A Queer Dilemma
Being of a different sexual orientation than the majority is challenging enough for those coming of age, and beyond. But being both, gay and South Asian, ramps up the difficulty a few notches. Here are some moving stories of coming to terms with one’s sexuality and identities, thanks to the candid conversations offered by a few such brave souls.
“Intersectionality” is a big word used largely in academic circles to describe what happens when identities overlap. What happens when South Asian identities overlap with LGBTQ identities?
For those not familiar with LGBTQ, it stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer—words that describe sexual orientation and gender nonconformity.
For years, gender nonconforming sexualities were lumped together as homosexual. Homosexuality was created as a category in the 1800s by scientists trying to label non-normative sexual behavior. It was one of many pejorative labels that pathologized same sex attraction and gender nonconformity.
In 1969, the Stonewall riots in New York City changed the way the LGBTQ were viewed by society. The riots were a response to a police raid on a bar in New York’s Greenwich Village which was patronized by such folks. It began a process of social and political activism that changed the way LGBTQ people were treated by society.
We can say we have come a long way, considering one of the many accomplishments of the LGBTQ community was the recognition of marriage equality by the U.S. Supreme Court just last year. While prejudice in the forms of homophobia, sexism and transphobia continue, the lives of LGBTQ people in the United States have vastly improved, especially in urban areas. Much remains to be done but it is safe to say that for someone coming out—which is acknowledging to themselves and others—as an LGBTQ person, it is much easier now than it was before the Stonewall riots of 1969.
LGBTQ people in South Asian countries are influenced by a variety of factors: urban versus rural, traditional versus educated, religious versus secular, older versus younger, male versus female, transgender versus cisgender. But one thing is for sure – activism and acceptance is on the rise. This recent rally in Hyderabad was one of the many that are routinely seen in cities there. (Photo: Dr. MD Intaj Ali)
Being LGBTQ and South Asian is a complex intersectionality. How it is experienced depends on a number of factors. Country of residence is primary. Life in the U.S. and other progressive countries is by far easier for the LGBTQ minority than life in repressive cultures. Life for LGBTQ people in India and Pakistan and other South Asian countries is influenced by a variety of factors: urban versus rural, traditional versus educated, religious versus secular, older versus younger, male versus female, transgender versus cisgender. There is no single story that represents the South Asian LGBTQ experience, and so this article sheds light on the stories of a diverse set of individuals (This online version of this article includes more individual stories, and offers a far more diverse perspective—which was not possible in the limited space of print).
One of the main themes that is consistent in all the stories collected here is the abiding importance of family. The South Asian experience from top to bottom is deeply imbued with the ongoing relationship of parents to children and children to parents, the circle of life. In the West, independence is valued: to be true to oneself is of the highest order. In South Asian culture, community is valued: to be true to one’s family and faith is what matters most. So how do LGBTQ South Asians deal with this dilemma? How can they be true to themselves and true to their families? There is no clear answer, but a very human struggle that yields both chaos and consensus and grapples with one of the most basic of human questions: what is the nature of love?
Finding comfort in an
image of the Ardhanari
Priyanka Sinha was just 18-years-old when, on one of her numerous trips to her college library in Delhi, she was drawn to a collection of poems by the American poet Adrienne Rich whose own coming out as a lesbian feminist inspired a generation of activist women. “I was overjoyed. [Rich] wrote clearly, lyrically, and powerfully about her love for women as integral to the rest of her life. I was so relieved to read her work! It truly helped break my isolation and gave me a language I could hold on to,” says Sinha. Sinha also stumbled upon so much in her own heritage that reflected her difference. “I remember seeing an image of Ardhanari and saw instantly that it reflected an integrated essence to me—the divine male/female in perfect combination, in all things. I gave it meaning and held it in my imagination.”
Qatar-born Sinha comes from a Hindu family originally from Bangladesh. Her parents moved from Bangladesh to West Bengal during the Bangladesh Liberation War. “They have seen a lot in their lifetimes and probably understood from these experiences the impermanence and fragility of most things. They encouraged me to write, read, and express myself through art,” she says.
She grew up being accepted by her family as a “tomboy”—outgoing and active in sports—but experienced dissonance upon reaching puberty. Her public self could not match her private self. She refers to her teenage self as “a misfit” and calls her internal journey of self-acceptance “a lonely and surreal trip.”
A chance meeting with another South Asian lesbian ended Sinha’s isolation. Neena Hemmady approached her very cautiously in a cafe. Hemmady told Sinha about Khuli Zaban, an organization for South Asian lesbian and bisexual women in the Chicago area. Hemmady invited her to attend the Chicago book event for Urvashi Vaid, the most visible South Asian lesbian in the United States. Vaid was the director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and had written Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation. Sinha jokes that before she became part of Khuli Zaban she thought that Vaid and she were the only South Asian lesbians. At the book signing, she met her community, “my sisters—South Asian and women-loving-women. I can say, without hesitating, that I grew up in Khuli Zaban and, in line with its meaning, I found my voice and my own personal power.”
Sinha came out as a lesbian while attending the University of Chicago. She joined the university GBL group (transgender was not a recognized part of the gay movement at the time). She says, “Yet there was always the part of my identity that never quite coalesced—it was the South Asian immigrant part of me. All members of the group were white. I was the ‘exotic’ one… ‘Wow, they have lesbians in India?’ They didn’t know quite what to do with me, but I did my best to fit in. I wore the rainbow beads and the pink triangle. The rhetoric of the political awakening at that time was, “Be out, be proud.” There was no negotiating. In fact, those who came out to their parents were held up to the highest regards. Although I played the game, I realized that as a South Asian immigrant I had to deal with my own cultural pressures–you don’t rock the boat, you are your community, you respect your parents at all cost. This was entirely different from the Western social mores which celebrated the independent spirit. And, yet, this was the same culture that gave me Phoolan Devi, Sarojini Naidu, Vandana Shiva, and so many other liberation fighters and activists from every social movement.”
