Dreading the disclosure dilemma

Thirty-five-year-old academician Mulari Nannan*, a cis man who identifies as gay, recalls his traumatic childhood and taboos he faced as a male Bharatanatyam dancer

Published: 09th June 2021 05:39 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th June 2021 12:03 PM   |  A+A-

Illustration: soumyadip sinha

Express News Service

CHENNAI: Being a 90s kid, I did not have the luxury of growing up with access to the Internet or social media. I stumbled upon the word homosexuality for the first time in the World Book Encyclopedia and it was an eye-opener for me to learn that such a term existed.

It was during school days, at the age of eight or nine, when I realised that I was different from other kids. While boys from my class were all cricket fanatics and football enthusiasts, I was learning Bharatanatyam. As a dancer, I tended to gesticulate and be expressive.

That’s the thing about art, it imprints on you; for someone who’s been learning it from the age of two, it was only natural. But, my classmates and even teachers found that to be effeminate and passed snide remarks. At that time I also enjoyed sporting long hair. I was constantly ridiculed and subjected to mockery for that.

Pride and passion
Even relatives frowned upon me for pursuing classical dance. I was the first-generation dancer from my family. Back then, boys learning Bharatanatyam was not encouraged. The environment was also not conducive to growth due to the existing gender stereotypes. I felt like an outsider even in my class for being the only boy among a bunch of girls. While the girls had the privilege of dancing to graceful compositions such as Vaaranam Aayiram - Andal Nachiyar Thirumozhi, I was taught only select choreographies that were earmarked for the male dancer. Compositions like Enna Thavam Seidhanai portrays the motherly love of Yashoda for Krishna. I wonder what made them think that as a boy I was incapable of empathising with such emotions. Too many questions clouded my mind but they were all left unanswered.

While art is supposed to be liberating, I had to constrain myself from being expressive for fear of being judged. I developed social anxiety and started shutting myself away. Even people from the fraternity suggested that I tone down my body language.While my female counterparts had the liberty of being their fullest self, here I was, being asked to be more masculine. Films, again, perpetuated the preconceived notion of how a male dancer is portrayed. All of this only added to the existing woes of the male dancers’ community. I’ve been fortunate to pursue it just as a passion but some men depend on this for livelihood. I wish people appreciated the artiste only based on his talent.

Given the practice of assuming male dancers to be homosexuals and weak, the last thing I wanted was for people to associate my queerness with the art form. I stopped my dance classes at the age of 15. Gradually, to keep my passion alive, I danced within four walls. I also had the freedom to choreograph unconventional themes, which g ave me the solac e t o compensate for what I missed all those years. By the end of high school, I identified myself as gay and chose to remain closeted. Having grown up hearing homophobic slurs even at home, I didn’t have the courage to come out.

Closet challenges
Not having a reliable social circle in my formative years had a big impact on my selfesteem. My sexual orientation remained a secret even when I went to college. Solitude remained my companion. With time, after completing Masters, I decided to move to Europe to pursue my higher studies. While I was at an embassy for a visa interview, the interviewer asked if I learnt classical dance just by gauging my body language. Such instances of pinpointing my behaviour weren’t new. These were cues for me to consciously be less expressive.

Again, in my University abroad, things were not all rosy. It was challenging to find my community in the academy settings. There was rampant homophobia and I saw my fellow beings targeted to homophobic slurs. The fact that I was in the closet put me in a spot where I couldn’t step up for them, fearing the repercussions. For someone who didn’t belong anywhere, that wasn’t a risk worth taking. On the brighter side, being in a foreign land, anonymity gave me some power and confidence to pursue my dance when I got a chance. I per formed Bharatanatyam for various departmental functions.

Craving for acceptance
It was one of those days when I also officially came out to my lab colleague while working. I broke down when she accepted and embraced me for who I am. She even unlearned the preconceived notions she held regarding the community. Only four people in my life know that I’m gay and all of them live overseas. I flew down to India just before the pandemic. As I grow old, the craving for acceptance from parents has only gotten intense. I realised that even coming out is a privilege. You need to count on your financial independence and job security. I do not have an active dating life because I may not be able to introduce my partner to my parents, given that I hardly have any friends. Luckily, opting for academics as a career option has stalled and delayed my marriage. Perhaps, I will face that when it comes.

I recently created an anonymous Twitter account where I openly identify as a queer person. Networking with people from the community and listening to their stories has been heartwarming. I finally felt I was being heard. Every time I read a post of someone coming out to their parents, I lived through their joy.

My voice has been silenced for many years. It’s going to take some time to muster up the courage to open up. Coming out isn’t a one-time affair. You need to keep asserting yourself at different points in time. Being in the closet, sometimes, I regret missing out on my prime years. But, I do hope the coming years will be kinder to me.

*Name changed on request.

(As told to Vaishali Vijaykumar)

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