“I’m a Bit Extra,” – Why I Came Out on Indian National TV, an Interview With Rakesh Dayaseelan
by Aanchal Ram Vombatkere | June 26, 2020
Queer identity is deeply rooted in India’s rich history and culture. Despite that rich queer history, an embarrassing amount of intolerance made its way into Indian religious and political groups during the British Colonial Era. Today those who exist within the queer rubric are subjected to a more recent history of social intolerance. Even in modern India, where urban populations are slowly becoming more accepting of the queer community, it still takes a great deal of courage to be openly trans, gay, or anything other than cis and heterosexual. A young Rakesh Dayaseelan, who identifies as trans, was unapologetic about his identity on Indian national TV only a month ago on MTV’s Roadies.
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For now, Rakesh goes by male pronouns, when I asked which pronouns he would like to be referred to by in this article, he said that he is waiting until he begins his physical transition to use female pronouns. This article will mirror how Rakesh currently speaks about himself.
My conversation with him taught me a thing or two about family, acceptance, support systems, and coming out.
Trans Rights in India – Some Context
India’s stringent policing of its citizens’ sexualities means that fear is a part of day-to-day life for members of the queer community. The fear of ‘being found out’, the fear of being caught by the authorities, and the fear that one's family or colleagues at work will discover them, haunts queer and trans individuals living in India. This anxiety stems from the fact that discovery could mean a great deal of social shame for the person and their family, the fact that there is a possibility that physical harm could come to them were they found to be queer or trans, or they may face familial and social rejection entirely––for many, the possibility of losing their family is enough reason to stay in the closet. Lack of social acceptance and improper education about human sexuality and gender expression leads to the systemic silencing of queer individuals and groups, and the violation of the rights of all those who fall under the LGBTQ+ umbrella.
While India is slowly making progress, there is still a long way to go. According to Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019, the trans community in India has a constitutional right to reassign their legal birth gender, but only after sex reassignment surgery. This same bill states that the country will not recognize the individual’s right to identify one’s own gender. This catch 22 means that you must have surgery to be recognized as your actual gender if it does not align with the one you were assigned at birth. For trans people with medical, financial, or other personal barriers to surgery, and for people who do not wish to have surgery, this is a significant problem. Finding practitioners to support trans people’s physical transition needs can be extremely difficult, and provide another barrier to what many trans people in India want––a complete social transition.
In India, members of the trans community still cannot serve in the armed forces, and adoption by a single queer individual is legal, but not by same-sex couples––which is bizarre. While queer rights are still a work in progress, queer activists and public figures hold lavish pride celebrations, educational seminars, and create other engaging ways to educate the public.
What Led to Rakesh’s Unforgettable Reality TV Debut
A recent surge in queer representation on Indian reality TV has taken the country by storm. MTV India’s “Roadies” welcomed Rakesh Dayaseelan, who came out on national television during the initial audition rounds. Rakesh identifies as a woman and is excited to soon start transitioning. As mentioned above, Rakesh prefers to go by the pronouns of his assigned gender until he starts transitioning.
We were both raised in the middle east and went to the same high school in the humble capital of Oman, Muscat. I was pleasantly surprised when I heard of his grand coming out on national television. I got a hold of Rakesh, and we had a conversation about the importance of support, therapy, self-confidence, and affirmation when coming out.
Had you come out to anyone else before you came out on National TV?
Well, that’s a long story. Before I came out on national television, I did come out to my parents and my closest friends a few years ago. I never hid it but I also wasn’t very public about it. If someone walked up to me and asked me about my identity, I would tell them the truth. I was open about it, but I wasn’t public about it either. But I was depressed. I was sick and tired of being stuck in a closet. I felt like I lived a fake life. I couldn’t keep it in for long, I felt sick. So right after high school, I told my parents and my brother. It took us about 3 years to figure it all out and come to terms with who I am. I remember flying home during the holidays and when I got home, I had a five-hour conversation with my mom, dad, and brother, Rahul. We talked till 2 in the AM. That’s when my family really accepted me.”
Where are you in terms of transitioning?
“Transitioning in India isn’t the best thing, and I’m trying to figure it out. I just graduated and now that I’m looking for work, I have to find a space that would accept me. It’s still a taboo in India. I don’t want to hide. I cannot hide now.”
Now that you have your family’s acceptance, what’s next?
