[Leaving the best for last, here is Ashwin Nayak’s post. Unlike the other posts in this series, Ashwin does not just talk about events, but he also gives us a view of his inner life at several critical times. What can I say to introduce such a beautiful essay? I got this: congratulations Ashwin! — L.T.]
(Some names have been changed to protect privacy. Some events have been presented out of chronological order, to maintain continuity in the narrative. The unnamed friends in Waterloo are Kimia, Andrew, Anna-Marie, and Carl. I would like to thank them, Joe, Luca, and especially Harry for their feedback on a draft of this blog post. Harry offered meticulous comments, setting aside a myriad commitments. Most of all, I would like to thank my sisters and my parents for graciously agreeing to being included in this story.
For those not in theoretical computer science, FOCS is one of the flagship conferences on this subject. Luca is a professor of computer science at Stanford University, and Irit at Weizmann Institute of Science.
A prelude: I was born into a middle-class family from the South-West coast of India. I am the youngest of three siblings, and grew up in cities all over the country. My father served as an officer in the Indian army, and my mother taught in middle school until she switched to maintaining the household full-time. I went to IIT Kanpur for my undergraduate studies when I was 17. At 21, I moved half-way across the world to Berkeley, CA, for graduate studies. In 2002, after a few years of post-doctoral work in the US, I moved to Waterloo, ON, to take up a university faculty position.)
We were walking through art galleries in San Francisco when Luca brought up the Turing centenary events that were taking place around the world. None of the events celebrating his work referred to Turing’s homosexuality. Luca wondered whether the celebrations would be complete without revisiting this aspect of his life. As a response, he was thinking of having a series of guest blog posts by contemporary gay and lesbian computer scientists about their experiences as gay professionals. How would they compare with those in Turing’s times?
I wonder how much of my attention was on the art in the next few galleries. Would I write a post? What would I write? For me, sexuality is so deeply personal a matter that I’ve talked about it only with a handful of people. Why would I write about it publicly? Something Luca had said stuck in my mind: “The post could even be anonymous. That would be a statement in itself.” It took me back to my first relationship: I dated Mark for over three years and no one other than his friends knew. Times when I was on the verge of telling a friend about my relationships flashed by. I remembered the time I discussed with my immediate family why I would not get married (at least not the way they imagined). Times when students recognized me at events for gays and lesbians resurfaced, as did conversations with friends and colleagues grappling with openness. I would write a post, I told Luca.
That night, I got little sleep. Memories that I thought had slipped into oblivion loomed large.
I was a couple of years into graduate school when I started dating Mark. It was temporary, I thought. Hadn’t my parents said just that, years ago, as they consoled a neighbour who had found her son with another guy? I was determined not to get attached. It was simply not done back in India. Didn’t a senior at IIT warn me not to act upon it, when I admitted to being attracted to guys? “The dean will put you on disciplinary probation if he finds out.” Didn’t I enjoy hanging out with girls? I will soon be married, I thought. Yet I continued dating Mark. To my friends, and family, he was a fast friend. I wouldn’t have it appear any other way. My friends wondered about my personal life. The girls with whom I went out were bewildered by the dates that were going nowhere. You would think I would pick up the courage to follow suit after a friend came out. You would think that being in Berkeley, it would have been easy to come to terms with reality. Not even that happened. Soon enough, I graduated and moved to the East coast. Mark eventually broke up with me. The most important person in my life at the time went unacknowledged.
The first person to whom I came out was a counselor at Caltech (where I had spent some time as a post-doctoral fellow). I had not been able to concentrate on work for a full month. It was slowly sinking in that my relationship with Mark had not been “a phase”. I didn’t have the same feelings for any of girls I dated. I couldn’t get myself to meet the girls my parents were trying to introduce to me. It was pointless. I was thinking of coming clean with my parents, and the possible consequences were weighing on me. “What do you think might happen?” the counselor asked. I feared that my parents would sever all connection. The counselor listened as I poured my heart out. “You are just fine,” he had declared at the end of our meeting. Perhaps that was all I needed to hear.
The next person to whom I came out was Joe. We were both recovering from broken relationships, and it happened naturally when we talked about our past. We went on to dating each other, and a few months into our relationship he had spoken to all his close friends about it. It must have taken a lot of courage. He’d dated his girlfriend for a long time, and had had a difficult break-up. It took me a few more years to understand the value of such honesty with those dear to me, and some more to build up the courage to act on it.
When my parents made the long trip from India to visit me next, I decided I would have a chat with them. It would easier on my home turf. Yet, every time there was an opportunity, I was at a loss for words. Where would I start, when I had been silent about a big part of myself for so long? How would they react? It was the same when it came to my long-time friends.
