Life periodically presents weeks that hit an extreme of our lives — for better and for worse. When the mind goes through such extremes, hindsight tends to follow much more quickly than after the subtle strokes that fill the in-betweens. The second week of October 2014 was one such week. The second week of October was when I decided I needed to quit the United Nations.
I have grappled with questions about my identity my entire life. Being a minority always warrants such, as by definition, being a minority means that at least in part you are defining yourself against the majority. The first time I took a critical look at what it meant to be a minority was my 11th-grade English class. I had a teacher who was modest in appearance, quiet in speech, but booming in message. He was notorious for challenging the wide-eyed 16-year-old students in his classes to dig deeper, to evaluate what it meant to be who we are.
As he once told me, “No one else is capable of examining you with as much care as yourself.” This teacher, Greg O’Bryan — or, as we called him, “Bear” — asked us to look at ourselves through a year-long project in which we created a personal anthology of small written assignments based on songs, book passages, or anything else that struck our fancy. With the project, I wrote about what it meant for me to grow up in a conservative part of Virginia as a brown woman, as a Hindu, as an Indian-American in an era where few people in the United States had even heard of India. The stories, reflections, and thoughts I recorded in that anthology were raw, intimate, and emotionally charged. For the first time, I confronted my true opinions on what it meant to be who I am. For the first time, I had a safe space to do so.
Bear took the entire summer to compose thoughtful responses to all of his students’ anthologies. When I went to pick my response up at the beginning of the following school year, he told me how proud he was that I took such a big risk in being so honest. I knew then I had made a major step in the cycle of cathartic reflection. A part of me could not accept his compliment, however, for I also knew that there was one layer of my identity I had not yet found the safe space to express. There was one part of me I could not include in my anthology. I think Bear knew that too.
I mostly lost touch with Bear over the years. I joined a few of my classmates for a dinner party at his house once after graduating. I bumped into him in the hall when I visited my old high school. We exchanged a few emails as well. I worked hard in school, I made calculated and strategic decisions, I networked with the right people, I supported my friends and family unconditionally. All of those elements landed me the status as the success story I now feel I so well earned. I won’t make an overstated claim that Bear was the reason I did all of those things; I did those things because of so many other reasons.
Even with limited interaction over the years, Bear never wavered in his praise for me or for my work. He was not even slightly surprised when I told him that I had broken into the competitive United Nations. Eleven years after I graduated, he still had hanging in his classroom a piece of artwork I drew for him. When I emailed him last year to ask if he would be OK being the last line of the dedication and the only teacher to whom I dedicated my debut novel, he replied with the enthusiasm of the world. Though I never directly told him, I knew he knew I had found my home in New York City. I knew he knew I had found the communities of people I needed to find peace with myself on a much higher level than in my anthology.
To advance in my professional field of international development, one is often asked to leave home behind to be based in an economically developing country. In early September 2014, I boarded a plane to central Africa to start my next job with the United Nations. Accepting the job meant that I would be away from home when my novel came out. As though a parallel experience, accepting the job meant I could not talk about an important facet of my identity in my novel, just as I had not been able to talk about this part of my identity in high school through my anthology.
The U.N. is composed of representatives from quite literally the entire world, so change is slow to happen, and definitions of basic tenets do not evolve quickly. Even if discrimination against a group of people is considered a human rights violation in one part of the world, there is no guarantee that discrimination will be viewed the same way elsewhere. The U.N. has therefore not kept pace with the social norms of progressive cities like New York. One could still be fired or openly discriminated against for certain attributes that are fully protected elsewhere. I had no way of knowing this when I first started my career in international development, though now as an adult, this lack of social progress weighs on my life every minute I am alive. When I accepted the post in central Africa, I reasoned I could balance this weight with a job that speaks to my professional passions and years of hard work.
On Monday, October 13, 2014, I found out Bear O’Bryan died. Being based in central Africa meant that all of the digestion and internalization of his passing had to be done thousands of miles away from home, away from everyone I love and care about. Perhaps it was the distance, or perhaps it was the time in my life; perhaps it was both. Whatever the case was, Bear dying brought hindsight to my life mere hours later. By the next day, I had thoroughly reflected on how his class, his presence, and my anthology had stayed with me over the years.
I wanted nothing more than to embrace my full identity back when I was 16. As a teenager, I was not confident my family would understand, my friends would be tolerant, or that I would not be harassed any more than being brown in conservative Virginia already involved. At 16, I did not have the courage to say three words that could have unleashed a whole other level of catharsis. In adulthood, I have had to regulate the use of these three words for my career.
When Bear died, I fully comprehended what I had given up to come to central Africa. I gave up the perfect opportunity to embrace the three words that I could not say when I was 16. I gave up the chance to outwardly embrace three words that largely defined my novel. I gave up the chance to further my identity in the context of these three words. That Monday, I realized with Bear’s death that I had landed myself in a similar situation as in high school. The difference was that this time, I could leave.
The U.N. does not do an adequate job of supporting and protecting those of us to whom these three words apply. The U.N. does not advocate for its long-term staff, consultants, and interns as it should. I knew that going in. Bear dying made me realize that I cannot continue to let that define my existence. My career is not worth denying who I am. So, you ask, why did I quit the U.N.? I quit because of three words that until now I have never publicly stated: I am gay.
MALA KUMAR is an international development practitioner and the author of the novel The Paths of Marriage.