Within 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 expectations, 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.
Young Leaders Institute Fellow, 2014