The Development of “Who You Are”

As a Master’s in Devel­op­ment Prac­tice can­di­date at Emory Uni­ver­si­ty, I am always inves­ti­gat­ing the ‘devel­op­ment’ of gen­der empow­er­ment, hous­ing, dis­as­ter response, envi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­i­ty, among oth­er top­ics. A com­mon mis­take made in devel­op­ment, specif­i­cal­ly inter­na­tion­al devel­op­ment, is that a good idea or method of imple­men­ta­tion is assumed to work in every con­text and in all com­mu­ni­ties. As a gay South Asian male, I want to under­stand devel­op­ment issues in the con­text of the LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ty. Is the LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ty mak­ing the mis­take of using a uni­ver­sal method approach in under­stand­ing who we are?

“Com­ing out” came up in many con­ver­sa­tions dur­ing my expe­ri­ence with SAALT’s 2014–2015 Young Lead­ers Insti­tute (YLI), which focused on LGBTQ issues. Some stu­dents were “out,” some were in the process, some had not even thought about it, and some don’t plan on “com­ing out”. At dif­fer­ent times in their lives, peo­ple explore com­ing out aIMG_0088nd its impacts in dif­fer­ent ways. At eight years old, I came out to my mom after watch­ing a tele­vi­sion episode of Gen­er­al Hos­pi­tal when one of the char­ac­ters came out to his mom after acknowl­edg­ing his homo­sex­u­al­i­ty. I told my mom, “Hey Maa, the son is gay just like me!” My mom chuck­led, as she knew I loved relat­ing tele­vi­sion shows to my own real­i­ty. I chuck­led as well, but some­where in me I knew I was gay just like the son in the soap opera. My first kiss was with a boy just like his was. I would get ner­vous around my guy crush just like he did. And I want­ed to tell my mom that I am gay just like he did. At that time, how­ev­er, it seemed like it was not the right time for me to come out to my mom. Maybe because her chuck­le meant that she wasn’t ready. Maybe because she told me that I was too young to know if I was gay. Maybe because I was scared of los­ing my fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty even though I grew up know­ing oth­er LGBTQ South Asians who were always so kind and wel­com­ing. Maybe, just maybe, I was scared think­ing back to a par­ty where I over­heard some Indi­an aun­ties and uncles hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about the LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ty say­ing, “They do dis­gust­ing stuff, very dis­gust­ing.” Then, an uncle point­ed his fin­ger at me say­ing, “Stay away from them, Sumon, stay away from them.” How could I stay away from them when I was just like them?

It wasn’t until 14 years lat­er that I felt it was right for me to tell my mom I am gay by sim­ply say­ing, “Maa, I have been attract­ed to Ricky Mar­tin since his debut of Livin’ La Vida Loca.” At that moment, I knew it was right for me to tell my mom about a part of me that I want­ed her to know about and under­stand. Iron­i­cal­ly, this was around the same time Ricky came out pub­licly as a gay. Over­all, I am hap­py with my deci­sion to come out as it allowed me to under­stand a part of my iden­ti­ty and embrace the oth­er iden­ti­ties and real­i­ties of my life.

IMG_0041Through­out YLI, I heard many sto­ries of what it means to be part of the LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ty. Each young leader that I met fol­lowed their own way of express­ing who they are, even though they all had their doubts and ques­tions when iden­ti­fy­ing them­selves as we all do. They all had a time, or times, in their devel­op­ment where they dis­cov­ered that there is no one true def­i­n­i­tion of what it means to be LGBTQ.

From YLI’s phe­nom­e­nal stu­dents, I learned that I am tru­ly liv­ing who I am when I embrace the mul­ti­ple iden­ti­ties that make me who I am. I live life as a gay male, a South Asian, a grad­u­ate stu­dent, a Hin­du, a son, an nephew, a sib­ling, a friend, a vol­un­teer, and so much more. My roles and who I am devel­op by many fac­tors in life and the respon­si­bil­i­ties I take on. See­ing myself through the lens of only one iden­ti­ty pre­vents me from hon­or­ing my full self and from expe­ri­enc­ing all of my qual­i­ties and strengths. When I see the inter­sec­tions with­in my life, I live my real­i­ty and I allow myself to ful­ly expe­ri­ence life’s jour­ney. I have learned that sex­u­al orientation—and explor­ing the role of “com­ing out” in my life—are impor­tant parts in the devel­op­ment of who I am, but this is not the only deter­mi­nant.

