Spilling The (Masala) Tea ☕: 9 Truths on Being Queer & Desi
Updated: Jun 1, 2020
From being aware of my gay-ness within Indian culture to feeling my Indian-ness in wider society (including queer spaces), this is a handy guide to better understand what we contend with as queer Indian folk (and probably extends to other PoC too). Disclaimer: My experiences won’t speak for everyone, nor do they intend to. But by putting these words to paper (or in this case, a screen) it’s a continuation of our visibility.
The spicy 🌶part of me is also responding to the bullshit that we have to deal with from the ignorance of our communities (both Indian and gay). I get that It may not be intentional but it’s time for some (masala) tea to be served.
Before I dive in….
Did anyone see Netflix’s Dating Around. Specifically Ep. 2 featuring Gurki (a Punjabi divorcee) who was gaslighted and completely shut down by a white man who was completely ignorant of Punjabi culture and couldn’t understand why she got married in the first place. If he'd been able to shut the fuck up and listen, he may have been able to see the world outside of his privilege.
I'm deliberately being explicit about things I am implicitly aware of; in turn, I can play my part in spreading some awareness and truth within both the Indian and queer communities.
British rule othered people like me. Until India was colonised by the British, queer and non-binary people existed (reports on the extent to which they were accepted differs) but the imposition of Section 377 by the British in 1862 shamed people like me. Prior to this, our identities were on temple walls, we had a dedicated chapter in the Kama Sutra and even Indian mythology contained stories of shifting genders. Being Punjabi, Sikhism also has a progressive stance and refers to marriage as that between two souls (there is no mention of gender). So instead of telling me India ‘still has a ways to go’ remember it was the British who used legal power to ensure conformity with their beliefs, despite the fact we’d been fucking fine without it for centuries. And a message to Indians, open your eyes - we fought for independence and (until recently) chose to willingly oppress ourselves with the rules set by our oppressors. That is the antithesis of independence.
The shame we feel is different; it’s omnipresent 😩 Shame is a reality for many queer people, but in an Indian context the power of community, familial values and gender norms are entrenched. This translates to feeling like you’ve let your whole family down just for being who you are. This goes beyond how you feel about yourself, and is about the deep sense of responsibility for the (perceived) shame you think you’ll bring upon others, even when you’ve accepted yourself. As an example, my brother is getting married this year and I still had to wonder whether my sexuality would affect our reputation in the eyes of his in-laws. That’s how pervasive it can be. And I say this as someone who is generally happy in life, yet I can still feel this way.
It’s not a choice to be gay 🙄. This one’s for my Indian peeps. We don’t talk about sex, let alone sexuality enough. So we limit ourselves in our understanding of the beauty and nuances of sexuality and identity. The knowledge that I take for granted (i.e. it’s not an illness and is natural) doesn’t necessarily mean this is always received wisdom in our communities. Being such a taboo subject means there is plenty of misinformation and dangerous stereotypes. Or simply a false hope that you’ll revert back to family values and make it back to heterosexuality. So let me clarify again, being gay is who I am, it’s not a lifestyle choice and by saying so, you make it harder for people like me to be visible, exist and be happy. And for white queer folk, it’s not as simple as saying ‘they’ll understand’ - often we have to educate our families and come out all at the same time.
Society is a force to contend with. Frankly, IDGAF but the path of being both Indian and gay often means that the initial concern of parents is misdirected away from the happiness and well-being of their child, to what the fuck will everyone say? Even though I was lucky with how my family reacted, in the lead up to coming out, it was much more complex than that. It was knowing that my truth could invite criticism and shame towards my parents, exacerbated by being the eldest son. And I can still remember the palpable tension on their faces as they considered how they would explain this to others in the family. Upholding heteronormative family values are golden tickets in Indian society, so when you say ‘why can’t you just come out?’ and ‘who cares what anyone thinks?’ remember I’m held to a significantly different standard of success and expectations.
