In the year 2000, when Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai released, Indian audiences discovered and permanently fell in love with the ‘Indian Greek god’ himself — Hrithik Roshan.
In Nagpur, six-year-old Ashish Chopra, too, discovered his first love on screen. In his own words, he was “obsessed” with Hrithik.
“I found him so attractive and good looking. I would keep talking about him at school and became the butt of jokes because of it,” Ashish, now 27, recalls in conversation with The Better India.
“Boys would also bully me and call me names, as I was a little feminine. My parents were going through some issues at home and would always fight. I would fake headaches and stomach aches to miss school,” he adds.
Growing up in the 90s in Nagpur, Ashish faced a lot of bullying at school. This was a time before social media, when the internet was just introduced to our lives and there wasn’t much awareness about different sexual orientations.
Ashish says he was often mocked because he didn’t like to play cricket and football with the guys, but instead played throwball with the girls.
He says that during these difficult times, he didn’t have any male friends — only three girlfriends in school, and a friend at home, his older brother Vishesh. He says he knew since a young age that he was gay.
‘My brother was all I had’
At 16, Ashish first came out to his school friends. He says they did some research and then told him it was okay.
“It was only when my friends read up on it and told me that this was normal that I breathed a sigh of relief. I knew that there was nothing wrong with me. After this, I really wanted to tell someone else. Since my parents were fighting, I didn’t want to add to their trouble. So I decided to tell Vishesh, who was then studying in Mumbai,” says Ashish.
Meanwhile, Vishesh says he had an inkling that his younger brother was gay years ago, given the latter’s undying love for Hrithik. But he never asked him anything till he was ready to tell.
Unable to find the courage to call him, Ashish decided to text his brother instead.
One day, while out for ice cream with his parents, he texted Vishesh that there was something “private and important” that he wanted to discuss.
Without skipping a beat, he wrote, “I’m gay.”
“I’ve known this for the past few years,” came his brother’s response. “Why are you scared? Go enjoy your ice cream.”
“What a boring reaction,” Ashish replied.
The conversation closed with Vishesh asserting that he was always aware that his brother was gay, that he was there for him, and that there was nothing wrong with how he felt.
Ashish recalls the relief he felt when he told Vishesh.
“I did not have a great childhood. It was not a great space for me growing up, with the bullying at school. I would have been shattered had my brother not supported me. He was all I had. His acceptance meant the world to me. It was a huge burden off my shoulders. I finally felt like I had someone in my corner. He was the strong pillar of support I needed,” says Ashish.
Vishesh, who is two years older than Ashish, says that family support is extremely important when a child comes out. He says reading up and speaking to parents from the LGBTQ community will help.
“Ashish had a rough childhood. He would call me sometimes to his class to sort some issues out. But I couldn’t always be there for him. During his teenage years, he got a bit reclusive trying to figure things out. We’ve been on good terms ever since he came out. When I realised that he might be gay, I researched and read up about it, as I didn’t know too much. Once I read it, I was fine,” says Vishesh.
Today, the two brothers, along with their mother Simmi Nanda, run a queer fashion marketplace called BeUnic. Everything here is “queer-made”, they say.
But the transition from family to business partners didn’t happen overnight. Simmi took some time before she was able to support her younger son.
Vishesh played an important role in convincing her.
“After my parents got divorced, my mom moved to New Delhi. We were all at a family function at home and dancing. My mother thought my moves were feminine, and commented on them. Seizing the moment, Vishesh and my cousin sister told her that I was gay. I was 19 at that time,” says Ashish.
His mother did not warm up to the idea instantly. In fact, she did not speak to Ashish for over six months.
“But she did some reading, spoke to counselors, doctors, and queer people and their parents. It was a rough phase. But after she took her time, she accepted me. Now, our relationship is great. She asks me about my dating life, I ask if she’s meeting anyone. We share all our secrets,” says Ashish.
She’s also a part of Sweekar, a support group for parents of LGBTQ children.
Both brothers say that family must be there for their children.
“First, take your time,” Ashish advises. “It’s difficult for a child to come out. It’s also difficult for parents to accept. You don’t have to be okay with it immediately. Research, talk, and take your time. Spread love, there’s enough hate in the world. We are not aliens, all we want is what straight people already have. We want equal rights, the ability to marry the person we love, and have babies,” says Ashish.
Edited by Divya Sethu, Images courtesy Ashish Chopra