I thank SAALT, the 2014 YLI stu­dents, Trikone Atlanta, Rak­sha, Inc., my aunt, fam­i­ly, and friends for help­ing me to under­stand that the devel­op­ment of “who you are” is not one path, but many paths that lead to this moment and the many more that lie ahead.

Sumon Ray
Young Lead­ers Insti­tute Fel­low, 2014

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.

Shabab Mirza
Young Lead­ers Insti­tute Fel­low, 2014

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:

Sasha Duttchoud­hury
Young Lead­ers Insti­tute Fel­low, 2014

LGBT Health Meets Public Health

I decid­ed to explore more of my racial and eth­nic iden­ti­ty in my first year of col­lege when the term “South Asian” was still rel­a­tive­ly new. By read­ing any­thing I could find and observ­ing race and eth­nic­i­ty in my sur­round­ings, I grew more inter­est­ed in the role of race and eth­nic­i­ty in health and health care. I learned of “pub­lic health” and oth­er terms used to describe health con­di­tions I wit­nessed my whole life, such as health dis­par­i­ties and neg­a­tive health out­comes. Based on my per­son­al inter­ests and expe­ri­ences, I decid­ed that I want­ed to focus on repro­duc­tive and sex­u­al health care for South Asians and oth­er peo­ple of col­or. For the past two years, I have approached this work with a repro­duc­tive jus­tice frame­work and have seen how main­stream repro­duc­tive and sex­u­al health orga­ni­za­tions have often neglect­ed mar­gin­al­ized pop­u­la­tions, such as women of col­or, queer com­mu­ni­ties, peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, and all their inter­sec­tions.

A year ago, I took an LGBT health course, where I learned about LGBTQ health dis­par­i­ties, such as the high rates of breast can­cer among les­bians and increas­ing rates of depres­sion among trans­gen­der peo­ple. This course served as my first aca­d­e­m­ic expo­sure to LGBTQ health from a pub­lic health per­spec­tive. Quick­ly, I real­ized that there is still much research to be done on LGBTQ health, that there is even less research on LGBTQ and peo­ple of col­or health, and that most peo­ple did not even know words like “queer,” “cis­gen­der,” and “trans­misog­y­ny” exist. Know­ing this, I still had repro­duc­tive and sex­u­al health as my pri­ma­ry areas of inter­est, but could not fail to include LGBTQ health in my scope of pub­lic health. As my actions became more LGBTQ inclu­sive, I noticed that oth­er stu­dents and pub­lic health pro­fes­sion­als won­dered why I used gen­der-neu­tral lan­guage, dis­cussed health dis­par­i­ties at any giv­en moment, and “brought up race and sex­u­al­i­ty too much.” Despite the com­ments and stares, I still main­tained my LGBTQ (and oth­er demo­graph­ic fac­tors and iden­ti­ties) inclu­sive stance and con­tin­ued my work.

IMG_0057I heard about SAALT back when I was research­ing South Asian com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment, and I heard about the Young Lead­er­ship Insti­tute from a for­mer par­tic­i­pant. This past sum­mer, I was for­tu­nate enough to attend SAALT’s annu­al Young Lead­ers Insti­tute (YLI), which, in 2014, focused on LGBTQ jus­tice and ally­ship. While attend­ing YLI, I learned about South Asian queer his­to­ry, queer peo­ple of col­or his­to­ries, and the tra­jec­to­ry of South Asian, LGBTQ, and South Asian LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ties.

Based on my work and the train­ings at YLI, I start­ed to crit­i­cal­ly think about inte­grat­ing dom­i­nant pub­lic health prac­tices and LGBTQ health. Though I am lim­it­ed in my capac­i­ty to enact sig­nif­i­cant changes in pub­lic health prac­tice, I want­ed to start engag­ing more inter­sec­tions of sex­u­al­i­ty and race into pub­lic health dis­cus­sions and in the scope of pub­lic health. My YLI project is to incor­po­rate LGBT health in med­ical and pub­lic health dis­cus­sions. I plan on host­ing a pan­el of health pro­fes­sion­als to dis­cuss the neces­si­ty of LGBTQ com­pe­ten­cy with cur­rent med­ical and pub­lic health stu­dents. An exam­ple of LGBTQ com­pe­ten­cy among health pro­fes­sion­als is not assum­ing some­one’s sex­u­al­i­ty when screen­ing for past sex­u­al his­to­ry.

