Pride and Shame: A Harikatha From Becoming My Identity (Part 1) by Hari Venkatachalam

In 2019, an organization called “Super Happy Fun America” organized what they called a “straight pride parade,” along the lines of the annual Boston Pride. I remember hearing about it while having lunch with a friend. He came across the news article while lazily scanning through posts on Facebook.

Straight pride?” he asked incredulously, nearly spitting out his food. “Why would there even need to be something like ‘straight pride’?”I shrugged absent-mindedly, not fully empathizing with his indignation. “Who knows? Maybe they just felt left out of all the fun.”

My friend did not find that response satisfactory and fumed about the news for the remainder of the meal. He had good cause to be annoyed. Pride events, which occur in many countries around the world, are incredibly emotional and powerful forms of self-expression by the local LGBTQ communities. It is a sign of defiant individuality in a world that demands conformity. Being gay or trans is still a criminal offense in much of the world. Even where it is legal, centuries of social and legal norms have built societies where youth are bullied, employees are fired, and the most vulnerable are assaulted and murdered. Placed against that backdrop, “straight pride” was at best, theatrical and artificial, and at worst, blatantly homophobic and transphobic.

As I drove home, I found myself still mulling over the notion of a “straight pride parade.” To amuse the philosophical side of my personality, I started questioning myself: Why shouldn’t straight people be proud? Shouldn’t everyone be proud of being themselves? Why am I “proud” of being gay? Is my pride rooted in something I accomplished?

I delved deeper and asked myself increasingly complicated questions. Who am I? Am I proud of that person? Or looking at it in reverse: What parts of my own identity do I still feel ashamed about?  

In answering those questions, I formed the foundation of my beliefs on pride and shame. I would like to share those thoughts with you. Not just the thoughts I had that afternoon as I assessed the validity of a straight pride parade, but the culmination of thoughts and ideas I have had since childhood. I struggle to write these words. How do you condense a lifetime’s worth of conversations about pride and shame into several pages? Outside of the safe spaces of our heads, our thoughts may appear comical, pretentious, pathetic, or even, insensitive and offensive. They are, however, still a collection of my thoughts and ideas which I feel are valid. The best way I decided to explore these topics with you is in the form of a harikatha

Harikathas are a popular tool throughout the Hindu world that are used to retell the stories from the epics. Often a storyteller will weave songs and quotes into their harikathas. Sometimes these individual stories may feel unrelated, but together, the harikatha weaves a quilt of complex themes and ideas. This is my quilt. The conclusions I draw, and what I ultimately draw pride from, is unique to me. It may be different for each one of you. This piece is not some divine truth; it is not a story from scripture. It is just a story: my harikatha.

“The Faithless Days,” Early Childhood

I am a Hindu by birth. And yet I do not know much of Hinduism, and I know less of other religions. In fact, I do not know where I am, and what is and what should be my belief. 

– Mahatma Gandhi

If you had sat me down in a chair when I was six years old and asked me questions about identity and pride, I would have given very different answers to the ones I would give you today. The most enduring parts of my identity—being Hindu, Tamil, American, and gay—were not a significant part of my childhood sense of self. Who was Hari at that time?

I saw myself as a class clown, mostly enjoying making people laugh. I was an avid reader, having a voracious appetite for books. Those identities I mentioned above, did not play a significant role in my childhood sense of self. Tamil was a language that I spoke in a somewhat stilted and agonizing manner with my family. To be frank, it was more a smattering of English vocabulary crammed into a south Indian sentence structure. I would add vowel flourishes at the end of English words to create a butchered hybrid language that only my parents could understand. I did not even know the name of my parents’ faith and spent most of the weekly Thursday night bhajans thumbing my way through books I was reading, ignoring the intonation of Sanskrit and Tamil chanting around me. My American-ness, too, could have been brought thoroughly into question as I spent most of my school day mornings wondering why we were pledging our allegiance to some central Asian country of “For-witch-it-stan.”

