Viewing entries in
Essay

What Has Always Been

Originally Published in Harpers Magazine
A Diary of Gender Under Trump

November 2, 2016

Who affords privacy? Who gets to come out and who is outed? There is no gay progress without trans backlash. There was no gay marriage victory without hundreds of anti-trans bathroom bills. There is no protection of the private without criminalization of the public.

I read today about how “LGBT” foundations and nonprofits like the Gill Foundation have decided to back nondiscrimination legislation that excludes public accommodation protections. It is decisions like this that make so many trans people like myself believe that we should just say “trans” instead of “LGBT”: when you look at the policies, when you look at the experiences of violence on the ground, it is gender non-conforming people who are experiencing the brunt of the backlash. Many of the “victories” that the gay movement has enjoyed (marriage, state protections, etc.) have come from campaigns that distanced “LGBT people” from gender non-conformity. “Love” becomes something that happens in private whereas “gender” becomes that thing that haunts the public.

Trump is not anti-LGBT. He is anti-trans. There is a difference.

November 7, 2016

A trans woman in Tennessee had her car spray painted “TRUMP” and then torched on fire in her driveway.

I am horrified. While it has been encouraging to see so much mobilization by young feminists against the rampant misogyny of his campaign, I am dismayed that the presumed subject of Trump’s vitriol is always already seen as a white cisgender woman. I worry for my transfeminine sisters and siblings who are always gendered as perpetrators and never victims of patriarchal violence. It’s not a question of if violence against trans people will increase under this administration, it’s a question of how we are going to respond once it does.

I worry because I know that we will be bashed, attacked, harassed, assaulted, and I worry because I know that we will be blamed for it. I worry that there will be no movements to rally for us because we are not desirable victims. I worry that there will be no feminists to rally for us because we may not identify as women. I worry that they will be able to get away with this because the one thing that bonds liberals and conservatives is their ingrained hatred and suspicion of transfeminine people.

In times of heightened nationalism: borders are erected, fortified, and militarized. Some will talk about the border between the United States and Mexico, but few will talk about the border between man and woman. How there are walls that are being erected there, too—and, how if you cross them, you are punished.

I consider enrolling for self-defense classes. I ask myself why it’s taken so long.

November 8, 2016

I am sitting in the living room with two non-binary friends of color as the election results come in. We sought out each other’s company on this night because we wanted to be somewhere where we were affirmed for our cynicism. We are not surprised when Donald Trump is declared the next president. Just like we were not surprised when we were harassed on the street on the way to my apartment. Just like we were not surprised when we had to leave our hometowns to be safe when we were younger. Just like we were not surprised when we weren’t safe in New York City, either. Just like we are not surprised when we read that fifty-seven percent of white women who voted went for Trump. We have experienced firsthand white women screaming at us on the streets. We have understood that white women’s allegiance has always been to racism and money.

The news anchors ask: “What happened?” And we want to shout, “You didn’t consult us.” You never consult us.

November 9, 2016

I have never seen so many people cry in public before. It’s as if the entire city is in mourning. There is a possibility in this tragedy. Will this pain propel rage against the system and not just an individual?

But in the streets, they are already chanting that Hillary should have won. And I remember how much easier it is to believe that something is broken, and not just working the way it was supposed to.

November 10, 2016

Eight transgender youth commit suicide after Trump is elected. Many are saying that this data has not been “confirmed.” But what they do not understand is that violence against trans people is rarely confirmed. We do not have the data about what you do to us because you misgender us after it happens. To be a trans activist is to learn the art of believing people over publications.

My inbox is full of journalists asking questions about trans issues and mental health. I wonder why they only reach out when we are under attack. I think about how the only space trans people have in the cultural imagination is as entertainers. I close my laptop and I go have dinner with my trans friend. They are sixteen years old and they are much stronger than me. I tell them to text me when they are getting home. They tell me to text them when I wake up.