In addi­tion, I plan to inte­grate LGBTQ health and use LGBTQ inclu­sive lan­guage in my cur­rent prac­tices in repro­duc­tive and sex­u­al health. For instance, when I con­duct work­shops or com­mu­ni­ty dis­cus­sions on these top­ics, I explain LGBTQ inclu­sive lan­guage to par­tic­i­pants and my ratio­nale for doing so, espe­cial­ly in regards to the spe­cif­ic com­mu­ni­ty to which I am address­ing (such as the South Asian com­mu­ni­ty, grad­u­ate stu­dents, a col­lec­tive com­mu­ni­ty of col­or, etc.). Incor­po­rat­ing LGBTQ inclu­sive lan­guage is need­ed in order to reduce the mar­gin­al­iza­tion of LGBTQ peo­ple and pro­mote acces­si­bil­i­ty of LGBTQ-friend­ly ser­vices. I plan on imple­ment­ing this project this semes­ter and want to con­tin­ue inte­grat­ing LGBTQ health and LGBTQ inclu­sive lan­guage in my work as a pub­lic health prac­ti­tion­er.

Sadia Arshad
Young Lead­ers Insti­tute Fel­low, 2014

Bridging Divides Through Education

As some­one who holds queer, gen­der devi­at­ing, Mus­lim, and first gen­er­a­tion Bangladeshi-Amer­i­can iden­ti­ties (among oth­ers), being con­sid­ered unusu­al is com­mon. Hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions that include the state­ments, “Yes, a per­son can be Mus­lim and queer at the same time,” or “Of course, South Asian trans­gen­der peo­ple exist,” are a reg­u­lar part of my life. Though these exchanges can be try­ing at times, I have come to real­ize that they are a huge neces­si­ty. Only by con­nect­ing with one anoth­er through under­stand­ing of each other’s truths can sol­i­dar­i­ty between indi­vid­u­als be forged. Only by edu­cat­ing one anoth­er can com­mu­ni­ty be built.

Thus, edu­ca­tion is often on my mind, though not in the most obvi­ous sense. I think not of the insti­tu­tions typ­i­cal­ly asso­ci­at­ed with edu­ca­tion, not the schools or uni­ver­si­ties, but the idea of spread­ing knowl­edge and under­stand­ing through pop­u­la­tions in less struc­tured envi­ron­ments. I won­der how sto­ries can be shared and com­mu­ni­ty built with­out the sup­port of larg­er sys­tems to cre­ate chan­nels of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. As ref­er­enced above, indi­vid­ual con­ver­sa­tions can be pow­er­ful tools for com­mu­ni­ty build­ing, but as some­one who is a both part of and works with­in South Asian LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ties, I am often search­ing for ways of reach­ing more peo­ple, more effi­cient­ly.

Enter the Young Leader’s Insti­tute (YLI), host­ed by South Asians Lead­ing Togeth­er (SAALT), which I attend­ed in 2014. The oppor­tu­ni­ty is one that that I don’t often come across; I was able not only to gain prac­ti­cal knowl­edge on doing advo­ca­cy work in mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties, but was also con­nect­ed with pro­fes­sion­als involved in jus­tice work and giv­en space to share expe­ri­ences with peers. It was deeDSC_0035ply ful­fill­ing to be in an inten­tion­al space with a clear focus on LGBTQ jus­tice and ally­ship. After var­i­ous train­ings on issues rang­ing from the effect of colo­nial­ism on gen­der norms in South Asia to meth­ods for com­plet­ing projects, the impor­tance of par­tic­u­lar issues became clear to me.

Shar­ing truths, cre­at­ing under­stand­ing, and reach­ing across dif­fer­ence were themes that came up again and again over the three days of the Insti­tute. Here, it seemed, was the issue with which I had been grap­pling: how to spread aware­ness and bet­ter serve com­mu­ni­ties by under­stand­ing their spe­cif­ic needs. With the guid­ance of SAALT staff and in part­ner­ship with Satrang, a South Asian non­prof­it that serves LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ties based in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, I decid­ed to focus my efforts on build­ing ally­ship train­ings focused on the needs of South Asian LGBTQ-iden­ti­fied peo­ple.

