By Hari Venkatachalam
“Self-Reflection,” Young Adult
Injury caused by a burn will heal,
But not the scar caused by the tongue. -Thirukkural
During my freshman year of college, a friend came out on October 11th, generally regarded as National Coming Out Day. He was also new in college and, having left the baggage from high school and from his earlier years behind, he decided to start his adult years by being true to himself. A group of us were walking together through the campus of the University of Pittsburgh talking to him about his decision to come out. He was nonchalant about the whole situation. For him, it was just the natural thing to do now that he was an adult living away from home.
“It’s about time I came out, so I came out,” he confessed, with such an air of ease and self-assuredness. “Closets are for clothes. Fabulous clothes,” he joked, paying tribute to the motto that has become universally associated with National Coming Out Day. I was fascinated. I wonder if he could see such admiration in my eyes as I stared at him from a corner so deep in my own closet.
A key theme used during Pride celebrations is “acceptance.” It is a term that is also associated with National Coming Out Day celebrations. Acceptance can be difficult to comprehend for people who come from non-supportive communities and families. It can be even more evasive for those who come from places where simply stating one is a member of the LGBTQ community results in the risk of criminalization, detention, and punishment. Self-acceptance, something that occurs deep in one’s own mind, heart, and soul, is often a safer and more conceivable option for these people. But even after one comes to accept being gay or trans, shame does not entirely disappear. Pride and acceptance, although often seen in stark contrast with shame, end up sharing much overlap space.
Even after I came out of the closet in college, the shame associated with being LGBTQ lingered much longer, like a stain I was unable to wash away from my soul. A few years after I came out, I auditioned to be part of a dance troupe. Although I thought I had auditioned well, I later found out, to my disappointment, that I had not made the team. It was not until several weeks later, while sitting around with some friends, did the topic of my audition come up.
“A bunch of the team leads were discussing Hari’s audition,” my friend mentioned casually, “Everyone said it was really good. But the issue was that they also said it was very effeminate.” He laughed, thinking it was a silly anecdote about a recent experience. I laughed too, dismissing the incident. How silly that I had auditioned in such an effeminate manner! No wonder I did not make the cut!
Inside, my stomach dropped. I had written the phrase “my stomach dropped” so many times in the stories I wrote as a kid, but it was not until I started coming out that I realized how accurate the description was. It literally feels as if everything inside of you drops away, leaving emptiness. You begin to sweat as if you are burning up from a fever, but the very dampness on your skin feels cold and clammy. A slight ringing begins in your ears that drowns out all other noise. If going to the “Sunken Place” were a real phenomenon, this experience feels quite close to it. There is no other word for it other than shame. Of course, the reason I was given for why I did not make the team was hearsay, but that did not make the sting of shame any less harsh.
When I think back on moments like these where I have heard hurtful words, I wonder what those who said them think now. I wonder whether it fills them with shame at having said something hurtful. I wonder because I was not always solely on the receiving end of such cruel words. I also share guilt in condemning and mocking others. I can attest that I still feel that guilt. If there is any shame that still lingers after having come out, and having fully accepted who I am today, it is the shame of the hurtful words I have slung when I was a weaker and less secure man.
In high school, I was sitting in the auditorium watching a young man that I did not like, Brett [a pseudonym], walk by. He was effeminate in nature himself, and there was often gossip that he was gay that was spoken about in the halls. I whispered to a friend sitting nearby, as a slight to Brett, that “Gay people aren’t normal.”
It was then that I noticed that Joe [another pseudonym] who was in earshot, had gotten up and left the room. My friend told me that Joe was gay himself, and probably had left after hearing my homophobic remark. I rushed out after Joe, embarrassed by what I had just said. When I caught up with Joe, I said, breathlessly, “I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean it! I wasn’t talking about you I was just saying that…” and I was left wordless.
What excuse did I have for using someone’s sexual orientation to mock them? What excuse did I have for assuming someone’s sexual orientation from behaviors? What were my words other than blatant homophobia? Why did I turn to a homophobic attack to mock someone I did not like? It did not matter whether the intended target was Joe or Brett: The words were wrong. Joe simply smiled and pretended he had not heard what I had said earlier.
I was not out yet, but I thought of his expression from that day for years after. He was smiling, but there was an undeniable pain in his eyes. I imagine that it is the same expression that crossed my face when I heard about why I did not make the dance team. I imagine it is the same expression I had when I was told that I hadn’t gotten a part-time job as a server, because the owner had confessed that “he’d had a gay employee before, and it wasn’t working so he didn’t want another one.” I imagine it is the same expression I had when someone told me that “He wouldn’t have ended up gay if his parents had raised him properly” or if I hadn’t been “raised with American values.”
If homophobic statements and cruel words soil our hands, then my hands are not clean either. I have been haunted for years with shame over having said something so hurtful and cruel, and that instance is only one of several other times where I have been cruel. I do not hope to get some sort of forgiveness for my harsh words, but I pray that the recipients of my words have grown up and replaced any shame with pride. I have learned to forgive those who have spoken with cruelty to me, in hopes that even if they have not reached the place where they realize the extent of their harshness, that they are moving down the path towards realizing it. Only through these hopes am I able to lessen the shame I feel for my actions.
