“Why do we need to be in anyone’s bedroom?” asks Michelle Gandhi, making her point that the objection to being gay ultimately centers around this. “We are like anyone else, in our daily life, we go to work and come home,” she told India-West recently about being married to Jennifer Taosuvanna.
A high school teacher and openly gay, Gandhi, after years of silence, now leads a “regular” life that centers on family, work and friends. “We go to the temple,” she says, and people are getting more and more okay with it. At first, visits to the Jain temple in Buena Park, California, was startling, especially with Taosuvanna dressed in men’s clothes and sporting short hair. But, says Taosuvanna, an occupational therapist, “the more they saw me, the more everything felt normal for them and for us. Now, someone has even asked me to help with their parent.”
It has been suggested that America is now a post-gay nation with a Pew Research study showing the 70% of the population believing that homosexuality is a reality that should be accepted. The Indian American community, notorious for being socially conservative, also seems to be erasing that line in the sand with a growing number exhibiting at least tolerance if not outright acceptance.
Gandhi, raised in Cerritos, says she was infinitely lucky to have as parents Prakash and Kinna Gandhi, but words like “scary,” “afraid,” and “confused” run through her narration of her early life. It began, she told India-West, “in “8th or 9th grade when I found I had little crushes on boys but it was also the same with girls. I began wondering if I wanted to go out with boys as friends or romantically. When I thought of dating, I kept seeing myself with a girl too.”
Her mind in tumult, Gandhi’s biggest problem was that she had no one to talk to. This was in the late 90s where in her high school, there were some students who had come out but she knew only of boys who were gay, no girls. Gandhi turned to books. Searching desperately for role models, she hit upon a paperback, “Born Confused,” by Tanuja Desai Hidier, in the Cerritos city library, about an Indian American girl growing up in New Jersey.
“It had positive representation and it made me comfortable,” Gandhi recalls. At the same time there were stars like Ellen DeGeneres who had come out. “Oh yes, don’t underestimate public figures being open,” says Gandhi of the impact they have; “it normalizes, it comforts.”
Picking up courage, she approached her father whom she was extremely close to. Sure of his love, she nevertheless harbored slivers of doubt. She finally told him, “I am struggling. I am scared,” she related to India-West. Amazingly, her father quashed all doubts, embracing her for who she was. They waited to tell her mother who was a bit more traditional and unexposed to such matters.
Gandhi went on to UC Irvine in 2003, where she attended LGBTQ meetings, but they were not a dominant part of her life. At the sorority she was in, she met Taosuvanna and fell in love in 2006. The two planned on living in the same house, and Gandhi knew it was time to tell her mother
“When we finally sat her down and told her I was in a relationship she was shocked and surprised, but I don’t think she understood quite what it meant because of her cultural background,” chuckles Gandhi gently. “She didn’t really understand fully that we were more than just best friends.” The more time she spent with the couple, however, the more the mother began to understand how well the couple got along and looked after each other.
Until 2013, when Gandhi-Taosuvanna got engaged, they hadn’t really shared their story with many people outside her small circle of family and friends, but then, “mom by this point knew Jennifer so well, she was all in!” says Gandhi.
Wedding preparations soon began and again, they ran into the problem of having no role model – neither in the Indian American community, nor in Taosuvanna’s Thai one. Shopping for wedding outfits in “Little India” in Artesia, they encountered raised eyebrows when male clothes were tried out by Taosuvanna. There was also some awkwardness in finding a Hindu priest willing to do the ceremony. But Kinna Gandhi sailed through all of this, supporting the couple and getting it all done.
Years after Gandhi’s father passed, her mother was set to marry Dr. Nitin Shah. Once he had proposed to her mother, Gandhi says she urged her mother to tell “doc” about her daughter being gay. While she worried about her mom’s happiness and Shah not being cool with it, the reaction she got from the older couple showed her how much she mattered: her mother said the marriage would not happen if Shah were to balk and Shah merely shrugged it off with a “I know!”
“I am not going to hide anymore,” Gandhi told India-West. Scared at first, she now introduces Taosuvanna to everyone at the temple. “It’s my little way of nudging aunties and uncles,” she says. Still, there are tensions. “I present myself as a girl and Jennifer is in unisex clothing. When we go out in public we hear ‘sir and maam’,” she says.
The couple is sure conversations about them have happened behind closed doors whether at the temple or in the Azusa neighborhood they live in. Says Taosuvanna, “there is a long way to go but with more exposure there is sure to be more understanding.”
It has been a slow process but with each story humanized and told, there is an opportunity to impact and change minds just as the Gandhi-Taosuvanna couple likely will.