On the Limits of American(a)

People are surprised to find out that I’m not actually from here. The standard conversation after the holidays goes: “You went all the way back to Bangladesh? So, your entire family is there? Oh, you lived there till you were 19?” And then of course: “But you speak English so well!” My brown skin and third world citizenship hide the international school education that I was privileged to receive. A childhood of Scooby Doo and Friends makes my accent familiar enough to go unnoticed. Alas, passing privilege does not an American make. Right?

I was thrilled to learn that a group called South Asian Americans Leading Together DSC_0035(SAALT) was hosting a LGBTQ-themed summer leadership institute. It boggled my mind that I might actually meet other queer and gender variant deshi students interested in creating change. But surely I wouldn’t be eligible—many semesters as a student worker in the career services office had taught me to expect a “U.S. citizens and permanent residents” clause hidden in the eligibility section. Imagine my surprise when the Young Leaders Institute (YLI) explicitly welcomed “diversity in regard to [among other things] immigration status.” As I hurriedly pulled together the application, I asked myself for the first time: Did this put me under the umbrella of South Asian American?

Was it enough to self-identify as American?

Legal papers are a poor measure of identity, but I had only ever considered this line of reasoning in the context of undocumented Americans who have lived here for years. My acceptance into a college (and the financial aid that came with it) gave me the privilege of a legal avenue of entry to the Land of Opportunity not afforded to them. I was not compelled by circumstances at home to risk arrest by ICE, or worse, incur the wrath of my punctilious father. Yet, after five very formative years in the United States, the process of my integration was well under way. I could no longer drive on the left side of the road, I grew an invisible layer of personal space, and I could even sing most of the words to Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’. Yet, I knew that I could “hold on to that feelin’” only for so long.

There will come a time when my Duration of Status will come to an end, and I will need to go back. When I share my apprehension about this legal deadline on my stay with friends who have grown up here, they are rightly confused about the logic behind it. As a student of economics, I know that the potential gain to world GDP is much higher from eliminating barriers to immigration than barriers to trade, yet it is my body that is stopped at the border for further screening while iPods and Big Macs hop across with ease. There’s something a little hypocritical about insisting on an impermeable border while cultivating a global consumer IMG_0059base for all things Americana. I know, however, that the way to move forward is not through a battle of wits but by listening to each other’s stories.

Stories are a powerful thing. They allow us to see our shared humanity with those different from us, and to see beauty in diversity. Stories are also a way for those of us living at the margins to claim space for ourselves. It is no surprise to me that many of my fellow YLI participants have chosen to take on projects that celebrate stories of people like us.

My YLI project performance is an effort to share my story. I draw upon my own lived experiences to trace the cracked lines between being a Bangladeshi citizen, a queer deshi, and an American. I have struggled to find a way to tell my story with any degree of honesty, when I know that the lived reality of LGBQ and T* South Asians are invisible, or worse, erased. Yet, that is exactly why it needs to be told. As I toe the line between that beautiful spectacle of exhibitionism that is American performance art, and my deshi impulse to keep skeletons hidden deep inside my closet (pun intended), I remind myself of the comfort I have found in the voices of queer and trans people of colour. In turn, I hope that my story may offer some solace to my younger brothers and sisters and siblings (and cousin-brothers and cousin-sisters and cousin-siblings).

Wherever they are from, I hope that they feel that they belong.

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Shabab Mirza
Young Leaders Institute Fellow, 2014

Father Gunned Down After Dropping Daughter off at School

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE | March 4, 2015

Contact: Lakshmi Sridaran
lakshmi@saalt.org
301-270-1855

SAALT and the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA) note with sadness and alarm yet another incident of violence against Muslim, Arab, Sikh, Hindu, and South Asian communities.

Last Friday, February 28, Mukhtar Ahmed, a Pakistani Muslim man in Louisville, KY, was gunned down and killed after dropping his daughter off at school. Local police have made an arrest, but have not yet released information on a possible motive. We must place this incident in the context of the troubling number of recent attacks against Muslim, South Asian, Sikh, Hindu, and Arab community members and institutions in the last few months alone.

