Coming Home: Queer South Asians and the Politics of Family

The first time I went to a gay club the only other South Asian in the room came up to me and asked, “Do your parents know?” I didn’t need to ask, “About what?” I knew the answer — the way I know people. The way I knew who I was but didn’t know the language to explain it to my family. The way I know that there are so many of us who find ourselves lost in translation.

We proceeded to have a skill share right there at the bar about the best ways to explain our queerness to our parents.

This is not an isolated instance.

When queer South Asians together chances are we’re going to start speaking about our families of origin. We will talk about that disconnect: the queer communities we have built on our own and the…well…complete opposite we experience when we go back home. As activists we find ourselves in an even thornier place: navigating how to have conversations about our life work with families who would rather we just be making money. It’s really quite funny actually: how those known as a loud and unwavering voice at the rally fall back into the passive recipient of food and unsolicited advice when we are back home.

The more that I’ve built community with other queer (South) Asians, the more I’ve begin to think about how these conversations about blood family are actually part of our movement work. That impromptu skillshare at the bar, that discussion potluck (I mean crying session), and those daily phone calls with extended blood family are campaign strategies that we are engaging in. What we are trying to do is create new language and framework that actually make sense for our experiences.

The fixation on blood family in queer (South) Asian politics is not about us romanticizing heteronormative kinship and glossing over the routine violence we experience in these settings. Nor is it about us being duped by a conservative rhetoric of family values and suggesting that our families of origin should be the only site of our political work — for to do so would actively harm the broader based movements for racial and economic justice that we are a part of. This is about resisting a white queer logic of disposability and creating a possibility to develop alternative ways build relationships with our families of origin on our own terms. 

I want to suggest that our attachments to our blood families are not only sentimental, they are political. This sentimentality, this angst, this emotional labor is legitimate political work. Our turn toward our families of origin is part of a strategy of intimate organizing – a type of political work that often gets erased or dismissed by dominant white and masculine standards of queer visibility. In a political climate where radicalism is increasingly being attributed to individual activists developing individual political theory and finding individual liberation, our turn back to the blood family is a form of critique. It suggests a commitment to a type of collective liberation and a practice of solidarity where we refuse to allow our people to be disposable in our movement work.

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It has taken me years for me to name the depths to which I subscribed to a white narrative of queer liberation. In one sense ‘coming out’ could signify the expression of my queerness. But on whose terms? Visibility for whom?

For me coming out was more about a physical act of departure – leaving South Asian spaces that I found to be too ‘traditional’ or too ‘conservative’ and becoming one of the only South Asians in queer community. Coming out meant judging my family of origin for just not understanding me. So, I sought validation from non-South Asians and found my political ‘home’ elsewhere.

In one telling of the story I ‘found’ my queerness and became an activist outside of my people. However, to subscribe to this story would be to relegate my family – and by extension, my people – into a space chiefly defined by its apathy and conservatism. White supremacy has long relied on such a trope: that immigrants and people of color are too ‘conservative’ and ‘too traditional.’

I bought into the story and defined my queerness and my politics always in contrast to my family of origin.

But what I soon learned is that as queer South Asians we navigate a complicated cultural landscape where we often are not afforded control of our own narratives. Our telling of personal violence often gets swallowed by white supremacy in the service of its racist and imperialist agenda. This is because the cultural logics that help maintain structural racism are stronger than our individual stories.

When my white peers would hear about the queerphobia I experienced from my people it would give power to a larger imperialist narrative that immigrants and people of color are traditional and conservative and therefore need to be educated or saved (read: occupied and exploited). My white peers would ask irrelevant questions like when my parents immigrated to this country and what access to education they had as if Western education and citizenship are necessary for queer politics. My white peers would ask me how fluent in English they were – as if access to English is at all correlated with queer violence. They would ask me why I was still in contact with them, why I didn’t just cut my connections.

What became evident is that my individual narratives could not pierce through the logics of orientalism which continue to find ways to position brown folks as ess developed than the Western world. What white queers don’t understand is that the entire mandate of racist assimilation in this country is about us being forced to give up our culture, tradition, and families. Assimilation has always been about us hating ourselves and feeling insecure in our bodies, families, and cultures. White folks do not understand how so many of us are not willing to leave our cultures for our queerness – how so many of us carry more complex identities than just our genders and sexualities.

