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Strictly's Dr. Ranj Singh: 'Coming out as gay to my wife was hard, but telling my family was another level'

This Morning's resident health expert opens up about travelling the difficult road to self-acceptance.

2018-09-03

This article originally appeared in Attitude's Love & Marriage 2015.

Almost every gay man struggles as they come to terms with their bourgeoning sexuality. But some take a longer time than other to finally embrace who they really are.

Dr Ranj Singh, 36, resident medic on ITV’s This Morning and presenter and creator of kids show Get Well Soon, was one of those guys.

Growing up in an Indian Sikh household, Ranj didn’t initially identify as gay, although believed sexuality wasn’t as black and white as prescribed. However, because of his strict upbringing he was forced to stifle his true feelings and live a life that was expected of him.

In his early 20s Ranj met a woman, fell in love, and got married. And while they enjoyed several years of happiness it wasn’t long before the feelings he tried so desperately to hide suddenly began to surface again. And this time he didn’t want to fight them.

Here, Dr Ranj opens up for the first time about the tough struggles he has had to deal with over the years and why now he is fully out, he has never been happier...

Take us back - when did you think you might be gay. Was it something you felt early on?

Honestly, I think that’s still something I’m working on… I didn’t wake up one day and think ‘yay, I’m gay!’, nor was it something I always knew. What I did know was that my sexuality wasn’t as black-and-white as we are led to believe.  That’s the reality about human sexuality - it’s not always simple.  Some people are lucky enough to know they are straight, others know they are gay, and then there are others who identify with something in between. Nothing wrong with that! The problem is society makes us feel like we have to choose, and often makes us feel like that choice should be a heterosexual one, especially if you grow up in certain cultures. That’s not good enough anymore and I’m fed up of the pain and suffering that kind of thinking has caused me and so many others.

Is that how you felt when you were growing up?

Growing up, I felt like I had to be a certain way because of my background and what everyone expected of me. It took a long time and a lot of painful experience to understand that how I felt was OK. Those were my growing pains I guess, essential but horribly difficult.  That really breaks my heart now.  I just wish someone had told me: it’s OK to just be who you are! Why should we fit into a box, or take on a label? I can’t say I’ve got it all worked out, but I’m much happier with who I am now, and I won’t beat myself up for it anymore. Nor will I let anyone make me feel bad or ashamed. Likewise, I will fight for others’ rights to the same.

What religion were you brought up in - was it one that would have frowned upon being gay?

I come from quite a traditional Indian Sikh background, so my family life was very much rooted in those religious and cultural practices. It’s a truly beautiful and humble religion and is very much part of who I am. I’m not a particularly religious person, but it’s taught me to be considerate, accepting of others and dedicated to helping those in need. I guess it’s why I do the job I do! As far as I’m aware, it doesn’t have a particular viewpoint on homosexuality per se, but as with other religions, focuses on relationships being between man and woman, that doesn’t matter to me though. I know it sounds cheesy, but I think love happens between two souls, not genders. If there really is an all-loving God, I can’t accept that (s)he would only let certain people be happy. That’s bullshit that some people have created to fit their own agenda. We’re better than that now.

Were your parents strict? What was family life like? 

Like many first generation Asian parents, my folks brought up their children much like they were brought up. They worked damn hard and were quite strict I guess, but they just wanted their kids to do well in life. They came to this country with nothing and did everything they could to ensure my brothers and I had all the opportunities that they didn’t. I love them so much for that. I wouldn’t be able to do what they did. The strength they showed is something that I can only ever hope to have.

Were they strictly religious? 

So they were quite traditional and ’orthodox’, but we have to remember that they grew up in a very different time. Also, nobody teaches you how to be a parent! You learn from your own experience, so we can’t jump to blame people if they don’t do it perfectly! We are so lucky to live in time when there is great change happening in the way we think about relationships, sexuality and the rights of LGBT people. We are starting to make real progress, but it’s just the start. I’m so glad our children will grow up in a better world than we did.

