While placing a matrimonial ad looking for a groom is not uncommon, when Mumbai-based Padma Iyer did the same for her son Harish Iyer, it turned out groundbreaking. Believed to be India’s first gay matrimonial ad, this unique advertisement attracted hundreds of responses and fuelled conversation around same-sex marriage
Equal rights activist Harish Iyer with his mother Padma Iyer
"Nothing came out of it, but I am happy that it became a breakfast discussion", recalls Padma Iyer as she beams with pride over the groundbreaking matrimonial advertisement that she had placed in Mid-Day back in 2015. For Mrs Iyer, she had simply put up a matrimonial ad that was lodged silently between the rest of the ads looking for a suitable match. Just like the majority of mothers, her intention was simple: to see her son Harish happily married. After numerous rejections by other publications on the grounds of ‘legal problems’, when the ad was finally accepted and published by Mid-Day, little did she know that it would spark a social media revolution. Mrs. Iyer’s email was flooded with hundreds of responses that not only included proposals from around the world but also hateful and homophobic messages from the outraged. It was India’s first gay matrimonial ad.
Padma Iyer, a simple homemaker, had accomplished the extraordinary. But was her journey as a rainbow parent that simple? As expected, not.
Being raised in a loving joint family, Harish was his happy self until something disturbing happened to him at the age of seven. "He was a bubbly child, but then suddenly, at the age of 7, he became very quiet", recalls Mrs. Iyer. Harish’s quietness boggled Mrs. Iyer but it wasn’t until years later that she learned the real reason behind it. Harish was brutally raped for years by his maternal uncle. When Harish confided in his mother, Mrs. Iyer was taken aback. In a world where male sexual abuse is rarely talked about, learning about her child being a victim of sexual abuse, was a matter of disbelief. What followed next was a gush of guilt that led her to wonder: Did she fail as a mother who couldn’t protect her child?
Eventually, Padma Iyer would not be the only person who knew about this abuse. Harish brought his tragedy into the limelight through media channels.
"He wanted to create awareness, he went and spoke to the media, which made him feel relieved, but I was pushed into a shell," says Padma Iyer, who had to face a lot of abuse from her immediate family and relatives following this public revelation. But this suffering did not push Padma away from her son, but instead brought them even closer. Through all the struggles, shame, and suffering, a beautiful bond evolved that was soon to face another test.
"Slowly he came and told me that he was gay".
When Harish revealed his sexual orientation to his mother, Mrs Iyer, she persuaded him to confirm with a psychiatrist if he felt this was due to the years of sexual abuse. After Harish got it confirmed, it was time for Mrs Iyer to fight off her own traditional beliefs and stand by her son as a supporter. "I said, I am there with you," and this meant embarking on a new journey as a rainbow parent for Mrs Iyer where accepting seems tough and being accepted by the world is tougher.
Soon Harish came out of the closet. Mrs Iyer witnessed her son speak extensively in the media, advocating for gay rights, and she knew what was to come.
"When our children come out of the closet, as rainbow parents, we tend to go into the closet."
Mrs. Iyer had to face another round of shaming and ostracization from her family and friends, and this was not the only challenge. The biggest challenge was to accept the truth and learn more. Harish helped his mother with books and literature that could help her understand more about homosexuality.
When Harish reached the age of 36, just like any other impatient mother, Mrs. Iyer resolved that it was high time Harish got married and settled. This led her to publish a newspaper advertisement seeking a groom for her son, and the rest is history. Mrs Iyer was now giving interviews and writing columns as a crusader for gay rights, just like her son Harish. Today, as a founding member of Sweekar, the Rainbow Parents, Padma Iyer plays an active role in supporting parents of LGBTQIA+ children.
While this mother has overcome many battles to accept an identity and reinvent one, the only battle she still fights is the fear about her son’s future after she is gone. Mrs. Iyer still awaits the day when Harish will have somebody to support him as a partner for life.
"I always dread the day, what will happen to him after I leave? One day or another, I have to leave before him. So what will happen to him?", Mrs. Iyer’s voice mellows down as she speaks about her biggest fear—the only one she has yet to overcome.
From once being unaware of male sexual abuse and the sexual orientation of her son, today, Mrs Padma Iyer stands as a staunch supporter of equal rights for the LGBTQIA+ community alongside her son Harish. As Harish takes on the world with his activism, breaking one barrier each time, he knows well that his biggest cheerleader is always with him, at least until her last breath.