Raga D’Silva Interview

 

Raga D’Silva Interview

 Raga D’Silva, Author, Speaker, Entrepreneur, and Director of Speaking Minds spoke with us recently about what it means to share positive representation of LGBT+ people in India and how her life changed when she accepted herself and came out.

 

What was it like growing up?

I was born and raised in a very traditional south Indian family in Bombay, India. My beginnings were extremely humble – I grew up in the slums of Mumbai, notorious for communal riots, often going to bed hungry. My father passed away when I was six years old, leaving my young mother to raise three kids on her own.

Growing up, I had crushes on girls and one particular female teacher, but I hid it thinking that was wrong and unusual, as most of my friends had crushes with boys.

In the 80’s there was absolutely no understanding of the LGBT community in India. In fact, the word lesbian, gay, did not even exist. We knew of ‘homos’ and they were boys/men who were effeminate and treated with ridicule. The Bollywood films, which was our key entertainment also used gay caricatures and mocked them. This meant that deep inside I became homophobic towards myself and fearful, so I never disclosed this part of me to anyone and ran away from it.

So, basically, there was no room for me to ‘come out’ even to myself. So, I lived a heteronormative life in a heteronormative society, predominantly wrapped with social conditioning and what we say, ‘log kya kahengay’ in hindi. Translated to, ‘what will people say’.

 

When did you first know about your sexual orientation?

Firstly, the word ‘sexual orientation’ did not exist in my growing up days, or even until 20 years ago. All I knew was that I was deeply attracted to women but, I did not know it was normal to feel that way.

I had an intense emotional relationship with a woman in my early twenties in India. But, neither of us knew that we could have any future together. That was not even discussed and therefore eventually when I married a man, that romance just faded.

It wasn’t until I was “outed” by my mother after I was married and had children, did I even seriously consider exploring this part of me. Even after that, it took me years to deal with my own internal homophobia, clear my own confusion and then eventually accept my sexual orientation. My current partner and I have been together 15 years, but even during the initial period with her, I was unsure about wanting to lead this life and so without questioning anything, I would say things like, ‘It’s not about being gay. I am in love with a woman at this moment, and that’s all that matters”. I believe this gave me the comfort of not being committed to my sexual orientation.

 

Tell us about your coming out process. What was the hardest part? What was the most rewarding part?

My personal “coming out” happened in two parts, with an eighteen years gap between the two. As shared earlier, the first time my mother ‘outed’ me, in 2004 when I was in the process of separating from my then husband, the father to my children. We lived in Wellington, New Zealand those days. I had written a letter to a friend, explaining my current situation, and had shared that I had been thinking of dating women once we officially separated. I was too scared to post that letter, so I kept it in my closet which my mother found. Although highly educated herself and having lived through life making her own choices, she reacted extremely angrily with this information. She was brought up in a traditional, catholic home and lack of any positive representation in India towards gay people, made her nervous and angry and one night she attempted to kill me as I was putting my twins to bed.

Her outburst and anger were traumatic for me, but not a shock. She focussed on ‘what people would say’, the scandal this would cause our family, the shame that it would bring. How would the kids live through this shame? She also made a comment, ‘should I call you uncle now’, and I only realised much later that she was afraid I was going to turn into a man (in her case, she was referencing the eunuchs (hijras ) – the third gender in India.

Although this was painful, I was forced to live my truth. Slowly, as I started dating women and the word got out, I started getting abused by the Indian community in Wellington. My car windows would be smashed, lesbian scrawled across my car, friends stopped inviting me and the kids over, and one woman even kicked and spat on me. My workplace started showing signs of homophobia. So, I decided to lead a quiet, private and a very lonely life. I went into hiding.

My second coming out was when only three years ago my children and partner said that it was time for me to live freely and live my truth. That’s how my book, Untold Lies, took shape. It talked about aspects of my life and I finally totally ‘came out’. I was nearly 50 by then. I had achieved professional success, the children had grown up and I was in a safe, secure relationship and I was ready to face the world.

I realised that I was that ‘society’ and that I was that ‘other’. Just as I had created a family when my own family ostracised me, I decided to be part of the changing narrative and no more just a bystander of my own story and our narrative.

The reward is in how I live my life now with my head held high with my partner and my children. The reward is in how my story and my own voice is making a difference, for our LGBT community. The reward is in how my own internalised homophobia has now fully disappeared and how I give my partner the respect she deserves by accepting my own sexual orientation and living my truth. I now take my full self wherever I go! No more hiding.