In this way, acceptance, a core theme for Pride and coming out celebrations, is necessary both for those who have said homophobic and transphobic things, and those who are on the receiving end of those words. As one who has experienced those harsh words, I accept that these difficult times are part of my past, and I am inspired to forgive. As someone who has let those cruel words slip from my own lips, acceptance means accepting those words are wrong, apologizing if possible, and striving to rectify past wrongs by being a better person in the future.
Pride celebrations are named and celebrated to be the exact opposite of those feelings of shame. If shame is immobilizing, pride is freeing. If shame is silencing, pride is loud and boisterous. If shame is lonely, pride is camaraderie and togetherness.
And if shame is bitter and sorrowful, pride is forgiving and healing.
Hari Haran Venkatachalam, Now
‘Bright but hidden, the Self dwells in the heart. Everything that moves, breathes, opens, and closes Lives in the Self. He is the source of love. And may be known through love but not through thought. He is the goal of life. Attain this goal! The shining Self that dwells in the heart…” – The Upanishads
I was once told that pride and shame are simply two faces of the same coin. That expression made no sense to me when I first heard it. Pride was life-affirming. Shame strangled life and silenced it. Pride empowered people by giving them control over their destinies. Shame stripped them of their agency. To place these two contrasting concepts into the same space, either seemed to lessen the joy and fulfillment associated with experiencing pride or seemed to discount the struggles and harshness associated with shame.
When I think back to some of my earliest memories of shame associated with any of my identities, whether it was being gay, Hindu, Tamil, or American, it fills me with such sadness. I think of that young child on a school bus, soon after he had had his first kiss with someone of the same gender, resting his burning head on the cold glass of a bus window and staring out into the blankness of the Pennsylvanian winter landscape. I think of the thoughts that went through his mind: “I can’t be gay.” “Maybe in another life I can be happy.”
And then I think of moments of pride, such as when I was given the warm welcome and acceptance by my cousins (not by blood, but by love) Anish and Vignesh, when I came out to them. Of the kindness they have shown to me through all the difficult times, and how they make me blush with pride when they tell me of their admiration for me for having come out. Of how proud I was to be so close to these men who only gave me love. Of how proud I was when their parents reassured me in Tamil gently that they thought, “I was truly raised well.” Of how proud I was when my late-Stepmother greeted my partner with nothing but warmth and kindness, eager to share their common love of coffee.
How can these moments be cut from the same cloth? How can pride and shame be connected? It is important to remember that people draw pride from accomplishments not existences. Pride can be always rooted in specific action phrases: “I succeeded in,” “I built,” “I created,” “I wrote,” “I mastered.” What does one accomplish as an LGBTQ person to feel proud? One conquers one’s shame. Pride and shame are connected because we build pride on the foundation of triumph over shame.
LGBTQ Pride celebrations are connected to shame because the pride the attendees feel during these events draws from the repudiation of past shame. It is this reason that “straight pride” feels like a farce to so many members of the LGBTQ community. Are there shameful memories associated specifically with growing up as straight or cis? I cannot speak for every person on this planet, but I struggle to think of a story of such shame.
I have shared with you, dear reader, countless tales of shame embedded in my past, but they are only my shame. This story is only one man’s harikatha, my tale of overcoming shame. I suspect that behind any person in the LGBTQ community, there is a vast reservoir of memories of shame, heartache, and loneliness. My story is just one in a million, one in a hundred million. Each story of pride is one filled with struggles and sadness. There are stories many of you could tell that would humble me and make my difficulties seem minute or paltry. But each one of us who celebrates pride shares a common journey. The journey is overcoming what feels like crossing an insurmountable mountain or traversing a treacherous maze. It is through this journey and this victory that pride is given its meaning to each member of the LGBTQ community, wherever they are in this world.
For me, the story of my life echoes the message of the Upanishads that call for realizing the self as the most important goal of life. I cannot say I have fully achieved that goal, but I have had my share of victories along the way that I can be proud of. I have pride in the identity of being Hindu, even when accused by non-Hindus and Hindus alike that my orientation negates my faith. I have pride in being Tamil, not only in being able to speak it better today than I did as a child but that I overcame the feelings of otherness associated with my culture, and wanting to not be from it. I am proud of being an American, despite the accusations that my “Americanness” somehow corrupted me from my family values and culture. And I am proud to be a gay man, having overcome years of silence and shame.
A day will come when coming out as gay, bi, or trans will be unceremonious. A day will come when these topics will become mundane, and most people from these communities will struggle to think of times in their life when they had to overcome shame. It will be truly a beautiful and glorious day. When that day finally dawns, we may even have to question whether Pride Celebrations are necessary, or whether they have become as inane as a “straight pride parade.” But that day is not today, nor is it any day that I foresee coming to be in my lifetime. Until that point, I hope my Harikatha, my story, truly helps others overcome their own feelings of shame.
I hope that by confessing my own shames, some of you, my dear readers, will overcome your own. I hope that it helps you get to Pride.
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.