If you were to come out would your parents have been welcoming about it? What was their view point about gay men? 

I don’t believe in this whole concept of ‘coming out’. It makes it sound like we’re all hiding, and that it has to be a massive announcement. I think that actually scares people. Coming out is what you want, when you want, how you want. It doesn’t have to be a big song and dance, unless you want it to be! We don’t all want to have a big party with white peacocks, glitter bombs and dancing drag queens performing to a live Kylie set!

Well, some most certainly do! 

I’ve had conversations with my parents and homosexuality isn’t something that’s really been on their horizon, because it’s not something they have any experience of. Sadly, it’s often shunned or suppressed in Asian cultures. That’s ironic, when they originate from a country that gave us the Kama Sutra, recognises the existence of a third gender, and even reveres transexual people! Just as we go on a journey to work out who we are, so do our families when we tell them. We have to give them time and space to understand and accept that. My parents are just starting out on that journey.

What about your community - was homosexuality something that was widely accepted? Did you know any other Asian gay men?

Unfortunately, Asian communities aren’t traditionally ‘gay-friendly’. Anything to do with sex or sexuality is considered taboo, and sadly being gay is seen by some as the worst thing you could do. I think that’s awful. Fortunately, things are changing but we still have so far to go. Just look at the way the sexuality of Shrien Dewani [husband of Swedish murder victim Anni Dewani] was paraded in the media in horrible voyeuristic detail, I think partly because it was such a big deal for an Asian man to admit that he had experiences with other men.

And surely those kind those attitudes drive things underground and cause a lot of damage. 

Very much so! That’s the reason why a lot of things go on behind closed doors and people don’t seek help when they need to. It breeds abuse because people don’t think they can speak up. It’s behind the rise in STI rates in Asian people who don’t protect themselves and don’t seek treatment when they should. It’s behind sexuality-based violence. It’s behind so many unfortunate choices and damaged relationships. And the worst thing is, we don’t even know the true scale of it. Just thinking about it makes me upset - it’s incredibly sad. We have to change.

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What were your teens like - were you dating girls or having secret flings with boys?

Ha! Either would have been great, but my parents were definitely not having any of that! Dating was a complete no no when I was a kid. Also, I was never really very attractive and wouldn’t get that kind of attention - my brother did though and I envied him so much! In some ways, it gave me an easy way out of having to think about who I was. So I threw myself into my school work and concentrated on that. I know, how boring! I do love being a geek though!

And who doesn’t love one?

Things did change a bit when I went to university. My parents became more comfortable with the possibility of me meeting someone… I guess they kind of had to! My first real relationship was with a girl at the age of 18. That was kind of my ‘first love’.  She was a lovely person and is still a friend now! I never explored anything with boys, and nor did I want to. I had a niggling feeling that I might have some level of attraction to guys, but I’d convinced myself that it wasn’t going to be part of my life and so I ignored it. To all intents and purposes, I was straight and that was that. In hindsight, that was very naïve, but what else could I do? That painful realisation came much later in life and would bring my world crashing down.

Eventually you met a woman who you would marry? Were you really in love? Or did you feel pressured to marry her?

It’s so easy to say that I got married because I wanted to hide my sexuality. Do I feel like that was the case? No. And so many other people who’ve been through similar will say the same thing. I met someone just after I left university and I absolutely fell in love with her. But looking back, I think part of the reason I fell in love was because she offered me everything I wanted: the chance of a ‘normal’ life. Being Asian, there’s always some level of pressure to get married - that seems to be part of the culture!  All I ever wanted was to get married, settle down and have a family. And I’d met someone who I really liked and saw myself doing that with. I finally had a glimpse of real happiness. Or, at least, what I thought happiness looked like.

How long were you dating before you popped the question? Did you think that if you married her your thoughts of men may disappear?

I think it was just over a year later that I proposed… and we did it properly too! It was all very romantic. At that time, my thoughts were focused on us and our life together. I really don’t remember the other issues playing a part. It felt like the right time and the right thing to do. I don’t know, maybe I was still being naïve!

