Queering Sexuality in Color: Dharshi
Today we have another installment of our first-person profiles of queer people of color. If you're queer and of color, we're hoping this series can 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: South Asian
When did you realize you were gay, lesbian or bisexual? I was at university, aged around 21. I developed a huge crush on one of my straight female friends. All of my friends, except one, seemed outwardly straight at the time. I think I'd been questioning my sexuality since I was around 13. I've only had one brief sexual experience before and this was with another girl, when we were going through puberty. Ever since then, I had some inkling that I liked girls and their bodies.
How did you feel about that realization? It was very scary and isolating. I didn't tell anyone initially. Then I started secretly going along to a 'Rainbow Youth' group (after walking past the door five times, finding it too hard to go inside). I attended on and off for 2 years but I didn't tell anyone there how hard it was for me to come every week and I didn't cry. I just tried to fit in. It was hard because I wasn't interested in the drinking and bar scene. Because of this, combined with study and family pressures, I began to feel overwhelmed, depressed and alone. I called the Gay helpline one day and spoke to a young Indian man. Among other things, he told me that he thought he could never come out to his parents. I found this even more depressing.
Have you been able to come out? One day, while at university, I went to talk to my professor in charge of student welfare as I needed some stress leave and wasn't coping. As I sat there crying and talking about feeling lonely and how I hadn't dated anyone before, he seemed to read between the lines and asked me if I could be gay. After talking to that first person, it became easier to tell others. It's been a very slow process for me though. I told my GP and my counsellor first. I told one of my South Asian friends; she was really caring and supportive about it. Six months later, I told another two friends. A year later, another two friends. To my extended family, most of my friends, the South Asian community where I live and to my work colleagues, I remain in the closet.
How supported do you feel by your own family and your community of color? Although I think of myself as South Asian, I was born overseas and have always lived in a Western country. Our family still carries many of our traditional values from back home and we have a large community here. I came out to my parents around 3 years after having my own realizations. The impetus for this was that they had started to look for marriage partners for me. I dated one man that they introduced me to for a few months. At the same time, I was secretly trying out different queer groups and it was a really confusing time. I knew that I had to tell them. That conversation and the conversations that followed were so tough. Remembering them still upsets me and that first day, I almost had a car accident afterwards. My mother thought I had thrown out all of my values and had no concern for us as a family. My dad thought I was unnatural and that I had no concern for my mother's health. You see, my mother told me that I had made her suicidal and that she must have burned someone in a past life to deserve a daughter like me. It was a huge guilt trip which effectively silenced me. One of the most hurtful parts was telling me not to associate with my South Asian female friends and not to have too much contact with my nieces and young cousins, not to stay at their houses overnight. My parents were afraid I'd pass on my lesbian perversions to them. Those kind of responses amplified the shame I already felt inside. Even now (2 years later), if I come out to someone, I have the urge to add "I'm lesbian......but, I'm still a good person, please keep me in your life!". Part of me feels like I need to be an 'extra good' daughter to make up for the gayness. Our current situation is that they are aware of my feelings but we don't talk about it at all. I also try to be as discrete as I can about discussing with other family members or people who know my parents so as not to make it awkward for them.
It's hard because although they don't support this part of me, my family has been so loving and supported me immensely in other areas of my life. I owe much of my success to them. I will always be grateful to my parents and I want to be here to support them as they age. I know that they only want me to be happy. I guess they feel that getting married to a nice South Asian man and having children is the only acceptable route to that happiness. Unfortunately, they are still looking for potential marriage partners for me.
My community would not be supportive of my coming out and I do not feel safe to do so. I expect that if my sexual orientation becomes widely known, I and perhaps even my family will become distanced from the community. I will not be welcome in their homes. I know one other gay man in our community and I hate how people denigrate and shame him behind his back. Of course, another barrier is my own internalized homophobia. Sometimes my own shame isolates me from the community and makes me feel like I can't face them as an unmarried woman. Although they would not support me as my authentic self, it is still scary to think about the possibility of losing them. If I were still living in the country my parents came from, I am aware my situation could be much worse.
