"We are like a minority within a minority within a minority. First of all, we’re immigrants and women. I identify as a lesbian and Poonam identifies as bisexual. We have struggled with coming out to our family and friends. Then on top of it, we’re vegan. It's hard to find people like us."
Mrinalini Gadkari (right), 42, works in the medical field. She is Indian-American, lesbian, and vegan, and lives in Ohio with her wife, Poonam (left), and their dog and cat. Photos courtesy of Mrinalini.
AT WHAT AGE WERE YOU AWARE OF YOUR SEXUALITY and GENDER IDENTITY?
I was around 15 when I realized I was attracted to my best friend. I had friends who were attracted to boys, and I was like, Oh, well their girlfriend is cute, but in India, really there’s no knowledge or information about LGBTQIA identities. I shouldn’t say they don’t know, but a lot of them ignore it. I didn’t have any resources and I spent a lot of my life feeling abnormal. Like, All of my friends are attracted to boys and I'm feeling attracted to girls, so there must be something wrong with me.
I told someone that I was attracted to girls and he put this weird theory in my mind: My mom passed away when I was 14 and this guy tells me, "Maybe you’re trying to cope with her void." At first I was like, Okay, that makes sense, but eventually I didn’t understand why I would be sexually interested in someone if I was missing my mom. It was really weird. I don’t think I really trusted anyone else enough to tell, so it was a tough time.
In India, people believe that you’re only complete when you’re married and have kids. There’s this arranged marriage thing, you know, so since my mom passed away it became my dad’s responsibility, and he is seen as successful by society, so he started to put pressure on me. I said, "I just wanted to pursue my career," which was true, but I also thought, How is it going to be with a guy when I’m attracted to women?
Eventually he put so much pressure on me that I did get married. I said, Well at least I will marry someone I like, so I found someone online and we seemed to click—he seemed like a friend, so I thought if I have to get married I should marry him instead of some stranger that I’ve never met before. 3 weeks after we married, I came to the U.S. to study at George Washington University. That’s where I started working as a research assistant for a professor, and she was a lesbian. I had heard these terms, lesbian and gay, but I had no idea what they meant. When I met with the professor, she had a picture of her partner on her desk. I thought, Why is there no picture with her boyfriend? Then I realized, Oh there’s something here, so I actually told her how it is for me that I'm attracted to women and the situation I was in.
My self-esteem and confidence were extremely crushed, but she was very understanding and said, “Well, I really can't comment on your culture, but I can put you in touch with a South Asian lesbian.” When she connected with me her, it opened a whole new world to me. This woman introduced me to a lesbian group where there were all of these women talking about gay issues. At that point, I didn’t care about gay issues. I was just trying to figure out my own stuff. But I met this group of people and came out to them. They also had been in arranged marriages, got divorced, and found someone they loved.
I told my husband and we got divorced, which was very ugly. My dad and brother didn’t like it at all, and my ex-husband said we should just say that we did not get along, but I wanted to be honest and was feeling courageous. I said, "I don’t want to lie. I think I have done that for long enough." So, I told my dad—I sent him an email actually. We didn’t have the kind of relationship where we could talk about emotional stuff, so I sent him a long email about what was going on.
My dad said that I should never step foot in his house, which was kind of funny because I hadn’t stepped foot in his house for years anyway, but it still hurt. It was rejection. They did not speak with me for 6 months. Eventually, I started calling and they came around. It’s a long story, but yeah, I really wish that the LGBTQ population never went through this. It’s an unnecessary burden.
DID YOU HAVE ANY SUPPORT FROM FRIENDS, RELATIVES, OR MENTORS? WERE ANY OF THEM LGBTQ?
In India, the people that I came out to I was also attracted to. Luckily, they were attracted to me as well, but nobody had the clarity of why we were attracted to each other. We thought it’s an extension of friendship, like, it’s extreme friendship. (laughter) That’s the impression I was under. The rest of the time I totally masked it. No one knew how to tortured I was inside. I just kept a happy face, a happy mask, and did the things that were part of the tradition and the culture to make sure that everyone around me was happy.
Eventually my family did accept us, but we had to teach them that, You cannot get just your daughter. You have to accept me and my wife as a package or I’m not going to stay in contact with you. I told them that, and it actually helped—distancing actually helped, and then we started talking. We laugh about it now but we say we trained them well! My dad never forgets to ask about Poonam. So, they have evolved and we have come to a better place.
Poonam and I have had these conversations. We are like a minority within a minority within a minority. First of all, we’re immigrants and women. I identify as a lesbian and Poonam identifies as bisexual. We have struggled with coming out to family and friends. Then on top of it, we’re vegan. It's hard to find people like us. When we try to socialize and hang out with people, you can see the discomfort that they have, like, Oh my god, this person is so different. That’s what actually got me interested in your project. I wanted to participate and help in any way I can.