The ally­ship train­ings are a series of six to eight work­shops that will be held over a six month peri­od, and will tar­get pro­fes­sion­als and oth­er groups that work with South Asian LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ties, such as immi­gra­tion lawyers, social work­ers, jour­nal­ists, med­ical pro­fes­sion­als, and pos­si­bly stu­dent groups. The train­ings con­sist of an overview of South Asian LGBTQ his­to­ry and rel­e­vant cur­rent issues with­in these com­mu­ni­ties and a more gen­er­al sec­tion on LGBTQ-relat­ed ter­mi­nol­o­gy and con­cepts. The idea is to give peo­ple work­ing with Desi LGBTQ-iden­ti­fied peo­ple the tools to bet­ter under­stand their needs and ulti­mate­ly bet­ter serve these com­mu­ni­ties. In con­junc­tion with the train­ings, I am work­ing to devel­op a resource toolk­it. Resources, such as lit­er­a­ture on gen­der iden­ti­ty and needs assess­ment research on South Asian LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ties, will be both hand­ed out at train­ings and avail­able on Satrang’s web­site so they are acces­si­ble to those who are unable to attend train­ings.

Thus far, the project has proven both chal­leng­ing and reward­ing as I focus on devel­op­ing the train­ing cur­ricu­lum. Reach­ing out to indi­vid­u­als and orga­ni­za­tions involved in LGBTQ jus­tice work has proven very help­ful, not just in com­plet­ing the project but in help­ing to devel­op my own approach to ally­ship. Often, when one thinks of ally­ship, the gist is to sup­port indi­vid­u­als with dif­fer­ent iden­ti­ties than your own. How­ev­er, I have come to real­ize that it is impor­tant to be an ally to one’s own com­mu­ni­ty. For me, that means edu­cat­ing myself on the needs of folks in my per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al life and using what­ev­er skills I pos­sess to improve con­di­tions for oth­ers. Though I can’t work in immi­gra­tion and the media and the med­ical field, I can give the peo­ple who do work in those fields and those who reg­u­lar­ly work with South Asian LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ties a bet­ter under­stand­ing of how to do so. And that, I believe, can ulti­mate­ly make a real impact.


Pia Ahmed
Young Lead­ers Insti­tute Fel­low, 2014


Perks of Being an Awkward Desi Queer

This sum­mer, I had the plea­sure of par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Young Lead­ers Insti­tute (YLI) host­ed by SAALT in Wash­ing­ton D.C., where the focus of the Insti­tute was to engage around LGBTQ jus­tice and ally­ship. My entry point into this activist-based lead­er­ship train­ing pro­gram was a cul­mi­na­tion of numer­ous fac­tors, but main­ly due to the inter­sec­tion of sev­er­al of my iden­ti­ties: queer, Mus­lim, and Bangladeshi. In addi­tion, I don’t view my gen­der as falling with­in the bina­ry gen­der spec­trum. Grow­ing up in Bangladesh for 19 years in a pre­dom­i­nant­ly con­ser­v­a­tive Islam­ic soci­ety and then attend­ing a fem­i­nist lib­er­al arts women’s col­lege paved the way for my ulti­mate entry into a social jus­tice are­na where I can con­sis­tent­ly immerse myself in gen­der and sex­u­al­i­ty top­ics from an inter­sec­tion­al per­spec­tive.

The pre­lim­i­nary idea for my YLI project, Project Band­han, came about through my con­ver­sa­tions that were gen­er­at­ed via a South Asian cau­cus at the 2013 Nation­al Queer Asian Pacif­ic Islander Alliance (NQAPIA) con­fer­ence. Project Band­han is a video cam­paign that will con­sist of a series of 2–5 minute videos or pho­tovoice inter­views show­cas­ing var­i­ous desi queer and gen­der non­con­form­ing folks and their rela­tion­ships with their respec­tive par­ents or parental fig­ures.  I reviewed sev­er­al of the videos that were being gen­er­at­ed through the It Gets Bet­ter Project and I was struck by the dai­ly raw life strug­gles and bar­ri­ers that queer, trans*, and gen­der self-iden­ti­fy­ing peo­ple of col­or con­tin­u­ous­ly face with­in the Unit­ed States—an under­served and often invis­i­ble com­mu­ni­ty with­in the larg­er LGBTQ move­ment whose pri­or­i­ty focus may not be mar­riage equal­i­ty as an end in itself in the larg­er fight for queer lib­er­a­tion. The LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ty in Amer­i­ca is diverse in its pop­u­la­tion demo­graph­ics and needs, where the pri­ma­ry episodes of vio­lence orig­i­nate from a lack of access to health care and hous­ing, along­side con­stant inci­dents of police bru­tal­i­ty, prison lock­ups, and home­less­ness. The root issues that the larg­er LGBTQ pop­u­la­tion needs to address imme­di­ate­ly lies with­in an eco­nom­ic, gen­der, and racial jus­tice frame­work, and not with­in the insti­tu­tion of mar­riage, which is in fact, a tool for a social and colo­nial con­trol. Through­out the his­to­ry of the Unit­ed States, the align­ment of priv­i­lege and white het­eropa­tri­archy has always prop­a­gat­ed the strug­gles endured by queer and sim­i­lar­ly mar­gin­al­ized pop­u­la­tions. The lega­cy of these strug­gles tends to get dis­missed in a major­i­ty of main­stream media por­tray­als around sex­u­al­i­ty and gen­der pre­sen­ta­tion. I essen­tial­ly want­ed to cre­ate a video-based plat­form for my peo­ple (queer South Asians) to infor­mal­ly dis­cuss their non-het­ero­nor­ma­tive desires andCapture tribu­la­tions with­in the con­text of their parental upbring­ing. Through this plat­form, inter­vie­wees can engage and con­verse with the cam­era appa­ra­tus with­out the con­stant need to envi­sion a ‘bet­ter’ future or to find an imme­di­ate solu­tion for their hard­ships.

