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.
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Farhat Rah­man
Bryn Mawr Col­lege