In 1997, Sinha came out to her father in a letter. “My parents did struggle with it, and reinforced by my own internalized homophobia, I chose to minimize my being a lesbian. Important relationships with women were an invisible part of my life to them. My parents have come a long way, as have I, and I think so much of it has to do with love and time—lots of the former and not enough of the latter. Sometimes I feel like my father is trying to make up for lost time—there isn’t a phone conversation that doesn’t pass without me knowing that I am valued.”
“My parents have come a long way,” says Priyanka Sinha. “I feel like my father is trying to make up for lost time—there isn’t a phone conversation that doesn’t pass without me knowing that I am valued.”
The conflict between her lesbian identity and her South Asian cultural roots has been painful for Sinha. She explains, “This is strange to say, but I think it was easier for me to accept my lesbian identity than it was my South Asian one. Although changing, I think the South Asian socio-cultural narrative for girls was (and still is) so strong—the path of survival often meant being a daughter, a wife, and then a mother. There didn’t seem to be any wiggle room. In a way, I often had to distance myself from my roots to “be lesbian,” and in this case, my parents representing my roots. Now looking back, I realize how heartbreaking this was—I didn’t know it then, but I felt that I had to make a choice between being their daughter and being myself—both seemed mutually exclusive. The journey to integrate both identities took some time and was also complicated by other intersections––my identity as an immigrant was a big one. The integration happened in patches of awakening––finding reflections of my reality in the public world, doing some intense soul-searching, joining other anti-oppression groups, building my own personal language and, most importantly, finding my community of South Asian lesbians. It was a gradual opening up.”
“I am a South Asian lesbian,” Sinha explains, “I am also a well-educated, English-speaking immigrant. This is a complex dance between identities, one that makes many of my experiences uniquely my own. Living on this intersection has become less about managing it or defining it publicly and more about celebrating who I am and living truthfully by it in each moment.”
Sinha, who now serves as Director of Communications and Marketing at the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University, draws strength from trailblazers, “strong, beautiful South Asian women in my life, from elders to those younger than me––intelligent, eloquent, and powerful.” She draws resilience from her spirituality influenced by both Hinduism and Buddhism. She sums it up saying, “Finding community, creating families, reinventing, forgiving and rebuilding, continues to be a practice for many of us...it’s like Adrienne Rich wrote ‘…the maps they gave us were out of date by years…’ and so we need to stay creative, fierce, and compassionate.”
Rakesh Ratti: A co-founder of Trikone-Atlanta
Rakesh Ratti is a psychologist who lives in Toronto with his partner Mark Haslam, an arts administrator, and their daughter Tara. Ratti attended Georgia State University for his Ph.D. and is one of the founders of Trikone in Atlanta. He is also author of A Lotus of Another Color, the first LGBTQ South Asian anthology. At age 9, he moved to the U.S. with his family from a small village in Punjab that had been founded by an ancestor 500 years ago.
As a boy, growing up, Ratti did not identify with his Indian peers and worked hard to assimilate. He began having crushes on other boys in the 7th grade and was largely attracted to white boys. He was traumatized by experiences of racism but was not subjected to homophobia. He was good at sports and kept his sexual orientation hidden. He began to come out at community college, where he joined the drama class and found other gay men. Meanwhile, he became more militant in his gay activism, which he continued in university. He helped bring gay speakers to campus but says he never met a single South Asian who was gay.
That changed when he moved to Los Angeles. Through his contact with a group of South Asian LGBTQ activists in San Francisco who founded the first Trikone group, he met other South Asian gay men in LA, where he was a co-founder of a new Trikone group. He began reconnecting with his Indian culture (listening to Indian music, eating South Asian food) and was also active in the LGBTQ media group GLAAD. He also began publishing short stories and met Sascha Alyson, publisher of Alyson Books, one of the premier imprints for the LGBTQ community. Allyson asked Ratti to consider editing an anthology of South Asian LGBTQ writers. Ratti moved to Atlanta in 1990 to begin graduate studies in psychology at Georgia State University.
He describes his move to the South as a paradigm shift. “People did not know where to place me.” He was South Asian in a black and white world where most whites held on to a racial divide: “You’ll always be black and I’ll always be white.” Racism and white supremacy, as Ratti perceived it, was deeply ingrained.
Trikone-Atlanta has been a long-time oasis for LGBTQ South Asians in the region.
It was during his early years in Atlanta that Ratti helped cofound the Atlanta Trikone group. He also began work on his anthology. At first, he could find no one who was willing to write about their LGBTQ South Asian experiences so he taped and transcribed 50 interviews. These interviews formed the body of his anthology which was published in 1993. A Lotus of Another Color was widely acclaimed and Ratti was interviewed on radio and in print. He was anxious when he sent copies of the book back to his family in California. His nieces and nephews were thrilled but his father felt shamed by what his son had done.
Ratti believes his father was still affected by how homosexual men were treated back in his village. These men were shamed and ridiculed. Ratti was his father’s youngest son and “golden boy” who was succeeding in the American dream. The two never reconciled before his father’s death. “I couldn’t communicate with him in Punjabi in any emotional depth,” Ratti says with regret. He believes had he been more fluent in his father’s native tongue, they might have been able to talk through their differences.
His relationship with his mother was completely different. Ratti says she never took a step back from him stating, “My child is my child.” They remained close until her death and Ratti is still close with some of his siblings and their children.
(Left) Rakesh Ratti, with his modern family: partner Mark Haslam and daughter.
Ratti met his partner, Mark Haslam, in Toronto while participating in Desh Pradesh, a South Asian festival organized by the local LGBTQ South Asian community. They met the next day in another seminar and afterwards began a conversation where “we were finishing each other’s sentences.” That night they found themselves holding hands at a film and soon developed a long distance relationship, where they met every six weeks for the next two and a half years.