This brings me to the rea­son of why I chose to under­take this some­what ambi­tious project, a project that wish­es to go against the doc­u­men­ta­tion of the sin­gle-issue LGBTQ lives that tend to per­vade our news and media out­lets. For me, my awk­ward­ness and shy­ness are char­ac­ter­is­tics I’ve strug­gled with for a sig­nif­i­cant peri­od of time.  My sense of pro­pri­etor­ship and human­i­ty orig­i­nates from the ways my desi and Islam­ic upbring­ings have caused me to down­play my intro­vert­ed­ness, espe­cial­ly in a cul­ture where intro­verts are, to a cer­tain degree, seen as dis­pos­able. I felt my anx­i­ety around out­lin­ing the mis­sion state­ment of Project Band­han was a hur­dle in itself, where I would, at times, feel that I don’t pos­sess the con­fi­dence or intel­lec­tu­al acu­men to bring such a unique project to a suc­cess­ful com­ple­tion. How­ev­er, I want­ed to own my awk­ward­ness and oth­er inter­nal­ized self-dep­re­cat­ing feel­ings that I’ve been told to har­bor for a large por­tion of my life.

Through the explo­ration and own­er­ship of my emo­tions, I am able to com­mu­ni­cate my lived real­i­ty in order to seek out com­mon­al­i­ties and sol­i­dar­i­ty with the inter­vie­wees’ lived expe­ri­ences. Our expe­ri­ences as queer South Asians pro­vide us with a unique angle of vision. As mem­bers of an oppressed group, each of us pos­sess­es crit­i­cal insights into the con­di­tions of our spe­cif­ic oppres­sion. Through my 3‑day inter­ac­tion with my fel­low peers at YLI who are all work­ing to chal­lenge oppres­sive struc­tures, I real­ized the immense val­ue of hold­ing our emo­tions as a col­lec­tive, rather than as an indi­vid­ual. Being intro­vert­ed and awk­ward and mak­ing those qual­i­ties work for, rather than against, one’s social jus­tice and future goals are ele­ments that were embraced with­in the YLI space. As a result, the val­ues that were impart­ed to me through the Insti­tute will also be deeply entrenched with­in Project Bandhan’s final prod­uct where queer and gen­der self-iden­ti­fy­ing South Asians will be able to explore the shift­ing ter­rain of par­ent-child inter­ac­tions. YLI was indeed one of the most ful­fill­ing train­ing sem­i­nars that I’ve attend­ed so far, and the friend­ships and edu­ca­tion that I’ve gained through the Insti­tute will stay with me through­out this life­time.

Farhat Rah­man
Bryn Mawr Col­lege

Queer, Asian and Proud

YLI_VictoriaThis sum­mer I attend­ed the 2014 Young Lead­ers Insti­tute (YLI), a lead­er­ship devel­op­ment pro­gram host­ed by South Asian Amer­i­cans Lead­ing Togeth­er (SAALT). The Young Lead­ers Insti­tute is an oppor­tu­ni­ty for under­grad­u­ate uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents to build lead­er­ship skills, con­nect with fel­low activists and advo­cates, and explore social change strate­gies around issues that affect South Asian and immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties in the US. This year, YLI focused on LGBTQ jus­tice and ally­ship. The theme of this year’s Insti­tute per­fect­ly coin­cid­ed with an inter­sec­tion­al LGBTQ and Asian stu­dent group that I found­ed a few months pri­or, Penn Queer & Asian (Penn Q&A).

