Queering Sexuality in Color: Ellaris
Time for another installment of our first-person profiles of queer people of color. This one is from someone older than the age group we serve at Scarleteen, but who came into hir sexual identity at 20. I think it's valuable to have a look at someone with more years to process all of these issues than our readers have usually had.
Again, even if you're not of color and queer, not LGB or not of color, we think it's vital to cultivate an awareness of what it means to be not just a member of one of those groups, but of both. If you are queer and of color, what we're hoping this new series can do is help illuminate some of your own diversity, allow you to feel less isolated and know you're not alone. Queer youth (and queer people on the whole) are often isolated. That isolation hurts and can and does do very real damage. LGB young people who are also oppressed, marginalized and rendered doubly invisible because of race tend to face even greater challenges and isolation.
No matter who you are or what your deal is, we think you'll find these profiles challenge many perceptions and may make you reconsider or refine ideas or questions about orientation and race. It can also help you and others grow your compassion and your care, better understanding that every kind of marginalization and oppression both does very real harm and always has the capacity to do so, especially if it goes unseen and unheard.
Color/race you are/identify with Multiracial, South Asian/white
How did you feel about that realization? Just fine. It was almost a nonissue. The only people I didn't tell (for the first seven years) were my parents.
Have you been able to come out? Yes. With my parents it was tricky, but with everyone else it was easy. I was raised Unitarian Universalist, so I was lucky to be operating without a lot of religious and cultural baggage. My friends were more queer than straight; my college was offering queer studies classes. I'd been an out-and-proud ally for years, so it was a smooth transition. Literally, I woke up one morning and thought, "Oh look, I AM actually attracted to women. Cool." I never worried about telling my friends, or even my then-boyfriend. Everyone took it in stride.
How supported do you feel by your own family and your community of color? My own family tries. Really they do. I don't think the level of cluelessness is off the charts, but it's not much more than average, either. My community of color? I live in the rural northeast. Being queer and South Asian isn't easy; being queer and mixed is harder, because any community can put it down to the OTHER identity group. That said, my Indian grandmother has been incredibly supportive, and no one has written me hate mail or disowned me. I'm very grateful for the internet, and for the time I've spent in larger cities. Both give me a sense that there's someplace I might sort of fit in. However, I'm acculturated white and I don't speak any language other than English, so fitting into South Asian communities has always been tenuous for me. Mixed communities of color are easier because the standards of cultural inclusion are broader. I definitely feel more brown than white, but I'm most at home in multicultural groupings. The experience of being mixed is pretty specific. I'm often not x enough: not Indian enough, not brown enough, not queer enough. That's another layer of struggle.
How about by the queer community? It's way easier, if you're talking about white queer community. There is some exoticization (is that a word?) but not too much in our generation -- fewer and fewer people fetishize being brown. It's much worse in generationally mixed groups, where the older members of the group have the same race issues that most people of our parents' generation have. But no one has told me I'm too brown to be here. I do get criticized for my choice of "queer" over "lesbian" and end up doing a lot of explaining about gender continuua and the changing face of queer identities, but I don't think that's because of my race. Sorting out what problems are endemic and which are specific to my identity stack is one of the harder tasks that I only sometimes engage with.
How has managing your romantic/sexual relationships gone? In what, if any, ways do you feel being a GLB person of color has impacted your relationships? Because my mix of races is fairly unusual, there's pretty much no chance of a same-race relationship for me. Every one involves some measure of education about stuff, and some sense of cultural distance that must be bridged. It's more work, but it means we assume less, so maybe there are fewer major explosions. Maybe. You know that "whoosh" of relief from knowing everyone around you gets it? I have had that maybe once or twice in my life. Sometimes I'm really, really tired.
What do you feel are particular challenges for gays, lesbians and bisexuals of color? I hate trying to generalize from my experience to everyone's, but having a place where we can just relax and be ourselves seems most consistently difficult. Every identity is another limiting factor -- if you're like me, a mixed-race (South Asian), queer (bisexual), liberal religious, gender nonconforming (boyish with girl bits) person, it can be almost impossible to have a place where everything is already explained, where nothing has to be justified or detailed.
Sometimes I wonder what it's like to be in a relationship where race never enters the equation, but when I take a hard look at it everyone has cultural barriers to overcome unless they work really hard to only date people exactly like them. Because I grew up UU, the racial barriers seem huge and the sexual orientation barriers seem much smaller. UUism has its own issues with race and class with which we struggle, but we have worked hard and succeeded in some measure on issues around sexual orientation, and it shows. On the other hand, sometimes we think we're more progressive than we are.
How do you feel others can help with those challenges? Anytime people are more accepting and more educated, it helps. People of color can stop drawing the lines quite so tightly. In general, when the communities are more inclusive, they are less likely to exclude people who walk the borders. It sounds obvious, but it seems like maybe it's not. Being aware, self-educating, and doing the ally work is all good stuff. If you're queer and white, don't equate your experience of oppression with mine; don't try to set up a hierarchy either. But keep asking who's not at the table, and if I'm not, or if I'm the only one, pay attention. It's the little things. Like this one dance class I took where a woman who was there with a guy kept correcting the instructors from "ladies and gents" to "leaders and followers" over and over and over, which meant I didn't have to, nor did I have to wince. That's ally work. Even more? Do it when I'm not there, just because it's the right thing to do.
Does one kind of bias you face -- racism vs. homo/biphobia -- feel larger, more oppressive than the other? Can you talk about how? It all depends on the moment and the location. Context is everything. Whatever group isn't the majority is the one that feels bigger. Being in a room full of queer people of color is a strange kind of heaven.
What do you feel like GLB people who are not of color don't get about the differences being GLB of color? What about hetero white people: what do they miss? Everyone gets or doesn't get a different thing. Some hetero white folks are
educated and aware and on top of things; some aren't. Some people are seriously homophobic. Some are seriously racist. I do feel like that Onion article about a more virulent racism was spot-on; I think we're moving in that direction with homophobia too -- it's going underground. As a culture we haven't really figured out how to manage this second-generation prejudice yet for any group. As someone with educational and class privilege I can say that it's pretty easy to miss the depth of struggle involved for someone trying to work around/overcome prejudice; it can seem like no big deal until you get in the trenches. I don't think anyone's really immune to that.
Want to be part of this series and share your experiences and ideas about being gay, lesbian or bisexual and of color? We'd love to include you and get your voice out there. Drop us an email and we'll send you the questions!