In 1998, Ratti moved to Toronto after completing his dissertation and internship in order to be with Haslam. They have been together for 23 years. They waited until they were financially secure before pursuing adoption. They met their daughter through the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto in 2007. She was 9-months-old and they knew from her first visit that they wanted her to be their child. They have lived in the High Park neighborhood of Toronto and lived an unremarkable life, where being gay is a non-issue. Two South Asian gay men living with their daughter does not matter in their diverse, liberal community. “I don’t often think about the fact that I’m gay,” says Ratti, “I don’t think about it until something occurs in the outside world.”
Deepali Gokhale: “Any group that will allow a
person to be fully who they are without judgement is a
India born Deepali Gokhale came to the U.S. with her parents when she was two-years-old. She says her parents had “a strange mix of conservative ideals and progressive thinking.” Growing up in northern Virginia near Washington, D.C., her first memory of being different is when she wanted to whistle and was told that girls didn’t do that.
Gokhale was bullied as a teenager by white kids on the school bus for being Indian and having an Indian name. She says she already felt different, “I didn’t have many friends as a teenager, and I was always trying to fit in with the few I did have. All the girls were interested in boys, so through my teens and even through college, I tried to be interested too. I always attributed my being different to having a different cultural upbringing than the people around me, so it took me a long time to realize I was different in any other way. In my late teens when I was in college, I found my first group of South Asian friends. That was when I first started noticing I was different than even my own cultural peers, as my lack of interest in boys/ men became more and more obvious to me, and my interest in women seemed unusually strong.”
She came out a few years after college but felt very isolated, “I worried that I wouldn’t be able to reconcile my cultural identity with my sexual identity. I thought I would have to distance myself from my culture, and that made me very sad. There were a couple of years where I was very depressed and even attempted suicide a couple of times.”
She joined the Atlanta Trikone group when she moved here and participated for 14 years even though she was only one of a few women in the group. She left the group because, “I was disheartened to find that the same patriarchal attitudes that exist in the broader South Asian community also exist in the South Asian gay community. The loss of that community was heartbreaking for me, even though I do remain friends with those with whom I created deeper connections.” Gokhale has started a new group for South Asian women who identify as lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer. They have monthly potlucks in each other’s homes.
Deepali Gokhale: “I think my identity is much more independent now than when I was first coming out. I no longer look for group belonging in the same way…”
Community continues to be of great importance for Gokhale, “Any group that will allow a person to be fully who they are without judgement is a great community.” She has grown in how she defines community for herself: “I think my identity is much more independent now than when I was first coming out. I no longer look for group belonging in the same way, and I have a better understanding and acceptance of the impermanence and ever-changing nature of community and friendships. I find cultural community in different ways, like being in better touch with my family of origin and exposing myself to learning environments where I can learn about my ancestry. For example, I recently became an Ayurvedic practitioner and now help friends and family with keeping healthy, and for a while I studied Indian classical music.”
Anneliese Singh: “I no longer believe that there
are only two sexes or two genders...”
Anneliese Singh is an associate professor in the counseling and human development department at the University of Georgia and has a private practice in psychotherapy in Atlanta. She grew up in New Orleans with an Indian, Sikh father and a white, southern mother, “so gender roles were pretty interesting. Both my parents practiced Sikhism, so I constantly heard that Guru Nanak (the first guru in Sikhism) was a strong advocate and supporter of women and that a large part of our religious practice was doing seva (community service) on behalf of others. So, for me, growing up South Asian and multiracial meant that I was raised to be a strong woman who was taught my role is to help change the world for the better. At the same time, I was growing up in the south, so there were many messages about what women could or should not do that were distinctly gendered. I knew I did not fit into those small boxes of gender and sexual orientation ever since I can remember. Growing up during the late 1970s, there was immense discrimination targeted toward my family, as my father wore a turban and was called all sorts of epithets. I know experiencing this type of racism towards our family shaped how early I was able to come out about my sexuality.”
Singh came out as a teenager on the streets of New Orleans, “not the best and safest place to come out—but was surrounded by a vibrant queer and trans community, and a community of color. I missed, however, having a South Asian community that was queer and trans-affirming. I keep those worlds pretty separated in one sense, but at the time there were also few South Asian families in New Orleans—much less queer and trans desi folks. Although I had amazing friendships and close queer and trans community surrounding me as a teenager, it still was not easy. I recently remembered a time as a teenager where I felt suicidal and depressed.”
Despite her positive experiences coming out, there was something missing for Singh. She says, “There was a time I really did not even know how much I was missing being connected to a queer and trans desi community. I knew my queer and trans people of color community was important to me. But I cannot even express in words what it was like to meet the first queer Sikh, a South Asian woman I encountered on the dance floors of Toronto. And then, connecting with so many wonderful South Asian queer and trans people in Trikone-Atlanta, well, it was just incredible. Being able to be in spaces where the food tasted like my father’s cooking, where the music sounded like what I would hear at a good, fun Indian wedding, and just being able to not have to explain the South Asian part of me...well, there really are no words for the peace and comfort these spaces provided to me.”
Community has helped Singh be more fully herself. She reflects, “My dad would joke about arranging a marriage for me to a “tall, handsome, Sikh man,” but he would also tell me how important it was that I valued myself and that I could do anything, or be anything, I wanted to be. So, the messages I heard were sometimes conflicting. Another thing was that I didn’t really say to my parents: Hey, I am queer.” Rather, I hung out with this group of friends, whom sometimes they didn’t like, but always were respectful to—and I kept a lot of my coming out experiences to myself.” Now Singh identifies as queer, “That is an important identity to me. I used to identify as bisexual, but I no longer believe that there are only two sexes or two genders...so queer is best for me, as it reflects the politicized part of my identity.”
Anneliese Singh (lower left) with some of her queer and trans desi friends— the community that has meant so much to her.