The Young Lead­ers Insti­tute taught me about LGBTQ issues in some com­mu­ni­ties that tend to be over­looked and under­served in the broad­er Asian and Pacif­ic Islander Amer­i­can (API) move­ment. For exam­ple, I learned about the roles that dif­fer­ent gen­ders, sex­es, and sex­u­al­i­ties played through­out the course of South Asian his­to­ry. At the end of the lead­er­ship train­ing, YLI stu­dent lead­ers had to cre­ate projects to enact social change in their com­mu­ni­ties. For me, it only seemed nat­ur­al to devel­op and expand the role of Penn Q&A.

Just a mat­ter of weeks ago, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia wel­comed its stu­dents, staff, and fac­ul­ty back to cam­pus for the start of the 2014 fall semes­ter. For Penn Q&A, the start of the school year meant get­ting down to busi­ness and pub­li­ciz­ing our stu­dent group to the greater Penn com­mu­ni­ty. Penn Q&A aims to pro­vide a safe space for the sup­port and empow­er­ment of les­bian, gay, bisex­u­al, trans­gen­der, queer, ques­tion­ing, and allied indi­vid­u­als inter­est­ed in address­ing issues sur­round­ing the queer Asian com­mu­ni­ty. As one of the co-founders of Penn Q&A last spring, I attend­ed mul­ti­ple stu­dent activ­i­ties fairs with my Q&A peers, pro­vid­ing infor­ma­tion­al fly­ers, sign-up sheets, and snacks to Penn under­grad­u­ate, grad­u­ate, and trans­fer stu­dents. We net­worked at ori­en­ta­tion events spon­sored by var­i­ous queer stu­dent groups and Asian stu­dent groups in order to increase the over­all aware­ness of our orga­ni­za­tion. By the end of the first week, Penn Q&A had accom­plished its out­reach goals—I was pleas­ant­ly sur­prised when our list­serv expand­ed to include over fifty queer and Asian-iden­ti­fied mem­bers, con­sid­er­ing Q&A’s rel­a­tive­ly recent estab­lish­ment and rather niche tar­get pop­u­la­tion!

As the hec­tic ‘“wel­come” and “wel­come back” events began to wind down, I real­ized that Penn Q&A need­ed to jump through a num­ber of bureau­crat­ic hoops before the stu­dent group could prop­er­ly serve its expand­ed con­stituen­cy. As a result, Q&A board mem­bers con­vened ear­ly on a Sat­ur­day morn­ing to ham­mer out, scour, and pol­ish our Con­sti­tu­tion. Once com­plet­ed, we sub­mit­ted our appli­ca­tion for offi­cial Uni­ver­si­ty stu­dent group recog­ni­tion. Just last week, the Office of Stu­dent Affairs grant­ed us an offi­cial sta­tus on the Penn stu­dent group ros­ter! Even the Dai­ly Penn­syl­van­ian, Penn’s stu­dent-run dai­ly news­pa­per, recent­ly fea­tured Q&A as one of the cam­pus’ new inter­sec­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions.

Now a Uni­ver­si­ty-cer­ti­fied stu­dent group with a web­site, var­i­ous social media accounts, and a for­mi­da­ble phys­i­cal pres­ence, Penn Q&A looks for­ward to join­ing stu­dent umbrel­la groups on cam­pus. These umbrel­la groups pro­vide fund­ing, out­reach, and polit­i­cal pow­er for many minor­i­ty orga­ni­za­tions on cam­pus. In the near future, we hope to apply for mem­ber­ship to the Asian Pacif­ic Stu­dent Coali­tion, which over­sees Penn’s Asian-inter­est orga­ni­za­tions, and Lamb­da Alliance, which over­sees Penn’s LGBTQ+ orga­ni­za­tions, amongst oth­ers. Penn Q&A can more read­i­ly achieve its mis­sion of sup­port­ing queer Asian stu­dents by join­ing these larg­er stu­dent group alliances.

