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How Silicon Valley fostered India’s LGBTQ+ movement

  • Two Indian engineers became unlikely heroes in the struggle for equal rights
  • Arvind Kumar and Ashok Jethanandani started Trikone, the first South Asian gay magazine

Trikone members marched in the 1986 Pride parade in San Francisco, becoming the first South Asians to participate in such an event.
Trikone members marched in the 1986 Pride parade in San Francisco, becoming the first South Asians to participate in such an event.

The moment I heard that Section 377 had finally fallen, I wondered if my friends Arvind and Ashok, sitting far away from India in their two-storey house in San Jose in California, had heard the news.

Arvind Kumar and Ashok Jethanandani were the first out gay Indian couple I had ever met. In a sense, they were living proof that it was possible to be gay and Indian at the same time, their gayness as matter-of-fact as dal chawal.

Both had followed the time-worn route of the good Indian boy—engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), postgraduation in the US and a job in Silicon Valley. But they were gay in a world where few gay Indians were visible. Arvind once told me he got tired of going to Indian potlucks where he felt he had to check his gayness at the door. And he didn’t enjoy being the only Indian in the village in San Francisco’s famous gay scene. He just wanted to be both at the same time.

In 1984, Arvind went to a cousin’s wedding and remembers being very depressed amidst all the festivity. “I was thinking: When am I going to have this kind of union?" he recalled. Two years later, he co-founded the world’s oldest South Asian LGBT magazine—a support group for the LGBT community grew around it. Named Trikone, it played off the subcontinent’s shape and a pink upside-down triangle—the symbol once used by Nazis to identify homosexuals at concentration camps and reclaimed later as a symbol of gay liberation. Anamika, a newsletter for lesbian and bisexual women, had been started a few months earlier in New York. Arvind would use his office copier after work to photocopy the issues. To this day, Hewlett-Packard probably has no idea of its unwitting supporting role in the South Asian LGBT movement. Trikone was just six pages stapled together. In his first editorial, Arvind wrote,“Even in America, the number of gay South Asians who identify themselves as such is virtually nil." But he lived in hope.

“I was relentless in terms of sending letters to the editors of every gay publication I could find," Arvind said. And every South Asian one as well, in the hope that somewhere the twain would meet. An American gay magazine, The Advocate, printed his letter. Ashok read it and found Arvind, giving Trikone a secret life as the world’s first informal desi gay matrimonial service.

Society, an Indian magazine, carried a story about them, with pictures of Trikone members marching in the San Francisco Pride parade holding banners with their logo. The issue, Ashok remembered, happened to have a very handsome Aditya Pancholi on the cover in a towel. They started getting letters from big cities and small towns all over India. Years before smartphone apps and internet chat rooms, the “pen-pal" ads in this quarterly magazine mailed out of California were a way for queer Indians to find each other. It was the American Dream in its own way.

“The main thing I got out of those letters was just the loneliness of having no one to talk to where you lived. And they needed to write to someone 10,000 miles away," recalled Arvind. “We would send a handwritten response back with almost every letter," said Ashok. “Even if it was just a few words of support."

I know that. Sitting in Kolkata, I wrote one of those letters. Years later, I ended up in their living room in San Jose, processing other people’s letters, mailing magazines, making entries in the database and editing the magazine. In the humdrum domesticity of their lives, I learnt how to breathe. Their cats would stroll around the carpeted living room, going in and out of the house. Their family-sized Toyota sedans would be parked in the driveway. Ashok’s brother lived with them. In the early days, when they did not have enough people for the Pride parade, he would be roped in to march as well. Dal would be bubbling on the stove. I remember the sharp smell of mustard seeds sizzling as Ashok made grated carrot kosambari. At some point, we would take a break for tea and gossip. When I dated anyone seriously, I had to bring that person to Ashok and Arvind’s to get their stamp of approval. It was home.

More than any movement or manifesto, Ashok and Arvind taught me what it meant to accept yourself. While many gay Indians chose to excise their Indian-ness in order to be gay, Arvind and Ashok quit their engineering jobs and founded a monthly arts and culture magazine for the Indian diaspora called India Currents. Their bread and butter was the Indian community. Birju Maharaj would lead Kathak workshops in their garage.

India Currents was funded by ads from Indian realtors and dentists and travel agents. And Ashok and Arvind made it clear to everyone that they were not just business partners. Arvind said he remembered going to an event in the 1990s where Shakuntala Devi was demonstrating her mathematical wizardry. But she had also written a book on Indian homosexuals. An audience member asked, “Why did you write that book? There are no homosexuals in India." The man got into an argument with her until Ashok suddenly stood up and said loudly, “Some of those gay people are here in this room today."

They made sure Trikone marched not just in the San Francisco Pride parade but also the India Day Parade, a march showcasing the best of Indian culture, which meant folk dance troupes, spelling bee champs and business associations and nothing that muddied their image of the “good brown immigrant". It threw the organizers into a tizzy, even though most of them knew Arvind and Ashok. There was a board meeting to decide what to do. A board member said: “We have to let them march. They are part of the community." Later, he told Arvind, “I couldn’t go home and face my kids if I didn’t support Trikone’s right to march." It wasn’t easy. They were greeted with a stunned awkward silence at the march in Fremont, a desi hub near Silicon Valley, quite a change from the raucous crowds cheering them on in San Francisco. But they stayed put, unabashedly Indian and uncompromisingly gay.

We would joke that while Trikone was hailed as the world’s oldest South Asian LGBTQ+ organization, it was really just a bunch of homesick middle-class Indian engineers trying to find a home for both their ethnicity and their sexuality. But in the process they built something much bigger than themselves, these accidental activists with their engineering degrees. While the magazine shut down in 2014, the group continues to operate as a not-for-profit. When they read the 377 verdict, Arvind said: “I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime. I am walking on air." Ashok added: “The justices actually got it. They really got it."

I feel the change. Last month, I was on a panel at HSBC for Amplifying Pride—an event raising awareness about the LGBTQ+ community within the company—watching their in-house theatre group talk powerfully about bias through song, dance and drama. There are corporate Pride events, marches in towns like Dehradun and plans for a Rainbow Lit Fest in Delhi.

The ruling helped bring all this about but change does not just happen through court rulings. It happens because people put themselves out there day after day even when no one else does.

Arvind’s mother had once adamantly opposed their relationship. But they persisted. They got domestic partnership licences from the city of Palo Alto and then the state of California. In 2004, before same-sex marriages became a reality, San Francisco started issuing them. Almost 4,000 couples lined up, including Arvind and Ashok. “I just wanted one date, one wedding anniversary like everyone else, not a Palo Alto one, a state of California one," said Arvind. The line was too long at the time. They didn’t get it.

But now they are married. They even had a Hindu ceremony where they wore dhotis and walked around the fire seven times. Reciting Sanskrit shlokas was Arvind’s mother.

The first lonely issue of Trikone was like a message in a bottle floated out to sea in the hope someone would find it. On 6 September 2018, it docked at the Supreme Court of India.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.

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