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The new normal

Published : May 11, 2016, 10:07 pm IST
Updated : May 11, 2016, 10:07 pm IST

The youngest Mr Gay India ever, Anwesh Kumar Sahoo talks about his struggle against social conditioning and more

At 20, Anwesh Sahoo was also one of the youngest contenders to participate in Mr. Gay World in Malta
 At 20, Anwesh Sahoo was also one of the youngest contenders to participate in Mr. Gay World in Malta

The youngest Mr Gay India ever, Anwesh Kumar Sahoo talks about his struggle against social conditioning and more

As the universally acknowledged harbinger of angst and rebellion, adolescence can be a difficult time. But if being a teenager is tough, being a homosexual teenager is arguably tougher and being a homosexual teenager in a nondescript small town in Odisha, exponentially more so. As 20-year-old Anwesh Kumar Sahoo, this year’s Mr. Gay World India — the youngest contestant ever to participate —settles down for a candid chat, he recalls that his greatest struggle when he first stepped out of the closet at the age of 16, was with himself.

“I had always known that I liked boys. I remember telling myself that this was a phase that would pass, and I would eventually marry a woman and live a happy life. But it just wouldn’t go away. I would sit and cry all the time, thinking that this was not the way it’s supposed to be. How could I grow up to be a man who wanted to live with another man The concept was entirely foreign to me,” Anwesh recalls and adds, “When I could no longer deny that this was who I was, I was extremely upset. I came out to my sister and she really comforted me, telling me that there was nothing wrong with me.” An unexpected form of support also came from another source: American television series Modern Family. “It showed me that at least in some part of the world, this concept not only existed but was actually considered normal. I was then able to define a new normal for myself,” he shares.

A part of this defining process included defining homosexuality itself. “I never knew that the feelings I had been having for years actually had a name and a definition. I didn’t know I was a ‘homosexual’,” he says.

“I thought it was simply a part of growing up that every man went through,” Anwesh reveals as he points out that this very fact of his life can overturn all arguments that claim homosexuality ‘isn’t natural’ or that active displays of gay pride can mislead ‘normal’ young minds. His parents seemed to have been of a similar school of thought. When he finally came out to them in 2014, their reaction was far from favourable. He shares, “It was difficult for them to come to terms with it, especially my mother. My father wasn’t very vocal about it, but he wanted me to stop writing about on my blog and in online magazines, and I absolutely could not do that. It was too important for me to give up. Homosexuals like me have a delayed adulthood because they spend so much time figuring themselves out and I wanted to go through all the milestones that growing up like that involved. As for my mother, I sometimes feel that the problem she really has relates to the baggage that comes with being a homosexual. Also, we have very different ways of thinking. For instance, if I’d want to wear heels, she wouldn’t be okay with it. If I wanted to carry a particular kind of bag, she would always distinguish between the ‘man’ sort and the ‘woman’ sort. I almost stopped talking to both my parents back then. I couldn’t deal with what was coming from them. It made me understand that education and awareness can be two very different things. It was difficult for us all.”

Going from there to winning an inter-college pageant and eventually bagging the Mr. Gay India title, the 20-year-old has just returned from the Mr. Gay World pageant in Malta after making it to the top 12. He is now pursuing a degree in Electronics and Communication Engineering at IIIT in the capital, within an environment that he admits is much more relaxed than the one he came from. He subsequently goes on to point out that his experience of coming out and his struggles within a predominantly heterosexual framework are simultaneously similar to and different from those of his mentor, former Mr. Gay World India and now National Producer for the pageant, Sushant Divgikar.

He avers, “It wasn’t a big deal for either of us to come out in college, because we were surrounded by people who understood and were okay with who we were. Since he has always lived in Mumbai, however, his own friends were much more accepting of him than mine were of me.”

He adds, “There are a lot more people talking about homosexuality now and a lot more media attention than before but outside of metropolitans, the struggle is the same as it was for the generation before us. And if you look at the larger picture, my Malta experience made it clear that the struggle for homosexuals in India is worse. We really do have a long, long way to go.”