My name is Mandeep Jangi and I’m from Middlesex, New Jersey.
When I think about my journey in life, my story, and kind of where I came from, it actually doesn’t start as a gay man. I often times tell folks that it starts with a more visible aspect of my identity. I think that first piece was really the turban and the long hair that is part of traditional Sikh culture. My parents are from the Sikh tradition, or Sikhism as most folks in the western world refer to. So, S-I-K-H.
There was a lot of pressure on me to almost be that last bastion – that last hope… to keep that culture of my mom and dad after my older brother cut his hair maybe five or six years earlier.
So I have a reputation in my family of making big announcements during holiday family gatherings. So I told my family I was cutting my hair Memorial Day weekend of 2010.
Everybody got entirely silent. I remember my brother and sister and their spouses just looking down at the ground, which I thought was a little funny. My mom started crying because it meant a lot to her for me to keep up that faith and tradition. Largely the reason why everyone got quiet and energy levels changed was because of my father. Everyone was very curious what my father’s reaction would be. His reaction was that he assumed I was doing it out of shame. I told him I wasn’t, and that was pretty much the end of the conversation as far as I can recollect.
But a few weeks later, I actually went to a salon in Center City, Philadelphia, the first time getting my haircut at the age of 24, I had no clue what I was doing. So I did call ahead, explained the whole situation. They were very comforting.
It wasn’t until she was done cutting my hair and I saw what it looked like for the first time that I realized that the entire salon had shut down. Patrons, employees, were watching. And they just started clapping when I was done.
I would say after cutting my hair, the high that I was riding on eventually went back to that same low energy I had before I cut my hair. And that’s because there was a feeling that wasn’t changed on the inside. There was still that pit, and that pit was being created by the lack of dealing with my sexual orientation and embracing it.
It was September 2011. I was driving from my company back to my apartment, which was out in the suburbs at the time before I moved out to Philadelphia. And I had a really, really crappy day.
And I said the words out loud to myself in my car, “I’m gay.” And that was the first time I’d ever said those words out loud. And it felt amazing.
Thanksgiving Day, I told my family. And this was during lunch. And I could barely get the words out. I was choking up, I was getting teary-eyed, and my mom got very serious and she asked me, “Mandeep, what’s happening?” And I choked out the words, “I’m gay.” And again, energy levels, similar to Memorial Day when I told them I was cutting my hair, changed. My mom cried again, as she did the prior time when I told her I was cutting my hair. And my siblings and their spouses were shocked. But I remember it was my sister-in-law who spoke up first, and she said, “Now, are you happy?” And I said, “Yes.”
It was definitely a relief, but a different kind. Because the difference between cutting my hair and coming out was that when I cut my hair, I could chart a course. There was a line of sight. I knew plenty of Sikh men who had cut their hair and had very successful lives. I knew zero gay men who were South Asian. Quite frankly, at that time I had zero gay friends.
So it was definitely harder coming out than it was to cut my hair.
But one thing that I’ve learned that is very important is that when you try to normalize these types of conversations and make people realize that it’s okay to be who you are, whether you’re choosing to cut your hair, whether you’re choosing to defy family values that were put on you, or cultural values or just giving the big middle finger to society for making you feel bad about yourself for no logical reason. People need to realize that it’s okay to march to a different beat.
So really the message is: do what you need to do, take care of yourself because no one else will until you take those first steps.