Love and Acceptance: A Mother and a Gay Son
Coming out has been an emotionally fraught experience for a 47-year-old gay Indian American dermatologist, but with the affectionate acceptance of his mother and nearly 100 extended family members, he considers himself lucky, writes Viji Sundaram.
Dermatologist Inder Singh Dhillon (l) with his partner his African-American lawyer partner Ken McNeely and their adopted children Kabir, 3 ½, and Meera, 2.
At age 18, Inder Singh Dhillon began suspecting he was “different” from his friends. It scared him. It also filled him with shame, confusion, sadness and a sense of isolation.
He had engaged “in a lot of youthful sex with men” in his hometown near Chandigarh in India, he said, and had kept it all to himself.
Partly in denial, partly in fear, for the next several years Dhillon would read every piece of literature he could lay his hands on about being gay, hoping that he would get over it.
“I struggled with it for seven years,” Dhillon, now 47 and a dermatologist in San Francisco, said.
During that time, he and his family — mother and two sisters — moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. Personal issues had prevented his father from immigrating with them. Dhillon enrolled as a research fellow at UCSF.
His mother Gurkirpal Kaur tried more than once to get him married off. Each time, he fell back on the same excuse: he had to first graduate and land a job before he could think of settling down.
Then, when he was 25 years old, Dhillon, who by now had recognized his own identity and accepted it, decided he would out himself to his family, not in small stages, but head-on. Even though he was not involved with anyone at the time, he felt he couldn’t put it off any longer.
He was understandably nervous.
“I got them together. I told them: ‘There is a gulf between us because I have been lying to you all this time. I am gay.’”
A maelstrom of emotional outbursts followed his announcement. His mother said it was painful to hear it. Why did he have to do this to her, she asked.
His married elder sister said it must have taken a lot of courage for him to come out, and that she loved Dhillon all the same.
His younger sister felt Dhillon could be talked out of it. “All those guys you fooled around with,” she told Dhillon, “I bet they are all getting married and settling down.”
None of his family members ever brought up the issue with him again, said Dhillon, and he was okay with that. “It was such an alien concept for them that I felt it was best to give them time to accept it,” he said, noting, however, that the few times he tried to start a discussion about it with his sisters, “they remained pretty silent.”
Coming out to family can be a fearful experience in any culture. It could result in total acceptance, or it could result in confusion, criticism and even rejection.
Acceptance about such issues does not come easily for families of any race, and especially for South Asian families. A strong patriarchal mindset that sees men as heads of family and procreators adds to the pain and embarrassment.
“Generally speaking, people in immigrant communities are less informed and less accepting of gay people,” noted Matt Foreman, who directs gay and immigrant rights programs at The Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund in San Francisco.
Dhillon acknowledged that the journey for his mother from shock and denial to acceptance could not have been easy. In fact, it must have been very stressful. It had only been five years since she and her children had moved to the United States, and adjusting to a new culture was itself very challenging. Back in India, she had worked as a school principal. All she could land here were assembly line jobs in high-tech companies in the Silicon Valley.
Like many parents, she must have hoped her son’s sexual orientation was a temporary phase that could be overcome. For a few years after he came out, she tried to set him up with Sikh women. “I remained firm,” Dhillon said.
Now, more than two decades after he came out to his family, Dhillon said his 80-year-old mother has come a long way from her initial reaction. She dotes on the two little children, Kabir, 3 ½, and Meera, 2, Dhillon and his African-American lawyer partner Ken McNeely have adopted.
Although she still belongs to the “silent minority” of parents who prefer not to talk publicly about their children’s homosexuality, earlier this month, she allowed a picture of herself holding her granddaughter to be used in Proposition 8 ads.
Last May, the California Supreme Court amended the state’s constitution banning same-sex marriage. The court ruling threatens to be reversed by Proposition 8, an initiative on the November ballot.
In the ad, Gurkirpal Kaur is seen saying: “My grandkids, Meera and Kabir, bring so much joy to my life. Our desi traditions have flourished with my son, Inder, and his partner, Ken.
“But Prop. 8 threatens to take away our right to a happy home by banning my son from marrying his life partner.”
Dhillon said his post-coming out experience has been very positive. His more than 100 extended family members in the Bay Area have embraced him.
“My life has been enriched by their love,” he said, adding: “I’m lucky.”