The year I turned 40, I decided to leave my marriage of 17 years for a woman. This is not an easy sentence to write, and I understand that in the process I may hurt a few people — I have a son, and parents, and an ex-husband who I am still very fond of. Love has no reason and sometimes takes on strange shapes that are inexplicable.
But writing about something that is a lived experience for me, and concealing my name would mean that I am operating from a place of shame, guilt, and fear, built up over decades, like thick castle walls. Individually, they can be deadly; together, they can erode, until you forget who you really are. And authenticity is having a moment — at least in my life.
Mine was not a journey towards lesbianism at all, but a connection with a person who happened to be female. In hindsight, it was also an escape from ‘ties that bind and gag’. The process had begun about 10 years before, when I decided, in some measure, to stop portraying to the world that I was ‘a good girl’, the person who did what was expected, always staying within a boundary.
“Social position and opportunity, education, geographical location, access to language and images in your culture, make it possible in your own head to take big decisions, whatever those may be,” says Ketki Ranade, Assistant Professor, Centre for Health and Mental Health, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. “So even if someone is in a smaller town in India, if they have access to social media and Netflix [because maybe they had an English-medium education], it opens up opportunity to express sexuality.”
I remember seeing filmmaker Deepa Mehta’s Fire when I was in college, absorbed by its tenderness. Today, 27 years later, I wonder whether India has changed. If there was a Fire 2.0, would the theatres be ransacked again?
Rewriting a tightly written text
“We live in a socially scripted world,” says Ammu (name changed to protect identity), 38, a psychotherapist based in Mumbai, who always felt she might be lesbian but ended up getting married anyway. “We are expected to get married, have children, then a car and house. Once you’ve jumped through all these hoops, it makes perfect sense that you carry on with life. Where is the luxury to question anything at all when you’re running this calendar out?”
She says she was “playacting heterosexuality” for two years. Ironically, the first person she told about being lesbian was her husband, who said he’d suspected it. Today, he is her support system, along with a few close friends, because she hasn’t come out to her parents yet, and is with a woman partner.
“There’s the overarching shame of leaving a marriage. Leaving a marriage for love is too much, and leaving for a woman is really, really too much,” she says, articulating what society thinks of women who leave for the ‘wrong’ reasons. After all, these are not women getting beaten up by men who come home drunk — society likes the battered woman who they can save. These are women who have made difficult choices, after years of an internal struggle. Ammu struggled with depression and says it has been a journey of 15-odd years, but is still “not a shame-to-pride arc” where there’s a pot of gold waiting at the end of a rainbow.
There are privileges to marriage, as only someone who has been married knows: a bigger family that, if you fit into, can be a support system; social acceptability, especially if you have children; and the comfort of conforming. “This choice makes you lose those privileges,” says Ammu.
The struggle to be seen and heard
Rukmini, now 34, living in Mumbai, saw her mother Sumita Beethi, now 60, struggle in their hometown of Kolkata, about 20 years ago. “I knew my mother was going through a lot of turmoil. Many children are curious, but I would never go and ask her what was wrong. I didn’t want to burden her either,” she says, of her only-child adolescent sensitivity.
She remembers the year her mother’s hair changed colour, when she stopped dyeing it. “I realised she was gaining that confidence to be who she wants to be.” They began talking about her life when Rukmini was in her early teens and Sumita in her late 30s. “The person she was with was close to me as well,” she says, adding that while the two are no longer with each other, she has always got along with her mother’s partners, including her current partner of 10 years, especially because Sumita has had long-term relationships.
She cannot clearly remember the process of her parents talking about Sumita’s realisation because what she experienced as a child was love and respect between her parents, who had met when they were teens in a theatre production company. “At home, there were no boundaries to what we could and couldn’t discuss,” says Rukmini, adding that it helped that her mother was a part of Sappho for Equality, a not-for-profit that works to build bridges between normative and non-normative segments of society. Her mother would give her NGO Tarshi’s age-graded books on gender and sexuality to read early on, signalling that she had choices. Rukmini identified as queer in college because she had been exposed to so many conversations, but acknowledges with a laugh that heteronormative (conforming) people would say her ‘weirdness’ is a result of ‘poor’ upbringing.
The unfamiliar being branded deviant is not new to Sumita. In the documentary film Ebong Bewarish (and the Unclaimed) by Debalina Majumdar, Sumita talks about coming out to her mother, who asked if she was attracted to all women, and then if she was attracted to her daughter. It’s the point in the film at which an otherwise articulate and ‘together’ Sumita crumbles.
What she doesn’t say in the 2013 film is that her mother had a heart attack soon after she told her she was getting a divorce, and until her death five years later, Sumita could not get herself to ask her then husband for one. “If I let that guilt wash over me, I will drown and die,” she says, confessing that at some point in her life she did attempt suicide.
What kept her going was her daughter and her work as a gender-sexuality trainer at the grassroots level. She remembers one barely lettered woman telling her, “We are made of mud, but you are fired in the kiln,” referring to her education, opportunities, and awareness. Today, Sumita describes herself as queersexual, a long way from the woman who didn’t understand that her deep friendships with women were really an attraction undefined by the society she lived in.
