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