“Mom, Kelly and I are dating.”
It was the second time in my life I told my mom I was dating a woman. The Oklahoma summer sun crept higher in the sky as we sat in the backyard of my childhood home. After a long, piercing moment of silence, I asked,
“Is there anything you want to say?”
She nodded in the same way she moved her head in agreement with a pastor’s Sunday sermon.
“I’ll be praying for you both,” she said.
I already knew the answer, but I asked anyway.
“What exactly will you be praying for, Mom?” I took a sip of my now cold cup of chai.
“That one day, you two will find godly men,” she said, looking directly at me.
The first time she told me about this prayer was when I came out to her three years prior, so I was not shocked by her response.
In the South Asian community, my family is a bit of a rarity. My dad is a Hindu Bengali-Indian, mostly secular, and my mom is a Punjabi-Pakistani and a devout Christian, another rarity in itself.
Growing up in an interfaith household, my parents never forced either religion on me or my brother. Attending a Sunday morning church service was usually followed by an afternoon puja at the temple to equalize our religious exposure. Despite their seeming laissez-faire attitude on our Sunday activities, my mom’s steadfast faith overpowered my dad’s apathy for organized religion. It’s hard not to get Jesus-is-the-reason-for-the-season vibes when you step into our house. There are end tables accompanied with religious novels, note cards with handwritten Bible verses strewn about the kitchen counter, and Christian hymns in Urdu bursting out of a speaker.
Anytime I have something going on in my life – an upcoming audition, a big show, a cold – my mom is always there with a prayer: “I’ll be praying for you, mere paro. Love and blessings to you, and the Lord bless you always abundantly!”
When I first came out to her, I nervously told her through many tears that I was attracted to women. She immediately affirmed that she loved me very much but then reiterated her divine request for God to send me a Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.
She didn’t completely dismiss me from her life, however. Most coming out scenes I saw on TV ended in two scenarios – complete rejection or complete acceptance. What happens when your religious mom loves you and is also simultaneously praying that Kirk Cameron will be her future son-in-law? I concluded that her reaction wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been and assumed my coming out process was finished.
But on that summer morning when I told my mom about Kelly, I felt like I was coming out all over again. It was discouraging that even when I had found comfort in who I was and found someone whom I loved, her mission to pray the gay away was as unrelenting as ever.
“Well, let’s just agree to disagree,” I said, knowing there was no way I could convince her to become a rainbow ally and there was no way she could convince me to become a born-again Jesus devotee. While the two aren’t morally equivalent, How could I ask her to change who she was? I thought. How could she ask me the same?
She agreed to disagree.
“What do you want to eat for lunch?” she asked without missing a beat, as if we didn’t just have an hour-long dispute.
What do you want to eat – the quintessential non-sequitur for South Asian parents after an argument.
We went to the kitchen and warmed up leftover keema and roti.
A few years following that conversation with my mom, my relationship with Kelly started to progress. We had moved to New York City with our boxer-pitbull mix, George, and started to establish our life in a cozy Brooklyn apartment. I felt comfortable telling my mom that we moved in together. Living with an unmarried partner is taboo in our culture because it can lead to having a child out of wedlock. Birth control, thankfully, is part of the benefits package of a same-sex relationship.
She didn’t express her opposition to our one-bedroom situation. She didn’t even reiterate her prayer for us to find godly men. Instead, on our weekly catch-up call, she would either change the subject or ignore my comment altogether if I mentioned Kelly’s name. If she doesn’t acknowledge our relationship, then maybe she thinks it will eventually disappear, I thought. I grew accustomed to my mom’s disregard for my sexual identity. Avoiding conflict was easier than habitually re-establishing my queerness.
The years of sweeping my grievances under the rug had made my life very dusty. I started to envy my straight friends who brought their boyfriends home for the holidays. On family vacations, seeing my brother and his wife made me miss Kelly, who I didn’t invite because I didn’t want to make my mom uncomfortable.
Pretending that my very gay, very long-term girlfriend was nonexistent was, well, very exhausting. My relationship with Kelly was not an experimental phase like that one time I decided to be vegetarian for two weeks. I realized I had to give up my habit of avoiding conflict. I needed to be firm with my mom about my identity. I needed to come out – again.
I decided the best way to establish the seriousness of my relationship was to bring Kelly with me on a trip home to Oklahoma City. I’d always wanted to show her where I grew up, and my need to normalize us was now a priority. I anxiously called my mom and asked if Kelly could visit. Her answer was resolute.
“No,” she said, with even more intensity than when she told me she would pray for me.
My mom would not allow Kelly to stay in the house. I tried to reason with her for as long as I could, hoping to change her mind somehow. Still, she wouldn’t budge, and I was left weary and defeated.
After that intense phone call, we spoke only a handful of times for the next year and a half. We sent each other birthday texts. I once sent her a picture of my failed attempt at making roti, and she texted back, Nice mere paro, and closed it with her classic phrase, love and blessings always abundantly. After a while, our texts grew further apart. Months went by and I didn’t hear from her.
The result of that conversation was harder than coming out to her the first and second times combined. My mom had been my constant cheerleader my entire life, supporting my every decision and believing I could do whatever and be whoever I wanted – but my relationship with a woman was the one thing she could not rally behind. Therapy, a supportive girlfriend, and many slices of Tony’s Pizza grounded me during this time. But on most days, it was easy to let the negative emotions take over as I mindlessly clicked next episode after hours of Netflix binging.
After a half dozen unanswered texts and calls to my mom, I stopped trying. I didn’t have the energy to keep coming out, but I never closed the door on our relationship. I knew I couldn’t rush or force my mom to come to a place of acceptance sooner than she was ready to.
Then one day, it happened. My mom called me. Our conversation was punctuated with long silences, but our love for each other loudly filled the air. I don’t know what happened to spark the call – and I’m not sure I’ll ever know why – but there was a shift in our relationship.
A few weeks after she called, my mom and dad came to visit us in New York. It was as if the past year and a half was a bad dream that I had just woken up from. My mom and Kelly laughed with each other, arm in arm, as we walked and ate all over Brooklyn. The two of them were getting along so well; I was even a little jealous. I wondered if I should remind my mom that Kelly was a raging homosexual. At the end of the weekend, she gifted Kelly a leather-bound, engraved Holy Bible.
At first, I felt like my mom had Punk’d us. After a lovely weekend, the Bible came across as an unsolicited reminder of my mom’s original prayer to find us God-fearing husbands. But the gift could have been just a good-natured Christian gesture.
Either way, I take it for what it is and wonder if I’ll have to come out to her – again.
Excerpted with permission from untold: defining moments of the uprooted, edited by Gabrielle Deonath and Kamini Ramdeen, Mango & Marigold Press.