Singh talks about how deeply she values community, especially her desi queer community and how those needs have changed over time. “There was a time I really needed Trikone-Atlanta, for instance, or a space with desi queer women, because I literally could not breathe without these communities. I found love, support, and acceptance in these spaces––and know they are still there if and when I need them. Now, it is more important for me to have spaces where social justice is a central value of relationships, learning, love, and vision for a better future for this world. I still have a very treasured group of South Asian queer women in my life, as well as an extended network of straight Sikh women and men who are working for justice for queer and trans people. I do think an important aspect of our community—whether in formal, organized spaces or informal friendship spaces—is that the mix of South Asian + queer and trans = love, affection, and support. These words of my dear friend Asim, who left his body several years ago, still ring in my head. The best of our South Asian culture can come out in our queer and trans community, where we automatically extend love, support, and understanding to one- another, as we know what it is like to feel isolated, cut off from society, unvalued. Being queer and South Asian, I have learned, means claiming one another, building community, working for justice, and learning how to use our cultural heritage to love ourselves even more deeply. Our culture has a tremendous history of gender and sexual fluidity, and I find that quite beautiful and empowering.”
Manil Suri: How being gay sits with being a well-known
Manil Suri is a professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a frequent op-ed contributor to the New York Times. He is the author of three novels set in his native India–The Death of Vishnu, The Age of Shiva, and The City of Devi. Suri grew up in Mumbai where he had a sense of being different as an adolescent but remained isolated because he knew no one else like himself. He came to the U.S. to finish his bachelor’s degree at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh in 1979. He describes his coming out process as “nerve-wracking” and even more so because he was from another country. Gay bars were too scary for Suri so he came out first to his roommate and within a year was participating in the LGBTQ group at the University of Pittsburgh. He met his first partner there and also experienced the ups and downs of being single.
On his second trip back to India, Suri decided to tell his mother. She had already surmised that he was gay. She was very progressive and held an MA in psychology. She was okay but had “a lot of regrets.” Suri took his current partner on his next visit to India and his mother was welcoming but reluctant to tell anyone else about the nature of her son’s relationship. “Her main concern,” says Suri, was “What will others think?”
Suri continued to visit his family in India over the next 25 years, always bringing his partner Larry with him. His father, who was a quiet man, was in denial at a deep level. When Suri told him in 2002, his father claimed not to have known. Suri continues to come out to his extended family although his gayness is now well known because of his literary career. He jokes and says it was a little harder for him to come out as a novelist among his mathematics colleagues, than as a gay man living openly with his partner.
While the theme of gayness was touched upon lightly in his first two novels, The City of Devi celebrated a love triangle between two men and a woman who were the three touch links to a complex story about relationships set in a time of cosmic destruction. Suri toured with this book in the U.S., and attended book festivals in India including Hindu Lit for Life in Chennai and the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival. He was surprised at how well his Indian audiences responded to his readings which included sexually explicit passages from his novel. He says only one person walked out while he was reading a sex scene. Suri said he was disappointed. He says wryly, “I had hoped to create a scandal.”
No stranger to controversy, Suri weighed in on the Indian Supreme Court decision to reinstate a 19th century law criminalizing homosexual acts between adults. He finds the Court’s assertion that the LGBTQ Indians make up a “miniscule” part of the population to be “astounding.” He says the lack of visibility of openly LGBTQ individuals in India has left Indians believing that “they have never met a gay person.” He says this lack of visibility also leads Indians to believe that homosexuality is an alien phenomenon. He argues that the foreign influence here is not homosexuality but the British prohibitions against it, a statute they imposed on their colonies around the world in 1860 known as Article 377.
Writer and professor of mathematics, Manil Suri jokes that it was a little harder for him to come out as a novelist among his mathematics colleagues, than as a gay man living openly with his partner.
Suri writes about an Indian perspective on sexuality that predates British colonialism. In contrast, a text as old and authentically Indian as the Kama Sutra catalogues, in exuberant detail, male-on-male and femaleon- female couplings. “Notwithstanding its general unease with homosexuality, India has historically been quite comfortable with unconventional gender roles, perhaps because of the fluidity with which gender is treated in Hindu mythology.”
He concludes his essay speaking of the cruel ways that a law such as Article 377 prevents LGBTQ Indians from living openly and freely and from engaging in fulfilling relationships. He is also convinced that the true goal of anti-gay laws is not just to deter homosexuality but to prop up heterosexual marriage. Suri says, “Indian society is particularly vested in the institution of heterosexual marriage, which is often arranged.”
Suri is hopeful that the Supreme Court ruling will stimulate more activism among LGBTQ and their allies in India. He says, “Coming out in India’s closeted environment requires a great deal of courage, but the unfairness of the ruling may spur some individuals to stand up and be counted as a form of protest.”
Vinod (he does not share his last name to protect the privacy of his family) grew up in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. As a boy he remembers being attracted to his male classmates. He learned a little more about same sex attraction in the dorms in college but he never sought out male sexual partners in India. He avoided sex because he did not want to get into trouble, “I did not have to think about the future,” he says, “I was putting it all off.” The environment in college, a strongly desexualized one with co-ed segregation made things easier for him, with no immediate pressure to seek a partner. “You study, go to school and marry someone your parents choose for you,” he says summing up the life path that was prearranged for him. That there was no visible gay life where he lived made his being gay easier to avoid.
Soon after completing his undergraduate studies, Vinod’s mother told him that within two years he would be married and have children. He knew the window of opportunity for graduate school was fast closing. “I was frantic,” he says. He had a four hour conversation with his adviser from college and managed to get admission to Georgia Tech.
He spent his first semesters there absorbed in his school work 12 - 15 hours a day. When he decided it was time to reach out he went online, “I didn’t want to be the gayest person in the world,” he explained. He worried that he would be miserable married to a woman, if he fully accepted being gay.
Things changed for Vinod when he found the Atlanta chapter of Trikone, “I could not believe [it]. I was incredulous.” It had never occurred to him that there were other South Asian LGBT people who were organizing, and here, under his nose, was a group of more than forty members. He has been an active part of the group ever since and has dated several men seriously but is not in a relationship.
Vinod has finished his Ph.D. and is working as a post-doc. His struggle with his parents continues. They know he is gay but insist that he marry anyway. He loves them and worries deeply about maintaining his integrity versus being “a good son.” “I don’t want to be forced into a relationship with someone I don’t love and who deserves better than that,” he says adding, “I don’t want to deceive, and my parents have no right to deceive a girl when there is no way for her to know [that I am gay].”
