Immunology researcher Mukul shares his coming-of-age tale as an Indian gay youth who migrated from India to Singapore.
Charming and inquisitive, Mukul is a 28-year-old Indian who moved to the cosmopolitan city of Singapore to embark on his career as an immunology researcher. As he reminisces about his past in India and how he came to terms with his identity, Mukul also shares about finding love amid the global pandemic, and his volunteering experiences in an organisation that provides free HIV testing for the LGBTQ+ community.
How’s life during the COVID-19 pandemic in Singapore?
Life is pretty pleasant — now that it is almost back to normal. I am a researcher, which means most of my work happens in the laboratory. We were not allowed to go back to work during the Circuit Breaker. It was “hell”. I am a very restless person and get bored pretty easily, so, not being able to work or do something “productive” was tough.
Now that the pandemic is almost over (at least hopefully in some places), work keeps me pretty busy. Not being able to hangout with more than two friends at a time is a bummer, but I know that it’s for our protection. Hope that changes soon.
Let’s travel back to the past for a bit. What was it like growing up in India?
I come from a lower-middle class family, but my parents worked hard to provide everything that I needed. Although they are not college educated themselves, they supported me in whatever way they could when I was going to college. Even though they aren’t very well-to-do, they have never pressured me to do something just because it will get me a high-paying job. They let me choose my own path. They always said “we don’t care what you do as long as you can sustain yourself”, which to be honest, is very progressive of them — especially coming from an Indian family, where every parent usually wants their child to be a doctor or an engineer.
Any role models when you were young?
My mother, because of her resilience and perseverance in the face of all adversities that the family faced.
Introvert or extrovert?
Contrary to what most people think, I am actually an introvert. It takes a great amount of effort on my part to talk to a stranger in a social setting.
When did you first realise your identity?
Probably 18 I think. In my second year of college, I used to live with five other guys in the same room, and for some reason, we were all watching porn together. I realised all my friends were commenting about the girl whereas I was just fixated on the guy: how his hips moved when he thrusted and how pretty his blue-green eyes were. I was like, “maybe I am attracted to guys”, and when I was alone, I searched for gay porn and realised I liked that so much better. Until then I had always been attracted to girls or perhaps thought that I was attracted to them. As a biology student since high school, I knew the vocabulary, but there was no representation in Indian media and I had never seen or heard stories about gay people. So, for me, they just didn’t exist until then. That’s why realising my sexual identity happened so late in life. Even then, I didn’t do anything about it until four years later when I moved to Singapore: where I explored for the first time in my life what it meant to be with another man — physically and emotionally.
Did you experience any challenges in adapting to the Singaporean life?
I was born and raised in Delhi, which is also a metropolitan city, so it’s not much different from Singapore except that Singapore is cleaner and more heterogeneous in terms of people that live here. Adapting to life here wasn’t much of a challenge.
What do you love about Singapore?
I love how small it is, which makes travelling from one part to another real quick. Also, being situated in Southeast Asia, you could travel to new places (pre-COVID times) often and at a much cheaper price.
Have your experiences living in Singapore helped shape your sexuality?
I came to Singapore by myself and didn’t know anyone here, which gave me a blank slate. I could meet whoever I wanted to and do whatever I wanted to without being afraid of my parents somehow finding out. This gave me space to explore my sexuality without any fears of being outed and helped me come to terms with who I am.
What’s the general perception of LGBTQ+ community in India?
I think most people are just unaware that gay people exist. That is slowly changing with the Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling against section 377 of the Indian penal code: there is now more representation of the LGBTQ+ community in the media. Despite what their personal beliefs might be, Indian people pander very strongly to society for acceptance. The increased media representation will hopefully lead to more societal acceptance and discourse, but until then, these will remain secrets not to be talked about.
Are you currently in a relationship?
Yes, I am. My first one ever. Although I have dated a lot of people before, some for as long as eight months, let’s just say that things never went to the next level with others.