What was the big day like - did you feel like you were making a mistake?

Hell no! My wedding day was the best day of my life! It was SO much fun! I was grinning from ear-to-ear for the whole day. It was a busy day comprising of a traditional Sikh ceremony, followed by a Western registry and then a big reception in the evening. I still look back on that day with fond memories. I was marrying the person I loved and I was surrounded by my friends and family (plus a few hundred other people!). What more could I want? Plus, I love a good party!

When you were exchanging vows what were you feeling?

Well it was a while ago now, but what I can remember is thinking that I was doing what I had always wanted and I was going to give it my best shot. I believed that that was where my happiness, and that of everyone around me, was. I didn’t need to think about anything else. There was no hesitation involved. I just remember feeling happy.

Did you feel that that getting married in front of your family would force you to stay in that relationship?

The thing about Asian marriages, which is good and bad in many ways, is that it brings together two families. That is both lovely for, and an immense pressure on, the two people who really count. I loved my wife’s family so much - they had welcomed me with open arms and I felt truly grateful for them. I wanted to give my marriage my absolute best, not just for us, but also for our families. It’s that whole pleasing everyone around me thing that I’ve learned I do - something that isn’t always good for me.

During your relationship were you faithful? Did you have any male liaisons? 

Our relationship was wonderful to start with. We were good for each other in many ways and we had a great time together.  However, over time I think I started coming to the realisation that she wasn’t the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. Something just didn’t seem right and I couldn’t work it out. The cracks started appearing and I drifted away from her, although I remained faithful. I’m not saying either of us was perfect, but we both had our parts to play.

Why did the marriage come to an end? 

Our relationship broke down and I started to feel like my life was unravelling. Then those feelings that I had ignored for so long began to surface and I didn’t know how to cope. I just remember feeling like I didn’t have any control over my life anymore and that I didn’t know who I was. I was a complete and utter mess - a very sad, destructive, angry mess.

Did you speak to anyone about it?

I felt like the worst person in the world and I hated myself. I ended up in counselling, desperate to work out what was going on and why I was feeling the way I did. I just didn’t understand why, when I tried my absolute best to be a good person, I was being punished so harshly. I’m not religious, but I remember going to a temple and sitting there with tears streaming down my face asking why I was being put through this. I was buckling under the pressure and I just needed someone to throw me a lifeline.  Life seemed so unfair.

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So obviously the relationship ended. 

I accepted that it wasn’t right and it had to end. It was so hard, and I still don’t like thinking about it. I felt like my heart had been wrenched out of my chest. I couldn’t sleep, stopped eating and lost a lot of weight. I was completely broken; it was the lowest point in my life. I can only imagine how hard it was for my wife though… she didn’t deserve any of that. I feel so incredibly sorry for what she had to go through.

Did your family understand why it ended! What did you tell them?

That was tough. They knew we’d been going through a rough time and our relationship was over, and they supported me as best they could, although they didn’t completely understand why. I didn’t know what to tell them when I didn’t really understand myself!

So what happened then - did you throw yourself in to the world of gay?

Ha! Not quite! I must admit that at the lowest point I became very self-destructive. I had to work out who I was and began to explore this part of me that I had never really dealt with. I ended up having casual things with guys, as anyone would, but it wasn’t like I had imagined. I suppose it was liberating, but also awful in equal measures! I wasn’t happy, but I didn’t care either.  Looking back, that wasn’t my proudest moment.

Did you go through a raucous time?

I think I spiralled out of control a bit, well, for me anyway! I was on this great voyage of self-discovery. Turns out the journey wasn’t as much fun as I had hoped! My friends started to worry about me and eventually I started to worry about myself. I just remember getting to a point where I felt incredibly sad and lonely, despite this whole new world that had opened up to me. It all seemed so shallow. I didn’t like it. It took some time before I realised that I wasn’t in a good place and I decided to take control of my life again.

How long before you met someone?

