Sunil Gupta (b.1953) Bitter-Sweet (also candid) tale of his coming out
Sunil Gupta, Indian born Canadian artist and photographer based in London UK.
His dad’s advice: “Get Married, have kids like all of us. Meanwhile always be the top”.His mom: “This is all because of Canada and white people. I should never have sent you to YMCA – it is full of “Homosexies” (her word!)
Sunil Gupta Here we are again. Do you remember when we met?
Saleem Kidwai Yes, in October 1976. And where were we then? I had recently arrived in Montreal and you were with Rudi, your boyfriend, in New York but were visiting your family. Your sister Shalini and I had become friends and she had told me you were gay. I looked forward to meeting you but was also intimidated by the prospect. Obviously your reputation had preceded you.
I remember the first sight of you in the Stanley Street apartment. The living room had a large window and you sat on a desk with your back to it. You looked me up and down which made me nervous. Today, I wonder if you had set that up; lighting and all. And since when had you been in Montreal?
Gupta: September 1969.
Kidwai: So … post Stonewall?
Gupta: Yeah. I had no clue about it though. I think that first year was a sort of transition for me as a migrant teenager. I was basically trying to reproduce whatever little scene I had in Delhi. Because the environment was so different I didn’t look around. But eventually I found my scene.
Kidwai: So you missed Delhi?
Gupta: Yes. Then one day by chance I encountered a kind of desi style of sex date. I had gone to a cinema and people were having sex there. This became a kind of outlet. I knew that I could go there because it was the same scene as some Delhi cinemas.
Kidwai:I’m not surprised you found it.
Gupta: After I arrived in Montreal, many months lapsed and nothing happened. I began to wonder if anything would happen. I was cooped up in this tiny flat with family and with little else happening. In Delhi, I barely saw my parents. Suddenly, I saw them all the time. As a result, my privacy was drastically reduced. The long unfamiliar winter did n’t help.
But change came in 1971 when I joined junior college. It was my first encounter with directed education which worked well with me. I did a kind of Greek term and picked up Greek t heater and Greek philosophy. I began to get educated in a very western ‘gay’ kind of way. Sociology and anthropology courses allowed you to write essays on gay issues. It was a very liberal atmosphere. Feminism, sexuality and race were openly discussed. There was lots of research and books on these issues. My teachers were a great source stuff’ that was going to become queer theory one day.
Kidwai: What was the gay scene like? Where would you go?
Gupta: The scene was centred on Peel and St. Catherine downtown. Later, I realised that such scenes were usually in the periphery.
Kidwai: And there was Stanley St. on which you lived.
Gupta: Oh yes! There was this leather bar. What was it called? Buds.
Buds, further down, below St. Catherine. And then a disco opened next to Buds …
There was also an element of exoticisation. Did you notice that? It was the
second thing I noticed after the discrimination. Brown had its niche market.
I wasn’t aware of being brown because there weren’t any brown people around. The
nearest were the Italians because they looked relatively brown
No South Asians?
No. None. So for a while I didn’t have any race at all. It had the effect of making me
not feel inferior. It didn’t occur to me that they were all white and I wasn’t.
Which years were those?
That must have been the college years, 1972-75.
By then did you have a group?
Yes. By then I had a peer group. I first joined this gay group on campus and then it
started to spawn special interest groups. I joined the gay helpline and then the gay
literary group. The latter became quite involved. Seven to eight of us read a novel and
discussed it every Sunday.
What sort of novels did you read?
Novels like A Passage to India, which became an eye opener about India for me. My
interest in E.M . Forster led me to the Bloomsbury group. In the meanwhile, we became
political. We decided to be non-competitive in choosing whom to bed. We wrote
pamphlets and organized small agitations. For example, we distributed leaflets in
Buds, about how capitalist cruising was -to stand around in the dark competing with
everybody else. Then the helpline happened. We got in touch with the local Samaritans
who gave us training.
That was the first help line in Montreal. When did that happen?
1972-73. The trainings happened in our flat. I just did the weekends and people would
ring up and threaten to kill you or something. By then the larger group – Gay McGill,
had become quite big and it had started to do social events.
Was it a group of students only?
There was also some staff- basically a campus group. But the first big political move
was to get in touch with the town’s folk which reminds me of what is happening now
in Delhi with Nigah2• We too had a language problem. It was an English-speaking
campus group and Montreal was a largely working class, French-speaking city .So how
did one get them to come to anything? The group’s dances were opened up partly to
bring the non -student crowd to the campus.
You met Rudi at one of these gay dances, didn’t you? When was that? Was he a
student at McGill?
Yeah, he was doing an MBA. Most gay students were in the Arts, so I felt a little different
because I was doing Business. So I was glad to meet Rudi who was doing an MBA.
What was happening during these years at home in terms of coming out to your
In 1970, soon after I became aware of Stonewall and the idea of the struggle and its
history, it was clear that one had to “come out.” It had this powerful logic – you came
out and what was your problem became the problem of others. I decided to tell my
father but not my mother, (Penny). I didn’t know how to bring up sexuality with her
because we never mentioned sex of any kind. I thought it would be easier talking to
my father so I got him on his own and I announced something like, “I am gay.” He
surprised me by being liberal and understanding, especially because he had these very
straight laced ex-military traits.