“My parents said ‘do whatever you wish, because we do understand what you’re really going through.” I was happy, blessed, and fortunate, but before coming out publicly, I had to keep in mind that everyone around me would be affected by this in a certain way. Coming out and living as my true self was not just about me, but about the people around me too. If they love you and you love them unconditionally, it’s also about them. It was my family’s journey as well. But if they don’t give a s*** about you and you don’t care about them either, that’s a different case. Then it’s all about you. But my case is different, the people around me cared and were my support systems. I am considered the black sheep of the family, and Indian communities would look down at my whole family simply because I’m part of the queer community. So I had to keep in mind that I had to tread carefully, and not make any hasty decisions till Rahul [my brother] settles down.”
This struggle is real. Indian families have an obsession with marriage and finding the right partner for their children. Rakesh knew that if he came out publicly, it might be hard for Rahul to get married, particularly if his-would-be wife’s family did not accept his brother’s queerness, and began to look down on his family as a whole because of it. Rakesh was ready to find a way to ensure that his brother wouldn’t have trouble settling down due to his girlfriend’s family not accepting him. It took a toll though, and it couldn’t last for long.
“Soon I realized that hiding seemed unfair for me. I also didn’t want to wait until he settled. I was putting my new life on hold. I have no clue when Rahul is going to settle and get married. I had no clue whatsoever. It could happen in 3 years, 5 years, or even 10. So when the coronavirus hit and lockdowns were initiated in India, it hit me hard. I wasn’t sure of how bad the virus was going to be, if I was going to even be alive if I ever (god forbid) got it. Funnily, I had my ‘life’s too short’ epiphany.”
Rakesh recalls talking to his brother and explaining his side of the story, and how he couldn’t wait to transition, because transitioning takes time––sometimes a long time.
“I finally spoke to his current girlfriend, and I actually got her blessing! So, if she didn’t have a problem, my brother should be okay with it! [...] We knew that we didn’t want her family to disregard Rahul because of me. So Rahul gave me the green light, and I was just so excited to finally do what I’ve been wanting to do for a long time!
So once that was done, you were finally able to be unapologetically public about your identity?
(Laughs) “I’m a little extra and I wanted to come out in the grandest way possible. I figured I’d come out after quarantine, but then I heard about MTV Roadies hosting remote live auditions over Zoom. I love [the] spotlight and being on reality TV was a dream. I thought ‘you know what? Give this a try! I can be myself and I’m out now and have nothing to lose!’ So I sent in an audition tape and I got through to the personal interview round. So that’s when I decided to make the announcement since I’d wanted a grand, epic way to come out to the world. I gave my parents a heads up and the rest is history!”
Do you think that identity therapy and/or affirmation coaching could have been beneficial for you?
“Honestly, I don’t know about me. I was fortunate enough to have my family support me and I knew where I stood in terms of my identity since I was a child, but for others, I’m sure it would––especially if they aren’t sure. The therapist they’d meet would support and affirm them. Such sessions would be super helpful. I feel like the parents would need counseling as well. As I mentioned, it’s not just about you, it's got to do with your parents too, especially if they’re willing to accept you. I feel like if parents went to queer informed therapists, it could help them really understand and unlearn biases and prejudices. And once the parents understand the situation better, it could in turn help their child.
(Laughs) I would totally send my family off to therapy if they didn’t accept me. Funnily, that did sort of happen. I remember when I came out to them in high school, my parents took me to a hospital. I went along and I met one of the doctors there. He was [terrible]. He tried to prove ME wrong of MY identity. I didn’t really care about what he said, but then he referred me to this other doctor who could ‘test my DNA’ to check for any abnormalities. It was absurd! Of course, I knew there was nothing wrong with my DNA! But I went to meet this doctor anyway and when I met her, she understood who I was the second she saw me! She saw me for who I truly was! And she managed to talk to my mother and tell her that I didn’t need any ‘tests’ because it was who I am. I remember she took my mom into her office for a private conversation, and I feel like what she told my mum helped her understand better, which eventually did lead to my mother accepting me today. ”
Rakesh and I ended up chatting for over an hour, and it would be impossible to include everything we discussed in our conversation. However, there are some takeaways that everyone can benefit from, particularly if they come from a culture where queerness is as taboo as it is in India––We agreed that family therapy, with trained queer-positive therapists, could help families be better informed, and better equipped to deal with issues of identity and gender. True acceptance comes from compassion and a desire to truly understand your family. If there was anything I got from my conversation with Rakesh (and there was a lot), it is that helping families understand and overcome prejudices is what will ultimately make the biggest difference towards supporting families with queer children.
If you know anyone who might be struggling with their sexuality, Which Doctor has some great LGBTQ+ friendly therapists you could talk to! If you and your family need guidance feel free to visit the Which Doctor website for more!