One of my sisters moved to Toronto shortly before my move to Waterloo. My sister’s family and I met every few weeks, celebrated festive occasions and went on vacation together. It was a throw back to our childhood days. My sisters and I had been confidants and the best of friends. As I was debating whether to come out to them, it struck me: if I wished to maintain that bond, my only option was to allow my sisters into my life. I broke silence when one of my sisters brought up the topic of marriage. She had many questions, and many more concerns, but there was neither the judgement I feared, nor the drama. My elder sister had the same reaction. Both wished that I’d not be gay, perhaps even thought that I’d change when the right woman came along. But they let me be.
My parents had had the same questions, and more. It seemed, in their eyes, that something had gone horribly wrong. They were trying to understand what it was, and how they could repair it. (“Were you abused at school?” Nothing of the sort had happened. “Have you tried dating women?” I had. “You should see a psychologist.” I did.) They were concerned about my well-being. (“What would your friends say?” My childhood best friend was hurt that I hadn’t told him sooner. “What about your colleagues?” I think they would understand.) Their aspirations for me were crushed. I could only commiserate with them. They worried about facing our relatives. (“What will we tell them?” Ask them to talk to me. If they truly cared, they would make an effort to understand.) It was a difficult conversation. What I hadn’t expected, though, was how liberating it was. I no longer carried the burden of a secret, and no longer needed to be on guard around my family.
I happened to meet Luca again a week after the conversation at the galleries, and we spoke about the blog posts. I’m not sure I have anything connected to computer science to relate, I told him. “Well, how did you meet Joe?” (Joe is a fellow computer scientist.) Luca talked about how being gay had influenced his move to Berkeley. In truth, my interest in computer science drew me to IIT, and then on to Berkeley. I can only speculate what course life would have taken had I stayed in India. It is likely that I would have married and stayed so. In the best scenario, I would have remained unmarried, but single.
I first met Joe at FOCS. By that time the next year, we were dating, and he had come out to his friends. I was absorbed into their circle with the ease with which water sinks into sand. Is there something special to theoretical computer scientists that makes them so accepting of homosexuality? I don’t know. But here was Luca with his partner, and Irit with hers, freely mingling with everyone else. Could it get more reaffirming?
I was looking for jobs early into my relationship with Joe. A fantastic opportunity at Waterloo came up, but I hesitated to take it. Joe was still in school, and it meant living on opposite sides of the continent. It might have helped to discuss the dilemma with my mentors, but I was far from ready for that. I took up the position. Only later would I look back at that moment as a turning point in our relationship; it ended about a year after this.
The move to Waterloo felt like homecoming. Perhaps it was because of the warm welcome I received from my colleagues, the friends that felt like family, or because my sister was close by. No one blinked an eye when Joe and I went out for dinner on Valentine’s day, or when we went to a gathering with my colleagues. Yet, something was missing. There were few avenues for meeting other gays and lesbians in the city, let alone at the university. For five years, I lived part-time in Toronto, largely so that I would meet more gay men. Ironically, I came to know more gay and lesbian colleagues from Waterloo through my time in Toronto.
At Waterloo, I went to events organized by the undergrad student association for gays and lesbians on campus. There were only a small number of students at these events, and even fewer staff and faculty. Over the years, at these events (and others in Toronto), I ran into math and engineering students that I had taught. Their faces would light up as they recognized me. Some were curious, and others simply happy they’d met someone with whom they could talk. Many of them spoke of the isolation they felt at Waterloo—they did not know any gays and lesbians in their usual circles. Some hadn’t come out to their friends, and some couldn’t imagine being open with their families. All of them had grown up in Canada.
We could not have come from more different backgrounds, but I could relate to all that the students said. Being open takes a lot of self-awareness, courage, energy, and patience. Coming out to my family has been a long drawn process. As my sister once pointed out, if it took me ten years to come to terms with homosexuality, how could I expect them to come around quickly? If I met the students again, I would tell the students how solidly my friends have stood behind me throughout. I would also tell them about the more recent conversations I’ve had with my parents. In March this year, my father told me of the Indian supreme court verdict upholding sexual minority rights. Every victory for gays and lesbians in India has been, for my parents, a personal triumph.
Like in Turing’s time, the academic world (at least in North America and Europe) may provide a safe haven for gays and lesbians, but the outside still lags behind. The immediate environment in which we grow up—at home, at school, and in our social circles—leaves a deep impression on us. The damage caused by homophobia, or even insensitivity, that we experience early in life may take years to reverse. By making the university environment safe and welcoming for everyone, we can hope to hasten that reverse. What’s more, our students may even carry this milieu with them when they step outside.
As I write, the media are furiously debating whether being public about one’s sexuality is a moral responsibility, especially for gays and lesbians in the public eye. (Look up Anderson Cooper, if you’ve missed the news.) Sexuality is a deeply personal matter, but it plays out in our lives, both private and public, in ways that I for one had not anticipated. I found keeping it to myself stunting. It alienated my friends, and I was in the danger of losing my family. I don’t have Anderson Cooper’s following, but if I could have half the impact on someone’s life that Joe, Luca, and Irit had on mine, how could I not speak up?