Kal Penn Is Out of the Closet. And South Asians Can’t Keep Calm.

“This is as big as Neil Patrick Harris coming out.”
RF
Islamabad, PK
November 3, 2021, 11:34am
Kal Penn, Gay, South Asians Can’t Keep Calm
Kal Penn speaking at a Vanity Fair Summit on Oct 22, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California. PhotoMatt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Vanity Fair/AFP

Over the weekend, Hollywood actor Kal Penn came out as gay and revealed that he is engaged to his partner of 11 years. Most famous for the iconic stoner comedy franchise Harold and Kumar and for starring in House and Designated Survivor, the comedian opened up about his sexuality shortly before launching his new book. 

In his memoir titled “You Can’t Be Serious,” the comedian and former White House advisor for the Obama administration shared the details of his relationship with his fiance, Josh, whom he met in Washington DC. In an interview with People magazine, Penn spoke about his experience coming out to his Gujarati Indian parents.

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“I discovered my own sexuality relatively late in life, compared to many other people. There's no timeline on this stuff. People figure their shit out at different times in their lives, so I'm glad I did when I did,” Penn told People magazine. 

“When you've already told your Indian parents and the South Asian community that you intend to be an actor for a living, really any conversations that come after that are super easy. They're just like, ‘yeah, okay.’ I felt very supported by everyone. That's a wonderful thing. I know everybody has different experiences with that, and so I definitely feel very fortunate,” he added. The actor hopes to have a big Indian wedding if he can convince his fiance, who prefers a “quick 20-minute thing with our families and that's it.”

The South Asian queer community is thrilled by the news. Born as Kalpen Suresh Modi, Penn represents mainstream South Asian visibility for many who have grown up watching him. 

“This is as big as Neil Patrick Harris coming out. It’s breaking a lot of stereotypes because, in so many people’s imaginations, Kal Penn is this cis-het comedic icon. On top of that, he has always resonated with South Asian millennials for representing us in Hollywood,” bisexual Pakistani-American student Romaisa Mehdi told VICE World News. “It builds more queer acceptance in our communities, especially among these masculine circles of South Asian dudebros who all look up to him.” 

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For Mumbai-based director and LGBTQ activist Onir, the coming out by someone with Hollywood status like Penn’s is a significant win for building tolerance in South Asian households where queerness is an especially difficult topic to broach. “It’s so important for people who are in public spaces and who are role models to come out,” Onir, who only goes by a single name, told VICE World News. “It not only encourages people who are struggling to come to terms with their own identity, but it also helps families when they see that this person is open, is doing well for himself, is respectable and loved. They also realize that they can respect their own son or daughter or transgender child.” 

Queer communities across South Asia continue to face political, legal and cultural discrimination. For some, the prospects of coming out to their communities are remote and possibly dangerous.

“The fact that the South Asian queer community is celebrating Kal Penn's coming out largely has to do with how so many of us can never really come out because we fear the very real threats of physical violence, discrimination and ostracism,” said Mehdi 

“Even the concept of coming out in itself is one of Western privilege, which many South Asian queer people simply don't have. So many of us have to live double lives just to survive.”

Follow Rimal Farrukh on Twitter.