I was 12 when I first realized I was attracted to boys. I come from a strict, religious Sikh family, and I could not reveal these feelings to my parents. So I had a private notebook that I wrote and drew in. One picture was of two nude men.
I knew about homosexuality from teen novels and comics that featured gay male characters and couples.
One night my aunt slept over in my room and I stayed with my sister. The next night, my aunt pulled me into my room and closed the door. She held up my notebook with that page open. I tried my best to hide my shock.
“I found this picture, and I just wanted to ask you about it,” she said calmly. I was too scared to ask her why she’d looked through my things.
“I don’t know,” I said.
She could tell I was uncomfortable so she didn’t question me further. “I’m going to show this to your mom so you two can have a proper discussion about it.”
I was too afraid to argue.
Not only did she tell my mom, she told my three sisters, and called my grandmother and dad. Even though no one said anything to me, I felt upset and exposed.
I didn’t think the picture was that big a deal. It was just two nude men. Quite well done if I might add. In a small bubble, one figure says coyly, “Oh, so I’m having sex with a man.”
I’m Not a Problem That Needs to Be Fixed
A few days later, I was watching TV when my mom asked me to come into the living room. I sat on the worn, cream colored couch, and she sat on the glass coffee table cluttered with picture frames, vintage coasters, and magazines.
“I want to talk to you about the picture you drew,” she said. “Do you know what sex is?”
I was so used to being verbally and physically disciplined that I was often too afraid to speak. My parents were used to my silence. I waited for the shouting but she remained oddly calm.
“I don’t want you to feel like there is something wrong with you, but that drawing is a problem we want to address. We want to help you.”
No matter what words she said, all I could hear was, “You are a problem. Fix it.” I felt shattered and alone.
Struggle to Understand my Parents’ Homophobia
I know my parents both experienced prejudice and mistreatment in their own families. My father moved here from India during elementary school and joined the Marines after high school. The strict hierarchies and rigid rules in these environments influence his narrow world view.
My mother grew up poor in Brooklyn, with a physically abusive father and stepmother. When she met my father, he lived with his parents, who didn’t allow my mother to stay with them because she is Black.
When I was born, we briefly lived in a homeless shelter until my mother found an apartment. My parents have never lived together. During the week, I live with my mom in Harlem, and every weekend I visit my father in upstate New York.
Just Two Nude Men
A few weeks later, I sat still, cold like a gargoyle on a church cornice, outside a therapist’s office with my parents.
We were called into a room filled with toys, games, and colorful chairs. The room had white walls and no windows. I was terrified.
When the therapist asked my parents why we were there, my father said, “He has a problem with his behavior. He prances around, swaying his hips as he walks.”
“Also, my sister found this picture in his book,” my mom said as she pulled out the torn notebook paper. “It was quite concerning.”
The therapist looked at the drawing but said nothing. She was tall and blonde. She wore makeup and looked elegant. She seemed kind, but I didn’t trust her. I was afraid she would judge me like my family.
When my parents left the room the therapist asked, “Why did you draw the picture?”
“I don’t know why.”
She offered me fruit snacks, and we did a puzzle together while I told her about being bullied at school. But I didn’t talk about the picture.
My Father’s Ignorance
A few weeks into my sessions, my dad and I were sitting in a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot. I ate a donut as he sipped his coffee. After a few questions about my therapy, he lost his patience.
“Listen to me, what you drew was not OK. It’s OK to be young and interested in some things, but just remember that what you drew happens between a man and a woman, not two men.”
I quickly nodded. After that lecture, I tried to spend as little time with my parents as possible.
I went to therapy every week for my “troubling” artistic creation. This continued for the rest of the school year. My parents hoped therapy would make me “ungay”; they wanted to prevent the seed from growing. But it was already flourishing and therapy encouraged that. My therapist emphasized that I was a person just like everyone else and that what I was feeling was natural.
As the weeks turned into months, my parents spoke less about my homosexuality.
Not Ashamed to Be Who I Am
My parents’ disapproval failed to make me ashamed of who I was.