Figuring out my faith was far easier than figuring out my sexuality. I always knew I was different from my friends who usually spent their weekend mornings at religious services. However, it wasn’t until a neighborhood kid specifically told me that I was “going to Hell” did I even try to figure out what my religion was. “We’re Hindu,” my mother answered matter-of-factly, not lifting her eyes from the English novel she was reading.

Hindu. I don’t think I had heard the term “Hindu” until that day. It is fascinating that in a culture that named everything after Hindu deities, from the bags of rice that we hauled back from the Indian grocery store (“Laxmi Brand”) to the milk sweets that we most definitely never smuggled back from India (“Sri Krishna Sweets”), the term “Hindu” itself is largely absent and rare. And here my mother was saying that this was my religion. It was who I was. I had probably always recognized that I, as part of my family, practiced some form of religion, but now there was a name for it. And I knew it. I was a Hindu. I just was not sure what that exactly meant.

“What is Gay”, Age 6/7

At first, there was only darkness wrapped in darkness. 

All this was only unillumined water.

That One which came to be, enclosed in nothing, 

arose at last, born of the power of heat.

In the beginning, desire descended on it 

– that was the primal seed, born of the mind.

 -Rig Veda

Being gay was the most elusive part of my identity. Heterosexuality was omnipresent and all-pervasive, not unlike the American accent in my attempts to speak Tamil. Everything from Indian movies my parents rented from the local grocery store to the Disney movies I watched with my friends, and even to the R-rated movies that I would catch glimpses of before being sent to my room, were all filled with heterosexual couples. All the characters I met in real life, or in scenes in the books I read, had pairs of mothers and fathers. It is not that heterosexuality felt promoted in opposition to something else; It is that there was nothing else. To consider other forms of romantic love was as ludicrous as expecting a tossed ball to fall upwards.

Gay people often hear accusations that “Homosexuality is a learned, deviant behavior.” Our response is most often that we are born that way; that our homosexuality is a trait we have possessed from birth. But people often misconstrue that statement and think that gay people are asserting that we are born sexually mature, with a thorough knowledge of our desires. That is not what we are saying. We are just like everyone else, moving through amorphous phases of curiosity, confusion, and cognition. The realization that we are gay slowly forms in the embryonic childhood thoughts, gradually taking form, and dawning on us, like how all kids come to realize who they are attracted to. But unlike straight children, LGBTQ children also move through phases of shock, shame, embarrassment, and fear. Pride only appears further down the assembly line.

These early steps of figuring out one’s sexual orientation as an LGBTQ child are further complicated by the fact that we often question and figure out our orientation all by ourselves, with no one to consult or ask questions. I wish I could have gotten such a simple matter-of-fact answer about my orientation as I had when I asked about my family’s religion.

The first time I even heard of the concept of being gay was on one of those late-night sitcoms my parents watched. One of the main characters, a guy, was attempting to flirt with women at the pool and was failing miserably. Finally, he managed to capture the attention of an attractive woman in a bathing suit and invited her over to his place. She accepted the invitation, but while walking away mentioned “I’ll bring my wife. You’ll love her!”

I would like to imagine there was some older version of myself sitting Yoda-like, on an ethereal plane screaming, “This is important! This is relevant to your life!” Ignoring the shouts of future Yoda/Hari, I glanced over at my mother, who was yet again engrossed in a novel and barely paying attention to the television that was running in the background. But this time, I did not ask her what it meant if a woman had a wife. I did not ask her what we would call someone like that. Without knowing anything about the history of the LGBTQ movement, or of a larger movement of people who declare homosexuality as sinful and unnatural, and would try putting together a “straight pride parade,”…without even knowing the term “a gay person,” I found myself feeling my first emotion as an LGBTQ person: shame.

Hari Venkatachalam is a Hindu-American activist focused on the areas of public health, social justice, environmental change, and LGBT rights. He works as an epidemiologist and data manager for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Based in Tampa, Florida, Venkatachalam is a member of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus.