A commonplace scenario in an Indian household – the sister announcing to the brother that their mother was looking out for a bride for him. The brother then dropped the bombshell. “I like a guy and want to live with him.” The sister wasted no time in conveying the news to their mother, who asked the young man to go have his dinner, and said that she did not want to address the issue then. But a cousin sister, who was present, asked a question that many gay persons in Indian society face when they come out to their families. Kolkata-based Samarpan Maiti was asked, “Dada, how could you be gay! Please dada, it is better you never get married but don't marry a man. It would be a shame for us.” Samarpan’s sister added her thoughts too, “Once you get married, you will see everything will be fine. You get married, then maintain a friendly relationship with the guy you like.”
Then came the phase of denial but Samarpan is lucky that his family finally came around and accepted his gay status. He happily says, “Gradually, my sister accepted me because she wants to see me happy. My mother is still not happy but out of affection she supports all my works related to the LGBT community.” The biggest gesture his family did for Samarpan, in his words, is, “They all agreed when I wanted to put a message about marriage equality in my sister's wedding invitation card. Then my mother went with me to invite the Hijra community for my sister's wedding. And I know she will accept my man also gladly someday.”
While Samarpan’s family stood rock solid behind him, Indian society did not. The pervasive social stigmas still associated with homosexuality became chains around his sexual freedom. But he fought his way through the taboos, stigmas and bullying to emerge victorious in the literal sense. Samarpan has been crowned Mr Gay World India 2018. The handsome and well-built model is also working as a senior research fellow in the field of cancer drug discovery in a reputed institute in Kolkata.
Talking about his reasons for entering the contest, Samarpan says, “I was doing some extensive research on the issues faced by LGBT people in rural areas. I wanted to highlight all these issues, draw the attention of LGBTQ activists towards these and reach out to a bigger crowd nationwide. As I came to know that Mr. Gay World India promotes someone who could fight for the rights of the LGBT community, I wanted to participate in it – to get a bigger platform, get support from the entire LGBT community nationally and globally, and to continue my work countrywide.”
The win will take him to the international stage and help him further his work for the LGBT community. He explains, “I feel it is a formal recognition for my initiative and work. I will represent my country at the world stage in Mr. Gay World in South Africa this summer. My main aim is to focus on the underprivileged members of the LGBT community who are lagging behind – the uneducated people who live in slums in urban places or those who live in rural areas and don’t know how to deal with society or how to deal with accepting themselves.” He thanks the MGWI for the platform. His other mission is to conduct gender education programmes among school children and science researchers to sensitise them so that future generations can live in a better society without any discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
The mission that Samarpan has started can be traced back to his childhood and the bitter experiences he had to go through. Born and brought up in a small village of West Bengal, he was not financially well off. Since his adolescent days, he was trying to understand himself and was confused. He explains, “My parents were not in a healthy relationship and that caused isolation from relatives and society. Very early in life, I was sexually abused by my neighbours but I could not share it with anyone. I remained silent as there was no one I could turn to for help or counsel. There were days I would cry a lot, people used to bully me and I was helpless. Friends and in some instances even teachers used to bully me by calling me 'girly' , 'feminine', 'hijra' and all sorts of names.” Crying became a routine to vent out his feelings and he even tried to commit suicide. It was due to the support of one of his straight friends that he survived.
Through the struggle he qualified and joined as a Junior Research Fellow and thought his bad days were over and that he would not be bullied anymore. But it was not over – the discrimination took new forms. He says, “I was from a remote village and was not able to speak English fluently.” Though he kept himself isolated that did not stop his creative self. “I continued writing poetry and stories to express my emotions regarding different LGBT issues. People started liking my writings and this gave me a place in the cultural circle of Kolkata. Then Archan, a friend of mine, insisted that I model for fine art photography and gradually I started modeling in different LGBT-themed photo series, which gave me recognition as a model. But I didn't stop there. To explore myself more, I started acting in theatre and short films.”
When asked about the place of gay persons in society, Samrapan candidly says, “Life as a gay man in India is very diverse depending on what privileges one has and one’s socioeconomic background. The rural population has its own set of struggles and the urban has another. Lack of awareness, disconnect to support groups and healthcare issues are some of the common problems the community is facing.” There is hope, as he mentions, “However, things are getting better. People in urban spaces are more accepting than they were five or 10 years ago. The portrayal and coverage in print and electronic media is mostly positive. With the Supreme Court taking review of article 377, I see a new ray of hope for the community in protecting their legal rights.” Before ending, he states, “Being different is okay. First, you need to accept yourself. The coming out happens to oneself and then to rest of the world. Accept yourself – who you are and feel proud about your true self. Stop self-hatred, acknowledge yourself, go beyond labels. Try to do better for society.”