I belong to one community group working in the area of domestic violence prevention and intervention among ethnic minority women. On my first day, I remember testing the waters, asking about whether they offered specific support for women belonging to sexual minorities. I'll never forget how kind that Indian lady was. She asked me whether I was enquiring for myself and when I affirmed I was, she smiled and told me that they had had many lesbian staff members and clients and that I was very welcome there. Just that sentence made a world of difference to me.
How about by the queer community? Well, to an extent I have felt supported. The problem is that the queer community where I live is predominantly white, and tend not have familiarity with issues such as my marriage predicament. Sometimes I do feel pressure from the queer community to come out, as if that will be the solution to all of my problems. I do have some wonderful white gay and lesbian friends though who make an effort to listen and understand. One woman in particular is my mother's age and her advice and sharing of her life experience has really helped me through the hard times. Also when I watch her with her partner and her kids, I feel optimistic that maybe that kind of future is also possible for me. I love meeting other queer people of colour, particularly from the South Asian community, but I don't often get this opportunity.
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? I haven't had any romantic relationships outside of the dates with South Asian men that my parents have set up for me. In an ideal world without prejudice or discrimination, I dream of having a long term relationship with another South Asian woman who speaks my mother tongue and shares my religion (Buddhism). I don't know if that's possible and it doesn't leave alot of potential partners to choose from. Sexually, I've been quite inhibited in the past and and I struggle with feeling shame about my desires but I'm working on that. I grew up with the values that I needed to be a virgin until marriage. Although I'm an adult now it's still hard to reconcile that with my sexual orientation.
What do you feel are particular challenges for gays, lesbians and bisexuals of color? Where would I even start to talk about this? I can point you to a resource that I particularly like and can relate to- "Brown Like Me is a short documentary brought to you by the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention (ASAAP)s Queer South Asian Youth (Q-SAY) project. This short film captures the experiences of 6 queer-identified South Asian youth living in the Greater Toronto Area who speak candidly about identity labels, homophobia, coming out, pride, resiliency, and family."
We're all so different from each other and I feel I can only speak for myself. For me, the biggest challenge is avoiding isolation and othering within various communities. Finding a place where I am understood and emotionally safe. Meeting other queer people of colour. Meeting potential partners. Thinking about childbearing outside of a heterosexual model. Dealing with my own internalized prejudices. Fighting stereotypes. Wow, I find myself dealing with stereotypes regarding my age and appearance, my gender, my ethnicity, my immigration status, my sexual orientation..sometimes all within the same day. That can be really tiring! It has also made me strong though.
How do you feel others can help with those challenges? Don't assume. Don't assume that because I'm brown, I'm straight. Don't assume that because I'm brown, I don't speak English or that I'm a refugee. Don't assume that because I identify as gay, I am on my way out or that I won't get married to a man. If you're not sure who I am and what I stand for, please ask. Appreciate and learn about diversity in all its forms, whether it's about different cultures or about sexuality and gender. Be inclusive; don't make me feel alone.
If you're white and I'm telling you about my family and community, I'm taking a big risk and trusting you. If you're brown and I'm coming out to you, same deal. Please don't call my culture sexist or uneducated, don't make jokes about "arranged marriages" and don't deny my orientation or demand that I come out to the world; instead, ask me about my experience and how you can support me. Be an ally whenever you can. When you hear homophobic or racist comments, you need to stand up for us. Sometimes it's hard for us to speak up for ourselves and we need you to be our voice too. Be aware that we are here. Don't ever tell me that there are no queer people at your school or in your community or in your country! We may not always feel safe to be out, but we are everywhere. In return, we have so much to offer. We understand acutely what it is to be part of multiple minorities.
Does one kind of bias you face -- racism vs. homo/biphobia -- feel larger, more oppressive than the other? All bias can be large and oppressive, but in my life, I've been lucky not to face too much racism. At the moment, homophobia, both external and internal, feels more oppressive. (I also agree with Ellaris' wise answer to this one).
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? There's no simple answer. Just that my experience of sexuality and coming out can't be equated to anyone else's, whether they are white or of colour. The more that we ask questions of each other and make an effort to understand our mutual differences with respect, the easier it will be.
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!