However, it was difficult to deal with bullies at my middle school. Since 6th grade, kids had been calling me “f-ggot” and “sissy” when teachers were out of earshot. Sometimes I was punched or shoved.
Still, a few people decided to be my friends. Enrique was my first friend. We sat next to each other in homeroom. He was tall, Mexican, and liked manga and drawing. He wasn’t gay, but he was kind to me and I felt safe talking to him.
Bullied Badly, Then Hope
One morning during math, I sat in a corner with Enrique, purposely isolated from the big groups. During independent work, a group of students in the front turned around.
“Hey gay boy, you sittin’ with your boyfriend?” one said.
“Do y’all two kiss in the back?” another said.
“Why you be doin’ all that gay sh-t all the time?”
“You’re a fag and that’s why no one likes you.”
“Why don’t you just act like a normal person?”
It felt relentless.
I felt my cheeks flush with embarrassment. Then it got worse: “Y’all two suck each other off?”
The group burst into laughter, catching the teacher’s attention. She quickly told them to be silent. I asked to leave for the restroom. Once I was in the comfort of a closed stall, I began to cry silently.
I was most upset and ashamed that my friend had been dragged into my mess. Enrique was such a popular guy. Now because of me he had been humiliated.
“Who Cares What People Think?”
When I went back to class, I avoided him for the rest of the day.
For days after, I isolated myself from everyone, especially Enrique, to avoid further trouble. He asked me what was wrong but I was too embarrassed to tell him. I said, “Nothing is wrong, I’m just having a bad day.”
After about a week, he pulled me aside during recess. We snuck away to the boys’ bathroom in the basement. It was the only quiet place to talk.
“What’s going on? Why are you avoiding me?”
His worried look allowed me to open up. “It was what happened last week. When the kids started calling us names, I felt bad.”
“Don’t worry about them. Who cares what they think? I like being your friend because you’re really cool and nice to other people.”
My face must have looked like a tomato. I hadn’t been complimented by another person ever before. It felt strange. “OK,” I told him. We walked back to class.
Enrique moved at the end of the school year. Even though I wouldn’t see him again, our friendship gave me hope. I knew there were more people like him who would also want to be friends with me.
My Mom Accepts Me
In 8th grade, my older sister moved in with us. After a few months she came out as lesbian. I can’t say why, but my mom was accepting of my sister.
Over time, my mom became used to me being gay, too. She stopped trying to change me or convince me there was something wrong with me.
My sister and I became close. We spoke about our sexuality and the people we were attracted to. It felt good to be understood by a family member and to have an ally in the house.
I Finally Fit In
I started high school with high hopes. Watching movies like High School Musical, The Breakfast Club, and Grease, I thought that I would find my crowd and finally fit in with a community.
I soon discovered the Gay Straight Alliance, a club run by two openly gay teachers at my school. The GSA works to create an inclusive school environment for LGBTQ students. They teach us about events in gay history and about LGBTQ rights in other countries. We also share personal growth stories. Mine was about what happened between me and Enrique.
Most importantly, this is where I made my first LGBTQ friends. They introduced me to social media and I learned even more about the modern LGBTQ community. I began to develop my own sense of style and a love for writing, art, and literature. Last year, the club chose me as its leader.
My dad is not as accepting as my mom but mostly leaves me alone. Still, every once in a while I have to put up with his negative comments.
I recently visited my father for the weekend. We were driving to my grandparents’ when he said, “Do you see your nails? Look how long they are.”
“Sorry, I guess I forgot to cut them,” I said.
“Listen to me. Do you see that thing between your legs? God gave you a penis for a reason. So stop all this nonsense. They look like a woman’s nails. Cut them,” he said.
Although I don’t get as hurt by these homophobic remarks as I once did, it’s still hard to stand up to my father. But now that I’ve found my place among friends, I feel supported. It helps that my mom accepts me now. I am no longer alone and that gives me confidence. There is nothing wrong with me. I am gay. I am myself.