An Indian American Queer Sikh CEO’s Story: Pride Begins (or Ends) With Family and Community Support
- This Pride Month, if you are LGBTQ+ or have someone who is in your family or community, I urge you to educate yourself and speak up publicly about your support for the LGBTQ+ members in your temple, gurudwara, Diwali party and weddings.
I had no idea I was lesbian when I was growing up in India. Sure, I was privately drawn to and ‘in love’ with the beautiful Bollywood heroines, from Sadhna and Madhubala to Madhuri Dixit and later Deepika Padukone. But I still remember the first time I heard the word “queer” was at a dinner party in Chandigarh in the 1980s, in embarrassed whispers referencing someone at the party who’s son had a terrible disease (AIDS) and had died because he was gay.
Sure, I was a tomboy, but I was treated like a star in my family, since I was Delhi State Swimming Champion for many years in the 80s, excelled at academics, and also did well at extracurricular activities like public speaking. I built my vision for life based on a desire for social change and impact which was seeded as we hid in our house in Defence Colony in 1984, hiding from the dangerous mobs who might threaten our family and lives, and in long talks with my inspiring public servant father.
Till the day I came out to my loving and supportive family, I was a star in my Desi community. The best all-rounder from Modern School’s graduating class of 1992, and then a high-performing Ivy Leaguer who graduated from Princeton and achieved impressive sounding things like a job at a place like McKinsey, that the Desi community respected.
I didn’t think I would ever fall in love — that just did not seem like a priority given all my other goals, and the successful tradition of arranged marriage within my family. I was never attracted to any boy I grew up with or met, and I had embraced a life vision and plan which included arranged marriage into a top Sikh family followed by a storied business and political career in Punjab and India.
Then, inconveniently, and completely outside of my plans, I fell in love — with my soulmate, a woman. It happened in the U.S., at a high school reunion for our Indian high school in Los Angeles in April 1997, and it totally changed my life.
I decided — after a few years of trying to ignore my truth knowing how unsavory it was likely to be for my Desi family and community — to live a life based on truth, a fundamental principle of Sikhism embodied in the oft-repeated word Satnam — Truth is God. This was the only source of wisdom I had access to at the time, that I considered higher than my parents, who I deeply loved and respected.
I’m happy to share, 22 years after the terrible day I decided to ‘come out’ to my family that my story worked out quite well. I decided to stay in the U.S, become an American citizen, and pursue a career in business. I was able to achieve what some would consider extraordinary career success, including multiple high-profile CEO roles in the U.S. financial services and real estate sectors. I lived in a beautiful home in the Hollywood Hills, with my beautiful family including my wife and four children and contributed to many social and community causes I cared deeply about.
But my coming out wasn’t to be followed by feelings of Pride. Instead, it led to years, no decades, of shame, rejection, and pain for me and within my highly educated and progressive nuclear and extended birth family. That feeling of shame and non-acceptance continues today — though significant incremental progress was made on multiple fronts, and I know my family feels they have tried their best — as I struggle to accept the reality that my wife and children, including two sets of twins 9 and 11 years old each, may never see the places I grew up in that are core to my childhood and identity.
No gays of repute, I am told, come to Punjab with their spouses and children; the gay person may visit home but must come alone and for the duration of their visit, get back in the closet where their family typically sits. Coming out — an action considered core to the LGBTQ+ experience in the U.S. — is not a source of pride, but rather a source of shame given the community’s huge focus on, well, community.
And so, we find that LGBTQ+ South Asians are not “out and proud” — they are only as out as the most closeted important member of their family and community. This may explain why we see almost no publicly out LGBTQ desi role models who are famous, even today. Yes, that is slowly changing with the coming out of folks like Kal Penn, but most successful LGBTQ folks in South Asia and in the Desi Diaspora are still closeted.
The Desi diaspora must realize that the only way Desi LGBTQ+ individuals can live open lives of truth and acceptance — key to their mental health — is if our straight allies and family members come out in support of us, to protect us, to model the right behavior for others, especially elders, and to give LGBTQ+ children and youth shelter so they may become strong and prosper.
Besides being queer myself, I am also the parent of a transgender child, as I shared in this interview with Rasha Goal on TV Asia a few months ago. But just being queer does not make the journey any easier when it comes to one’s child. Having gone through life as a queer Indian American myself, I was particularly sensitive to the challenge that a child must face — in the U.S. and in India (where they may never be able to go to their village or hometown, even if they are the child of a congressperson!) — if they belong to the LGBTQ+ community openly.
In our case, we educated ourselves by speaking with other Desi (and non-Desi) parents of transgender children such as Aruna Rao, the founder of Desi Rainbow Parents and Allies. These conversations were incredibly helpful and clarifying, and the path for us was clear. No matter what, we would support our child. This does not mean we accept everything he tells us at face value, or that we don’t or won’t push him to think critically about his identity and feelings over an extended period of time. It just means we understand that transgender youth overwhelmingly become depressed and suicidal unless they are supported by family and community on their journeys, and we value our child and his mental health — more than we value the potential judgment of others.
If you are LGBTQ+ or have someone who is in your family or community — and especially if you are NOT LGBTQ+ and don’t have someone like that in your family and community — I urge you to educate yourself, approach those who look or act differently, and speak up publicly about your support for the LGBTQ+ members in your temple, gurudwara, Diwali party and weddings.
Your simple act of speaking up may actually save a life.
Rayman Mathoda is mother to two sets of twins, Board Chair of Desi Rainbow Parents & Allies, Board Director for Mosaic Sustainable Finance & Sharestates, and Partner at Emerge Life Sciences.