It was only through building community with other queers South Asians and other queer communities of color that I began to find ways to narrate trauma in a way that felt more safe and authentic. In these communities we can name the intricacies of familial violence and not be judged for deciding to return. In these spaces I began to learn knowledge about diaspora and the history of South Asia. Collectively we began to recognize that our immigrant families are not just transphobic, they are also ‘colonized.’ I learned the ways in which colonialism in South Asia and white supremacy in the United States has always relied on regulating the genders and sexualities of my people. I learned the ways in which racism operates by enforcing and policing the gender binary and compulsory heterosexuality on communities of color. I recognized that my family is just as broken as I am but they never had the time and space to really process and heal from the violence of colonialism, the terror of Partition, the trauma of diaspora – let alone the English to articulate it to me.

Rather than blaming my own communities for our lack of queer South Asian visibility I began to realize that our diaspora responds to racism with heteronormativity. External threat engenders intimate violence. In the white telling of the story my family is just prejudiced. But in my telling of the story my people have been so forcibly disconnected from their culture and tradition that they cling desperately onto heteronormativity to maintain some semblance of self. In the white telling of the story my people are acting from a place of power and violence. In my telling of the story my people are acting from a place of hurt.

Trauma seeps through generations.

My experiences returning to South Asian spaces have allowed me to understand the ways in which white queer politics relies on the expression of liberation as an individual and not collective process. The narrative goes that we are supposed to ‘come out’ (read: leave our blood families) and participate in the ‘movement’ (read: public visibility) and join ‘alternative kinships’ (which are necessarily supposed to be more radical and more supportive than our families of origin). Both understandings of ‘queerness’ and ‘activism’ often rely on us leaving our cultural homes in order to participate in the ‘movement.’ We often witness a hierarchy of political work – with those who are doing the most ‘public’ (defined by standards of white supremacy) being upheld as leaders, while those of us  doing the slow and deliberate work of building within our own immigrant communities have our labor erased. What white queer politics neglect is that many of us have more complicated relationships with our blood families that make this ‘separation’ not only more difficult, but also contradictory to our anti-racism.

It’s not just that our families are prejudiced, it is that our families are powerful. It is that our families carry long histories of both trauma and resistance in their bones and that we refuse to dispose of them like this racist country.

For those of us who still have access to our families or communities of origin and can interact with them without fear of significant harm, I believe that it is important that we do this slow and intimate work of finding ways to translate our queerness. This work of coming to terms with our ‘queer’ and ‘(South) Asian’ identities cannot be the only site of our movement work (as is often the case). We must continue to mobilize in solidarity with other oppressed peoples and address prejudice within our own. Certainly we are all still trying to figure out the best strategies to do this work and to still remain safe and secure. Certainly we are going to fuck up. Certainly it’s some of the hardest work that we can do because often our validation relies on approval from the very people who may deny and abuse us. But this type of work feels important nonetheless to so many of us. And there is power and politics in that feeling. Like the same way so many of us know that we will invite our mothers to live with us when they get too old to care for themselves (regardless of what our queer communities might think).

Because when I think about the future, when I think about the world that I am fighting for…I know that I am not interested in being part of the revolution unless my mother will be right there beside me.
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NEW YORK CITY – On the eve of one the nation’s largest gay pride parades, a rainbow of colors illuminated the Empire State Building like a guiding light for hundreds of thousands of people flowing into the city for Sunday’s festivities.

But just a couple of avenues east in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, transgender rights activists crowded into a dim room, reading speeches and poems about why they were skipping this year’s Pride festivities.

“While you’re off celebrating Pride, our community is dealing with the brutal deaths of Zoraida Reyes, Tiff Edwards, Yaz’min Shancez,” said Lourdes Ashley Hunter, speaking at an anti-Pride event organized by poet activists DarkMatter. Hunter is a member of the Audre Lorde Project’sTransJustice program, a New York-based organization for trans and gender non-conforming people of color.

