A revolutionary support group is helping hundreds of Indian parents embrace their LGBTQ+ kids

Members of Sweekar stand behind a banner
Photo: Provided By Sweekar: The Rainbow Parents Group

In the 90s, when filmmaker and theatre artist Chitra Palekar’s daughter Shalmalee came out as a lesbian, she didn’t know what to make of it. While actively involved in the public discourse around women’s rights, Palekar felt clueless. “I was aware of what it meant and had some theoretical knowledge about it but no one in my family or wider circle was a homosexual person,” Palekar, now in her mid-70s, tells LGBTQ+ Nation. 

But her love for Shalmalee transcended the matters around her sexuality, and she accepted her wholeheartedly. She then began an unending journey of learning about the LGBTQ+ community. Over the years, Palekar has not only emerged as an icon for parents of queer children, but she also formally fought for decriminalizing homosexuality in 2013 as a petitioner along with 19 other parents. The courts ruled against it that year but Chitra soldiered on. In 2017, she became one of the founding members of Sweekar – The Rainbow Parents group.

“I wanted parents to accept their children like I had accepted them,” Palekar says. “Earlier I was working from the periphery and felt that it wasn’t sufficient to just talk about my own journey in the media and in public speeches. Through Sweekar, I got to know so many children whose parents had not accepted them and some of us parents could help them with talking to them and their parents and help them with bringing this conversation among themselves.”

Another founding member, Aruna Desai’s son Abhishek came out to her as gay when he was in school in the early 2000s. While she also did not know much about the community, she equipped herself with as much knowledge and information as she could. Before setting up Sweekar, she actively participated in queer pride parades in Mumbai as one of the few parents who supported their children openly.

“When children come out of the shell, the parents’ journey of acceptance starts,” she tells LGBTQ Nation. “It’s not like they don’t want to accept their children, but they have many questions that need to be answered with utmost care and sensitivity.” 

“We started the group in February 2017 when 10 parents came together for a workshop, and in the last seven years that number has risen to over 400 parents in the group globally with the majority of them from India,” Desai explains, adding that parents in the group have informally counseled and supported thousands of children and parents into acceptance and elevating their understanding of the LGBTQ+ community. The group started in Mumbai but has chapters spread across several major cities of New Delhi, Calcutta, West Bengal, Nagpur, and Bangalore among others. 

Parents like Palekar and Desai were working in silos until Sweekar brought them all under one roof. 

In India, accepting LGBTQ+ children is not as easy for most parents as it was for the two of them. In fact, complete disregard and disowning of children and high rates of suicide is a much more prevalent reality in the country. These factors largely drive LGBTQ+ children to hide their identities from their parents.

A Sweekar member who chose to remain anonymous shares with LGBTQ Nation that they had a particularly hard time accepting their trans daughter. 

“It was during her college six years ago that she came out to us through a WhatsApp message on the family group. She had been going through severe depression since a few months before that so we consulted a psychiatrist also as we thought it must be the stress from studies. But she feared that we would disown her, and she also hinted around killing herself if we didn’t accept her.” 

They said that while they consoled their child, the road to acceptance wasn’t linear for them.

“We were clueless. When we heard the word transwoman, we only knew the Hijra community [a traditional community of trans and intersex people in India], and we were shocked. The day I received her message, I prayed the whole day that it doesn’t become her truth. Then I went to astrologers, did several rituals to ensure she wasn’t possessed. According to her, I was the homophobe and transphobe which prevented her from coming out to me all these years. When I first found a dress in her luggage, I cried a lot thinking now my son will never be back.”

After they came to terms with it, though, they took on the responsibility of defending their daughter to others. “I as a parent had to come out many times in front of many people in my surroundings so my daughter doesn’t have to go through any kind of humiliation and deadnaming.” They learned about Sweekar through a news column and joined instantly. 

“The biggest challenge a parent or a child faces is that they are alone,” they said. “Sweekar breaks that myth. When I joined the group, this was the first thing I realized, and it gave me a lot of strength and confidence. Then I started interacting with other parents on the WhatsApp group and engaging in conversations. I attended their first meeting virtually due to the pandemic but in these few years, we’ve all become a close community where we can reach out to other parents at all times to discuss our challenges and celebrate each other and our children.”

Sweekar members stand on a stairwell holding a Pride flag
Provided By Sweekar: The Rainbow Parents Group

For most parents who are part of Sweekar, it is the solidarity that stands out for them in the face of a society determined to alienate them. 

Zahara Fernandez, a bisexual woman herself, joined the group when her daughter, Sarah, came out to her as bisexual at 16 years old. Because of her own queerness, she brought her daughter up in a way where she was exposed to LGBTQ+ people in ways of literature, plays, friends etc. But even that and her own identity couldn’t prepare her from feeling overwhelmed by the idea of loneliness and heartbreak that follows queer folks.

“When my daughter came out to me, I frantically started looking for resource persons her age for her to talk to and almost everyone I met, their parents were members of the Sweekar community. I became intrigued and joined as a spectator first. As I witnessed how helpful parents are towards each other and how they navigate issues of several children and SOS calls from LGBTQ+ folks, I realized what a wonderful community it is.” 

Sarah calls Sweekar a “need of the hour.”

“A lot of the support that we need is from the family and the fact that family members can be orthodox and narrow-minded, it is crucial that we have a support group like Sweekar which helps parents understand us better.”

Suarav, who identifies as queer and nonbinary, says Sweekar is a utopian reality. Still not out to their parents, they see full acceptance as a distant dream. 

“I find it quite unbelievable for me to even think that my parents can be as accepting as those who are members of Sweekar because I know the kind of conditioning, exposure and ecosystem that they belong to,” they tell LGBTQ Nation.

“When I attended one of Sweekar’s meetings, I got very emotional because I know that I can never have this support which other children have. Though I feel happy that at least some of us have this opportunity that they can talk to their families openly about such an important part of their identity. While it’s great that we have this group, it would take the group decades for it to penetrate India’s hinterland and bring parents from the last mile into their fold.”

While obstacles persist, Sweekar’s growth signifies a transformative shift towards inclusivity and acceptance. 

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat at The Trans Lifeline (1-877-565-8860) is staffed by trans people and will not contact law enforcement. The Trevor Project provides a safe, judgement-free place to talk for youth via chat, text (678-678), or phone (1-866-488-7386). Help is available at all three resources in English and Spanish.

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