The Art of Coming Out

Social Commentary

The Art of Coming Out

Illustration: Neon

On the last ruled page of a 14-year old boy’s physics’s notebook was a pair of eyes. The same set drawn over and again, as if to memorise the stare. The middle pages gathered courage and revealed the rest of the face – a hook of a nose, pouty, cracked lips, and above that a wire of pubescent moustache.

When his parents leafed upon his crush, they dragged the 14-year-old boy straight to a stained-glass corner in a church, to a pastor who claimed he could “correct” the child’s sinful fascination and later to the underground office of a psychiatrist, who assured a “cure” with aversion therapy. Male genitals alternated on the white wall in a room that smelt of a thousand boiled eggs. Each picture followed by a short pulse of shock treatment.

Jijo Kuriakose’s voice echoes through the hallway, as he recounts these horror stories, which are a part of the social landscape of Kerala even today. Even today, doctors like Titus Varghese claim that they can “cure homosexuality”.

In the verdant paradise that is supposedly God’s Own Country, Article 377 is irrelevant. Homosexuality will always be a cardinal sin. If you search for “gay + Malayalam” on Google, you will be directed to a Wikipedia entry called “kundan” (faggot), with a creepy picture of an elderly man trying to molest an adolescent.

Fury surges in Jijo’s kohl-rimmed eyes, as he recounts his battle to edit that offensive Wikipedia entry. Every attempt to change it to “swa varga anuragi” or “lovers of the same sex” would last not more than five minutes. After which the previous derogatory content would restore itself, word by word.

For these amateur artists with day jobs, art is entirely about eradicating this “otherness”, presenting their love so that the world may understand. But the world stays away.

Jijo has roped in friends from Queerala, a non-profit that serves the LGBT community in Kerala, to barrage Wikipedia with new entries about themselves.

In the real world though they are taking a different track – spilling out their secrets and feelings on blank canvases, using colour and images to bring their life to the world. Jijo is sitting on the red-oxide floor of Kochi’s Durbar Hall with a bunch of other artists, brainstorming on body and same gender intimacy. They form a jagged circle against the backdrop of a micro-tip on a canvas – a man slouches on a wooden ledge, the birth cord connected to another one lying curled up in the womb of ignorance.

A slice of sun finds its way through the windowpane, falling on a painting where a pair of stark-naked legs forms the filament of a bulb. The warmth spills over to Jijo’s hands that chatter animatedly. His ring finger is bare. He’s managed to avoid the fate of some gay men who are forced into marriage. He cannot stomach the thought of cheating an innocent woman and be pushed into an impossible double life in this WhatsApp era.

But this honesty comes with material risks in this land of greens.

Two years ago, after a couple of local dailies lionised Jijo for coming out, his London-based landlord asked him to hunt for a more liberal lessor and a new place to stay. Jijo still lives in Kochi, but others have fled to anonymous cities, where they don’t need to go to bed with their secret. Revathy, a young lesbian seated next to Jijo, has picked Mumbai. Mumbai and the binary world of the internet is where they can be themselves.

Nishad, a fine arts graduate and lab technician, who goes by his chat name Neon, uses his virtual affairs that have stretched over years as the foundation of his work. Against the neon backdrop, a couple lies in bed, one awake, watching, the other strolling through the incoherent plain of a dreamscape. Their combined nakedness sinks into the night. Like Neon, the men that break out from his brushes are brawny. His vivid scenes could pair easily with Colm Tóibín’s stories.

The Art of Coming Out

Friends trickle in, but families stay away when the LGBT community in Kerala organises art shows.

Nishadh Neon

These young artists have met in the chat rooms of a Mumbai-based secret group, Yaariyan. When Jijo reached out to Revathy for Homophorism, an art show, she had to hammer her fear down and focus instead on the noise inside her head where story kernels popped, one after the other.

A striking photograph of a lesbian couple seated across a coffee table, their eyes straying, is reminiscent of a diary entry from the French film Blue is the Warmest Colour. Revathy’s photographs dwell on estrangement via a young couple, who is falling out of love. “You may keep us in a separate box and pretend that we are not the same, but our lives are entwined and we have the same stories as you.”

For these amateur artists with day jobs, art is entirely about eradicating this “otherness”, presenting their love so that the world may understand. But the world stays away.

At this art show organised by the LGBT community, friends trickle in, in ones and twos to view these canvases, which bleed the life stories of their queer buddies. None of their families make it. “It is not that they don’t want to come, they are just afraid of embarrassment,” Revathy says. Her mother is covertly supportive. She swings between feeling proud and being disheartened about her daughter’s life choices. Most of it, Revathy believes, has got to do with them being settled in Thrissur.

Not much has changed for Jijo either. He simply continues to pray that 14 year-old boys aren’t dragged by their parents to the priest anymore.