Mr. Gay India, Samarpan Maiti, Breaks New Ground
(Photo: Silentstoryteller_dkmindia, Dheeraj Kumar)
Samarpan Maiti is a scientific researcher who seems like an unlikely person to compete in a beauty pageant. All the same he won the Mr. Gay India contest last year and went on to become the second runner-up in the Mr. Gay World pageant that was held in South Africa this past Spring.
Then something remarkable happened. Mr. Maiti became the darling of the Indian press and was featured in newspapers all over India. He became the face of gay India to many and has served as an unofficial ambassador of good will for India's multi-million member LGBT community right at the time the Indian Supreme Court was deliberating on changing India's anti-gay laws left over from the Victorian era. Khabar interviewed Mr. Maiti about his life in India, his role as Mr. Gay India and his feelings about the change in India's laws and culture.
Tell us about where in India you come from and a little about your family.
I am from Siddha, a small village in West Bengal, India. I live with my mother who is a school teacher. I have a sister who is married to my best friend. My father passed away when I was 17 years old. I am from a very middle class but financially unstable family; in my childhood even a piece of chicken was a luxury to us, but at the same time my family was very rich in culture and education.
What about your education and your interest in science?
Presently I am pursuing my PhD at Indian Institute of Chemical Biology in the field of cancer drug discovery. Since my childhood I always wanted to do research, either in cancer or astronomy. I still can remember from my childhood days every year when the Nobel prizes were announced. I used to collect the newspaper cuttings of the Nobel winners and told my father, "One day you will see my name here."
When did you first realize that you are gay? Was that a difficult realization? Where did you look to for support?
During my adolescence stage I felt attraction towards men. But I never knew of anything called 'gay.' I didn't have any idea about 'sexual orientation.' Here in India, there is no sex education in our education system. I was sexually abused by my neighbor and he told me not to disclose [to] anyone. Out of fear I never told anyone. I felt that once I will grew up, everything would be fine. But when I went for my higher studies I had access to the Internet for the first time and I came to know about the terminology of LGBT and finally I could place myself. But it was very depressing to live with the hidden gay identity. I used to pretend to everyone that I was straight. I had girlfriends like others. Still I was driven out of my hostel because a few people suspected the bond between me and one of my friends was a gay relationship. But I was not open about myself and not even to that friend. He was emotionally supporting me at that time when my father passed away. Still others didn't believe us, and kept up the bullying and abuse. That friend, who is now married to my sister, supported me a lot in every step of my life.
How old were you when you started working out? What is your work out routine? How do you maintain such an exceptional physique?
I started working out in 2015. In my childhood I also dreamed of being a model, but because of my short height I stopped wishing for it. When I moved to Kolkata, one of my friends told me he was looking for a model and he wanted to photograph me for his work. I realized I could work as print model or for fine art photography, height won't be an issue, and I started working out. My workout routine is very disciplined. I just try to hit the gym on regular basis and maintain my diet properly. I researched a lot regarding exercise and followed YouTube videos by different fitness coaches. I keep motivating myself by saying that I need to be fit so that my eyes can get the pleasure of seeing me in front of mirrors.
What is your field of study in science? Have you published any research in your field?
I am doing research on cancer drug discovery. My aim is to identify new drug targets and discover low cost therapeutics so that the cancer treatment could be affordable to everyone. I am also working on drug repositioning, which means the use of existing drugs that are used for other diseases but may also apply in cancer treatment. I have published a series of research articles in different international journals, and recently my research has been highlighted as a ray of hope in Indian news media.
How did you come to enter the Mr. Gay India Pageant? What did you do to prepare for it? How did it feel to win?
Since my childhood I had a dream that I will participate in a pageant, but I did not have any knowledge that there are also pageants for men. I was inspired when Sushmita Sen won Miss Universe. Being a Bengali she became a household name in every family even in the remote villages. I was thinking if I was a girl I could have participated in such event. I came to know about Mr. Gay World Pageant in 2016, and I decided I must participate in it. It's not only a beauty pageant but it also an event for LGBT leadership, and I wanted to raise awareness for the LGBT community who are from underprivileged sectors of society.
To prepare myself, I started working with the underprivileged LGBT community regarding health issues and education. I documented everything. As I said, I already had started doing modelling so I was following a regular fitness resume. I was bit worried about my English; you know in India people give importance a lot to English. If you can't speak English with proper accent, it can be held against you. Even during the pageant in India, one of the judges told me, "I like your answer, but your English is not up to the mark. I doubt you can represent country globally."