Taali (her nickname) grew up in India, where everyone conformed to gender norms. She said, “All mummies wore saris or salwar-kameez and most were ‘housewives’. Everyone’s papa wore pants-shirt to work or kurta-pajama while lounging at home on a weekend.” Her parents may have looked ‘normal’ but they were more progressive than their contemporaries. They allowed her to be herself when she was growing up. Taali says she disliked wearing dresses and always preferred short hair.
After her family moved to the U.S. when she was fourteen, she became more gender conforming in terms of her appearance in order to avoid standing out and being bullied. She still prefers short hair.
Taali recalls her earliest attraction to another girl at age 10, but had no reference points for such an attraction back then. It took another 10 years for those feelings to resurface after she ended a long-term relationship with a boyfriend. She began to accept that she liked being with a woman. For Taali, “This realization at first was very scary. I wanted to know what was wrong with me, if a bad childhood experience made me gay or something. It definitely felt like a crisis. It felt like taking on a battle for the rest of my life. How was I to tell my parents? Would I ever tell my parents? What would they/people say? How would they treat me? Will people stop talking to me? Would I be alone in this? At that point I just wanted to will it away.”
Soon, she started watching the television show “The L Word,” and visiting Outwrite, a bookstore in Atlanta that specialized in LGBT books. Taali says she “met some desi queer folks, started going to lesbian clubs, had a short-lasting affair with a woman, got myself a desi lesbian friend, and talked these feelings and experiences through.”
Finally, she came out to family and to roommates from India who had been in the U.S. for only a year. “I was nervous, scared of what they’d think or say. But I felt that I had to tell them to be honest to myself and to be honest with them. The scariest thing about it was that I didn’t know what their understanding of the subject was.”
Coming out for Taali is an ongoing process and the support of South Asian LGBTQ community has been invaluable. She notes, “When I was first exploring and accepting my sexuality, community showed me that people find love even when they’re different and can be happy. Then, after finding love, community showed me that coming out to one’s family is possible. Parents may have different reactions and their acceptance level will probably evolve over time.” Taali says that now that she feels safe, she thinks of coming out to her extended family in India, “Chances are low that I’m the only queer kid in the family! Me taking steps towards starting conversations with cousins, uncles, and aunts, might help someone else feel brave and be themselves, too!”
“I’ve lived two lives,” says Nauman Butt, a gay man who emigrated from Pakistan to the U.S. fifteen years ago. He describes his life in Pakistan as “horrible, a very rocky road.” He says his life in the U.S. has been “amazingly smooth,” adding, “I think I love America more than I love myself.” He believes that changing countries changed his life.
Butt grew up in Lahore with a modern mother who married into a family of wealthy religious fanatics. He says he knew something about him was different. When guys insulted women in his all male school, “I identified with the women.”
Nauman Butt was tormented at school for being a sissy—and he was sexually abused by a cousin and an uncle between the ages of 8 and 14.
He was marked as a sissy early on and tormented at school. At high school in America he started dating a girl but he still couldn’t shake the harassment. It got so bad he couldn’t attend either his prom or his graduation. And that was the trauma on the surface. Butt had been sexually abused by a cousin and an uncle between the ages of 8 and 14.
For Butt, there was no solace or support. When he told his father what was happening his father yelled at him and hit him demanding to know “What did you do to entice?” The trauma of those memories still affects him in his capacity to connect intimately with other men.
In the U.S., Butt found freedom. “When you go through pain, that is when you start understanding others’ pain,” he says, and adds, “If I erased the past I would never know the joy of being myself.”
Coming to the U.S. for school in 2002 gave him his first taste of personal freedom. Within a few months he was wearing clothes of his choosing and beginning to explore gay life. An aunt in the U.S., a lesbian herself, supported him initially. Later, he moved to Atlanta to study at SCAD and found the gay community including Trikone. When his father discovered Butt was openly gay and cut him off financially, demanding that he return to Pakistan, Trikone came to his rescue, organizing a loan that allowed him to stay in the U.S. and finish his education.
Butt is estranged from his father but his mother—now divorced—visits Butt and his partner regularly. Two years ago, Butt became a U.S. citizen. He works as an account manager for Coca Cola where he is open about his sexuality. He is philosophical about his life experience, “When you go through pain, that is when you start understanding others’ pain.” He adds with a broad smile, “If I erased the past I would never know the joy of being myself.”
Janak and Mohammed—Co-founders of Trikone
Janak and Mohammed met in the early 1990’s. Both were involved in sports groups in Atlanta’s larger gay community. It was there they met Rakesh Ratti and the three of them organized the first meetings of the Atlanta Trikone group, the city’s first group for LGBTQ South Asians. The group met in members’ homes initially with only 4 or 5 at each meeting. They sponsored socials and discussion groups on the second Saturday of each month. The group provided both a social outlet for LGBTQ South Asians and an opportunity to talk about differences in their experiences from those of the white LGBTQ community. One powerful difference had to do with family relationships. Janak says, “There is more community cohesion in the East and more independence in the West.” Mohammed noted, “There is a different upbringing and a different relationship with family.”
Mohammed, a CPA and retired banker, moved to the U.S. in 1982. He was born in Tanzania where his family had lived for three generations. When he was a young teenager he thought being gay was “glamorous.” He was 19 when his family moved to the U.K and he found a gay youth group but he was private about his sexual orientation for a long time. He says, “You just did not come out,” during those years. When he moved to Atlanta he was quietly open about being gay and participated in community activities including the gay running club Front Runners. The AIDS epidemic made coming out more necessary. When his best friend died of AIDS, Mohammed delivered his eulogy in their Ismaili mosque. He came out to his parents who had moved to Canada. His mother had seen television programs about parents rejecting gay children and made it clear this would never happen with her son. She said, “We had no clue about what being gay meant,” and dismissed fear of the judgement of others, “they are not feeding me.”
