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How I Became An Agony Aunty for Queer Indians on Instagram

Ah, Instagram.

Every day that little ombré camera icon allows us to explore the outside world by scrolling in our phones. We see envy-inducing travel shots, tips on styling and makeup, jokes and memes begging to be shared, inspirational quotes, and smize-faced celebrities attempting to connect with fans all over the globe.

I admit: I’m no influencer. I tend to view more than post. At just under 500 followers my photos and hashtags can be somewhat mundane. New York buildings, street art, store windows, flora and fauna, with sprinklings of vacation pics and selfies. #Basic.

When I do post a selfie (or occasional thirst trap) I use, amongst many gay related hashtags like #gayguy, #gaynewyork, #gayscruffy etc., the two lesser seen tags #gayindian and #gaydesi (Desi is slang for someone of South Asian descent). Initially I didn’t include the latter hashtags. But I noticed the men who identified as gay on their Instagram selfies were primarily Western or European, almost always caucasian.

Including these Indian tags are both an attempt to get more likes and followers for sure, but also monikers I’m proud to sport living as an out man of color. I want to show that there isn’t just one kind of gay man who gets to give his best Blue Steel for the camera.

It also allows other queer desis to find each other. Within a few hours of these posts I almost always get a fair number of DMs from other Indian men. Many have blank or private profiles. Some ask for or send nudes. Most of these get ignored and deleted.

Sometimes, though, I have different interactions. Some guys start with “Hi” and inquire, politely, if they can ask me a question. I agree and the floodgates open.

“Are you really gay? How do you know you’re gay?”

“Are you married? What’s it like to date a man?”

“How did you tell your family? What did they say/do?”

“What do I tell mine? What happens if/when they kick me out?”

Pretty heavy stuff to accompany a #ThrowbackThursday selfie.

From what I can see most of these men live in India, where homosexuality is both taboo and a criminal offense. Some are from other Asian or Middle Eastern countries. They range in age but are primarily younger than me, sometimes by a decade. They live in major cities like Mumbai or Bangalore as well as small towns and locales I’ve never heard of nor visited.

They ask me everything about my life. My coming out experience. How and why did I leave India? Did I have a boyfriend and what was that like?

I try and answer as honestly as I can, having had a fairly atypical journey regarding my sexuality compared to many other desis.

My family emigrated to America when I was a teenager. I came out in high school. I’ve had long term relationships and a growing network of gay friends. My parents were/are very understanding and placed no pressure regarding marriage (at least not to a woman).

Some of these answers result in hopelessness in the men I chat with:

“That can never happen for me.”

“My parents are not like this.”

“I cannot have a life like you.”

Others seem more optimistic and grateful for someone to vent to:

“I am feeling really good talking to you.”

“I follow people like you to get strength and inspiration.”

“I want to be happy like you.”

Sometimes I’m thanked and never messaged again. Sometimes we keep in touch through occasional chats. Sometimes they beg me to help them leave the country and come stay with me in America.

It breaks and strengthens my heart to read these messages. I openly admit to them I don’t have all the answers and my advice is based on personal experience. I try to steer them to regional organizations like the Humsafar Trust and Naz Foundation, or the message boards of TrevorSpace.

At these points, I feel less like a stranger across the ocean and more like the cool Indian auntie. The one who offers advice, sweets, a sympathetic ear, and refuge from their families who don’t understand them. The one I wish I had.

Growing up in India as a closeted teenager in the ‘90s, I had no one to talk to.

Social media was non-existent. Movies and TV rarely represented LGBTQ people, especially of color. Sex education was limited to bathroom humor and straight nudie magazines. There were small civil rights groups but calling them on the phone or visiting their office in person was not something fathomable to a 14-year-old.

Through pressures of society, religion, and tradition life as a gay desi did indeed seem hopeless. I, like many others, contemplated everything from running away to suicide.

In a country of more than a billion people, it’s still possible to feel completely alone.

Today it makes me so proud to see how progressive social media has forwarded LGBTQ rights in India. There is more activism and awareness than ever before. The government is challenged every step of the way to further equal rights and representation. People can meet and feel part of a network by seeking each other out on apps like Instagram and Twitter. Even on those meant primarily for hooking up.

The advice column that populates my DMs is not unique. Some of my minority friends have shared similar experiences. They, too, get requests for advice and hope across various platforms from closeted individuals. Sometimes they live in very oppressed areas, sometimes they are barely two states away.

Tagging oneself as both gay and of color is something that may seem simple, or even silly, on an app but it’s quite a different and revolutionary thing to do in real life. More and more of us should do so with a pride and openness that can be taken for granted.

In a small way, it announces that we are here and need to be seen and heard. I used to do it simply as a form of self-identity. Now, I do it for those who don’t feel ready or able to take that step.

When they are, there won’t be enough double taps in the world to express my joy.

Photo by Vijayanand Gupta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images


Reneysh Vittal

Reneysh Vittal is a writer and cultural critic based in New York. He has contributed to VICE, The Rumpus, Narratively, Oxford University Press, and WNYC amongst others.

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