This is a compilation of thoughts on how I came out to my family about my sexuality and mental health issues.
“What will others think?”
“We want to see you married.”
“Everyone is asking.”
“Who will take care of you when you are old?”
“Don’t you want us to be happy? We are hurt because of you.”
These are some of the questions my parents raised over the years. Questions that sometimes made me guilty. Questions that forced me to engage in self destructive behaviour to appease them at the cost of my happiness and mental health. Questions that I was convincingly able to answer only last year, armed with the knowledge of my sexuality and supported by loving friends and a good therapist.
These are all questions that are commonplace in most Indian families.
Coming from a conservative family that firmly believes the ‘personal is private’ as opposed to the ‘personal is political’, writing this is difficult for me. But I want to, I feel I owe it to others like me – to reach out, reassure and be a part of the conversation.
I had only ever been in love twice. Both were people with whom I shared a strong friendship and emotional bond with; with whom my anxiety ridden self felt safe. Over time, I realised that I do not feel sexual attraction unless I have a deep emotional bond with the person; unless I felt emotionally safe in the company.
Thus, it is rare for me to feel sexually attracted to someone.
Asexual, demisexual – all of these were new words for me. But these words explained a lot that went on in my head. I learned that sexual attraction and romantic attraction are different and it is possible to feel one without the other. It made perfect sense to me as I had been, at that time, romantically attracted to a female friend with whom I felt a deep emotional connection. However, I was never sexually attracted to her. At the same time, my feelings for her seemed to be different from the feeling of friendship I felt towards other female friends. I used to feel content and giddy around her. It was as if I were in love but without the sexual attraction part.
I later realised, when it came to a romantic relationship, that gender doesn’t matter to me. It looked like I was panromantic, but heterosexual – sexually attracted only to persons of opposite sex. Having said that, sexuality is fluid and I am still exploring mine.
I also learned about primary and secondary sexual attraction. According to AVEN – the Asexual Visibility and Education Network – primary sexual attraction is what you feel towards others based on their looks, personality, intelligence etc. Secondary sexual attraction is what you feel for the other person after developing an emotional bond with them.
Most people experience both primary and secondary sexual attraction. Demisexuals often do not experience primary attraction and only feel secondary sexual attraction. I also understood more about the different shades of asexuality – ranging from people who are repulsed by sex, those who might be indifferent to it, those who experience sexual attraction rarely and those who are okay with certain activities.
Allonormativity became my favourite word for a while. Similar to heteronormativity, where heterosexuality is considered the norm and other sexualities are marginalised, allonormativity assumes that people are sexual by default and marginalises those who are inclined towards the asexual side of the spectrum.
The most difficult conversation I had with my father started with him urging me to get married. I told him that I find marriage to be a highly problematic institution. In the patriarchal, heteronormative, allonormative Indian society, exploring your sexuality before marriage is frowned upon.
To be honest, getting into a marriage without engaging in a sexual relationship with your partner also seems quite risky. One can always argue that it works for most people. But what about those for whom it does not? Are they doomed to suffer in silence because society refuses to have such conversations? You are by default assumed to be allosexual and heterosexual at that. What do such assumptions and subsequent coerced marriages do to persons of non-conforming sexualities? I told him that I would marry when I want, who I want and how I want.
And that I may not marry at all.
Despite the forceful tone, I believe what tipped the conversation in my favour was my confession about anxiety, low self esteem and panic attacks, which had accompanied me since I was 13. I told him that marrying someone I’m not comfortable with would exacerbate my anxiety and would undo all the good therapy had done so far.
Thus, I came out in two different ways to him – as a demisexual and as a person undergoing therapy for anxiety. Well, mental health is something that we never discuss in our families just as much as sexuality. I reminded my family that it was easy for people to gossip about my marital status, but I’m the one who has to deal with mental and sexual issues. As it was, I was hardly getting by even with therapy.
I guess repeating the conversation over the years helped them accept my decision. I have a healthier relationship with my family now. I visit them more often now that there is less worry about being emotionally ambushed.
The journey, at times, is comical. I remember explaining demisexuality in detail to my brother. He thoroughly misunderstood and thought I was both aromantic (person do not experience romantic attraction to others) and asexual. Why do you still date, he wondered, once the conversation was over. Well, I date in the hope that I might meet someone with whom I might feel an emotional connection. Additionally, dressing up and going out on a date makes me happy. My dating profiles, however, loudly proclaim my demisexuality so that people know what they are getting into.
And there are times I wonder whether my demisexuality was related to the anxiety induced panic attacks that I used to experience. Growing up as a highly sensitive, extremely absent minded child in a somewhat critical atmosphere, throughout my childhood, I was in search of emotional safe spaces. It did not help that I had very poor observational skills and made more mistakes than most people. Once, I was jokingly told by a slightly-older-but-too-young-to-know-any-better kid that I won’t be able to do practical science experiments because I lacked common sense. My self esteem was so low that I believed it whole heartedly.
Subsequently, I struggled to do even the simplest of the experiments such as a screw gauge in the physics lab. I firmly believed I would not be able to do them as I lacked practical intelligence. Our physics lab sessions were scheduled on Mondays and I used to start panicking and crying from Saturday onwards.
From someone who loved to study, I transformed into a person who slept through classes, refused to do any homework or put in any sort of effort into academics. I got by only because I was surrounded by friends who made sure that I knew at least the bare minimum to pass the examinations.
I wonder if the fact that throughout my life, I searched for safe spaces where I won’t be judged but cherished and loved for who I am has anything to do with my demisexuality. Growing up, friendship was the only safe space I knew. And I need to feel emotionally safe to allow myself to experience attraction.
I don’t mind either way since the threat of an arranged marriage no longer hangs over my head. And occasionally, I am able to support someone who is going through a similar phase; to assure them that their feelings are real and valid.
An accidental engineer turned social worker, Vineetha Venugopal works with a Bangalore based marine conservation organisation.
Featured image credit: Sandy Millar/Unsplash