DO YOU FEEL YOUR SEXUALITY IS ESSENTIAL TO YOUR IDENTITY?
I think so. I feel that for having gone through so much struggle what a waste it would be if I keep hiding my sexuality. Earlier I was not confident. I had low self-esteem and thought it was a bad thing to be a lesbian. I felt the responses I got from people made me stay in the closet and not come out, but now I am happily married to my wife and so proud of it, so why should I hide it?
DOES YOUR SEXUALITY and GENDER IDENTITY SHAPE YOUR DAILY LIFE?
With my co-workers, after the weekend they talk about what they did with their wife or husband or kids. They’re coming out and throwing that in my face. Like, I don’t really want to know if you have a wife or a husband but you are telling me, so I want to tell it as well, that I have a wife. Otherwise, you don’t tell me and I don’t tell you.
"It’s hard to say what exactly I have been discriminated for; was it for my skin color, was it for being a woman, was it for being gay, or was it a combination of all of it?"
HAVE YOU EXPERIENCED HOMOPHOBIA, HARASSMENT, MISTREATMENT, OR DISCRIMINATION BECAUSE OF YOUR SEXUALITY and GENDER IDENTITY?
It’s hard to say what exactly I have been discriminated for; was it for my skin color, was it for being a woman, was it for being gay, or was it a combination of all of it? I did feel there was an opportunity for a promotion in Boston at a hospital, and I thought I was well qualified to be promoted to director, but I didn’t get it. I don’t know what was behind my boss's decision, but if I think about it retrospectively, I can pinpoint that he was not comfortable with me.
When I came here to Ohio, I wanted to be out. Being in the Midwest, I didn’t know how people are going to respond but I didn’t care—I took the risk. This is the part that bothers me: for people in the LGBT population, we have to think so much about the things that comes out of our mouth. Do we say we have a wife or don’t we? This adds a level of stress, I think, instead of just meeting someone and openly saying hello and such. I didn’t see any open discrimination, but I didn’t feel that these people are 100 percent accepting of me. I can’t pinpoint it, but I know people who are accepting of me and I can tell the difference. It’s unspoken, more of a feeling than an action.
AT WHAT AGE DID YOU STOP EATING ANIMAL PRODUCTS AND WHY?
Poonam and I became vegan 3.5 years ago. Before that, I was very naive about the dairy industry. I used to love meat, but I would throw up when I ate it, so I took a break and became vegetarian for awhile, but then I started eating meat again. Poonam and I started dating at that time, five years ago, and then we got married. When we started living together, she was a vegetarian and I was still eating meat, and she was quite vocal, like, You know, you love dogs but you eat goat. And it really pissed me off. I was like, Why is she saying that? Why is she judging me? I think I knew—I knew the contradiction, that I love my dog but I’m eating meat.
So, I became vegetarian for a little while again. Then we had one of Poonam’s relatives come to stay at our house. He used to work in the dairy industry and I was just curious. This will show how naive and ignorant I was: I was like, How do you get the cows to give milk all of the time? That’s when I learned that they were artificially inseminated. After I heard that, I told Poonam, "I don’t think I can eat dairy. It’s like raping the cows to get the milk." Gradually, we both became vegan.
We developed a lot of alternatives after that and how to make Indian sweets. I haven’t been to India since I’ve become vegan, but we talk about how we’re going to survive there. Here in the U.S. at a lot of Indian restaurants they don’t know what vegan is, so we have to educate them—it means no ghee, no paneer, no dairy. This one time, we ordered chana masala and we told the waitress no dairy, and she was like, "I got it, I got it, you’re a vegan." Then we brought the food home and there was paneer in the chana masala, so they had no idea what veganism really is.
DID YOU HAVE ANY SUPPORT FROM FRIENDS, RELATIVES, OR MENTORS? WERE ANY OF THEM VEGan?
To give you an example of what my family in India think about vegan food, I recently got a surgery on my right shoulder, so I told them, I have a tear in my rotator cuff and I have to have surgery, and the first question my brother asked was, "That has nothing to do with your diet, right?"
I think they have to deal with a lot, like, Wow, my sister is a divorcee (which is a big deal in India), and by the way, she is a lesbian, and she’s a vegan. I think it’s hard for them to handle. Like, What has happened to my sister? She has changed. But Poonam’s mom is on board with us. She used to love cooking and has this big recipe book, so when she visited us, together she and I figured how to make a lot of Indian sweets and dishes vegan. And they taste the same. They taste good.
