by Arati M. Jambotkar
Sometimes I have dreams about my future wedding day. I hold hands with my Indian husband – an engineer maybe, or a doctor – as we circle the ceremonial fire in traditional Indian garb, flanked by gold jewelry and extravagant ornaments. We are filled with the certainty that we will be bound together in harmony for life, and everything is perfect – just the way it’s supposed to be…
There’s only one problem: I’m not straight. But it took me a long time to realize that it’s not a problem.
I grew up in a small town forty miles west of New Orleans, the younger of two daughters of immigrants. My parents are the most self-sacrificing people I know. My dad was raised in a tiny village in India with no electricity or running water, oftentimes studying by candlelight during his childhood and eating nothing but a boiled egg a day. In contrast, I was raised in America with things that far surpassed mere necessities. Although I felt grateful for these luxuries, along with that gratitude came an equally strong sense of guilt over being spoiled. The combination of that gratitude and guilt sparked a self-imposed pressure to succeed and to live up to the ideals of the culture.
Being born into a family of devout Hindus, I frequently visited the local temple as a child. I recall sitting on the hard linoleum floor amongst a throng of worshippers, surrounded by statues – idols adorned with silk and flowers and grains of rice. I was obedient and quiet as chants were muttered in tongues I did not understand, to which I could not connect to emotionally. I found myself detached from my religion, from spirituality altogether. Such was the case for many years.
I started noticing girls shortly after my sixteenth birthday. During the summer before my junior year, I attended a club conference in Texas with a group of young women from several Louisiana parishes. On the bus ride there, I chatted with a girl who –I kid you not – was the spitting image of Alicia Silverstone. Sigh. I recall sitting alone with “Miss Silverstone” at a table in Planet Hollywood in downtown Dallas two days later as she complained for three and a half hours about her boyfriend’s indiscretions. As she spoke, all I could think about was how magnificent she was, how pleasant her voice sounded, her warm and endearing personality, the insanity of the boyfriend, and how odd it felt to be overcome with extreme nervousness. It was the kind of anxiety that is blissful, surreal, and simultaneously shocks the core. Basically, these were butterflies that only a crush can bring. I never saw her again, but I’ll never forget her.
From that point until the age of eighteen, I experienced the most agonizing torment I’ve ever gone through in my life: the questioning period. I was plagued by incessant thoughts about the true nature of my sanity – second-guessing whether my emotions were part of the reality I had always known, or whether they were part of some alternate universe where delusions were actually reality. I chastised and berated myself constantly. It was my own version of self-imposed electroshock therapy. My feelings towards my inclinations and urges went beyond guilt to a dark place of shame about who I was and what I feared I would become: a second-class family member, an ostracized Hindu, a spiritual failure. This daily self-lashing lasted two years.
When I turned eighteen, I decided to come out to my parents. And I chose the morning of December 25 to do it. I didn’t select it for shock value. Christmas, although a Christian holiday, was always celebrated in our household as our favorite day of the year – a time when the familial bond that we always valued became something that was renewed and strengthened time and time again. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my mother, post-wrapping paper cleanup, post-dishwasher loading, and pre-trying to figure out how these words were going to somehow magically form themselves into sentences that I could verbalize. But sometimes, anxiety prompts a person to act on impulse before the mind can object and before the body can resist. I blurted out the three words, not even stuttering on “l.” All I remember after was the unsurprised look on my mother’s face as she said, “It’s just a phase.” And suddenly, I felt like a kid who had woken up on Christmas morning with all the anticipation and hope in the world, only to find that the one thing she had wished for that year wasn’t under the tree. I was that kid, and I was crushed.
From that moment on, I experienced an emotional distancing from my family that filled me with some of the greatest emptiness I have ever known. It was like trekking through a tundra, surrounded by nomads, but blindfolded and feeling like no one else was there. I tried to wash away that emptiness with a series of failed relationships, including the horribly violent one about which I wrote a few weeks ago. I didn’t want to face rejection, abandonment, and judgment by the people whom I had always considered to be closest to me, by this spiritual being.
Out of desperation, I went to a temple in Houston one weekend, about fifteen years after I had last been inside of a religious establishment. People oftentimes describe spiritual experiences as monumental, dramatic events that are blissful, surreal, and simultaneously shock the core. Mine was ordinary, I suppose. But in crossing that threshold, I felt a transformation, one from a lifetime of feeling displacement to just one moment of feeling balance, peace, and belonging. That’s when I realized that this puzzle of life is only complete when the last piece of it stops struggling. When I accept that the puzzle maker truly wants me to stop fighting the puzzle itself and just “be,” only then can I accept myself as the piece that fits.
Today I am grateful that I am that piece, that I have the capacity to enact change in this world based on who I am, based on just “being” – on just being me. And since I’ve come to that place of self-acceptance, of self-nurturing, I have been blessed with the ability to embrace that puzzle instead of shunning it, to feel compassion for the other pieces and to love myself regardless of whether they are in acceptance of me, or even of themselves. My family doesn’t exactly welcome my homosexuality today, but they don’t reject it either. They love me for just being, and I love them in the same way. I thank that spiritual someone, that threshold in Houston, for giving me the power to truly know that.
So these days, I still sometimes have dreams about my future wedding day. I hold hands with my wife – whoever she may be – as we circle the ceremonial fire in traditional Indian garb, flanked by gold jewelry and extravagant ornaments. We are filled with the certainty that we will be bound together in harmony for life, but everything isn’t perfect. Instead, it’s just the way it’s supposed to be.