< Back to Features page
Focus on Harjeet Johal
Harjeet Johal on the why arranged marriages are wrong not just for gay men but for the women they might marry and the children they might have.
|Photo: ©Kay Hayward
I was twenty-five and had no doubts that I was gay. But I thought that coming out was simply not an option. My parents, despite regular liberal flourishes, are traditional and I thought unable to cope with the idea that their son loved men instead of women. If the shock didn’t kill them, the gossip from the wider community would. British Indian families live and die by their reputation, and our family has a proud one, so I was not going to be the person who destroyed it. I had to, for their sake as well as mine, live a secret life. Marriage therefore, was the perfect cover.
My granddad began the arranging. He sat me down, for what I thought would be a heart to heart, but instead asked me the three vital questions needed for an arranged marriage: my height, my age and what degree I had. Anything else was just mindless detail. When I started talking about my likes and dislikes, he just glared, stood up and left the room. With his dossier complete he let the jungle drums beat. It was soon known that I was on the market. At one point I was even advertised in the matrimonial section of an Indian newspaper. I felt like a used Volkswagen; a used Volkswagen, with a degree.
Families of potential brides soon began to show their interest. We were bombarded with letters and phone calls to the point that we could barely cope. I had no idea I was such hot property. One morning my mum grabbed me at the stairs, “Some parents are coming to inspect you! Get dressed, vacuum the lounge and start buttering bread!” Two hours later I was sat in a suit opposite a mean-faced father and a gold-clad mother. The father then told me to ‘stand up’. As soon as I did, he leaned into his wife and whispered, “too short”. Minutes later, with fixed smiles, they were heading for the door. They barely ate a thing.
India was proving more positive. My granddad whittled down a sack-full of applications to a possible three: two doctors and a dentist. After discreet background checks and not much discussion, the dentist won.
During it all I was managing to keep my emotions in-check. The idea of living with a woman and feigning passion for her for the rest of my life filled me with dread. But I knew I could never be free to live and love the way I dreamed of. I thought it impossible, so I convinced myself every night and every morning that I was doing the right thing. And the joy that I was bringing others through agreeing to marry was enough to keep my regret at bay.
It wasn’t until I was about to leave for the airport, to go and meet the potential bride, did I really start to think the unthinkable. My sister hugged me as I left the house and said simply, “you don’t have to do this.” I was shocked by this and just smiled, pretending to ignore her. I had not told her I was gay, but I was sure she knew. Her words would not leave me as I sat in the plane staring into the orange sky. Maybe I did have a choice? But whether I had the bravery to make it and truly be free was a separate matter.
When I arrived into the chaotic airport in India, my parents, who had flown in earlier, could tell I was not my usual self (due, in part, to Air India losing my luggage and with it the best moisturiser I have ever owned) but they put it down to nerves and just loaded my bags and began the drive to the Punjab.
The next day I sat in borrowed clothes as our little convoy of cars drove to meet my future wife. I felt sick, my stomach was churning over and over, and I could not think away the feelings as I had done so many times before. As I sat opposite the dentist, and let her talk about her hopes and dreams for marriage; I could think only of men. I wasn’t listening to her and I just stared blankly into her plump face.
Afterwards I sat alone at my granddad‘s house staring out of the window into the hazy green of rural Punjab, with the only noise coming from the grinding air conditioner behind me. It was the pivotal moment of my life. I agonised on whether to choose security or bravery, and the unknown that went with it.
Fortunately for both her and me, I chose to be brave.
I simply told my granddad that we were not compatible. He could not understand, and pointed out her father was not only was a retired brigadier but also credit worthy with twenty acres of land. He called up her parents and conveyed the news. They were devastated.
With misery side-stepped I decided truth was the only option. I realised that my primary duty was to myself, and not to the reputation of others, so over the next few months I slowly began telling people I was gay. It took years before I could tell my parents, but I eventually did. And as they hugged me tight and told me that I would always be their son, I realised that fear can convince us into living false lives; lives we need never experience.
My marriage would not only have been a misery for me but its effects would have spread into generations; many lives would have caught. Had I married the woman from India, not only would our daily life have been a compromise, but it would have only been a matter of time before my secret life broke, and with it her life would have altered forever. Had we had children I would have felt dreadful knowing that they were born not out of love, but out of expectation, and they were would have been born into a lie. I would have made their lives forever laced with tragedy. The shadow of misery is cast wide when a gay man marries a woman
Every year, many gay young men all over the world have arranged marriages, mostly because they fear what will happen if they don’t. Being brave isn’t easy, but I have found that it is the only way to be completely free.
Harjeet Johal is a British gay man of Indian descent. He lives in London.
Watch our new campaign commercial on YouTube.
Anything you can give would be hugely appreciated.
Have a question? Or something to tell us? We'd love to hear from you.
FOLLOW OUR WORK
Sign up to our newsletter today and receive regular updates.