By Anant Zanane
I have a story to tell. Of being a deeply closeted mediawala, who tried to fit into the cut-throat world of breaking news journalism. I lost myself in the process and even inflicted self-harm. But it has also been an interesting journey of self-discovery, confronting my demons, and shedding my inhibitions. And I hope sharing my story will help someone out there who is grappling with similar life experiences. So, here goes.
STARTING OUT: FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT
In 2005, when I first walked into the charged atmosphere of a newsroom as a cub reporter, I wasn’t even out to myself. I knew that I felt different, but I felt possessed by the ambition of being a TV journalist, and that was far too overpowering for me to indulge in self-realisation. I idolised a close friend, blindly copied his work ethic, and used that to define the template for my existence. I was hired to report in Hindi, so the foundations of my journalistic career were laid in a Hindi Channel. From the word go I felt like a misfit, forcing myself to report in a language that I struggled with academically. And with a family name like ‘Zanane’, I was an instant butt of all jokes. I would often be asked: Janana ho ya mardaana?! (Are you female or male?), followed by a loud laugh. (Janana is a non-Urdu distortion of the Urdu word ‘Zanane,’ which means female.)
For many years I never had a comeback to that. My usual response would be to laugh it off in a self-deprecating way. Not just in the newsroom, but throughout my daily interactions with people, as a journalist. On assignment I would often refer to myself as Anant Kumar, to save myself from the trouble of daily decoding a peculiar surname. Depending on how it was delivered, this distortion of the family name did upset me, of course… It made me wonder whether I was really ‘Zanane’, female? Or was it just harmless office ribbing, intended to toughen me up for the not-so-easy journalistic career?
I think now I truly understand what this work jibe did to me. It made me consciously question my sexual identity and made me more curious about myself. I had to endure this innuendo very often and, in fact, still tackle it. I now use it as an ice-breaker or conversation-starter.
I must admit that even way back when, I was never put under the spotlight or made to confess to being gay. People were decent; they respected professional acumen and rewarded performance. And yet I lacked the comfort to come out in this milieu. This may have significantly deferred the dawning of my gay-hood.
PROVING MYSELF: MISSION UTTAR PRADESH
I seized an opportunity to report from the states. My choice was the most volatile option in the country: Uttar Pradesh. The hotbed of ruthless politics, crime, and all things bizarre. It seemed liked the perfect training ground to acquire the work-life skills for the tumultuous media lifespan. I never remember asking myself, was I man enough for UP? All I did was prescribe another note-to-self: It doesn’t get crazier than this. So man up even more!
I landed in Lucknow to find the most male-dominated media landscape. The pressure to walk like a man, talk like a man and behave like a macho man was inescapable. I swallowed my gay pride and buried it with an undated tombstone, hoping that someday I would be able to exhume and resurrect it. At work, I found myself surrounded by men. Cameramen, engineers, drivers, other male co-workers and fellow journalists. Men who I would work alongside for the next 6 years, but people who failed to inspire in me the confidence to come out.
When the Delhi High Court decriminalised homosexuality in 2009, more than 500 kilometres away In Lucknow, I was fighting the urge to scan and absorb the verdict. To do my bit for the cause and contribute to the news-flow on the event of a lifetime. My hands hovered over the keyboard but I felt paralysed by my circumstances.
A male co-worker stared at the celebrations blaring on the TV screen and said, “Hume toh yeh sab bahut ajeeb lagte hain…Yeh gay log.” (I find these gay people very weird). That statement silenced me. A day like that should have been liberation day for someone like me. But I felt robbed of the courage to celebrate. I felt like a coward, defeated and alone.
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THE FEAR SPIRAL
I was made to believe that the mark of a successful journalist was the forging of strong, long-lasting relationships that remain life-long sources of news. Some of these relationships are high-profile, must-have connections with decision-makers and the high and mighty in the government and political class. And so I became extremely cautious while cultivating these relationships. I went against my grain, and reimagined my self-image to become macho. As these relationships started to yield news breaks, exclusives and a daily trickle of news, the fear of losing them once again pushed me away from myself. Professional pressure forced me to remind myself that the doubtful gay side of my life COULD wait. Work that was professionally rewarding, could not! I did everything possible to preserve these newsy contacts to fuel my career growth. Even if that meant depriving myself the right to be my true self.
A LOW POINT
At one point, I was in the thick of a developing news story. A whiff of a scoop made me approach a source who I felt could give me that edge in the coverage. I was all of 26, and hungry for that elusive exclusive. The source sensed my desperation and offered the biggest news break of that story. Determined to beat the competition, I rushed to meet him. When I entered his office, he grabbed me by the face and kissed me on the forehead, said he really liked me… and handed me the story. I was stunned. I didn’t react, (just) thanked him for the scoop and left.