The tagline of NYC Pride’s website reads, “Yesterday’s struggle is today’s heritage.” However, for transgender people of color the struggle continues.

Every week of June this year – a month designated to remember the history and struggle of the LGBT community – a transgender woman of color was found dead.

On June 3, Kandy Hall’s body was found in a field northeast of Baltimore. Eight days later, on June 11, Zoraida Reyes, a 28-year-old Mexican activist involved in Southern California transgender and immigration advocacy groups, was found behind a Dairy Queen. Her death is still being investigated as suspicious. On June 19, the burned body of Yaz’min Shancez, 31, was found behind a dumpster. And on June 26, three days before New York and San Francisco Pride, 28-year-old Tiff Edwards was found shot to death in a suburb of Ohio.

Hunter’s speech at the start of the “Anti-Pride” poetry slam captured the feelings of many transgender people of color.

“The mortality rate of a black trans woman is 35 years old,” Hunter said. “I’m not supposed to be here…put that on the cover of Time.”

Although the grand marshals leading this year’s San Francisco and Manhattan Pride parades were both black transgender women (writer Janet Mock and actress Laverne Coxof “Orange Is the New Black” fame, respectively), activists objected that the violent deaths of four transgender women of color weren’t discussed in the mainstream media as Pride parades were being thrown across the world. Despite their violent deaths, the four transgender women were only covered by local and metro news outlets.

“Honestly, it makes me think that having Laverne Cox as a grand marshal is for show…they want organizations to show that they are inclusive,” said Jay Toole, a lesbian activist who participated in the 1969 Stonewall riots that triggered the start of the LGBT rights movement.

Many like Toole see a problem in the incongruity between the estimated millions watching Laverne Cox and the public’s ignorance towards the daily violences transgender people face.

“Pride has become less about resistance and [more] about partying,” said Janani Balasubramanian, an organizer with the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, an organization that advocates for the rights of undocumented queer and transgender people. “There’s severe, willful ignorance towards [these] issues and trans people of color.”

Solidarity on the streets

The Audre Lorde Project maintains that violence against trans and gender non-conforming people is increasing exponentially. According to a recent report by the Anti-Violence Project (AVP), trans women of color are especially vulnerable. In 2013, 89 percent of LGBT homicide victims were people of color, with 72 percent of those being transgender women, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.

“We’re seeing increased visibility, absolutely,” said Shelby Chestnut, AVP’s co-director of community organizing and public advocacy, “but the severity of violence impacting trans and gender non-conforming people of color remains the highest we’ve continued to see for multi-year trends both here in New York and nationally.”

To shine light on that violence, the Audre Lorde Project organized a march on the Friday afternoon before NYC Pride through Greenwich Village to “reclaim” the streets of the Stonewall Riots. Organizers deliberately called it a march and not a parade to highlight their calls for action. Their demands ranged from passing the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would make discrimination based on gender identity or expression in the state of New York illegal, to demanding that undocumented transgender individuals be granted asylum.

Audre Lorde Project TransJustice member Lourdes Ashley Hunter leads the June 27 march’s chants as attendees walk through New York's Greenwich Village.
Audre Lorde Project TransJustice member Lourdes Ashley Hunter leads the June 27 march’s chants as attendees walk through New York’s Greenwich Village.Kevin Tsukii/America Tonight

Roughly 1,000 transgender people and gay and straight cisgender — those who are the same gender they were born as — allies marched through the Village. They shouted chants like, “Whose streets? Our streets!” and “Trans people are under attack. What do we do? Stand up! Fight back!” They also chanted “Se ve, se siente, el pueblo está presente,” which translates to: “We see. We feel. We are here.”

“It’s really important to show solidarity with my transgender queer brothers and sisters,” said Dennis Chin, who was marching with the Gay Asian Pacific Islander Men of New York organization. “I think that they’re part of my community and I love them - so why wouldn’t I be here?”

Not all believed that boycotting Pride on Sunday was necessary. Many felt that Pride parades were just another way to increase the visibility of the issues facing the transgender community.

