Welcome to Living Labels, where we look past preconceptions and listen to the human story behind the labels.
In the beginning I tried to put my feelings away. Through my thoughts, for example, I sent myself to fall for certain girls.
Here you can read stories from people who tell you about the prejudices they face in everyday life. Others are quick to stick labels on them, but often forget that there is a living human being with a story behind the label.
This is the story of Amar Bissumbhar, Senior operations manager at Randstad. He struggled for years in his adolescence with his orientation and the reactions to his coming-out. His response on how he labels himself is ‘Homosexual’.
Beautiful name. What does it mean?
Thank you. It means immortal in Hindi. Not literally immortal of course, but you should read it along the lines of ‘forever or everlasting’. My parents gave me three names, one coined by my mother and the last by my sister. Amar was chosen by my father and became my call sign.
Do you happen to be from India?
No, I grew up in Zwijndrecht, a small municipality between Rotterdam and Dordrecht. My parents, my oldest brother and my sister were born in Suriname. In the 70s they moved to the Netherlands, to continue building their lives here. They were not the only ones. More Hindus did so during the period that Suriname became independent. Our ancestors did come from India.
I want them to know that my identity is not just “Surinamese,” “Hindustani,” or “homosexual. It consists of many other elements.
It’s not a bad thing, but people do make assumptions about my origins more often than not. For example, the other day I got into a conversation with a man at a birthday party. Someone I hadn’t met before, of around eighty years old. The first two questions he asked me were “what’s your name?” and “where are you from? Before I could answer, he started guessing and came up with Iran. And just last week I was walking down the street and a man wanted to take a picture with me. The guy looked drunk, or was just a joker. After he looked at me, he shouted “oh, Pakistani! I notice that in the first seconds of a meeting, people feel the need to define what my background is. It may not be meant wrong, but it does feel like people want to pigeonhole you right away. I want them to know that my identity is not just ‘Surinamese’, ‘Hindustani’, or ‘homosexual’. It consists of many other elements.
For example, I am the youngest in our family. There is a big age difference between me and the rest. My oldest brother is 20 years older than I am and my sister is 19 years older. Then you have a brother with whom I am 7 years apart, and the difference between my father and I is 43 years. In terms of age, I am much closer to the children of my oldest brother and sister. In that group, in turn, I am the oldest. I used to feel a kind of responsibility towards them because of that. I was also the first to go to college in the family, so the rest of the family saw me as a model student and a good example. I felt like there were high expectations about me.
I took school very seriously from an early age, but I was searching for my place in the classroom. For example, I was expected to enjoy playing soccer, but you really didn’t see me kicking a ball in the schoolyard. I would rather be in the sandbox, baking a cake with the girls.
When did you discover that you were attracted to boys?
That was around the age of fourteen. It felt like a discovery to me, because it’s not like I was always aware of that. But around that time I started to ask myself why I wasn’t interested in girls the way I was in boys. At first I tried to put my feelings away. Through my thoughts I sent myself, for example, to fall for certain girls. Like ‘you have to like her’. Because I also wanted to be ‘normal’, like all the others. But of course you can’t control your feelings.
At that age I already knew that my family did not view homosexuality in a positive light. It was not possible in our culture, everyone was straight with us. We only knew the term homosexual from television. Normal’ for us was the idea of a house, a garden, married to a Hindu woman and children. That made me think that if I came out of the closet, I wouldn’t fit in with the family anymore. Or not be a good example for others.
She was scared, too, because she wondered what my life was going to be like. And she thought everyone was going to laugh at me.
When did you tell your parents?
It really started to niggle around the age of eighteen. I had met a boy I liked, but it didn’t work out. I found it hard to keep that with me, because I wanted to share it with my parents. Of course I could discuss it with my girlfriends. But I didn’t want to keep up appearances at home.
One evening my parents and I were watching television on the couch. I waited for my father to leave the room to start the conversation with my mother. Surely it was more difficult to do it in front of him. When he was upstairs, I told her I had to tell her something she wouldn’t like. She didn’t believe it at first. Then she brought in my father. Together we talked about it for a long time, and I remember very well that my father said that I had picked up the word “gay” somewhere and that it would go away by itself. I didn’t feel understood at that moment. My mother was sad at the time, but later she came to me with questions. She was also scared, because she wondered what my life would be like. And she thought everyone was going to laugh at me.
I can imagine this hit you hard.
True. I had also always been someone who valued his family’s opinion a lot. And actually we didn’t talk it out at the time, so for years I felt that my homosexuality had not been accepted. I think my family thought that if we stopped talking about it, it would go away. I think it’s common in Hindustani culture: we stop talking about it and think it will go away. I couldn’t stand that, because it was in the air, but we didn’t discuss it with each other. The result was that during that period I tried to stay away from home a lot, I became more depressed, gained dozens of kilos and avoided family parties with excuses. Because there the first question was always “how is school going?”, immediately followed by “do you have a girlfriend yet?”.
If I have to introduce myself in a new team, I say I have a friend and I don’t get any questions about that.
Both my brothers took more time to get used to it, but with time they accepted it too. I also fared much better when I started working and left home. In my third year of study I was allowed to do an internship at a branch of Randstad in Zwijndrecht, where after my studies I got a permanent job as an intermediary for clients in the non-profit sector. I always enjoyed it there and I really liked the work. For me it was also nice that I could go to a place where I could be myself more. It was a close and small team, where I could speak openly about who I was. That helped me enormously, especially because at home it had felt like a burden on my shoulders. One of the female colleagues in the team is now, 19 years later, still one of my best friends.
