Toronto

Oakville parents launch new PFLAG chapter aimed at South Asians after son comes out

Rishi Agarwal came out to his parents, expecting little support. He never anticipated what happened instead.

'I realized that I wasn't going to lose my family for being who I was,' son says

Rishi Agarwal describes what it was like to tell his South Asian parents he is gay. 1:18

Rishi Agarwal needed to speak to his parents. It was serious.

He spent a five-hour Vancouver to Toronto flight tormented by the weight of what he had to reveal. 

His mother would cry, Rishi, then 23, thought. His father would be furious. They were instead shocked by what he said: "Mom and Dad, I'm gay."

There were only two ways the conversation could end, Rishi thought. His parents would accept it and move on, or disown him. 

Rishi Agarwal is excited for the launch of the Peel chapter of PFLAG, fronted by his parents. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Rishi never grew up discussing sex or sexuality.

"If you're not comfortable talking about sex and sexuality in general, it makes it ever harder to really openly talk about LGBT issues," he said. "Typically, the response in the South Asian community is not the most open minded and supportive of [LGBT] people."

He expected his parents to respond no differently. He never anticipated what happened instead.

Contributor Aparita Bhandari brings the story of one family's journey from fear to acceptance, and why they're hoping to convince other South Asian parents with LGBT children to embrace them. 6:53

Canada Day 2004

"I still remember the day," Vijay Agarwal told CBC News.

The typically chatty father went quiet after Rishi came out. But he said it was because he did not want to speak on something he knew little about.

"The only thing we knew is what you watch on the news. Gay — so that means boys loving boys and girls loving girls and that's about the extent of information we had," Vijay said.

Vijay and Sushma Agarwal will launch the Peel chapter of PFLAG on Sunday. The group will meet on the first Sunday of every month beginning in May. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Sushma Agarwal, his wife, was anxious over what relatives would think.

"I was just speechless. I was in tears," she said. "I couldn't sleep. It was really tough for me."

Over the next three days, the Agarwals went to the library and checked out dozens of books and DVDs to cope with their son coming out.

"I had no exposure to that," Sushma said, adding she even worried what the librarian would think of her. "I was that ignorant."

But she soon realized she needed to be there for her son.

"We as parents are worried about society, our friends and our family and what they are going to think of us but we never think what the child has gone through. We realized it was much more painful for the child." 

Sushma says she was 'ignorant' about what being gay meant when her son first came out to her and her husband, but soon realized she needed to support Rishi. (Aparita Bhandari/CBC)

'An eyeopener'

For two years, the Agarwals would trek from Oakville to Toronto for a PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) session on the first Wednesday of every month. A year later, they decided to volunteer and sit on its board.

"When we went to the first meeting, it was an eyeopener," said Vijay.

Despite his parents' growing activism, Rishi did not know where things stood and asked for reassurance. 

His father said: "This is always your home. You will always be our son."

"I realized that I wasn't going to lose my family for being who I was," Rishi said. 

The Agarwals want to extend the support they received at PFLAG to other parents. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

The dream wedding

Rishi longed for a traditional Hindu wedding. He relied on religion to see him through bullying in junior high and high school before he came out.

His parents were determined to throw him a lavish Hindu ceremony.

Sushma Agarwal wrote a book called 'Loving My Gay Child' about learning to understand and accept her son. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

So they went through seven Hindu priests before the eighth said yes. Vijay had even entertained performing the ceremony himself.

"When we were planning for the wedding, I said there is not going to be any difference between my elder son's wedding and this wedding. We are going to do all Hindu rituals," Vijay said.

Rishi wed Daniel Langdon in 2011 in an extravagant Hindu ceremony on a golf course.

Rishi Agarwal wed Daniel Langdon in 2011 in an extravagant Hindu ceremony on a golf course. (Channa Photography)

New chapter of PFLAG

The Agarwals, now in retirement, want to give back the support they received at PFLAG.

Every first Sunday of the month, they will run the new Peel chapter of PFLAG, which is targeted at the South Asian community. 

All are welcome, they say, and already 150 people have signed up. 

"I'm really excited about the fact that my parents can provide support to other parents and help them through," Rishi said.

Vijay Agarwal, Rishi Agawal, Daniel Langdon and Sushma Agarwal at Rishi's 2011 Hindu wedding. (Channa Photography)

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