“I like Pride, I like rainbows and unicorns and glitter and I like Christmas,” said poet Cherno Biko, who identifies as a transgender woman. “What I got to do tomorrow morning is march with Laverne. Forty-five years after Stonewall, a trans woman of color is going to lead this march.”

Fighting for trans women

The Trans Day of Action march caught the attention of Cox and Mock, who endorsed the march and tweeted their support.

The march was a rare moment of unity for white transgender people, transgender people of color and gay and straight cisgender allies, according to transgender activist Madison St. Claire, who helps train New York Police Department recruits on trans issues. For example, the rally at the beginning of the march was translated for Spanish speakers. A sign language interpreter even translated speeches for the deaf and hard of hearing. St. Claire said that race divides the transgender community and that as a black transgender woman she’s “seen as the lowest on the totem pole.” However, the biggest divide she observed is between the cisgender gays and lesbians and the transgender community.

“You have to understand something: Pride Month has really nothing to do with the trans community,” said St. Claire, referencing that it was an event for cisgender gays and lesbians. “Just because Laverne Cox is the grand marshal of the Pride parade, which is a wonderful thing, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

As the march came to an end, organizers cautioned the crowd standing on the docks of the Christopher St. Pier to get home safely and travel in groups. Like St. Claire, Chin empathized with other transgender activists who felt excluded from Pride. As gay-marriage bans are struck down across the country, most recently in Kentucky, they felt that transgender rights have been left behind.

“[Gay marriage] seemed to become the face of the LGBT movement, [but] the movement is really much broader,” Chin said. “ I don’t mind if [marriage] is the face…but it’s like OK, we’re here fighting for trans women who, as you’ve heard, we’ve lost [four of] in the past month.”

When Representation Isn’t Enough: Why Not All of Us Are Proud

This month President Obama released a proclamation recognizing June as LGBT Pride Month. Just a couple of days earlier the Anti-Violence Project released its annual report documenting the violence experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people. According to this report, this past year we witnessed a 21 percent increase in physical violence against LGBTQ people. The proximity of these events is not coincidental; they highlight a dilemma we face as queer activists (of color) where our representation is regarded more than our reality.

In 1995, my aunt Urvashi Vaid, a lesbian activist, coined the term “Virtual Equality” to describe a political moment in the United States where the gay movement had achieved visibility without actually obtaining substantive access to power. Virtual equality was offered as a critique of a type of politics invested in representation––but not actually shifts in livelihood. While gays and lesbians had achieved unprecedented attention, they were still vulnerable to harm. Almost two decades later, as another queer brown activist, I find myself confronting the same curse of virtual equality––inheriting a movement that seems more invested in superlatives than statistics.

When Obama decided to recognize LGBT Pride, I wonder if he did his research. Pride, as we celebrate it today, was established to commemorate the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, an event that is often attributed as the beginning of the LGBT movement in the United States. Stonewall was not a corporate parade; it was a riot against police brutality that was initiated by trans and gender non-conforming people of color like Marsha P. Johnson. The same people who started our movement are still fighting for their lives today.

Despite recent media attention of transgender people of color––like Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox––these communities are experiencing increased violence. According to the AVP report, almost 90 percent of the LGBTQ homicides this past year were people of color. Almost three-quarters (72 percent) of homicide victims were transgender women. Of the survivors of violence, 32 percent expressed experiencing hostile attitudes from the police.

Not much has actually changed since 1969: the police are still profiling and harassing trans people of color. Representation does not trickle down to justice.

This June, I want us to take a moment to revisit Vaid’s idea of virtual equality and be more critical of how the lip service given to LGBT rights has not really translated to much on the ground. If we really commit ourselves to justice for all LGBT people, we must recognize the ways in which Pride has failed trans and gender non-conforming people of color. Obama’s words ring hollow when we recognize that it’s not actually getting better for our communities, it’s getting worse.

In this light Pride isn’t a cause for celebration; Pride is lethal. Pride is warping the truth: rainbows make us forget that the storm is still happening. Equality isn’t cause for celebration. Equality is a mirage: it is more about representation than reality. Our government wants to pretend that we are equal by giving us words, not giving us safety or housing.