DID YOU FIND REPRESENTATION FOR YOUR VEGaNISM?
I think the biggest challenge was for us to find alternatives to paneer, cheese, and yogurt. Those were the two biggest things we needed to figure out. We bought a lot of different milks and tried making chai with different teas, tried making yogurt at home—in India it’s very common to make yogurt at home, so we tried different milks.
I looked up various different vegan websites to learn how to make the yogurt and other things, then I signed up for Vegan Columbus and Vegan Ohio, and a lot of groups that post recipes and stuff. I think it took us 2-3 months to figure out alternatives, and we also had to develop a taste for it as well, because you know it does not taste exactly as dairy, but now we realize it tastes much better than dairy.
HAVE YOU EXPERIENCED MISTREATMENT, MOCKERY, OR BULLYING BECAUSE OF YOUR VEGETARIANISM?
My colleagues knew that I used to eat meat and then became vegan. When we went out for business dinners or whatever, I would order vegan and this guy made this comment like, "You know, I don’t like you anymore. I used to like you and now you’ve stopped eating meat." At that time, I thought there was something wrong about this comment, like, Why should he say this to me? Apparently, he was doing a lot of backbiting and talking to my boss about making decisions that would hamper me—after this comment, I see all of these decisions that were being made, and then I thought, Wow, I’ve been being discriminated all of this time.
"In theory, I would think that if you’re vegan you would be the most accepting of everyone. Because you care for animals, so you care for humans. I found it to be true."
DO YOU PARTICIPATE IN LGBTQ OR ANIMAL RIGHTS ACTIVISM?
Yes, we realize that animals have no say, so we have to speak up for them. We came across Mercy for Animals and made some friends there. We volunteered with them at the Pride Parade and we do some leafleting. They are very open minded and accepting. With them, we don’t have to be anybody else. We can just be Mrinalini and Poonam and hang out with them. I don’t know if it’s true, but in theory I would think that if you’re vegan you would be the most accepting of everyone. Because you care for animals, so you care for humans. I found it to be true. We had so much fun at the gay pride, all of these people loving and accepting of gay people. All of the vegans that I have met, they are open. So, that’s good.
We haven't done as much LGBTQ activism. We're planning to go to the LGBTQ film festival. When I was in Boston, during my initial coming out years, I did a lot of activism and worked with nonprofit organizations. If a new member joined and needed help coming out, then I would help them with that. Now, not so much.
WHAT EFFECTS DO YOUR FOOD CHOICES HAVE ON YOUR DAILY LIFE?
I think food is so important wherever you go. Our neighbor has this block party and she cooks, but she never has any vegan food. Like nothing, so we always bring our own food. And the thing is that our food always gets eaten, so I wonder, When this food is so good, why are you eating meat?
But wherever you go—you meet a friend in a coffeeshop, and you ask is there any non-dairy milks and people look at you and wonder what’s going on. You go to buy shoes, and you ask for any vegan shoes—we used to ask initially for vegan, now we started asking do you have any manmade shoes. People working don’t know what vegan is. I think that is changing, but I don’t think you can escape it at all.
DO YOU USE FOOD TO BETTER RELATE TO PEOPLE?
If you want to invite someone over, you have to say, we are vegan and this is what it is. Actually, we have a lesbian couple who live a few blocks down, and they know that we are vegan and are very nice about it. They say, "We’ll have the dessert and starters and you can bring the main course and we can all eat that." I thought that was really good. There was no reason to be defensive, but with some people, you tell them that you’re vegan and they become defensive as if you're blaming them or telling them they're so bad. And that’s the thing: when I am saying I’m vegan, I’m talking about myself. I think that people get this experience that, "Oh, I eat meat so I must be a bad person. That’s what this person was telling me." I think that’s where their defensiveness comes from.
I would say Columbus Ohio isn’t the best place to be vegan, but a lot of the restaurants here are becoming vegan-friendly and there is some activism going on. We have these vegan meetups and the organizers have them at restaurants that aren’t vegan. The strategy is like, We’re bringing 20 people with us so you’d better have something vegan. It's a way to teach them, This is something you need to serve in your restaurant. They don’t want to let go of 20 people who are coming. So, that’s how we are trying to bring change here. My second career, I think I’m going to start an Indian vegan restaurant. I’m starting to think about what food I would have and doing taste tasting.
DO YOU AVOID FOOD TO BETTER RELATE TO PEOPLE?
We started cooking more at home, and everything has changed about food. Everywhere we go, we check to see, Is there animal cruelty involved? Because we go to a restaurant and order the same thing over and over, oftentimes the chef came out to say hi to us and see who is ordering this.