Mohammed is active in both his mosque and in Trikone where he sees himself as an elder. He says that while getting older is scary in the youth oriented gay subculture he has younger and older friends many of whom he knows from Trikone. He says Trikone for him is “like family.”
Janak, a software engineer, grew up in Mumbai and came to the U.S. in 1984 to attend graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. He decided to come out first to a close friend, then to his sisters and finally, to his parents. “I did not want to be a stranger to them,” he explained, “I was getting to marriage age and becoming generally irritable.” He said, “They knew something was up.”
After telling his parents Janak says he was on a “coming out high.” He explains, “Every time you tell someone you feel a little more powerful.” He met his partner at Trikone. They were best friends before they began dating. They have been together for twelve years now and Janak’s parents and his partner’s mother live with them. Janak feels that growing up in India made it easier for him and for his family to deal with his being gay. He says, “There is an advantage to not growing up in a minority.”
Both Mohammed and Janak stress the importance of family in the South Asian LGBTQ community. Mohammed notes that they have met the parents of many of their friends. Janak points out there is no religious stigma about being gay in the Hindu faith. He says of most coming out, “if your relationship with your parents is good, it will be fine.”
Kiran (not her real name) was born in India and moved to the U.S. in the 2000’s with her parents. She became aware of being different in adolescence, “I had a lot of girlfriends growing up and I had a crush on my best friend in middle school, but I didn’t realize that’s what it was. I had a few crushes on close friends since then and I kept filing that under “I’m just overbearing as a friend and I should tone that down.” It was a huge relief accepting that I’m queer because all these crushes made sense all of a sudden. I felt like who I am made more sense.”
She came out to her parents after she had been with her girlfriend for about a year. She says she wanted her parents to know her girlfriend better, “It was very emotional for all involved. Being South Asian, there was instant homophobia and concern for “what would others say?” Also, because I’m South Asian, my parents didn’t really know a lot about what it means to be gay or that there isn’t a medical exam for it. It just is. So they think it’s a phase.” This is part of the reason that Kiran decided not to use her real name for this article. She wants to respect her parents’ feelings and their need for privacy right now. She says, “It’s hard to be out in the community because of where my parents are so I have to stay in the closet and answer aunties on whether I have a boyfriend and when I’m getting married. I have a few good friends who are queer and South Asian, so we’re going through this process of figuring together and creating a community together, which is amazing. There’s a level of solidarity there that’s very special to me.”
Kiran hopes that South Asian cultural spaces will be more LGBTQ friendly in the future. She says, “I want to have a family with my girlfriend. I want to raise kids. I want my kids to go to cultural events just like we did as children. That’s hard to implement because most straight South Asians don’t know enough about queer people and tend to think “their world” is apart from their own. That’s changing for my generation so I hope cultural spaces will be more LGBTQ friendly in the future.”
Dhananjay Chauhan was just five when a family wedding at home in Chandigarh, India became a battle between her and her family. “My parents brought male dress to me but I refused to wear it. I cried for female dress and my parents brought a skirt for me,” she says. Chauhan is now 46 and is married with two adult children. Although she dresses as a man for the sake of her family she says, “I live in male clothes but my soul is female. Being a transwoman doesn’t mean I can change my looks to appear more like the female stereotype. I can’t change my dress due to my children and because of the Indian mind set. They will discriminate against my family and I am scared for them.”
Chauhan has reasons to be afraid. As a boy of 8 Chauhan was befriended by a 15-year-old boy who wanted sex from her. She did not want sex but the relationship was important to her. When she was 12 she realized she was attracted to boys. When she was 16 she realized something was “wrong” about her difference. She became a target of abuse and bullying by schoolmates and neighborhood boys. Chauhan says, “I went into isolation. I would go to school and sit quietly. I pretended to laugh and involved myself with school activities but my different orientation became a barrier in my daily life. I went into a depression and I used to cry in my room. I tried to [commit] suicide but I couldn’t die. Time passed and when I went to college the same things happened to me. I won my prizes in music and dance but it couldn’t give me relief. Because my sexual orientation trapped me all the time. I felt that I [was] in the wrong body. I should [have been] a girl. When my parents pressured me to marry a girl I refused because I thought my attraction is not for girls. But they pressured me. Even I thought maybe I will be fine after I marry a girl. I got married at the age of 22.”
Dhananjay Chauhan was pressured to marry and thought maybe things would be fine after marriage...but it only got worse.
Things only got worse for Chauhan after her marriage. She went to work at the university in Chandigarh and her wife had two children. While coping with depression, she was entrapped by the local police who foisted false charges against her for a scandal at the university. During the 5-day police custody, she was beaten, intimidated, and sexually abused. The police threatened that if she did not sign papers admitting to guilt over a crime she had no part in they would tell her family that she was gay. After days of abuse Chauhan signed the papers and was sent to jail for 8 months. Because of her firsthand experience with police brutality and extortion she decided to work on behalf of the LGBTQ community once she was released from prison.
She knew she had to share the reality of her situation with her wife to protect them both from future attempts at blackmail. Chauhan says, “Slowly, slowly, I started discussions with my wife about LGBTQ community. When we would see a transgendered person we’d start a discussion. I told her about Indian mythology, about Krishna’s male devotees who would dress like Radha and live like women to show their devotion to him. After [a] few years she understood it all. And after that I disclosed that my sexual orientation was also different. She said, ‘I don’t have a problem with it. It is not your fault you are homosexual. It is natural’.” She told Chauhan she also understood that society had forced her to marry a woman.
Chauhan's wife was understanding after slowly learning about the situation; she and the children support Chauhan in being with Chauhan's Dutch boyfriend (pictured at left).
