Culture

The under-represented side of LGBTQI+: Being Desi, queer and a woman

Co-written by Becky Waldron and Ruby Hinchliffe

Illustrated by Keziah Cader

With the ever-increasing prevalence of the LGBTQI+ community in Western cultures, it’s easy to forget the more complicated circumstances of those who face not just a country’s acceptance, but also a community’s acceptance too.

With gay sex now legal in India, and same-sex marriage now legal in Taiwan, it’s not just a narrative of the ‘progressive West’. We’re seeing change all over the world, in countries long-deemed by the West as ‘backwards’ and ‘behind-the-times’.

We spoke to Yasmin, a young Desi woman who is living in Texas, U.S. For those unfamiliar with the word ‘Desi’, it describes people and cultures of the Indian subcontinent. That’s Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The term can also refer to those who carry these country’s cultures beyond their borders, into the rest of the world.

Yasmin also identifies as queer.

Growing up, not only did she feel concerned about raising the topic of her sexual identity, but the lack of Desi LGBTQI+ figures around her made her feel even more isolated.

In the Anglo American LGBTQI+ community, and media as a whole, the representation is still predominantly white, and arguably always has been.

We speak to Yasmin about her sexuality and her culture, as well as her experiences with the two as a queer Desi woman.

(Source: womensweb.in)

BW: Tell me about yourself and your background

Y: “I was born in the U.S. to Pakistani parents. I was raised Shia Muslim. I’ve moved around the U.S. but I’ve mostly lived in the south (Georgia, Texas) and New York City. I identify as bisexual.”

BW: Do you face any particular struggles as a queer Desi woman?

Y: I’d say the biggest struggle I’ve faced is lack of representation and lack of acceptance in LGBTQI+ spaces. There isn’t much discussion of sexuality in the South Asian community, so I find that most queer Desis will keep to themselves. Growing up, I remember thinking there weren’t any
gay Desis because I never met a person who was Desi and out.

Another reason most of us keep to ourselves is that we don’t want to deal with the double-whammy of being a person of colour (POC) and LGBTQI+. Queer spaces in the U.S. tend to be overwhelmingly white and it can be very difficult to find people who understand us there.

Ideally, we would be able to form our own communities. I see that happening a little bit here and there, typically with online communities. But I think we need more representation of ourselves in the media to feel more comfortable and visible. More people like Tan France in the new Queer Eye, for instance. Seeing him on such a big TV show has been wonderful.

Tan France (Source: YouTube)

“Ideally, we would be able to form our own communities. I see that happening a little bit here and there, typically with online communities.

Yasmin

BW: How did you come out to your family and friends?

Y: I don’t have a big coming out story. I very casually will mention my sexuality to friends I feel comfortable with and it’s not a big deal. My immediate family is very liberal and had expressed way before I realised I was LGBTQI+ that it wouldn’t matter to them if I was.

I haven’t had a queer relationship serious enough to introduce the person to my family. When that time comes, I’d probably have a more formal talk with them about it. It could be a bigger issue with some extended family, but I don’t see them often enough to feel like I need to be out to them.

I think it’s important to note that I was born and raised in the U.S. and my family has been here for a very long time. My experience is going to be vastly different to someone who lives in India or Pakistan.

I get the sense that people expect me to have a dramatic coming out story due to my race and religious upbringing. That’s not the case with me. I didn’t have a light-bulb moment when I realised I wasn’t straight, it happened gradually over time and it took me a while to figure it out. I never felt the need to ‘come out’ and I honestly think that’s how it should be. Straight people don’t have to come out, so we shouldn’t have to either.

“I get the sense that people expect me to have a dramatic coming out story due to my race and religious upbringing. That’s not the case with me.”

Yasmin

BW: To those who can’t understand how being LGBTQI+ is possible in some cultures, how do you explain the relationship between being queer and your own religion?

Y: I’m not personally religious. But on the issue that some people don’t understand how being LGBTQI+ is possible in some cultures, I’d point out that being gay or transgender is not a new concept. It has existed in all cultures and societies.

It may not fit the same definitions of modern LGBTQI+ culture. Hijras, for example, are a third gender in South Asia. There isn’t really a Western equivalent for hijras and it doesn’t fit neatly into any LGBTQI+ category – it’s a uniquely South Asian identity. And actually a lot of the homophobia in South Asian culture can actually be traced back to when Britain colonised India.

Hijras (Source: The Guardian)

“A lot of the homophobia in South Asian culture can actually be traced back to when Britain colonised India.”

Yasmin

BW: How would you talk about the U.S. states you grew up in and their attitude to change?

Same-sex marriage only became legal in all 50 U.S. states about four years ago. But growing up in the South, I encountered many people who were in a same-sex marriage, and back then I never could have imagined it becoming legal everywhere.

So it’s a bit hypocritical for people in Western countries to act like the rest of the world is backwards and incapable of accepting LGBTQI+ rights. Each culture and country will have to work through their own process.

BW: Are there any emerging role models you can think of or are excited about for desi queer people?

I mentioned Tan France. Shonali Bose is another very cool person. She is a film director and producer. She created the film Margarita with a Straw, which features a relationship between two women. And Bose herself is bisexual.

Shonali Bose (Source: IMDB)

Apurva Asrani is a huge voice for LGBTQI+ issues in India.

I haven’t seen too many LGBTQI+ desis in Western media. I wonder if the reason behind is that we’re already minorities in the West and we don’t want to deal with having two stigmas against us.

BW: What do you think about this U.S. desi same-sex couple, Anjali Chakra and Sufi Malik, who are sharing their relationship with the world?

Anjali Chakra and Sufi Malik

Y: I think they’re adorable and I love seeing them be so open about their relationship. I think stuff like this is exactly what we need – more people willing to put themselves out there so that others can see themselves being represented and know that they’re not alone.

Positive representation of minorities has a real effect. It gives minorities role models to look up to instead of seeing harmful stereotypes or not seeing themselves at all. It helps humanise us to other demographics and also helps spark discussion among communities.

“We need more people willing to put themselves out there so that others can see themselves being represented and know that they’re not alone.”

Yasmin
Anjali Chakra and Sufi Malik by Keziah Cader

BW: If you could tell your younger self one thing when she realised she was queer, what would it be?

Y: Just because you don’t see other gay people who look like you doesn’t mean they don’t exist. They’re out there. You’re not alone.

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