As LGBTQ activists not only must we resist violence against our communities, we must also resist distorted media representation. Despite what Obama and your favorite Netflix series might suggest, violence against LGBT people is still the norm. It often feels like the bulk of the work we have to do as grassroots queer and trans activists is combat the (mis)representation of our stories. How are we supposed to actually build collective power to end violence when we spend most of our time doing damage control? How are we supposed to build a movement when we are forced into always having to be reactive rather than proactive?

This June I want us to think about the disconnect between a television screen and a back alley. I want us to stop only glorifying the success stories without also naming the prevalence of violence. I want us to recognize how representation does not mean rectification. Representation has and continues to distract us from the reality on the ground. The progressive narrative that it’s somehow getting better for LGBTQ people prevents us from recognizing that this narrative is just that: a story, a fiction, a fairy tale. How are we supposed to be proud when the very government that proclaims this month LGBT Pride month is routinely harassing and criminalizing LGBT people of color?

If there is one thing to celebrate this month, it is the legacy of resilience of trans and gender non-conforming people of color. It is the fact that despite staggering and chronic conditions of violence, our communities continue to find ways to support one another, and resist.

So this June for the 45th Anniversary of Stonewall, I invite you to dissent and reclaim our representation. Instead of participating in Pride festivities that distract us from reality, I invite you to join me on the streets to continue the work of the Stonewall Riots for the 10th Annual Trans Day of Action coordinated by the Audre Lorde Project – a march for the rights of trans and gender non-conforming people of color.

Our communities do not need lip service. We need safety and security. We need jobs and affordable housing. We need to be released from prisons. The LGBTQ community is not a political concept, theory, or abstraction. We are bodies facing routine and systematic attack. This Pride, I’m not interested in virtual equality, I’m interested in liberation. Join me?

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Alok (@DarkMatterRage) is an LGBTQ organizer with the Audre Lorde Project and a spoken word poet with DarkMatter.

@DarkMatterRage rant on academic culture & how it influences organizing.View the full rant hereFollow us on twitter and facebook to keep the convo going! @DarkMatterRage rant on academic culture & how it influences organizing.View the full rant hereFollow us on twitter and facebook to keep the convo going! @DarkMatterRage rant on academic culture & how it influences organizing.View the full rant hereFollow us on twitter and facebook to keep the convo going! @DarkMatterRage rant on academic culture & how it influences organizing.View the full rant hereFollow us on twitter and facebook to keep the convo going! @DarkMatterRage rant on academic culture & how it influences organizing.View the full rant hereFollow us on twitter and facebook to keep the convo going! @DarkMatterRage rant on academic culture & how it influences organizing.View the full rant hereFollow us on twitter and facebook to keep the convo going! @DarkMatterRage rant on academic culture & how it influences organizing.View the full rant hereFollow us on twitter and facebook to keep the convo going! @DarkMatterRage rant on academic culture & how it influences organizing.View the full rant hereFollow us on twitter and facebook to keep the convo going! @DarkMatterRage rant on academic culture & how it influences organizing.View the full rant hereFollow us on twitter and facebook to keep the convo going! @DarkMatterRage rant on academic culture & how it influences organizing.View the full rant hereFollow us on twitter and facebook to keep the convo going!

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View the full rant here
Follow us on twitter and facebook to keep the convo going!

END TRANSMISOGYNY by @DarkMatterRage On challenging the pervasiveness of transmisogyny within and outside of feminist spaces. We all collectively have to do better!See the full rant here END TRANSMISOGYNY by @DarkMatterRage On challenging the pervasiveness of transmisogyny within and outside of feminist spaces. We all collectively have to do better!See the full rant here END TRANSMISOGYNY by @DarkMatterRage On challenging the pervasiveness of transmisogyny within and outside of feminist spaces. We all collectively have to do better!See the full rant here END TRANSMISOGYNY by @DarkMatterRage On challenging the pervasiveness of transmisogyny within and outside of feminist spaces. We all collectively have to do better!See the full rant here END TRANSMISOGYNY by @DarkMatterRage On challenging the pervasiveness of transmisogyny within and outside of feminist spaces. We all collectively have to do better!See the full rant here END TRANSMISOGYNY by @DarkMatterRage On challenging the pervasiveness of transmisogyny within and outside of feminist spaces. We all collectively have to do better!See the full rant here END TRANSMISOGYNY by @DarkMatterRage On challenging the pervasiveness of transmisogyny within and outside of feminist spaces. We all collectively have to do better!See the full rant here END TRANSMISOGYNY by @DarkMatterRage On challenging the pervasiveness of transmisogyny within and outside of feminist spaces. We all collectively have to do better!See the full rant here END TRANSMISOGYNY by @DarkMatterRage On challenging the pervasiveness of transmisogyny within and outside of feminist spaces. We all collectively have to do better!See the full rant here END TRANSMISOGYNY by @DarkMatterRage On challenging the pervasiveness of transmisogyny within and outside of feminist spaces. We all collectively have to do better!See the full rant here

