It was at a drive-in restaurant in Chennai that I met Sunil Menon. As he walked towards me, I noticed people staring at him. The way he walked, his colourful costume and the ornaments he wore attracted their attention but he ignored them.
It is about this behaviour of the public that Menon complains about. "Out in the open, those who do not know me treat me like this." But to all those who know him, he is Sunil Menon, a well known fashion designer, the man who started Sahodaran (an organisation for MSM [men having sex with men]) and an HIV/AIDS activist. He is a gay person.
As the curious public started at us unashamedly, we stood under a tree and he spoke to me about his life in India as a gay person and his journey from a zoologist to anthropologist to HIV/AIDS activist to a fashion choreographer (Incidentally he designs Rose's dresses for the talk show, Ippadikku Rose).
Looking back, the first time I got attracted to the male body was when I was seven. Whenever I saw a masculine person removing his shirt, I used to stare at him. When I stared at our servant, he advised me not to do that as it was bad. After that, I didn't even think about such things, and immersed myself in my studies and other extracurricular activities.
At the age of 13, I got into a relationship with a 21 year old and it was he who told me society was not yet ready to accept a person like me. He also told me if people got to know about our relationship, it would be really bad. It remained our little secret and he made me remain stable.
When I came to realise that I was different from other men, and got attracted to men and not women, I was extremely disturbed. The first question that came to my mind was, why me? I wanted to live as normal a life as everybody else, and not be ridiculed for being feminine. I loved dancing, the performing arts, etc. When people ridiculed me, it hurt a lot. I would rather be a normal guy.
I tried not to focus on my sexuality by studying really hard. Those were the eighties and talking about sexuality was taboo and unheard of.
After doing my Masters in Anthropology with a gold medal from the Madras University, I started my PhD.
What changed my life:
While I was doing my PhD, I got a call from an anthropologist asking me to do some work on HIV/AIDS for the World Health Organisation. That was in 1992. My research was on a group that was hidden; it was a network of men. I would use the acronym MSM (Men having sex with men). After meeting them and talking to them, I realised that I was not the only person who was like that. Till then, I hadn't come across another gay person. I would say the work changed my life; it was a kind of awakening for me and I got the courage to deal with my own sexuality.
I saw these sex workers and MSM fighting against all odds all the time and still smiling even though there was nothing to look forward to for them. I stopped wallowing in self pity after that. I felt I had no right to feel sorry for myself.
My father came to know about my sexuality when one of our relatives in Kerala blackmailed him. When he started crying, I asked him, 'If this upsets you and you cannot accept me the way I am, I will walk out of the family forever. But do I stop being your son?'
My sister, who is in the US, was my biggest support. I called and told her everything, and she handled the whole thing. After that, the topic never came up for discussion in the family.
I still feel guilty because I feel my 43-year-old sister never got married. Because I am openly homosexual, a lot of families would not accept my sister. But I am extremely lucky to have a sister like her. She told me, 'I don't want a husband who can't accept my brother.' At that moment, I felt I was really blessed.
Though I started my research in 1992, I had a break in between. I had some disagreement with the WHO group here, and I left them. I was quite disillusioned by then.
What I had done on MSM in 1992 was pioneering work. Nobody had done any work on them till then. In 1993, my paper was presented in Berlin at the International HIV/AIDS conference. What I presented was an eye opener to a lot of people. Still many people thought I was crazy.
They now realise that if you want to tackle HIV/AIDS, you have to deal with this community. Interestingly, the latest WHO report says MSM along with IV drug users are the most high risk group. It took them these many years to come to this conclusion. At least I feel I am vindicated.
From 1994-98, I explored my love for fashion. But then a friend of mine who works for the Naz Foundation in the UK asked me, 'With your expertise, why are you not working on HIV/AIDS? Why are you wasting your time on fashion?'
He then asked me to run a program on MSM the way I wanted in India. That was when I started Sahodaran.
I came up with the name Sahodaran because all of us are lonely. Sahodaran is not just a friend or a brother to gay people but someone they can turn to in need. It's a safe environment where they can be themselves. They don't have to be scared of anyone when inside the offices of Sahodaran. It's a sexual health organisation too where mental, psychological and physical health of the members are looked into.
There was Hum Safar in Mumbai but it targeted the upper class gay group. But here, I work with boys who are extremely disempowered, specifically Kothis (males who are very feminine in behaviour), a highly vulnerable group. Most of them are sex workers.
Living as a gay person in India:
It is very difficult for a gay person to live in India. I wanted to get out of India and live in an alien environment. After my masters, I wanted to migrate to the US and live there. But that did not happen. Perhaps God had different plans for me.
After Sahodaran was born, I felt I could not move from here; many people needed me here. I also felt, who would bring about change here if I also left my country?
Rose is lucky because she is starting her mission now but when I started my activism way back in the nineties, it was terrible here. Fifteen years ago, I wouldn't have been able to talk to you like this.
I admit I have used the media to talk about sexuality, minorities and all the issues concerning us. It is a powerful tool that can make society realise we are also normal human beings. What I do in private doesn't make me a bad person. My sexual preference is different but that doesn't make me evil. I admit society has become a little more tolerant now. Slowly there will be acceptance too. But it will take time.
But I want the harassment to stop. From childhood onwards, I have been teased for being feminine. It was very painful. For no fault of mine, people called me names. I didn't know at that time why I was called names.
I feel we should be treated with the same sensitiveness of how you treat a differently-abled child. I feel mothers are more accepting of the child. It's the fathers who find it difficult to accept because they see it as a blow to their manhood and ego.
Luckily for me, I have earned a name for myself as a fashion choreographer and designer. So, I am looked at as Sunil Menon the fashion choreographer but out in the open, with those who do not know me, it's still the same. I use fashion to work as an HIV/AIDS activist.
Moving from a zoologist to anthropologist to fashion choreographer to HIV/AIDS activist was a natural process for me.
At the age of seven, nobody asked me to look at men. Obviously, I am born this way. I do a lot of reading on the scientific aspects of why some men are born like this. It is found that it has something to do with the genetic make up; it can also be environmental. I do not want to know the reasons now. If it can convince the public and the law that we don't want to be this way, and we are born this way, life will be a lot better. We had no choice. This is God's making.
When I look at it in a satirical way, I feel it is God's way of controlling the population! It's a natural process of nature to balance out!
Photograph: Sreeram Selvaraj