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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