After Chauhan came out to his wife, she began to organize the local LGBTQ community. The first LGBTQ Pride Walk in Chandigarh was organized by Chauhan in 2013 with the full support of her wife and children, students from Panjab University and the Chandīgarh LGBTQ community. In this year’s march Chauhan marched with her Dutch boyfriend. She wants to marry her boyfriend but to do so must divorce her wife. Her wife and their children are supportive and recognize the deep bond between the two. They will have to live in the Netherlands in order to be married. Chauhan will continue to work for LGBTQ rights in India. She works with SAKSHM Trust, an organization in Chandigarh that advocates for LGBTQ equal rights, and provides counseling for LGBTQ youth as well as job and mental health counseling for the community. Chauhan maintains, “India should annul IPC 377, the hateful discriminatory law which is against homosexual people. Police and society misuse this law. People should understand us. Love is not crime. Sex, sexuality, and gender education must be taught in schools, colleges and universities People should be tolerant and empathetic.” Chauhan is emphatic, “Our LGBTQ community is living in depression due [to] social and familial oppression but we are trying to fight and come out. If our government gives equal rights to everyone then our community will feel relief. Otherwise we are dying here. It is silent death.”
Pritwinder Kaur is an LGBTQ activist who lives in Hyderabad, India. She is one of the organizers of the annual Queer Swabhimana Yatra in her city. The Swabhimana Yatra, which literally translates as Self-respect March has happened four times now since it began in 2012. Kaur says, “Considering the amount of discussions, disagreements, and debates we go through during planning every year it is safe to assume we are a very diverse group, in terms of our occupations, social backgrounds, age and ideology.” She says about 40-50 people participate in the organizing and 400-500 people attend the event including a significant number of straight allies. Kaur says “Whether the number is relatively large or small is difficult to ascertain considering that a significant portion of the queer population in the city refrain from any events that might inadvertently oust them from the closet.”
There are no openly gay bars in Hyderabad, a city of over 7 million people. Kaur says there are organizations like Queer Campus Hyderabad and Anveshi, a feminist organization, which organize events and support and that there are a few queer friendly hangouts. Kaur says, “Most people in Hyderabad are largely oblivious to or in denial about queer people and their existence in the city. This creates an interesting situation where their ignorance creates an umbrella of safety against bullying and discrimination yet sometimes complete and total disregard is worse than active hate.”
The annual Queer Swabhimana Yatra arouses curiosity in those who witness it. Kaur says the marchers carry the flags of every political party in the country, a rare sight that causes confusion, “which is great because confusion and curiosity make them pay attention. We have a small band of drums accompany us, so there’s some dancing and music accompanying our slogan-raising and placards. A lot of people take photos or record the march on their smartphones and we pass out pamphlets in English and our local language, Telugu, educating them about LGBTQ and our rights. The march so far has been peaceful.” Routes are chosen that will be peaceful and others are avoided because the people in those parts are notorious for their intolerance of LGBTQ people.
Kaur and her organizers work hard to get media coverage in both English and Telugu publications. Media coverage so far has been either neutral or positive. She says, “In the last decade awareness has been increasing rapidly and we find people, especially from urban backgrounds are accepting of queer people.” She adds, “The majority of the queer population is completely underground however, most of them presenting themselves as straight in public which makes having and maintaining a serious relationship difficult if not impossible.”
She points to “a basic lack of understanding of LGBTQ people, belittling representation of queer people as sex-hungry, promiscuous caricatures in mainstream movies and fear of rejection by society and family,” as the factors that make life most difficult for LGBTQ people in Hyderabad. She says for her the biggest joy as a queer person is “the warm, close, although covert community that we maintain which is our central support system for each other.”
Tanya (not her real name) is from Dhaka, Bangladesh and lives in Atlanta where she is graduating from a university this year. She says there were no overt gender roles in her family. She explains, “I’m Muslim and that certainly colored the way my family and our society viewed gender roles but I never felt any overt discrimination. Both my parents worked, my parents gave me all the same opportunities that my brothers had. I think I began feeling different when I was 15 and 16, my family really didn’t think that much about it, but it is with my friends where I felt the difference. I didn’t have the same interests as them, I didn’t like wearing the same clothes as them.”
Tanya identifies as queer. She says she came out to her brother when she was 16 and he was very supportive. It was the same year she moved to the U.S. and a gay straight alliance group was starting at her high school. She says, “This was an incredible space for me as I meet LGBT peers for the first time there. The internet really helped me a lot as it was the only way that I could get more information about being queer.” Still it was difficult for her because she didn’t see a lot of South Asians in the queer community. She says, “It was after I connected to the queer South Asian community that I felt ok in all my identities.” Tanya notes there are “queer South Asian spaces” all across the country but only in major cities. In addition she recommends as very helpful, the Muslim Alliance for Gender and Sexual Diversity (MASGD).
Rahul Doshi (not his real name) comes from an Indian family that lived in Kenya before moving to the U.S. where he was born. He grew up in a Northern suburban area where there was an Indian community. When his family moved to the Atlanta suburbs he found it hard to make friends. Doshi responded by making academics and music a priority and excelled in both areas. He had heard about gay people at age 13 but only from a negative point of view. He repressed gay feelings in high school and did his best to fit in to the white privileged culture of his private school. He came out in college. His girlfriend from his freshman year came out to him first as lesbian. He says, “She was brave enough to accept that part of herself. A year later I came out to her.”
Telling his family came next. Doshi has a Hindu Punjabi father and a Jain Gujarati mother. The family is not overtly religious but the Jain cultural influence is there. In addition to the nonviolence practiced by Jains is a concern for other people’s feelings. Doshi was taught that “everything you do represents your family.” He adds with emphasis, “You are your family.” He still struggles to find the balance between being himself and being the son of immigrant parents who are “a minority within a minority.”
His father is a scientist and accepted Doshi’s gayness more easily than his mother, who was confounded by his admission. She knew little about LGBTQ people and thought of gayness as “a white person’s problem.” She has been more accepting with time and Doshi feels fortunate not to have experienced much negativity from family or friends as he has shared his sexual orientation with them. He still wants to fit in, to be successful and have a good job. After he graduates from university this spring, he is headed to graduate school for professional training. He wonders about his future and how his cultural background will affect it. He asks the question with a bemused look, “Will I have a traditional Indian marriage?” And he doesn’t mean to a woman.