END TRANSMISOGYNY by @DarkMatterRage 
On challenging the pervasiveness of transmisogyny within and outside of feminist spaces. We all collectively have to do better!

See the full rant here

WHEN BROWN LOOKS IN THE MIRROR AND COMES OUT WHITE

the first time he called me gay and i googled it
and was convinced that i found myself
in the images on a screen:
a white man, a big city, and happiness
(or, two truths and a lie)

we do not yet have a word in the english language
vulnerable enough to hold the loneliness of being
thirteen years old and inheriting a body
that has been choked into silence

but we try our best don’t we? 

use ‘love’ to tell the story of
limbs searching for holes in one another 
to push the trauma through
sew it shut
use ‘equal’ to heal from that deadly
combination of scar and stare 
that body beaten into difference 
use ‘gay’ to cross the
distance between a heart and a television screen
a flower and a fist
her and him

we do not yet have a word to capture
that initial sense of recognition: 
of a body becoming coherent to itself, 
an object becoming subject, 
brown becoming white.

so instead i am telling you a story
about a ‘body’ and a ‘loneliness’
who grew up together in a small town and a dark night
and clung onto a word like a mirror
until he could not distinguish himself from his own
representation
did you experience my pain or
did i reflect it on you
to feel a little bit less alone?

we do not yet have a word in the english language
capable of accounting for all of the hurt 
hurt people do
because this is not what english is for.
you see english is for hurting.
english has no words to discuss
itself because then maybe it would have to stop speaking.

in the mean time we will use
‘colonialism’ instead of ‘gay’
and maybe things will start making
sense again

for example:

1. CLOSETED
definition: incoherence is resistance
in a world where your representation is regarded more seriously than your reality

2. PRIDE
definition: white men dance on stolen land and call it activism.
send wedding invitations to the rest of us who
hate ourselves enough to attend

3. PROGRESS
definition:
the shooting stars we wished
upon as kids have landed and come out
as drones 
the engagement rings our country
flings across the ocean are nooses in drag
(who is the terrorist now?)

4. HUMAN RIGHTS
definition:
when hilary clinton tells the world that
gay rights are human rights after she supports
the war (definition: slaughter) against iraq (definition: homophobic)
and talks about economic justice (synonym: let them eat credit!)
for her 2pm rally
then invites Wall Street to her 4pm private tea

remember
there are no contradictions here
she is speaking in english,
a language determined to
deny difference and digest
the millions of flavors of queer across the world
and cough up ‘LGBT’
spit out ‘mine’

and we let this happen
because we have been taught to romanticize the violence
of seeing a white body on a screen and pretending like it represents us
like the way we will cry when hilary tells us she will fight
for LGBT rights
(SYNONYMS: torture, bomb, annihilate) 
and think that we are saving our people across the world because of it
(SYNONYM: doing more harm than good)

maybe we believe her because we are left
speaking this language of loneliness
holding on to it like a mirror
so that we are still walking around trying to find ourselves in one another
(i mean colonizing the entire world and
calling it building community)

we do not yet have a word in the english language
to apologize and actually mean it
so instead
i am giving you this brown in all of its
unapology,
in all of its incoherence,
in all of its terror and loneliness

and i hope it translates
across the silence
of an entire country
screaming

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this is an original poem by alok vaid-menon. please consider supporting the artist