We're still not visible enough 🕵 I want to see people like me acknowledged in dominant queer spaces, media and stories. In the Indian community after coming out, you can feel like you’re being given an express lane ticket back into the closet. I’d like to be seen without judgement. Sometimes it feels easier to be invisible, to fade into the background so as to avoid prying questions. But colourfull is my way to be seen and heard, although I had to speak to my parents before its launch to prepare them for the potential consequences of choosing to put myself out there (good ol' societal shame again). So queer allies, challenge the status quo when you see an opportunity for more diversity. Indian families with queer children, it's a little trickier. My message to my family was that if you accept me and hold your heads high, then society won't have a leg to stand on.
Finding A Suitable Boy. This is on me (my family has never expressed this), but I’ve definitely contemplated whether having an Indian partner would make my gayness more palatable to the Indian community (and generally make life easier). Would I fulfil some notion of the ‘good Indian boy’ simply by being with an Indian guy? Would it be better to be with someone who would understand my challenges because of our shared culture? I see these words and am not proud, but it highlights the extent to which I’ve second guessed myself to compensate for being gay and ‘fit in’. These have been fleeting thoughts, and my dating history has been definitely been colourfull! I know that finding the right person is not specific to their race or culture, but the point is being a double-minority means I have considered how to make my journey more comfortable. Thankfully, I’m lucky to live in a diverse city like London and have people around me who keep it real. For those dating a PoC, you get brownie points for genuinely listening and trying to empathise. Our worlds may never truly make sense, but a partner that is willing to extend their understanding of the world is joy personified.
I’m not an exotic fruit 🍍I’ve been othered and exoticised in queer spaces - and KNOW this is common for others. My #funnytinge and eye colour are specific points of reference - for good or for worse. I’ve been described as Aladdin, been informed that Indians must be great at sex because of the ‘Kama Sutra’ and also been told that I’m not that dark for an Indian and could pass as Spanish. Undoubtedly being a lighter-skinned Indian carries privilege, but my melanin is real bitch. And don’t get me started on ‘Where are you from?’. I am not a piece of Del Monte produce. And I’m not here to be consumed by your fantasies nor am I flattered when you’re only attracted to me because I’m Indian. I am a person just like you.
We don’t have to come out from every closet 🚪For some of us, we may be out to everyone except our families. Please don’t shit on us and make us feel bad - the fact that we’ve decided to be seen somewhere is a huge step in and of itself. And if our narrative never follows the expected script of mainstream (read: white) society, it doesn’t mean our sexuality, identity and right to happiness is any less valid. I’ve been rejected by white men for being in the closet. I implore you to understand that coming out is a continual process and for queer PoC the fear can be crippling. The price of coming out prevented me from sharing my truth until my 30s. I genuinely believed I would be disowned and mentally prepared myself for total rejection by distancing myself from my family. Put simply, don’t judge a person on their ‘out’ status.
Don't forget the women 👭. I’m aware that despite my sexuality, men have more visibility and agency within Indian culture. So being a queer/trans desi woman is a next level struggle. I’m not even going to TRY and speak to their experiences - all I know is that if I feel weighed down, then what they must fight against is even tougher given the system of patriarchy and intense pressure placed on women as subjects of honour. The thought of having to navigate gender, race and sexuality makes me want to have a long lie down, so the impetus on us (including me) is to listen, learn and be better allies. So an extra dose of love, compassion and kindness for queer/trans WoC please.
Some of the above isn’t pleasant to read, but thankfully the story isn’t one sided. For every tea cup, there are many wonderful people out there who do take the time to listen and understand our perspectives. And there are organisations within the Indian queer community who work hard to connect us, create spaces for us to be safe and seek ways to strengthen us. I want to give a particular shout out to Hungama, Gaysians, Club Kali, Queering Desi, Gaysi Family, British Asian LGBTI and Burnt Roti. And whilst not solely focused on Indian people, UK Black Pride deserves one too!
The world is changing. Evidence of that is the first mainstream Bollywood love story tackling a same-sex relationship. Our experiences are coming to life, and our stories told - all of which tackles the points I make above.
Want some more?
This article shares no less than 93 facts about queer history in India and this short video gives a 101 on homosexuality in Ancient India.
Peace and love 💜💜💜