These include:

  • The hit and run killing of a Somali Muslim boy in front of a mosque in Kansas City last December 4, 2014;
  • An attack on a Florida Iraqi business owner on February 6, 2015;
  • The police beating of an Indian grandfather in Madison, AL also on February 6, 2015;
  • The execution-style murder of three Arab-Muslim students in North Carolina on February 10, 2015;
  • A likely arson attack on the Houston Islamic Institute on February 13, 2015;
  • Vandal attacks on two Hindu temples in Washington State on February 14, 2015 and February 28, 2015

This steady stream of violent incidents reminds us that our communities remain under attack—as SAALT detailed in our September 2014 report, Under Suspicion, Under Attack.

Unfortunately, these attacks occur as the dominant rhetoric that posits Muslim Americans as suspect and under suspicion continues—through programs such as the FBI’s efforts to map Muslim American communities and the recent White House Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Summit, which focused exclusively on Muslims as perpetrators of “violent extremism.”

Federal, state, and local law enforcement must all address domestic hate violence incidents targeting Muslim, Arab, Sikh, Hindu, and South Asian communities. We all deserve to feel safe.

So what did you tell your family?

IMG_0015Within minutes of entering the hotel, the question came up: “So what did you tell your family?” We had only just met, but we didn’t need to know each other to know that family was a tender topic. We had come together for SAALT’s Young Leaders Institute (YLI), but our connections ran deeper than a passion for engaging South Asian communities in justice and activism. This was a connection that many LGBQ and transgender South Asians experience when we come together—a shared ache to reconcile what we knew about ourselves and what those around us have been taught. Especially achy is reconciling what our  families have been taught about who they think we are. My roommate and I, exhausted from our travels but exhilarated by this rare opportunity to swap stories of family experiences with another queer desi, stayed up late the night before the first day of YLI sharing stories about what brought us here.

LGBQ and transgender South Asians are taught that our families will never accept or acknowledge us in our entirety. While some of our experiences affirm this, these scare tactics leave us stuck and unable to hope for or envision a different family experience. The idea that we have no future as our whole selves is not only harmful to us, but also to our families. These fears fuel their anxieties and, in turn, widen the gap we feel between us and our families. How do we move toward a future where families have room to grow, learn, and accept us? How do we move toward a reality where being an LGBQ and/or transgender South Asian is not synonymous with a familial disconnect? How do we move toward a truth where we give our families the care we hope they can give us?

One exercise we did during our YLI training really hit home for me. We were asked to make a “queer family tree” tracing the people in our lives who have made room for us to be who we are more freely. At first, this felt impossible—the stereotype of South Asians being homophobic and transphobic runs deep enough to cloud what I know to be true. I remembered confiding in a cousin of mine about my queerness and the lightness I felt when she responded with such kind words. Were there more experiences with family that made me feel free? Maybe if I looked at this another way, I would find more. I thought about all the people in my family who might share my feelings about family—stress, sadness, frustration disappointment, shame, a sense of stuckness. Though they may not be queer, there were others in my family who are negotiating the idea of “family,” family IMG_0042expectations, and family realities in a complex way. And there were those few who supported them. Just by being who they are, these folks are making space for me to be me. They endure gossip, shame, fear, just because they don’t meet an expectation. Our seeming imperfections give hope to others who are also told they are imperfect. Thinking about family in this way really affirmed my shifting approach to family; it reminds me to be gentler and more compassionate. It also reminded me that these stories don’t come to mind easily, that these folks are often written out of family histories. In turn, I wondered where I stood in the future of my family history.

We are all storytellers, from the fictions we devise that allow us to access queer and transgender community, to the way we share the fine balance of our lives—storytelling is inherent to how we live and survive. My YLI project, an anthology entitled “Moving Truth(s): Queer and Transgender Desi Writings on Family,” captures a snapshot of how LGBQ and transgender South Asians relate to family through storytelling and explores how we get to a point where we can move forward. In honor of the vision for building allyship among each other and our families, my team and I developed a community-based publishing plan. Instead of expecting our contributors to write in isolation, we accepted applications of interest rather than submissions. Knowing how complex the topic of family would be, we created a guided writing process, a 10-week online writing workshop that would support writers in focusing which story to write about, to help in providing context, to work on editing and grammar, and, most importantly, to provide emotional support as we processed our experiences with family. Our goal during the writing and drafting process was to create something that felt true to us and our experiences, and to create something we are proud of. Some of our included stories deal with conflicts of belief and action, reconciling identities, and learning more graceful, generous, and gentle ways to relate to ourselves, our families, and our communities.

Our labor of love will be published Spring 2015. To learn more about and support this project, please: http://igg.me/at/movingtruths.

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Sasha Duttchoudhury
Young Leaders Institute Fellow, 2014