more people than any institution except the Catholic Church. And Bollywood stars, too, have a god-like stature, at least in India. There are temples in the southern regions of the country dedicated to certain Bollywood icons.

So the question is not if but how and when Bollywood will play a role changing attitudes toward LGBT rights in India. It has the power to transform LGBT equality into a youth-culture movement. And in India youth culture will be an unstoppable tide, as the politicians are just now learning. India, after all, has a median age of 28, significantly lower than China (37) and Japan (44). Demographically, the time is ripe for social change. And LGBT rights are an issue close to the hearts of many in the Bollywood film industry. The question is one of courage and, of course, the timing of that courage. But change is coming in India.

In fact, it's already started. At the risk of drawing too many parallels with the history of the gay rights movement in the West, India has already had its first "Stonewall moment." In 2009 the law criminalizing sodomy, Section 377, was repealed. It was painful, and it made headlines, but it was a transformative change.

Change happens in fits and starts, and sometimes attitudes evolve slowly. In my case, I believe that my parents are more confused about the life of their gay son than that they are determinedly homophobic. It is easier to conquer the fear of a "monster" when you happen to also love him. In the end, I am still hoping for one of those 700 optimistic scenarios in the retake version.

And our conversations are part of all our futures. In India today, almost any conversation about homosexuality is a good one. Fortunately, that conversation has started.