He used a few words, which he never used again, “it’s a phase and you will grow out it.” I hear it in Delhi till today. Then he said maybe you’ll need some psychiatric help.
He said that?
Yeah, I never imagined that Dad thought like that. I kept saying ‘it’s not a problem so I don’t need help, I am just informing you.” Then he tried a different tact. He said, so that’s your sex life, that’s fine. But it shouldn’t prevent you from getting married and having children. It was kind of suggested that’s what he did; that’s what Indians did and that mariage had nothing to do with your sex life.
He must have seen a lot of that in the army.
It was like him saying: “Once you’re married, you’re off the hook.”
Didn’t he say anything about morality?
No, he didn’t think it was immoral.
Or about homosexuality being irreligious?
No; however, he did what I didn’t want him to do, which was to tell my mother. Maybe
he couldn’t deal with it after all. The next thing I knew my mother was having
hysterical fits. I think she was largely upset that I was having any sex. She brought in
religion and about it being against god and nature. Finally she would say, “first you
shouldn’t have sex when you are not going to have a baby and certainly not of this
kind”. My father gave me different advice: That I should always be the ‘top‘. Then they
started a blame game. Luckily, they didn’t blame me nor were they angry with me.
They kept looking for external factors, and the obvious ones being white people. “If we hadn’t come here to Canada than nothing would have happened.” When the discussion of the foreignness of it would come up I tried to suggest that things had happened in India and quite close to home.
They refused to believe it.
Penny once told me that the biggest mistake she made was to get you enrolled in the YMCA for swimming classes. She said she had no idea it was full of ‘homosexies.’
She never accepted it. Once she came to London when I was with Steve. There were these two small adjoining bedrooms and you could hear everything. We would hear her weep at night. We told her “We can’t sleep; why are you weeping so much?” And she answered “because you both are in bed together and doing homosex and I am really upset and can’t sleep.”
But then she would stay for six months somehow.
Where was your sister in all of this?
Very supportive. She and I moved out of home together when we were still in college and we had Rudi move in and we were a threesome.
What I remember was all those gay men dropping in to see you regularly when you visited and how warm Penny was in opening up her home and playing hostess. I remember how well she fed us.
Yeah. Ma quite liked them but Dad didn’t. He particularly didn’t like those who were fem ini ne and several of them were. Rudi, of course, would have been ideal had he been straight. Ma never gave up. She would suddenly ask somebody ‘can you find him a wife?’ and they would think she was crazy. She once said to me that “it’s alright that you decided this but I have decided that I don’t like it”. I had this idea when I was younger that I would come out and they would have a problem and that I would educate them. However, books and shows had no impact on them whatsoever. They were genuinely upset when AIDS arrived and people they knew started dying.
Jerry died of it. Many others we knew in Montreal died of it. They got very sick before they died and Ma saw some of them. She was even taken to the AIDS quilt and she ept but still didn’t accept it. That’s the thing. They didn’t talk to me about it even though I am sure they were very anxious. They saw it coming closer from everything that was being said. They knew that I was in the eye of the storm that was New York.
How many years did you and Rudi stay in Montreal?
Till 1975. Then Rudi graduated and got a job. He was moving to New York and I was doing my finals and we had this plan that I would do an MBA in New York.
And you had been taking pictures all along?
Yeah. Photography had been a hobby in India and it developed further in Montreal. I was self-taught and the first time I published anything was in our fledgling gay magazine. I took pictures of Local news Like the bathhouse fire, demonstrations and the Local bars.
When did it become more serious? I think when we met you were totally committed to it.
Yes. I was in New York and many things happened. I was going to these very boring MBA classes but for the rest of the time seeing all those pioneering exhibitions. I thought what if I dropped the MBA and did just photography?
You are talking of 1975.
Yeah this was around 1975-76
But you were totally into making pictures when I first met you. That’s what you seemed to be doing all the time. I saw you as a photographer. I don’t think I ever thought of you as an accountant.
That’s true. I took Lot of pictures, but I thought I needed training. I didn’t think it was a serious option even though I had done these classes and one of the teachers was very supportive. I remember asking her how I would Live.
Who was she?
Lisette Model and she said I should do this full time. I said this was not going to earn me money. Obviously, I was right but then I was planning to do something with accounting anyway.
You went to London in 19 78.
Yes. In New York I was a student whereas Rudi had started working. I never had much money. Going to London was a really big deal for me. I had never been on a plane since I got to Montreal from Delhi. I meant to work as an accountant but I couldn’t get a job.
It is clear why. You never wanted those jobs.
Not only the job but a visa. The early years in London were fraught with my not having the right to Live there. So I became a full-time photography student.
I want to go back and talk of New York. I think your first thematic body of work was done in New York. When I visited you in December 1976 the impression I got as an outsider was that photography was what you were going to be doing. I don’t think we ever spoke of accounting or the MBA. You were also the best guide one could have had for New York. You knew the city so well. It was obvious that you had spent a lot of time searching the city and taking so many pictures during the day and at night.
….. (the rest of the interview deals with his photography, his break ups, living with HIV and so on) ….
Here is a Clip from You Tube:
Project Bolo Sunil Gupta on ‘Sexuality and Indian LGBT Movement’