When I came out to my dad, one of the first things he said was: “I wonder how many people in our family were gay but couldn’t say anything.”
I once looked through the family tree he has kept for 25 years, scanning seven generations of direct ancestors and distant relatives, wondering whose truth died with them.
During one visit to India, my grandmother took me to visit an old friend of hers. He was smartly dressed and well spoken, the sole occupant of an apartment littered with books and art. As my grandmother explained, he was a “confirmed bachelor” who had never married.
I think of him often. I’ll never know for sure if he was gay or not, but I do know there were generations of gay men in India who only had two options: a marriage based on a lie or a quiet life alone in the closet. And I wonder how different my life would have been if my family had stayed in India instead of immigrating to America when I was three years old. Which option would I have picked?
Thankfully, I had other options. I grew up and came out in an America just beginning to awaken to the cause of LGBTQ equality. I followed Ellen DeGeneres out of the closet and Edie Windsor to the altar. Later, I followed my dreams all the way to Barack Obama’s White House.
For these reasons, among others, I will always be extraordinarily proud to be an American. In no other country is my story – immigrating, coming out, marrying the person I love and starting a family, serving the highest office in the land – even possible.
And yet, that pride has always come with a corresponding set of complicated emotions about India, a deep personal connection tempered by sadness, guilt, and resignation.
Recently, my husband and I have talked about living abroad for a year or two when our daughter is older. In many ways, living in India would be a powerful way to teach her about a country that may not be a part of her genetic makeup but is nonetheless a very real part of who she is, who her appa is, and the values we hope to instill in her.
But every time we talk about it, I rule it out. How could we live as a family – even temporarily, and even with the privilege of American citizenship – in a place where our very relationship is criminal?
All of that changed on Sept. 6, when India’s Supreme Court unanimously struck down Section 377, the provision of the penal code criminalizing homosexuality, and further ruled that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is prohibited.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this ruling. Not only did Section 377 codify discrimination, it was used for years as a tool by government and police to raid, arrest, and stigmatize queer Indians. In their judgements, the Justices spoke to this long history of oppression, calling Section 377 “irrational, indefensible, and manifestly arbitrary,” speaking to the inherent dignity and equality owed LGBTQ individuals, and calling for full and equal protection under the law – a goal we have yet to attain here in America.
It’s not lost on me that, as a consequence of this historic ruling, I now have more explicit legal protection in the land of my birth than in the land that I love.
That said, this is just the first step. Much like Lawrence paved the way for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the freedom to marry, India too will have to grapple with the meaning and implementation of full equality for its LGBTQ citizens.
But for now, it signals the beginning of an end to loveless marriages and closeted confirmed bachelors. Even more importantly, it shows the way to a future of endless possibilities and unlimited options for future generations of Indians – and Indian Americans.
In January, my husband, daughter, and I will travel to India for a family reunion. In many ways, we will be returning to exactly the same country we’ve visited before. But in one very important way, we will be visiting a new land, with renewed hope for the future.
Gautam Raghavan served as President Obama’s liaison to the LGBTQ and AAPI communities from 2011 to 2014, currently advises the Indian American Impact Project and Biden Foundation, and is the editor of the forthcoming ‘West Wingers: Stories from the Dream Chasers, Change Makers, and Hope Creators Inside the Obama White House’ to be published by Penguin Books on Sept. 25.