 

How did your life change when you came out?

My life no longer remained just about me, my partner and my children. My life extended into a larger extended family. Today, I have my own chosen soul family from around the world, who are all part of this changing narrative, and who reach out to me for support and provide me support in my journey.

I decided to use my creative skills, and my own life experiences to hopefully make a difference to others. So, I started with writing a story during lockdown, using my own inner conflict and struggles as I juggled through life, and that story is now being made into an international feature film.

This gave me the impetus to use writing and speaking as a tool to create a new narrative through story telling. I am now writing my memoir, one book of lesbian love stories and another book based on the feature film. I am also writing stories for online platforms.

Apart from this, Untold Lies opened opportunities for me to become an influencer for my LGBT families. I now speak around the world, sharing my story. My experience in the corporate space has helped me share about unconscious bias, importance of inclusion and now my new talk on the ‘economy of happiness’ has created quite an impact.

My partner and I started producing and curating shows on YouTube ‘Coming out stories from India’ Season 1. We are about to start season 2, and share ‘lesbian love stories – real life stories’. These are all aimed at giving people access to real lived experiences. These provide reference to those who are seeking real lived experiences. We are creating such repositories and stories so slowly acceptance and inclusion can be embraced by all.

We have also launched a new show – The Views Room with Raga, changing narratives. Again, focussing on key issues like conversion therapy, lavender marriages, dating in our community and so on…

My partner and I are also now getting into producing short films that will focus on both the positive and negative aspects of our lives. Real stories!

So, my life is now fully dedicated to this, and I live and breathe changing narratives.

Can you talk about what Section 377 is and what impact it had on your life?

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) is an act that criminalises homosexuality and was introduced in the year 1861 during the British rule in India, referred to unnatural offences and says that whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal will be punished with imprisonment for life.

The Supreme Court of India, decriminalised this act in September 2018 and allowed gay sex amongst consenting adults.

Whilst the fight is still on as this hasn’t really changed much in the larger context, the journey has started. This has allowed many of us to ‘come out’ and share our voice collectively. Dialogues have started and now even the content in cinema is changing slowly. There are petitions filed for marriage rights for the community. The community is slowly coming out of hiding. Workplaces are beginning to take this seriously and are sensitising their workplaces.

I am now a very vocal influencer in India and am now on the DEI Boards of many corporate organisations. Additionally, I am invited to speak at D&I conferences, events and for inhouse employee engagements.

I definitely feel the winds of change in India post the overturning of section 377.


 

What inspired you to write ‘Untold Lies?’

The book was in me for years. Although, I knew deep inside that until I was ready to come out the book was not going to come out.

Over the years, I have often reflected on what I had become and why I was this person. My book has 9 short stories and each story then segway’s into poems. Stories that become poems as I say. These stories are all from different times in my life and about how we get labelled, how we live the version of us perceived by others, how our life experiences shape us and how that slowly makes us who we become. In the process we learn, un-learn and then finally re-learn.


 

How did your ‘Coming Out Stories From India’ series come about and what has the response to that series felt like?

This series has received excellent feedback and response. We interacted with 25 individual from the LGB community. Some very well-known authors, filmmakers, chef, academicians, and some strong influencers. Each is a personal account of their own growing up years and their coming out journeys. It is riveting and powerful to hear such lived experiences.

Since I had no stories or positive representation while growing up, my partner Nicola came up with an idea to curate such conversations . These stories have helped many in the community understand their own confusion, normalise such relationships, give families a better understanding and such conversations have helped parents deal with their children’s sexual orientation in a more functional manner.

This has encouraged us to create more such content. Our future generations need not ever say ‘we did not have any real lived experiences to live our lives’.


 

What’s next for you?

I am lucky to have this endless, bottomless energy. The more I understand myself, the more I am able to give back to my community.

I want my voice to be heard. I don’t want anyone else to go through what I have been through – through no fault of mine. I will keep writing, I will keep talking, I will keep making films, I will keep finding new ways to tell our story and change the narratives.

If after this people continue to spew hate on us and stay homophobic, then it is truly a choice they are making,

And, oh, I am getting married to my beautiful partner of 15 years in the presence of our two wonderful children, who found a mother in us both.

Thank you for allowing me to share my journey.

In the end, all I can say is “closets are for clothes, and not to hide our truth” and “Be the love you want to see in the world’.

You can follow Raga D’Silva‘s blog here and catch her YouTube Series, ‘Coming Out Stories from India’ here.