November 11, 2016

I am walking home with another transfemme after a party in Hells Kitchen when an older white man starts screaming, “GRAB HIM BY THE PUSSY!! TRUMP!! GRAB HIM BY THE PUSSY!!” I laugh in his face and call him a patriarchal pig. I go home and post a Facebook status discussing how transfeminine people will be uniquely targeted by this state-legitimating of misogyny and how we will be erased nonetheless. Multiple white cis women comment and tell me that I am a man masquerading as something I am not. That feminism isn’t for me. That I should shut up. I am only supposed to be afraid of the man on the screen (Trump), but I find myself just as afraid of the cis feminists afraid of him.

November 12, 2016

There are hundreds of thought pieces going around with everyone’s attempt to understand how the unthinkable happened—how did Donald Trump win? The white liberals keep on blaming people like me: Why did Hilary spend so much time campaigning to transgender people? Why didn’t people take white working-class men’s rage more seriously? I can’t tell whether I’m more hurt by this election’s blatant endorsement of white supremacy, or by white liberals’ continual denial of it. It’s such a strange feeling to witness something so simple be theorized into oblivion.

November 15, 2016

I am giving a poetry reading tonight at Hamilton College in upstate New York. The organizers emailed me a few days ago expressing concerns about my safety. They said that there had been pro-Trump rallies in town. I thank them for letting me know and tell them that I think it is more important than ever to keep events like this going. During my rehearsal, the tech supervisor introduces me to his daughter. “I just wanted my daughter to see someone like you. You are like what America should look like.” I know it’s supposed to be a compliment, but it feels like a slur. I am tired. I don’t want to be a symbol of anything other than myself.

November 22, 2016

I am back in my hometown of College Station, Texas, visiting family. I read online about trans people choosing to go stealth (pass as cisgender) in light of the Trump election. I look outside and see Trump signs everywhere. I see American flags everywhere. I see churches everywhere. And I understand. I hate how we romanticize people “persisting despite the odds,” and don’t allow people to do what they need to do to survive. To truly love trans people would require you to accept our ownership of our bodies and safeties. I often wonder whether being your inspiration matters more to you than our safety. Being stealth and “invisible” (whatever that means) doesn’t make you any less real, any less trans.

November 29, 2016

My mom and I walk around our neighborhood as we always do in the evening. She tells me that she is worried about me living in New York as a gender non-conforming person during the Trump era. I tell her that I’m afraid of her and our grandparents living in Texas as Indian immigrants. We tell each other to be safe. I wish I could believe that was enough.

December 3, 2016

I’m in Saigon connecting with LGBT activists and artists for a few days. Tonight I am at a bar run by local artists that serves exquisite teas in little petri dishes. It is all very quaint. My hosts tell me about how when President Obama came to visit Vietnam a couple of years ago, their government put all of the political artists under house arrest for several months. They spoke about it so matter-of-factly: how they organized meals for one another, kept each other company inside. Being abroad is a constant lesson in how limiting U.S. exceptionalism is. People across the world have been living under surveillance for a very long time.

December 5, 2016

Today was supposed to be a day of celebration. A new HBO documentary called “The Trans List” was released, and I’m one of the interview subjects in the film. After of slew of congratulatory texts from my friends, I get a text that feels starkly different. “Are you okay? I just saw your Facebook.” I log online and see that there are hundreds of comments on my photos from people telling me to kill myself. I am used to things like this, but not in this concentration and intensity.

Every time I participate in a mainstream project I get vitriol like this. The current moment of trans politics is that trans people are somehow supposed to courageously declare ourselves (with little to no support from anyone else) and then weather the backlash—looking fabulous throughout!

Later that night I receive a message from a young Indian trans person telling me that I was the first person they had ever seen who looked like them.

January 20, 2017

Today, the day that 45 is being inaugurated, I am with my family in Kerala. My uncle looks out at the Indian Ocean from the beach near our family home. “I wish everyone got a vote in the U.S. election,” he says, “They don’t understand that what happens over there affects us over here the most.” I nod my head. Later that day, we eat a big lunch. We do not watch the news.

January 21, 2017

They say that the Women’s March in the United States had over 600 locations with over four million protesters, making it perhaps the largest protest in U.S. history. As I look at all of the photos from the march thousands of miles away, I think about how I wish there was more space in our movements to hold contradiction. I have mixed feelings. On the one hand I am inspired by the sheer mass of people who took to the streets. This is an unprecedented testament to the power of direct action. But on the other, I wonder: would as many people have mobilized if this was a march for refugees, a march against Islamophobia, a march for trans people, a march against incarceration, a march against white supremacy? Why “women?” When the majority of white women voted for Trump what does it mean to march for “women?” I think about who is not invited to speak at marches – I think about how absence isn’t a passive process, it’s an active one. Is the future “female,” as they suggest – or is the future beyond essentialist ideas of gender to begin with? It is much easier to march for women, then it is to march against misogyny.

There are so many photos of white cis women wearing pussy hats from the march. Everyone wants me to write a thought piece or a response about how this prioritization of genitalia is misguided. But I’m exhausted. It feels as if the only political space we have to express critique anymore is to perform a narrative of trauma, is to say: “I [insert identity] felt erased because you [insert identity] erased me.” The critique has to be articulated as a minority speaking to a majority. The critique has to be articulated as an individual speaking to an individual. What would it take to get people to realize that trans feminism isn’t just about trans people, but about everyone? A critique of vagina-centered feminism is a critique that expands the horizons of what is possible for all people, of all genders.

February 3, 2017

Everyone is celebrating because Ivanka Trump and her husband convinced the president not to pass an anti-LGBT executive order. But all of the other executive orders were anti-LGBT too. Last time I checked, LGBT people were Muslim, were poor, were black, were incarcerated, were undocumented, were not just rich, white, and cisgender.

February 22, 2017

I am in London for a performance when I read the news that 45 has repealed protections for transgender students to use the restrooms of their choice. What this election has made very clear is that an “LGBT friendly” administration is one that is ruthlessly anti-trans. That in fact the current moment of trans politics in one in which the symbolic act of saying “LGBT” is actually how trans violence gets pushed under the rug. They don’t know who we are; they don’t know what we go through. This becomes evident to me when I see people post statuses that it is “time to stand with our transgender brothers and sisters.” I appreciate the effort, but I can’t help but roll my eyes.

Where do those of us who are gender non-conforming go? Those of us who are neither brothers nor sisters, neither men nor women, neither girls nor boys? Those of us cut out of LGBT nonprofit campaigns for public accommodations, those of us ignored by the trans movement for being complicated, those of us most directly scapegoated by the rise of racist nationalism. I want to post statuses online telling transgender youth that I am there for them. But where is there? What does it mean to be ‘there’ when I am actually over here?

February 23, 2017

My achamma (grandmother) texts me from Kerala saying that she is worried about my father’s safety after reading that Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian engineer, was murdered in Kansas. I don’t really know what to tell her that wouldn’t involve me lying. But isn’t this what love is about? Lying so that the people you love don’t have to worry anymore. I tell her that everything will be fine.

February 28, 2017

Today I receive the news that Jaquarius Holland, an eighteen-year-old black trans woman was murdered in Louisiana. This makes her the seventh black and/or Latinx trans woman pronounced dead in 2017. I am devastated. Last year at least twenty-six trans women of color were murdered. The ongoing genocide of black and indigenous transfeminine people is relentless.

I remember how easy it is to understand this Trump moment – with all of its tumult and terror – as unprecedented. But then I remember how important it is to resist that temptation. Our country was founded on this kind of violence. “Shock,” then is already always racialized and gendered. Who is surprised? And why? For many this is just a continuation of what has always been. There is something sobering about this recognition: not just a president, but a system.

Online Harrassment of GNC/Transfeminine People

I have been really heartened by increased attention and consideration to the difficulties of navigating the internet as a woman. But -- as always -- these discussions of "gender and social media" tend to only focus on the experiences of binary and cisgender women. There is a particular type of cruelty directed to gender non-conforming / transfeminine people that is not challenged (let alone acknowledged). This is because centering this type of violence would require us to challenge gender binary thinking itself -- not just "men."

Existing visibly on the internet as a gender non-conforming/transfeminine person is to have to constantly normalize and become accustomed to routine hostility-- is to always be assumed as fabulous and triumphant -- to never be allowed to hurt because you only exist as an aesthetic object to inspire others (not keep yourself alive).

Central to the world I want to create for myself and the people I love is a deep and earnest commitment to interdependence -- naming when we need help (and being celebrated and affirmed for it!) The truth is I need help! When gender non-conforming/transfeminine people do something as simple as make an argument for our own dignity...we are demonized and ridiculed. I need everyone to publicly challenge transmisogyny and to support the transfeminine people in your life constantly, not just when we experience physical violence.

Harassment against trans people online extends beyond being called the wrong gender pronoun. Here is some everyday acts of transmisogynist harassment I experience online. Please try your best to counter these as you see them happen.

1) People tagging their friends and saying, "Is this you?" or "Doesn't this look just like _____" followed by tear tear emojis. Usually cisgender (brown) men are tagged. 

The idea here is that I am a "failed" man and that my femininity is a joke that is more embarrassing than anything. Here my personhood is reduced to a prop to bolster masculinity. I become a symbol of every (brown) man's worst nightmare, rather than a person with feelings.

2) People sharing photos of me saying things like "ME," or "SAME."

This is part of a culture that reduces transfeminine people to aesthetics for other peoples' empowerment and never our own. The same people who identify with us online will never defend us offline. We only matter insomuch as we can become instrumentalized for empowerment and triumph of others, and never our own. 

3) People tagging their friends and saying, "Omg this is your bf or gf right?" Then entire chat threads will ensue about how disgusting I am and how I remind people of their ugly exes. 

What this does is shame people who do desire us (and there are many). Our appearance not only becomes a source of embarrassment for ourselves, but for everyone associated with us. We become the ultimate fear: dating a "tranny." 

That's a lot of projection, anxiety, and insecurity mapped on us that we didn't consent to! Oh wait, gender non-conforming/transfeminine people aren't allowed to consent because our image and bodies belong to the nightmares and fantasies of everyone else.

3) Cisgender women and "feminists" telling me that I am a man "invading women's spaces" with my "male privilege." I am dismissed as a "fraud," an "impostor," and a "threat."

In a transmisogynist and gender binarist world only cisgender women are allowed to own femininity. The rest of us are dismissed not only in our genders, but in our ability to be understood as victims of gender based violence. Even though transfeminine people experience some of the most brutal and intense forms of misogyny, we are regarded as villains and never victims. The irony is that in their efforts to combat patriarchy these women actually rely on it by conflating "woman" with "vagina" and by delegitimizing femininity as superficial and excessive.

4) People of all genders telling me that I am ugly, gross, that I look like trash, and that I deserve to die.

The idea here is that A) My worth should be linked to my physical appearance and B) The only way to be beautiful is to look like a cisgender man or a cisgender woman. 

In a transmisogynist and binary world we are taught that in order to be beautiful we have to be binary. In fact an entire system of sexuality ("gay," "lesbian," "straight,") rely on and strengthen a binary system. Desire is only available to those of us who uphold binary standards.

5) Being called a "degenerate," a "retard," a "freak," a "monster," and other ableist terms that basically position transfemininity as a sort of weakness and/or illness. 

The idea here is that the only way to be *healthy* is to be a masculine gender non-conforming man and that because I did not "develop" into one there must be something wrong with me. What is lost here is what is horribly wrong about a society that standardizes one way to look and one way to be healthy -- and a society that conflates "weakness" with "illness" to begin with anyways!

6) Rape threats, death threats, threats of physical violence and assault. These are often delivered just by the sight of my image. 

The idea here is that gender non-conforming/transfeminine people are victim-blamed just for being visibly trans. Our visible difference is seen as justification for violence. This violence is meant to police and intimidate us back into gender conformity and uphold the myth of two genders.

7) People (often cisgender women) commenting on every detail on my body, surveilling me to tell me what I should do if I want to look like a "real woman." This often involves detailed conversations about my genitalia and speculations on my medical/surgical history. Example: "If you want to look like a real woman then shave your legs!" 

The gender binary teaches people that femininity is attached to womanhood and that anyone who looks "feminine" is a woman or is aspiring to be one. Actually, femininity is totally separate from womanhood and people of all genders can be femme. There is no one way to look or act femme, it's all about celebrating how people embody it. Also -- part of the way transmisogyny works is a foregrounding of others' fantasies over our realities. The question of our genitalia becomes continually elevated because people are sexualizing and objectifying us, not granting our full subjectivity.

8) General laughter. People tagging their friends to all have a joke about how ridiculous I look. "Look at this tranny..." 

Transmisogyny would have you believe that we are the only ones performing our genders and not that cisgender people are constantly performing theirs. Part of the performance of cisgender identity involves a thorough mockery of transfeminine people. "I am a man" "I am a woman" "Because I am not that!"

9) Cisplaining. None stop cisplaining. Telling me that my ideas about gender and my identity are wrong, telling me that I am wrong about the reasons why I experience gender, teaching me that there are actually only two genders, etc. 

The idea here is that cisgender and binary people know what's best for us better than we do. Part of transmisogyny is infantalization: we are regarded as underdeveloped men or women or both! Because we are infantalized we are not able to make decisions for ourselves by ourselves.

10) Outright denying, dismissing, and delegitimizing my experiences of violence. Example: "Surely you don't experience this much harassment, you must be making it up!" "That can't have happen, no way!" "No one would have let that happen, this is a joke!" 

What is important to understand is that gender non-conforming/transfeminine people experience harassment in public every single day of our lives from people of all genders. Often no one defends us and we are blamed for it. What is more unbelievable than the routine harassment we experience is how "gender" has become synonymous with "cis women" and how transfeminine people's experiences with (street) harassment have been systematically erased. Comments like this are part of a culture of cisgender people refusing responsibility for the violence they uphold against us.

support the author

"There Are Only Two Genders:" Or, the Joke is On You

“The dating app Tinder announced a new feature this week which gives users 37 different gender identity options,” co-host and cast member, Colin Jost said. “It’s called ‘Why Democrats lost the election’.”

After the election Saturday Night Live made a joke at the expense of nonbinary and gender variant people. I find myself returning to this joke not because it's *offensive,* but because it's just...bad. I'm all for political comedy and performance, but this is not it.

After the election there's been a re-submergence of conversation on the "failure of political correctness." Nonbinary and gender variant people are seen as emblematic of this: "Can you believe people are concerned with pronouns when there are so many OTHER issues in the world?" (as if nonbinary and gender variant people aren't leading multiple other struggles for social justice). We -- a group with literally no formal recognition and substantial political power -- are scapegoated as young idealistic "millennials," who are responsible for the failures of the progressive establishment (as if people living beyond and outside the western gender binary have not been around for hundreds of years).

There's been a lot of important conversation about how vile the rhetoric of the alt-right is. But what is often missing is the points of connection and solidarity between conservatives and liberals. Key to this allegiance is a shared conviction that "THERE ARE ONLY TWO GENDERS" (a mantra for the alt-right). Key to this allegiance is a dismissal of nonbinary and gender variant people as overwhelmed by feelings and lacking real and substantial politics.

The lines between 'feelings' and 'politics,' are almost always drawn by racism and misogyny.

The real project of identity politics at work here is a global project of reducing the complexity, social and cultural difference, and ancestral traditions of billions of people across the world into one of two genders: "male or female."

They tell us that nonbinary people are "obsessed" with gender but please tell me: Who required gender markers on identity documents? Who constructed their entire sexual identity and orientation on the basis of gender? Who divided basic and universal services and institutions into two lines? Who made something as simple as peeing have to do with gender? Who funded and fabricated hundreds of years of pseudo-science to perpetuate the myth that there are only two genders and sexes?

"Cisgender" and "Binary" were not terms that were created organically, they were terms that were created in response to an intense project of mobilizing (white, cis, gender binary) identity. Why are these entrenched political ideas not elevated to the status of "identity politics?" Why are they not dismissed as "feelings?"

It would be more useful -- and, indeed, more correct -- to understand this moment as the emotional assertion of cisgender and gender binary identity both among conservatives and progressives.

The real joke is that even though nonbinary and gender variant people are fighting -- in fact -- for everyone to be entitled to their self-identification, to be granted their complexity, to be the author of their own body and narrative -- we are seen as the problem and not the solution.

support the author

Coming Home: Queer South Asians & 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.

* * *
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.

support the author

When Representation Isn’t Enough: Why All of Us Aren’t 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 lwarping 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. 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?