There are many South Asian communities and only a few are represented here. Likewise, there are many expressions of LGBTQ and only a small number are included in this article. What is hoped for from heterosexual readers is understanding, tolerance and empathy. What is extended to LGBTQ readers is a sense of common ground, community and hope. Our challenges, the issues that divide us, don’t go away. But listening to each other brings insight if not agreement. Hopefully this article will be the first of many to explore how South Asian culture and the LGBTQ experience overlap. Please see the online version of this article for more individual stories—stories that span five decades. Our oldest interviewee is almost 70 and our youngest are in their very early 20s. They are from Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Jain backgrounds. They were born in India, Africa, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the U.S. They identify as gay, lesbian, transgender and queer.
You, the reader, whatever your background and wherever your location, are now part of their story. These lines from Rabindranath Tagore bring us full circle: The singer alone does not make the song, there has to be someone who hears.
Thanks to these brave singers and thanks to you who have taken the time to hear.
Franklin Abbott is a psychotherapist and writer in Atlanta. He has been active in the LGBTQ community for many years.
Resources for LGBTQ South Asians in Atlanta
Trikone Atlanta is a loosely structured and volunteer driven organization. Primarily a web-based outfit, Trikone offers virtual space for sharing and discussing topics of interest to the LGBT South Asian community in the Atlanta and Georgia area. Whenever feasible and depending on the availability of a meeting space, the group also organizes dinner potlucks for existing members to catch up and for new members to meet other LGBTQ South Asian members in a social space. These events are usually organized at a member’s house. While Trikone Atlanta has had a very active physical presence (as opposed to just virtual) in the past, we believe the proliferation of internet and mobile apps often facilitate easy connection for new South Asian LGBTQ members with the existing community and that has perhaps led to the not-so-active physical presence of the group.
Find out more at: http://www.trikoneatlanta.org/ & Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Trikone-Atlanta-165085756909402/?fref=ts
Desi lgbtQ Helpline for South Asians: http://deqh.org/, 908-FOR-DEQH (908-367-3374)
Raksha, Inc. (http://www.raksha.org) is a South Asian community organization in Atlanta that has had a long relationship with Trikone members and can provide pointers and resources for folks who are struggling with coming out issues or are looking for a likeminded community.
Support groups for parents and LGBTQ persons:
Second Saturday of every month, 2pm – 4pm, held in a private home. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for location and further information. Individual groups for parents or individual meetings for LGBTQ persons are also available.
A new meetup group is available for LGBTQ South Asian women. You can find us at http://www.meetup.com/Atlanta-Desi-BLTQ-Womens-Meetup/
Why do South Asian cultures adopt an ostrich-like attitude to LGBTQ issues? SURINDER BAL explains.
South Asian families are hierarchical, relational, and patriarchal. They emphasize interdependence, respect, dignity, self-control and modesty. The family, the extended family, and relationships within the community are highly valued, and these bonds are conscientiously nurtured by parents.
Concepts like izzat (honor) and sharam (shame), which are closely tied to morality, become integral to how South Asians value themselves and others. These concepts are monitored at the personal, family, and community level. Consequently, izzat and sharam permeate all aspects of life, playing a powerful role in guiding life choices.
A strong affiliation to modesty and morality means that sex and sexuality, especially at the personal level, is rarely an open topic of discussion in the family home. There is no comfortable space and language for discussing sexuality in this environment.
At the same time, parents traditionally play a close role in their children’s lives throughout their lifetime. Unlike Western culture where independence is encouraged and valued, the South Asian collectivist culture desires strong and close ties throughout the life span cycles. Traditionally parents are heavily invested in their children’s welfare, and seeing their children married and having children of their own, is a crucial part of their parental duty and sense of well-being. Marriage, and the procreation of children, play a huge role in South Asian culture.
Consequently, heteronormative values and beliefs are deeply rooted in South Asian culture. While South Asians are acculturating to Western values, these most often primarily relate to changes that support success in career, work, and general participation in the majority culture. The internal values and beliefs that influence personal and family expectations largely remain firmly rooted in the South Asian culture.
An LGBTQ identity, therefore, is seen as an outright threat to these deep rooted heteronormative values and beliefs, dismantling the traditional prescriptive life path. Also, awareness of LGBTQ-related issues is low within the South Asian community as it is commonly still seen as a Western concern or even “problem” and therefore is a “chosen” lifestyle that can be “rectified”. Consequently, there is disconnect between LGBTQ issues and the South Asian culture and community. As a result, when a child discloses a non-heteronormative identity, it comes a shock out of the blue, bringing with it huge perceived repercussions.
Not surprisingly, the wellbeing of LGBTQ individuals is heavily influenced by parental acceptance and the continuation of familial and community bonds within the South Asian community. On the other side, their parents are a conflicted lot, faced with the fear of losing their child if they fail to address their own internalized homophobia and heterosexism. Love for their child, honor, shame, immorality, and loss of a prescriptive dream mingle with fear of judgment and rejection from family and community—creating a very complex and highly emotional state within which the LGBTQ identity is negotiated.
The mental and emotional upheaval involved on both sides significantly increases the risk of mental health issues, especially for the LGBTQ child, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and even suicidal risk.
South Asian LGBTQ persons and their families frequently express feelings of isolation and lack of access to resources as a common problem. Resources targeted for white LGBTQ populations are often found to not address these cultural issues. Finding a community that shares and understands the intersection of these identities is therefore important for promoting the healthy integration of the LGBTQ identity and alleviating some of the isolation and alienation that stagnates progress and growth.
(Please see our “Resources…” sidebar (above) in this story, which provides some such support groups in the Atlanta region.)
Surinder Bal is a counselor working with a diverse population with a focus on the LGBT population. She is currently doing her dissertation on the lived experiences of same-sex attracted South Asian women.
Website Bonus Feature
This is an expanded version of our print article with stories of 10 more individuals—providing a more comprehensive mix of identities, backgrounds, religion, and nationalities within the South Asian diaspora.
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