Penn Q&A also has a few things planned for this aca­d­e­m­ic year. Inter­nal­ly, we look for­ward to hold­ing infor­mal mix­ers for our mem­bers, many of whom wish to main­tain con­fi­den­tial­i­ty out­side of Penn Q&A. In line with what I learned at YLI, Penn Q&A may host work­shops to address the inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty of South Asian and LGBTQ iden­ti­ties. Exter­nal­ly, we would like to invite speak­ers and media icons to cam­pus. Penn Q&A has cur­rent­ly planned a col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Penn Philip­pine Asso­ci­a­tion to bring Jose Anto­nio Var­gas, a gay, undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grant, to speak about his inter­sec­tion­al expe­ri­ence of com­ing to and com­ing out in Amer­i­ca. We also hope to invite Staceyann Chin, a spo­ken word artist and polit­i­cal activist, and AJ O’Day, a pop­u­lar YouTube enter­tain­er, to per­form and speak to the Penn and greater Philadel­phia com­mu­ni­ties some­time in the future. On a more region­al lev­el, I hope to see Penn Q&A hold­ing get-togeth­ers with queer Asian stu­dent groups on oth­er cam­pus­es and com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions in the area.

Fun­da­men­tal­ly, Penn Q&A exists so that queer-iden­ti­fied and Asian-iden­ti­fied indi­vid­u­als know that they are not alone, whether they are in the clos­et, in the process of com­ing out, or have already come out. We want to offer our mem­bers the oppor­tu­ni­ty to chat with oth­ers about how to deal with sticky sit­u­a­tions regard­ing fam­i­ly expec­ta­tions, reli­gious ten­sions, and any oth­er obsta­cles that arise. At the end of the day, I co-found­ed Penn Queer and Asian because a hand­ful of queer Asians at Penn want­ed to cre­ate a safe space for oth­ers to feel com­fort­able in embrac­ing their iden­ti­ties.

Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia


I can see queerly now, the rain is gone

Dur­ing the Young Lead­ers Insti­tute 2014, my world dras­ti­cal­ly changed. Peo­ple shared sto­ries that cap­ti­vat­ed, touched, and slight­ly even hurt me, because of the grue­some real­i­ty of some of my peers’ expe­ri­ences. Enter­ing the train­ing room that day about five min­utes late, as I usu­al­ly do, I had no idea what to expect. I looked around at my twelve oth­er peers and real­ized that each and every sin­gle one had a sto­ry that I des­per­ate­ly want­ed to learn. Some of them were dressed in a way that I had nev­er seen, while some of them gave off an eclec­tic vibe, and some matched my eager­ness with wide eyes and ten­der smiles. As the days of train­ing went on, I learned more and more about the strug­gles my LGBTQ–identified peers faced on a dai­ly basis.

The part of the train­ing that impact­ed me most, as an ally, was when the group was split up and moved to two sep­a­rate rooms. One group con­sist­ed of those that iden­ti­fy as gen­der IMG_0099non-con­form­ing/­trans*, and the oth­er group con­sist­ed of allies. When the two groups came back togeth­er, we dis­cussed impor­tant infor­ma­tion con­cern­ing sex­u­al­i­ty and gen­der iden­ti­ty that allies should know, as agreed upon by the group of gen­der non­con­form­ing and trans* indi­vid­u­als. We dis­cussed ally­ship and explored ways in which allies can offer sup­port while keep­ing the focus on gen­der non-con­form­ing/­trans* indi­vid­u­als. We learned that the voic­es of allies should not detract from the sto­ries and expe­ri­ences of gen­der non-con­form­ing and trans* com­mu­ni­ties.

I real­ized that the more I heard them speak, the more they were describ­ing my very own cam­pus project, which is to enable a safe space envi­ron­ment on the cam­pus of Texas Tech Uni­ver­si­ty. The devel­op­ment of a safer cam­pus envi­ron­ment will be achieved by form­ing bonds with fac­ul­ty and LGBTQ-iden­ti­fied stu­dents and pro­mot­ing events and aware­ness talks by the Gay Straight Alliance at Texas Tech. I had no idea that some of the approach­es my project was using were exact­ly what my YLI peers were cau­tion­ing against! Over the next few days I mus­tered up the courage to be hon­est with myself and rec­og­nize that I real­ly did not know any­thing about the way my project should be approached; I had been look­ing through the same nar­row lens that my peers had said felt mar­gin­al­iz­ing.

Dur­ing the 3‑day Insti­tute, I met with beau­ti­ful indi­vid­u­als, inside and out, who taught me what accept­ing one­self and the strug­gle-filled jour­ney to achieve inner peace real­ly means. I learned that I want to be an ally; my peers’ def­i­n­i­tion of ally, not society’s def­i­n­i­tion. I observed their hum­ble­ness their kind­ness and their strong-willed per­son­al­i­ties; they taught me to embrace art, love, and good vibes. Over­all I have learned that I am just an ally. These are their sto­ries, their strug­gles, and their fights. I am sim­ply here to sup­port them. In a metaphor­i­cal sense, my rain shouldn’t cloud their skies.

