Published on the front page of the Saturday Star’s Life section on the May 18 edition.
Read it online here: His family in India asked him to keep his homosexuality a secret. He refused.
Pradeep Anurag Reddy knows what it is like to live a double life. The 26-year-old from Hyderabad, India, kept his homosexuality secret from his family for years — eventually coming up with an elaborate plan that included moving to Canada in 2014 to escape the shame and fear of violence that comes with being gay back home.
It was a freeing decision for Reddy who has flourished into a proud gay South Asian man in his new home in Toronto.
He believes many men and women in Toronto’s South Asian LGBTQ+ community live two separate lives.
In fact, some of the victims of serial killer Bruce McArthur were of South Asian descent like Reddy and may have kept their sexuality a secret, often pursuing same-sex encounters through dating apps.
Reddy is surprised many are still choosing to live double lives in the open society he moved to specifically for that freedom.
To give courage to gay South Asian men hiding their true sexuality, so they would not resort to fleeing their country as he had, Reddy came out publicly in a Facebook post in February.
“People need to know they don’t need to be ashamed of their sexuality, that there’s nothing wrong with them,” Reddy says. “They should feel proud to be who they are.”
Growing up in a religious Indian family, Reddy constantly felt shame for being attracted to men. He knew he was different but didn’t know any other gay men. He often went to church and prayed to become “normal.” He tried to turn his feelings by dating women but that didn’t work.
After years of desperately trying not be gay, he had enough of not living his truth.
With no one to confide in, Reddy told his family he wanted to study in Canada. His real goal was to explore his sexuality in a more progressive country.
The day Reddy’s visa was approved, he broke down in tears on the balcony of his home in India. He was sad but believed Canada would allow him to be himself.
And so, Reddy arrived in Toronto in December 2014. He recalls with clarity meeting his first gay friend at the Toronto college where he was studying arts management.
“I was curious to know where he lives and asked if he has a girlfriend,” Reddy says. “I was trying to be as straight as possible and to my surprise, he said, ‘No, I’m gay.’ ”
“And I said, ‘Oh wow, I’m gay, too.’”
It was the first time Reddy came out and it was a liberating experience.
“He talked about it so casually and openly,” said Reddy. “Now, I think everyone should talk about it like that.”
As Reddy met others in the gay community, he wondered out loud about meeting men to date.
“My friend pulled out his phone and told me to swipe right or left,” Reddy says. “It was incredible. I literally felt like a bird who had just escaped his cage.”
Meeting other gay men has given Reddy the strength and confidence to become, albeit slowly, the proud gay man he is today.
Emboldened by his new sense of self, Reddy was in Toronto for about three months when he came out to his brother via a Skype call to India. His brother responded by asking if he became gay in Toronto and Reddy confided that it was because he was gay he had moved here. His brother, who initially was upset that Reddy felt he couldn’t tell anyone back home, now lives with him in Toronto.
“If someone I knew had come out publicly as gay when I was in India, maybe I wouldn’t have self-shamed, worried about my sexuality or secretly ran away to another country,” Reddy says. “Maybe I would have at least tried to come out to my close friends.”
He waited a year before telling his mother, also on Skype, and it wasn’t until 2016, during the last day of a trip to India that Reddy came out to his father.
He didn’t reject him, as Reddy had feared, but he didn’t get the response he was hoping for either.
“It was great that they didn’t react negatively initially,” he says of his parents’ response. “And I appreciated that they tried to understand. But I also saw them struggle to choose between my happiness and the shame they would face from relatives and others in their society.”
His parents consider homosexuality a disease and while they offered support, telling him he could live how he wished in Canada, they asked him to keep his sexuality a secret from relatives and friends.
“What about all the people in India who can’t escape to another country like me?”
Reddy has not returned home since that visit. He came out to his extended family in 2017.
“This (stigma) can only be changed by living openly, happily, and unapologetically as who I am,” he says. “Everyone in my life will get to know that there is nothing wrong with me.”
There is a lot of homophobia within the South Asian community that needs to be addressed, agrees Haran Vijayanathan, an openly gay South Asian LGBTQ+ advocate and executive director of the Alliance for South Asian Aids Prevention.
Two of McArthur’s victims, Skandaraj Navaratnam and Kirushna Kanagaratnam, were from Sri Lanka, as is Vijayanathan, but the possibility that the men were closeted gay men was not mentioned in the South Asian news media, says Vijayanathan, who began his career at the alliance as a Tamil outreach worker in 2003.
“None of the South Asian news media organizations spoke to anything related to this at all because it related to the gay community, which is quite disturbing and problematic,” Vijayanathan says.
“Many South Asians in Toronto and perhaps South Asian countries find it difficult to come out because they don’t have role models in media or society,” says Vijayanathan.
He certainly didn’t have any. Vijayanathan was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Winnipeg. He believes that had his family not moved to Canada when he was 5 years old, he would either be dead for being homosexual or be married to a woman and have children due to social pressure.
“They’re vulnerable for a reason, they don’t have any support, they don’t have a community they belong to, or if they do, they feel that they can’t belong to that community,” he says.
In many South Asian families, coming out as gay often means losing respect and tarnishing the family name within their society. Having a gay brother could even make it difficult for younger siblings to wed into a Tamil-speaking family, he says.
The toll it takes on the individual is not taken into consideration.
On Reddy’s coming out Facebook post, which has more than 100 likes and comments, Reddy wrote that he hasn’t seen his family in three years and that his parents are still learning to accept his sexuality. They still fear losing face in their community.
A few of his relatives met his mom to cry and give her their sympathy. But many people from Reddy’s church and neighbourhood in India reacted positively. Reddy found sharing their comments with his parents helped a little.
“I constantly remind my parents that we don’t need the people who are not happy for me and my life,” he said. “I have to keep telling them that they can let go of the people who are reacting negatively, regardless of who they are.”
Reddy has met several closeted men at LGBTQ+ support groups, living dual lives as happy married heterosexual men while having extramarital affairs with same-sex partners. Many South Asians believe homosexuality is a phase, he says.
Since writing that post, several gay individuals in India have privately come out to Reddy. He says these are the best experiences he’s had since coming out.
He is honoured to be the person with whom they can finally openly talk about their feelings and he hopes they will have the strength not to run away as he did once they come out.
Vijayanathan points out that those who live in the closet do so because they don’t feel they have the support of their community.
“Coming out is really based on the individual and what kinds of support they need and not necessarily when you come out,” Vijayanathan says.
But many people, must navigate how to come out, if they should come out and to whom, he adds.
Reddy, who feels fortunate to have family who haven’t completely shut him out, recently became a permanent resident of Canada and has no plans to move back to India just yet.
The response he’s received for his Facebook post prompted him to continue creating awareness in support of the South Asian LGBTQ+ community and regardless of where he is, he hopes to use social media to help anyone else struggling to come out.
I’ve met many South Asian gay men who are out, and lots of straight people who are slowly changing their perception towards the LGBTQ+ community,” Reddy says. “But, it’s still not where it should be.”
As more people come out and speak about their experience, it will bring more awareness, change and acceptance so that coming out isn’t a nightmare, he says.
“If a few years from now someone wants to come out they’ll know Anurag is also gay, that his family, friends, church and neighbourhood are fine with him,” Reddy says. “They won’t have to feel ashamed or scared to be themselves.”