At the same time for such an event you need mental preparation also. Everyone will know about you being gay, and how can you handle it? I was mentally preparing for last two years because this is something the society won't easily accept, so I was really scared how the society and my family would react. I came out to my family, and it look more than a year to convince them that it was okay for me to be open about my gayness.
For me, winning the contest was very important for several reasons. In Indian society, people pay lot of respect to a scientist, and they bully if they believe someone is gay. I wanted to send the message that anyone can be gay, and if you are loving me for my scientific work, you have to respect me equally for who I am. I took this stand to break the taboo that being gay is a disease. And I wanted to send a message to those who are suffering a lot of discrimination and feeling life is very tough, as well as to those policy makers who think the gay community is minuscule and only in cities. I wanted to demonstrate that someone could be gay irrespective of village or urban origins, and that we exist each and every sector of social strata. So finally, when I was declared as runner up in Mr. Gay World, I felt that, yes, finally I did it, being a village boy, being not so fluent in English, being oppressed in each and every stage of my life, still I made it and for the very first time in the contest representing India.
What was it like to compete in the Mr. Gay World contest in South Africa? Did you make friends? What did you learn about yourself?
It was more companionship than contest. We were sharing our experiences, our difficulties and successes. So it was a great experience for me. I got the essence of freedom of love, what I miss here in India. We all became very good friends and still we are in touch.
What I learned about myself is that I am gifted with strong will power and can lead on a global platform.
What are your goals now? For yourself as a creative person? as a scientist? as an advocate for the LGBT community?
I want to continue my advocacy work for the underprivileged LGBT community and for families having LGBT children, to educate them and support them. I can't live without any creative work. Research is also a creative field just like the arts and literature. Now I able to balance my research, modelling, writing, and acting.
What advice do you have for young LGBT people who are still struggling to come out? What advice to their families?
First we need to accept ourselves; when you are happy with yourself then coming out is easier. Next is to educate our parents; normal discussions regarding LGBT issues could be a good step initially, and then some movies can give them the feelings of LGBT life. But again if your parents don't accept you, don't pressure them; we took a long time to accept and know ourselves, so they also need some time to accept it.
I believe all the parents want their children's happiness, so if your child is happy with their life partner, it should not matter if he is a man, woman, or trans. If you support your children, they will be more productive and more loving towards society and also towards themselves, so accept how they are, whoever they are.
How has being Mr. Gay India been difficult for you?
After becoming Mr. Gay India, I feel like another phase of my life has been begun as an advocate for the LGBT community. To continue this work on a volunteer basis, all of my regular daily needs still need to be met. But due to unavoidable stigma towards gay people, I had to leave my workplace, and shockingly I was not able to get any job related to my work as a cancer researcher. I applied in several research institutes, but no one wanted to hire me because I am an out gay man. I received responses like "you have good CV but you know our students and staff are not so open minded yet, they might be not comfortable with you." In some job interviews I was asked more about my sexuality rather than my research skills, and it suggested that my being out is not good for my career. I was seeking help from everyone I knew to find any kind of job opportunity. I had to leave Kolkata as I was unable to afford my daily expenses. I didn't have money to buy my daily meal even to take care of my health. I was feeling like I should try selling newspapers and snacks on street. Few friends did offer financial help and I am grateful to them, but again I need to work for my own self-respect. And it left a huge negative impact on my family. They couldn't believe that I have to face this tough situation even after representing my country on international platform and earning so much respect on behalf of Indian LGBT community. So I started working as a delivery boy in some home delivery agency. I am also continuing my studies hoping to find a researcher position abroad. After becoming Mr. Gay India, life became challenging, but it's also an experience that made me wiser. I will never regret this experience, and I am still proud to say I am the first Indian to reach in top three of Mr. Gay World beauty pageant.
What is your reaction to the Indian Supreme Court ruling?
I was literally crying after hearing the judgement. It was like I was confined in a cage since my birth and finally I get freed and I am flapping my wings and flying in the vast sky. The judgement is very positive, the comments made by all the honorable judges made me very optimistic. But it is just the beginning; we need to convey the legal freedoms into the social freedoms, and here is the real challenge. We need more awareness campaigns on LGBT issues; we need advocates who demonstrate that LGBT people are a valuable part of Indian society.
[The article above is a Website Bonus Feature, appearing only on the website for November 2018, not in the print/digital issues.]
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