YLI 2014 changed my views on so many things. I not only walked out more aware of my sur­round­ings, but more aware of myself, my goals, and my aspi­ra­tions. I gained a stronger under­stand­ing of the mes­sages I want to make clear to those in my cam­pus com­mu­ni­ty about accep­tance and sup­port and know­ing when to take a step back, because the voic­es that need to be heard are not those of the allies; they are those of the LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ty.

Texas Tech Uni­ver­si­ty

Supreme Court Watch: United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry and the South Asian Community

On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court issued its opin­ions in two crit­i­cal cas­es involv­ing the issue of mar­riage equal­i­ty. In a land­mark deci­sion, Unit­ed States v. Wind­sor, the Court inval­i­dat­ed Sec­tion 3 of the Defense of Mar­riage Act (DOMA), which defined mar­riage as between “one man and one woman” and only rec­og­nized oppo­site-sex mar­riages for pur­pos­es of fed­er­al law. Fol­low­ing the enact­ment of DOMA in 1996, same-sex part­ners were denied fed­er­al ben­e­fits, includ­ing those under fed­er­al tax, hous­ing, Social Secu­ri­ty, and immi­gra­tion laws, and exclu­sive­ly grant­ed them het­ero­sex­u­al mar­ried cou­ples. Pri­or to the deci­sion in Wind­sor, denial of such ben­e­fits was allowed, even if cou­ples lived in indi­vid­ual states that rec­og­nized their mar­riage. In its deci­sion, the Court found that DOMA vio­lat­ed prin­ci­ples of “equal lib­er­ty of per­sons” enshrined in the 5th Amend­ment. (It is impor­tant to note that the Court did not rule on Sec­tion 2 of DOMA, which per­mits indi­vid­ual states to enact leg­is­la­tion that refus­es to rec­og­nize mar­riages between same-sex part­ners.) In a sep­a­rate case, Hollingsworth v. Per­ry, the Supreme Court dis­missed an appeal to rein­state Propo­si­tion 8, a bal­lot ini­tia­tive passed by Cal­i­for­nia vot­ers in 2008 that pro­hib­it­ed mar­riage between same-sex part­ners and was sub­se­quent­ly barred from being enforced by low­er courts, on the grounds that those seek­ing appeal did not have the legal stand­ing to do so. As a result, the low­er court rul­ing pre­vent­ing the enforce­ment of Propo­si­tion 8 remains intact.

As an orga­ni­za­tion that has long sup­port­ed mar­riage equal­i­ty, SAALT applauds the rul­ings by the Supreme Court in these two cas­es. In par­tic­u­lar, the Wind­sor deci­sion will pos­i­tive­ly trans­form the lives of South Asian Amer­i­cans involved in com­mit­ted rela­tion­ships by ensur­ing that they can no longer be denied vital fed­er­al ben­e­fits sim­ply based upon whom they love or mar­ry. This deci­sion also paves the way for the South Asians in same-sex bina­tion­al mar­riages (rec­og­nized by the state or coun­try where they were mar­ried) to avail them­selves of fed­er­al immi­gra­tion ben­e­fits, includ­ing the abil­i­ty to spon­sor their spouse under the fam­i­ly immi­gra­tion sys­tem and peti­tion for loved ones liv­ing abroad. For too long, cou­ples in this sit­u­a­tion have lived in a per­ilous legal lim­bo, as we dis­cussed in a recent oped. Such uncer­tain­ty often results in indi­vid­u­als over­stay­ing their visas to remain togeth­er or liv­ing abroad in exile. SAALT com­mends the Court’s deci­sions to reaf­firm the prin­ci­ples of equal­i­ty and fair­ness and looks for­ward to work­ing with fed­er­al agen­cies to ensure that com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers will be able to access the fed­er­al ben­e­fits pro­vid­ed to them as a result of this rul­ing.

For fur­ther infor­ma­tion on the Court’s deci­sion on DOMA will affect eli­gi­bil­i­ty for var­i­ous fed­er­al ben­e­fits, check out the ACLU’s web­site here.

For fur­ther infor­ma­tion on how the Court’s deci­sion on DOMA will affect immi­grant fam­i­lies and cou­ples, check out Immi­gra­tion Equality’s FAQ.

SAALT thanks Priya Murthy for her assis­tance in pro­vid­ing analy­sis and writ­ing.