We broke the story the next day, which had the desired impact. Intoxicated by the success, I conveniently buried the awkward memory of this encounter. It never occurred to me to question myself: Did he think I was gay, which encouraged him to make a move? I’m not sure how to process this episode. In my head I labelled it as an equivalent of Bollywood’s clichéd ‘casting couch’. And yet, I felt I had compromised the ethics of journalism to secure a scoop. I think of it now and still struggle to make sense of this life event.
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FREEDOM TO BE: COMING OUT
In the summer of 2012, my twin brother Aditya and I found ourselves in the middle of a heated exchange. He was struggling to land a job during campus recruitment. At one point, he said, “Why don’t you take the heat off me by getting married? At least that will distract the parents for some time!”
I flatly refused! He probed further and finally asked me outright: “Are you gay?” And for the first time in 29 years I finally said YES. He double checked. “So you like Virat Kohli more than Dhoni?”
I said yes.
We both burst into loud laughter and hugged each other.
Aditya embraced me as a brother and accepted me. He, along with my sister Gagan, her husband Nitin, cousin Karan and his wife Shruti normalised the family ecosystem that helped me be gay at home. It was because of them that coming out to my parents was reduced to a mere 5 minute job, rather than an ordeal of rejection. Over the years, their understanding and acceptance of who I am has only blossomed.
FINALLY FINDING A SAFE SPACE
Despite the unconditional stamp of approval from my family and close friends, I was still a victim of my professional insecurities. I also felt intensely lonely in Lucknow. A close colleague, Radhika Bordia, saw this and decided to rescue me from my social isolation. She introduced me to Saleem Kidwai and Madhavi Kuckreja. Saleem, one of the authors of the bible for the gay community — Same Sex Love in India — and a towering figure for the community, was most accessible in Lucknow. Madhavi, like the all-loving mother earth, embraced me and gave me my most favourite name: ‘Khabrunissa’, the (female) bearer of news.
I blossomed in their company and enriched myself with their life experiences. Conversations with them restored my faith in life, repaired self-belief and liberated me to explore my queer self. I still remember how we popped the bubbly after my first date with a man! Life suddenly had new meaning and purpose beyond work. I think I finally found a safe space without even knowing what it was called.
But for the first time, I was also beginning to acknowledge my depression, issues of low self-esteem and how their occurrence was cyclical. I decided to arrest them, but I was still far from getting myself to see a shrink. Someone said that all I needed was some physical exercise. So I started running, felt fitter, healthier, more energetic, and focused at work. But my mental health issues largely remained unaddressed and unresolved.
ALSO SEE: CONTACTS AND HELPLINES
THE DELHI DRIFT
Encouraged by supportive friends and family, I decided to push my boundaries beyond Lucknow. That meant uprooting myself from conservative country to experience a relatively more liberal and queer-friendly Delhi. After six and a half closeted years in Uttar Pradesh, I felt I could finally breathe easy. In a new (non-journalist) work space, acceptance for all things queer trickled right from the top. Despite such an atmosphere of openness, I still found myself partially closeted, because my relationships in Uttar Pradesh mattered professionally, even in my new role. I was once again gripped by the fear of jeopardising my career.
MAXIMUM CITY AND A MEDIA COMEBACK
Fast forward to August 2016, when I switched jobs and moved to Mumbai… A new city and work setting gave me fresh drive to prove to the world that, just like Uttar Pradesh, I could once again peak in my performance. However, the comeback to journalism also saw the return of my professional anxieties. I once again shackled my gay self to forge fresh professional relationships.
Then a work bestie cautioned me that people at work were analysing my social media activity, and that speculation was rife about my sexual orientation. I pretended to brush aside the gossip, but my peer perception worried me. These worries, coupled with unprecedented work challenges, precipitated my worst professional downfall. The depression came roaring back, triggering my worst ever meltdown. On a local train ride back home, I felt myself leaning out of the train in a suicidal way. I felt I was left with only two choices. To quit living or quit my job.
I’m glad I chose the latter. I resigned, fled the city and headed to the only safe space I could think of. I went home to the parents after 18 long years.
(Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know feels desperate or suicidal, please reach out for professional help and know that you are not alone. You can access a list of helplines here.)
FINALLY ‘MANNING UP’
I have been battling bouts of severe depression and neglecting my mental health issues since 2008. A significant cause for this condition was the lack of recognition of my sexuality, the repression, and even internalised homophobia. It took a sabbatical of many months and some serious talk therapy with a counsellor before I began to fully come to terms with myself. I’m not sure if I’m there yet. But boy does getting there feel great! I’m loving every aspect of this awakening.
And I’ll be honest. Even now when I’m sort of out and proud, and far less worried about my professional relationships becoming the casualty of my queer identity, I still wonder what will those people think if I publicly express my queer self? Would they still have doubts about my sexuality? Will they accept me for who I am? Or will they simply un-friend me in this lifetime?
I hope the Supreme Court verdict on section 377 will put an end to my doubts. And I hope it transforms these relationships into friendships. Because I will never mourn the loss of any relationship that dies on judgment day.
About the author: Anant Zanane (@anantzanane) is a former broadcast journalist with stints in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra.