Indian-American lesbians struggle to bridge gap between their sexuality and culture

South Asian Gay and Lesbian Association (SALGA) members at the 2018 Dyke March in Manhattan on June 23.

Before she moved to the U.S., Samira Obeid lived in Chennai for 23 years. Although she became aware of her sexuality at an early age, she never really spoke about it. Obeid, who identifies herself as a lesbian — always looked different — “short hair, boys’ clothes, a gentleman’s manner” – but her sexual orientation was never out in the open.

“In India, not being in the closet doesn’t necessarily mean being out of it,” Obeid wrote in a blog published in India Times in 2016. “As long as you keep the tongue tied and let the blind ignore the obvious, being a lesbian is a piece of cake,” she wrote. It was only after moving to Tampa that she’s been able to freely accept her orientation and talk about it. “Conversations can answer questions and deconstruct stereotypes,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s just as easy as that. Sometimes, it’s not.”

For many gay and lesbian Indian-Americans, it is mostly the latter. Several Indian-Americans, who belong to the LGBTQA+ community, told India Abroad that coming out often involves bridging gaps between their sexuality, culture and the community. While many managed to break the initial disappointment and awkwardness and have been accepted by their families and loved ones, there are several others who are still living closeted lives and are hoping for a miracle.

This past June month, as the LGBTQA+ community and its supporters came together to celebrate pride month with parades, picnics, parties, workshops, symposia and concerts, they hoped to create more awareness and understanding about the stereotypes that are prevalent, especially in the South-Asian diaspora.

According to data published by the Williams Institute UCLA School of Law, there are more than 8 million adults in the U.S. who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual, comprising 3.5 percent of the adult population. Among adults who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, bisexuals comprise a slight majority (1.8 percent compared to 1.7 percent who identify as lesbian or gay); women are substantially more likely than men to identify as bisexual; estimates of those who report any lifetime same-sex sexual behavior and any same-sex sexual attraction are substantially higher than estimates of those who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. There are also nearly 700,000 transgender individuals in the U.S, the Williams Institute data said. An estimated 19 million Americans (8.2 percent) report that they have engaged in same-sex sexual behavior and nearly 25.6 million Americans (11 percent) acknowledge at least some same-sex sexual attraction, the data said.

Religion, Family and Community Pressure

Many South Asian-Americans admit that coming out to family is an enormous challenge. Many fear rejection, worry about disappointing their parents or being viewed as brining a bad reputation to the family. “There’s a dual struggle for queer South Asians to find community,” said Dom Chatterjee, founder of QTPoC Mental Health, a grassroots organization “to create both online and offline spaces for queer and trans people of color.” Chatterjee said the first struggle is at home, with the family and extended family, while the second is within LGBTQ+ spaces “which are often white-dominant.”

A 2009 study of 94 LGBT-identifying South Asians in Southern California found that even if they had access to health services, cultural norms and the related threat of community alienation impacted the likelihood that South Asians would seek help. “Many [LGBTQ] South Asians feel so alienated and isolated from the broader South Asian community, the broader [LGBTQ] community, and U.S. society in general, that any intervention targeting this population should address changing cultural norms in order to be effective and responsive,” the study, which was published on tandfomline.com said. Seventy-nine percent of respondents had access to mental health care, but only 30 percent availed of it.

There is also a fear that the behavior of one family member might be considered representative of the family as a whole to the rest of society. According to Dr. Neeral Sheth, assistant professor of Psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, this “can cause individuals to have higher levels of guilt for even having thoughts related to being LGBTQ.” Some may feel that having someone with an LGBTQA+ identity in the family could even impact the marriage prospects of siblings and could threaten the family’s concept of honor. There are also cases where parents tend to place an importance on respect and obedience to elders in the family, which compels some to hide their LGBTQA+ identities because they do not want to disrespect their parents.

Keeping this in mind, many have found it easier to express their feelings and their challenges and struggles on social media.

Indian-American lesbians struggle to bridge gap between their sexuality and culture

Members of Trikone Bay Area during last year’s Pride Parade in San Francisco, Calif.

For Shashank Rao, a university of Michigan student, coming out to his parents, the people with whom he was the closest to, was fearful. In a blog on studybreaks.com, Rao wrote that he saw “gayness as an encumbrance, a disappointment to my parents.” He wrote about coming out to his mother first, “who took it quietly and cried privately.” But his father on the other hand, “took it rough and cried openly.” Rao wrote: “Never had I seen my parents in such states of total dismay.” He continued: “In the community where I grew up, the word ‘gay’ was always said in a whisper, with a quiet note of shame attending its utterance. And I never heard the word applied to another Indian person; as far as anyone in our community was concerned, there was no such thing as an Indian homosexual. Gayness was for white people.”

When Arushi (last name withheld for privacy) came out to her parents, the then California 21-year-old had already been through a few suicide attempts. Sometime before graduating from UCLA, she decided she had to “come clean” to her parents. Although Arushi knew her parents never gave her an impression of being homophobic, she still wasn’t sure how they’d react to their daughter being a lesbian. She was worried they’d throw a fit, disown her. “They were initially a bit taken aback,” she told this correspondent, but eventually they accepted her. “It however took them a few months to accept the women I was in relationships with,” she said.

“Even after five years, it’s still a work in progress.”

Like Arushi, a number of LGBTQA+ Indian-Americans often struggle with their sexual identity while trying to still stay with their conservative families and the communities. What will people say is a question that many have heard time and again.

However, while many Indian-American and South Asian=American families use religion as a reason to alienate their gay and lesbian children, Rev. Winnie Varghese, director of justice and reconciliation at Trinity Church Wall Street in New York City, uses references from the Bible to make sense of being queer. The 46-year-old is an Episcopal priest and is queer. The child of immigrants from Kerala, Varghese said she’s often called on to perform a “ministry of representation,” showing people what it’s like to listen to a priest with her unique identities. Varghese grew up in a small Dallas congregation linked to the Church of South India.

Talking about her growing up years and her choice to study religion, Varghese told the Huffington Post that it seemed natural to attend an Episcopal church. “But at that point in the early 1990s, the Episcopal Church in Texas was wrestling with issues like women’s ordination and the inclusion of LGBTQ people,” she told the paper. Varghese said that this was the first time she got a glimpse of how divisive these issues were within American Christianity. “I came from a church that was very apolitical, very much about spirituality, having the right values, not being overly consumeristic in this culture, remembering simplicity and where we came from,” Varghese said. She also began to realize that “there’s this stereotype of Asians-Americans that we’re taught to conform to family norms and it’s true to a degree,” Varghese said. “For many of us, causing disruptions in our families or our communities is quite painful and doesn’t feel like the logical moment of rebellion that it might be in some parts of Western culture, she told Huffington Post. “It is our work to discern what it is to be faithful for ourselves.”

Shame and Denial

And there’s always the denial. And in some cases the hope that the phase will pass and things will get normal.

In one of his standup acts, actor and comedian Nik Dodani speaks about some of his experiences growing up in as a gay Indian-American. From trying to fit into white pop culture in elementary school to navigating the expectations of his traditional parents, Dodani tries to capture the realities of the intersections of his identity. “My mother is a dedicated woman,” Dodani says. “Just last week she posted an ad on Facebook that read, ‘My son, 21-years-old Indian gay works in entertainment, seeks Indian lesbian facing similar family pressure.’ It was a really awkward date.”

According to social justice activist Sunu Chandy, who is a lesbian, there’s a combination of things playing on the young people’s mind who want to come out. “There’s a religious component, there’s a community component, there’s a shame component ,” she told the Guardian in an earlier interview. Speaking about her own coming out story, she told the paper after she adopted a child from India, she told her parents that only if they accept her partner openly, would they be able to spend time with their grandchild. Chandy’s idea worked and her parents showed up for her wedding as well.

But not everyone is as lucky as Chandy. There are a few like the New York-based Namrata Dahiya and the Houston-based Shonali Nagpal who have learnt to accept that their parents will never completely accept their reality. Dahiya, 32, came out to her parents when they started lining up prospective grooms. “My parents tried to convert me with comforting words, threats to my safety and that of my then-girlfriend, emotional blackmail and multiple therapy sessions,” she recalled. She said that over the last few years, there has been a slow yet steady progress in the right direction. “From vehemently opposing my sexual preference, my parents have grown to develop a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ attitude,” Dahiya said, adding that she is not hopeful of any drastic change in their attitude.

Nagpal has a similar story. Once her parents found out about her sexuality, Nagpal said they’ve tried to convince her that LGBTQA+ people aren’t normal, that they are mentally disturbed. After years of trying to change their daughter, Nagpal says her parents have now given up, and so has she.

Varghese has said in other interviews that she sees herself as a resource for other LGBT Christians, particularly those of South Asian descent. “I have talked with Indians living in the U.S. and U.S.-born Indians who are gay or lesbian …about their struggles within their families and communities to both indicate the respect they have for their families and their heritage and live freely as who they are,” she told Outlook India in 2014. “The challenges are not truly unique, but as a minority community in the U.S., it is a comfort to talk with people who have some shared understanding of the inner conflict we might feel about making choices that are difficult for our families to accept.”

Finding Acceptance in the Diaspora

Along with activities and advocacy that marks pride month, federal and local policies and practices have been increasingly acknowledging and focusing on LGBTQ youth, encouraging greater acceptance and support for all the community. In addition, the work of several organizations like Trikone, South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association, NYC; Satrang, LA, and Khush DC, has helped the Indian-American LGBTQA + community find acceptance among the diaspora and enable community members to establish cultural visibility and take a stand against oppression and discrimination.

Also making strides in the way the Indian-Americans view the LGBTQA+ communities, are the rainbow parents who stand by their own queer children and help educate the community. Leading the movement is Aruna Rao, who founded the Desi Rainbow Parents and Allies a support, education and advocacy group for South Asian families.

“It is important to be vocal and show parents that they are not alone,” told the Wire last year.

The New Jersey-based mental health advocate and mother of a queer young adult said she founded the group after seeing the consequences of family rejection. Talking about being in the dark about her child’s sexuality, Rao told the Wire that it’s important for parents to initiate the conversation and leave the door open. “Children need to know that their parents support them no matter what” and “parents need to find ways to let their children know their home is a safe place where anything can be discussed,” she said.

Also helping young LGBTQA+ find their voice are activists like Obeid, who use their experiences and talents to bring the community together and raise awareness.

An established and published poet, Obeid writes of memories, injustice and life experiences, of women, love, violence and dreams.

“My intention is for my poetry to speak to someone, whoever you are, so you know you’re not alone,” she says on her website. “My poetry is for every gay Indian who had to travel 8,000 miles to find home. It’s for every dyke who stayed a boi as well as for those who couldn’t. My poetry is for every woman who has never felt enough.”

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