We met on Bumble in March last year and went out once. We liked each other but then the Circuit Breaker happened. We texted each other sporadically during Circuit Breaker but there wasn’t any sort of strong pull from either side. He went out with his friends during Phase Two at the end of June 2020 — to the same area where we had gone for our first date — and passed by the same spot where we had made out that night. I know it’s gonna sound like it’s from a movie, but passing by that spot somehow jolted his memory and he texted to ask me out again. Since then, we started hanging out every weekend and during weekdays too. A month and half later, I asked him if he wanted to be my boyfriend and he replied with “I was gonna ask that if you didn’t”. We moved in together at a new place in January this year. We just celebrated our one year anniversary in July. Meeting him has been a blessing in these tumultuous times.
Congratulations. Did you experience this when you were in India?
I never tried dating when I lived in India and when I go back now during vacations, there is no point in looking for something permanent as I am there for just two weeks. Like Singapore, most people live with their parents, so dating or hooking up is hard since there aren’t as many outlets like saunas available there. On the plus side, nobody would ever question two boys holding hands in India.
We know that you are currently a volunteer at AFA Singapore.
Yes, I am a sexual health counsellor at Action for AIDS (AFA), Singapore. AFA offers anonymous HIV testing at relatively cheap costs and sometimes even free, when they can based on the funding and donations they recieve. Anonymous HIV testing is important because Singapore does not allow foreigners with HIV to work or study here, so if people were to test in a hospital, it would be reported to either MOE/MOH and their student/work pass would be cancelled. AFA provides that space where people are only identified by the number on their receipts, thus keeping the process anonymous. Even Singaporeans prefer not to have this data in the public database and might wanna be treated — if tested positive — at a private hospital, and thus prefer anonymous testing. Within AFA is a project called Pink Carpet, which was designed so that LGBTQ+ clients are counselled by LGBTQ+ counsellors to alleviate the clients’ anxiety of being judged by their counsellors, to make the counsellors more relatable, and to ensure the questions the counsellors ask and the information they provide is relevant. I volunteer for the Pink Carpet.
I went to get tested there for the first time in 2015 when a hook-up told me about the free testing available. I was so impressed by the clinic and the counsellors that when I found out the whole operation was volunteer-run, I decided to volunteer too.
Why is volunteering important to you?
For me, it’s how I can give back to the community that I am a part of. HIV is a cause that’s close to my heart and probably to most LGBTQ+ people, because it is an epidemic that continues to take lives in places that do not have access to medication. Being an immunologist by training and knowing how this virus works, I just feel a strong need to disseminate that information to as many people as possible. A lot of people, especially those who are straight, do not actually understand it and add to the stigma. To be very honest, in this day and age, medicine has advanced so much that if you are being treated, the viral levels will be so low that you cannot possibly transmit the virus. This is echoed in the UNAIDS message “undetectable = untransmittable”. It’s the stigma associated with the virus that’s doing more damage than the virus itself.
How have your volunteering experiences influenced the way you see yourself and the world?
Self-esteem is more important than just doing a presentation in a room full of people, it affects how you negotiate your life experiences with other people. We really need to learn to love ourselves first, so that we know how to recognise when someone is taking advantage of us and learn how to say no.
What would you choose if you could become an animal?
An Eagle probably. A few years ago, I read somewhere that when it rains, most birds would take shelter, but an eagle flies above the clouds. That’s how I want to live my life — rising above all the challenges that life throws my way.
For LGBTQ+ youths who are living in a different country for the first time, what would tell them?
Use it as a blank canvas to explore what you want and desire, what you like and dislike, but please be very careful of your surroundings. Neighbours are always more interested in your life than they seem to be, which can be a threat to your physical and emotional well-being.
If you could have one wish, what would it be?
LGBTQ+ people, especially gay men, should stop using the word “clean” to describe themselves as being free of HIV and other STIs, and instead just say that they are negative.
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