Support structures and systems that hold up
While there are many hardships, there is also support. Ritika (name changed), 35, who lives in Bengaluru, talks about support groups she is now a part of (Good As You and ASQ), where she finally feels understood. Growing up in one of India’s smaller cities, and being a part of the STEM community, there weren’t the sort of conversations creatives may have had in bigger cities. She didn’t find a reason not to get married. Her then husband was a kind, loving man; her in-laws were supportive, and she has always had a warm relationship with her parents and sibling.
She couldn’t understand why she was having problems with intimacy in her marriage. “It’s very rare to find someone who will put your happiness first. But when I was sad, my husband would console me. We saw doctors, who said medically everything was fine,” she says, adding that the guilt was tearing her up. After about four years, she felt an intense attraction to a woman. A few therapy sessions later, she realised she was gay. “The day I found out, I told my husband, and I cried a lot.” He comforted her. Today “I have lost a husband, but gained a friend”, says Ritika, who is now divorced.
“How can something as rich as the human experience fit into a label or category. I would go with compatibility, resonance, a feeling of being in sync. As humans we have the right to love anyone, and it doesn’t have to be defined.”Aarti RajaratnamPsychologist
Her brother and sister-in-law encouraged her to get on the online dating app Bumble, “even if not to date, with the idea of finding more people who have had similar experiences”, and while her parents are still trying to understand the concept, “they are OK with me getting divorced because I was unhappy”.
While Ritika has come out to her parents, many women in midlife don’t. “Many parents may think they’ve done something wrong and adult children don’t want them to blame themselves. People in mid-life may not need that emotional support from their parents because they’re getting it from friends or other support systems,” says Ranade. She adds that people may also feel their parents don’t have very long more, so let them live their lives out ‘in peace’. There’s no socially compelling reason to address this with parents, especially if a divorce is also involved – already a blow for them.
Ritika hopes that the petitions for gay marriage in the Supreme Court are met with a judicial nod, something that lawyer Amritananda Chakravorty and her team are working towards.
Though there are divisions within the LGBTQIA+ community, with many wondering why the patriarchal structure of marriage would be something to fight for, Chakravorty sees it as a necessity. “Daily life should not be a big political struggle of navigating the State and the police,” she says. People who do not have a support system — and often families desert those who come out — can struggle at the edge, because everything from a nominee in a bank to health insurance is accessible only for relatives by blood or marriage. “For many, marriage may be a mode of survival, a protective shield.”
“There is this ‘decide once and for all’ norm. Why is it that I can’t be someone at 20, someone else at 30, and someone quite different at 40? Sexuality is exploration, and we should be able to say, ‘This is my reality at this moment’.”Ketki RanadeTata Institute of Social Sciences
Chakravorty remembers having had just one case before 2018, when Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was abolished, decriminalising homosexuality. After 2018, her legal firm Chakravorty, Samson & Munoth has seen about eight cases.
While it is no longer a criminal offence, Chakravorty says women leaving marriages, especially those with children, are still looked upon in the court ecosystem with “shock and outrage”. The system is already cognizant of the far-reaching legal changes gay marriage will necessitate — from inheritance laws to a legal definition of what intercourse is. Late life lesbians is one concept they’ll have to try and understand.
It’s something that women going through the process struggle with too, says Salem-based psychologist Aarti Rajaratnam. “Many women have both the financial independence and the courage to move on. But they are stuck in marriages, and live with guilt. When they come for therapy, their questions go along with society’s narrative: ‘Am I doing something wrong?’ ‘Is it because I am ‘desperate’?’
Life as a celebration of the self
Filmmaker Onir is delving into the idea of a woman — married and a mother — coming to terms with her identity in his fictionalised account based on the life of Raga D’silva, a speaker-author-entrepreneur and chair of trustees of the London LGBTQ+ Community Centre, now living in the UK. Tentatively called Nandini and Moana, Onir is in the process of casting and looking for funding. D’silva, who has been vocal about aspects of her life across the media and social media, was married to a man, had twins, and is now married to her partner of 16 years, Nicola Fenton. She, her wife, and her ex-husband have appeared in public, talking about their modern family. The children have two mums and a dad.
“It’s going to be a romcom,” says Onir, who bought the rights to her story The Other Side. He met D’silva at a panel discussion a few years ago and thought her story should be told. It is a difficult story to tell a nation where a mother is a ‘holy cow’: “You are having to sacrifice what is seen as an ideal, and society brands you a villain, as if you’re sacrificing everyone’s lives for yourself,” he says, acknowledging the tough choices, and seeing the film as taking the LGBTQIA+ narrative forward. “It is a celebration of life and identity.”
Forging new connections
Balance and rest
D’silva, who came out at 50 in 2019, is today one of the people filing an intervention application in the Supreme Court, for same-sex marriage rights as an oversees citizen of India married to a foreigner. “Being an OCI card holder and running businesses in India with my wife, the issues faced by us are different to the LGBTQIA+ couples in India,” she says, adding that she is legally treated as a single person when she crosses the border into India. There are the larger concerns, like assets and medical decisions in case of an emergency. But there are also smaller daily micro-aggressions, like people asking what her husband does. “I fear ‘coming out’ particularly at immigration, not knowing how I or my wife will be treated.”
For her, life has come full circle. “Now, I believe that I can bring about a change in the narrative… It took a long time to get over my own internalised homophobia, the shame and embarrassment. I now share my story with pride, so others can have the courage to live their lives freely.”
Those in distress could seek help and counselling by calling the helplines listed here.