I have been working for this company for almost 19 years now and never have I felt that I was stereotyped by my colleagues. If I have to introduce myself to a new team, I tell them I have a friend and I don’t get any questions about that. Our motto is that you can be your best self with us. That applies to everyone who works at, with or for Randstad. We also believe that we have a social role and that others can learn from how we do things. That’s why I’m pleased that in recent years there has been an increasing focus on diversity, equality and inclusion within the organization as a whole. For example, a fellow manager from the north recently hired a Hindu boy and called me to ask how he could make sure he felt at home in his team. We are also increasingly letting go of the typical checklists that go with a job and looking more at individual talent. I’m not saying we’re already there, because we really want to see even more diversity within our organization. For many people, we are known as a formal company where a lot of white people work in suits. But there is the goodwill to do better and a company culture where everyone is welcome.
How is the relationship with your family now?
A turning point came when I got into a relationship with my first boyfriend. It became so serious that I wanted to introduce him to my parents, which felt like a second coming-out to me. I was incredibly nervous, but it actually went better than expected. That fear that my parents had felt before became less. They saw that I was doing well: that I had my own house, stable work and a partner with whom I did fun things. And even when the relationship ended, there was no negative reaction. My mother said it was a shame, because it was nice to have someone to go on vacation with, wasn’t it?
Over the years I have come to value the opinions of others less. I value my family and social circle of course, but make my own choices and I care much less what others think of me. Maybe it’s the age.
I came to these insights two years ago while backpacking in Southeast Asia. That trip followed a period in which my entire life was turned upside down. Then my relationship with my ex-husband came to a rather abrupt end. We had been together for 9.5 years. The whole divorce process was not without its struggles and eventually I left our home and moved back in with my father. That trip was already planned when we were still together, but I checked with myself if I still wanted to go. Because I was looking forward to it so much, I decided to go alone. It was a big decision for me because I was still so vulnerable because of what had happened. Before boarding the plane I burst out crying.
Over the years, I did begin to place less value on the opinions of others.
The ticket I had booked was to Singapore, but nothing else was planned. So during that period I had the freedom to do whatever I felt like. Sometimes I hung out with other backpackers and we did things, but I also did a lot on my own. For example, a tour of North Vietnam on a motorcycle with a local, which has become one of my fondest memories of the trip. While I had doubted beforehand whether I should do it. In this way, I trekked through 8 countries in total. I made conscious choices in this regard. I skipped a state like Brunei, for example, because it was very bad there with LGBT+ rights. A few years ago I read that homosexuals could be sentenced to death there and that they would then stone you to death.
The fact that I was alone much of the time meant that I had a lot of time to think. Time to think about what I wanted to get out of life and out of my work. About what ‘security’ really was, or wasn’t. What my future was going to look like and what I was actually looking for in a partner. Traveling helped me to leave the period before my divorce behind me and to get to know myself better. I overcame a lot of fears and found out that I could do more than I thought. I underestimate myself less now than I did before.
As a reminder of that time, I have these bracelets. I bought them in every region I visited. The value of those bracelets is maybe only a few euros. But when I look at them, I remember that it is better to enjoy something in the here and now than to be afraid of it.
As a reminder of that time, I have these bracelets. I bought them in every region I visited. The value of those bracelets might be only a few euros. But when I look at them, I remember that it is better to enjoy something in the here and now than to be afraid of it. That is very different from how fourteen-year-old Amar was, for whom I now find it very sad that he was so frightened. He couldn’t even smile freely when his picture was taken.
Now, all these years after my coming-out, I really do feel that I can be myself and that I feel free to say what I want. That I don’t have to pretend to like soccer anymore, for example. And there was a time when I didn’t dare say the word “gay. That’s not the case anymore. When I got married in 2014, we had a big party with a lot of family in attendance. We really celebrated our love on that day and kissed each other for the first time in front of everyone. I did find it exciting leading up to it. But we only got beautiful reactions.
But sometimes I wonder if it can really feel completely like “normal.” Last year I was master of ceremonies at a wedding. Really a role where you are the center of attention. My boyfriend and I had a great time on the day and danced a lot, but when slower songs came on I didn’t feel comfortable dancing intimately and romantically with him. I think that’s stupid of myself. I know it should just be possible, but instinctively it still feels uncomfortable. Despite the fact that we are no different than others.
I have accepted myself and those around me. I think that as a society we can make another step in this.
It is also still difficult to be a gay man in this society. I spoke to a colleague once, and she said it was a difficult path I had taken. And she was right about that. If you had given me the option in my teens to somehow become heterosexual, I don’t know if I would have turned it down right away. Now, thankfully, that is no longer the case. I have accepted myself and so have my surroundings. I think that as a society we can take another step in this.
Because when my boyfriend and I walk hand in hand down the street in Rotterdam, I am more alert than when I am alone. It really shouldn’t be, but it’s reality. We got to know each other during the time of the lockdowns. So it was quite a long time before we could go out to dinner together. We were totally looking forward to it. And it was a really nice evening. Until we walked to another joint for a drink. Then a car made homophobic remarks to us. Incidents like that spoil my whole evening and make me more cautious. It makes me feel less free to be who I am. That can make me angry, but fortunately my partner calms me down. He then says, for example, that he doesn’t understand why they do that, because we are not doing anything wrong. That everyone can love whoever they want. I find that very beautiful in him, that he sees it that way. Maybe I overthink it too much.
I hope I can help others who identify with what I am saying and who are also struggling with what being gay means in their culture.
What do you hope to accomplish with this story?
I hope that I can help others who recognize themselves in what I tell and who also struggle with what being gay means in their culture. That I can be an example to others, something I missed in my youth. For example, during last Pride week in Rotterdam this summer, I saw a number of Hindu boys. If I had seen that as a teenager, I would know that I was not the only one.