So just when I had given up on trying to find any sort of happiness, I met someone who would change my life forever. A friend who was working on The X Factor at the time with Dannii Minogue took me to see the show and we went backstage. There I met someone and we got chatting, although I don’t remember much as I was so drunk! Over time, it developed into a relationship and we were together for several years. Those were the best years of my life: it completely changed me. My whole perspective shifted, we did so many amazing things together and I met some wonderful people, including the lovely Minogues and the brilliant Sam Smith! Although, I became friends with Sam before he was famous… look at him now!

How did the relationship change your outlook on life?

This guy pulled me out of such a horrible dark place and showed me what it was to love someone of the same sex. Although it was my decision, my heart truly broke when we split up. He’s an amazing, beautiful person and I will always think of him as my angel. He really was the making of me and is the reason behind who I am now. He was the one that encouraged me to develop a media career alongside my clinical work and is the reason I ended up creating my TV show for kids. I think when you’ve been in a relationship like that, you’re never quite the same. He was my best friend… I miss him so much.

How have you been able to get over the split? 

It’s been a tough year but luckily my friends have been great. Surprisingly, it was actually Kylie who said something that would make me feel so much better… plus, she gives the best hugs! You’d have to be something pretty special to get my attention now!  That sounds awful doesn’t it? It’s not because I rate myself!

When did you come out to your family - what was the reaction?

Eventually, I did admit what I was going through to my wife, which was hard enough. But telling my family was another level entirely. I cried for days before I could tell my brothers. They are my rocks and I thought that they would at best be hurt, and at worst reject me. Luckily for me, the reality couldn’t have been more different! My brothers are quite different to myself. One is what I would describe as a ‘loveable thug’ - a bit like the Indian version of Danny Dyer, and the other is quite sensitive and reserved. Ironically, it was the loveable thug that had the best reaction. It was such a touching moment when he said that it didn’t matter and that he would always be there for me no matter what. He still doesn’t know how much that meant to me. It was such a beautiful moment. He still teases me about my sexuality and we have a real laugh about it - I’m so glad we’re able to do that!

How did your mates take it?

I was scared what my friends would say too, but they were equally amazing. They made me feel so much better about myself. Without them I don’t know where I would be! Eventually, I began to feel comfortable with who I was becoming. My parents are still at the start of that journey and it’ll some take time, but we’ll get there! We have to accept that people deal with things at different paces. Don’t force something just because you think that they should deal with it - for some people it’s a bigger deal than you think.

Being a kids TV presenter were you ever advised not to come out?

Never! I think there was probably a time when people did think like that, but fortunately we’ve moved on. I can imagine that it might make some people feel uncomfortable… but why should they? My sexuality has never been an issue and never will be - it’s just part of who I am. I have much so more to say! I wish others could be open about such issues too because it could help so many. Personally, I think we should teach all children about different kinds of relationships to avoid the problems that I grew up with. It would prevent so much heartache. We have a duty to prepare them for life and give them the chance to be happy, content and safe, no matter who they are or who they love. No one should feel bad for who they are or who they love.

Do you think of yourself as an Asian gay role model?

I’ve never thought of myself as that! I’m still trying to work myself out so how can I set an example for someone else!? All I know is that I never had any frame of reference whilst growing up, and if I can help someone in that situation or help them make better choices then I’d be very proud. I’d like to show others that it’s OK to be who you are, no matter what your background. And no matter how bad it feels sometimes, it always gets better. In fact, it gets bloody brilliant if you let it!

Do you think that just seeing one like you will empower those who feel alone or unable to be themselves?

It would be extremely flattering if someone thought of me as a role model, but I’m not perfect and have made plenty of mistakes! Honestly, that’s what all young people should know: no-one’s perfect and it’s OK to make mistakes as long as you learn from them. It’s not bloody rocket science - just be the best you can be! There will always be someone who is ready to stand up for you. No-one should have to feel like I once did… and if that means me standing up in the public eye and talking about Asians and LGBT issues then so be it.  It’s about bloody time someone did!