On Sunday Jan. 26, student organizers from the Indian American Student Association and the United Asian American Organizations came together to host an intimate dialogue about the re-examination of South Asian Queerness — a much-needed first of its kind. Before the event was underway, I sensed something irresolute in the air of the dimly lit Hussey Room at the Michigan League. Though, more likely than not, it was just me and my unfamiliarity with safe Queer spaces that also reflected my ethnic identity. To ease my nerves, I channeled my inner reporter and quickly introduced myself to IASA Social Awareness Co-Chairs Meghana Kandiraju and Sahana Prabhu and IASA Co-President Shaunak Puri, who welcomed me and shared their enthusiasm in hosting this unique event.
As folks settled down, Kandiraju and Prabhu encouraged attendees to speak to one another about their experiences with the LGBTQ+ community — as an ally or as a member — in the realms of mainstream media, family dynamics and cultural values. Though the prompt was unmistakably catered to a predominantly cishet audience, individuals shared their support, their qualms and their collective desire, among other things, to slowly integrate what little media representation does exist for Queer South Asian people into the purview of their most immediate families. Within the South Asian culture, especially within family dynamics, exists deeply rooted gender norms and general nonacceptance of Queer identities. This discourages many Queer South Asians from coming out, and for the lot that do, there often remains the underlying familial expectation of eventual cisheteronormative marriage. One individual went on to express how she felt it her duty as a cisgender, straight woman to talk to her family about Queerness under her relative privilege of social and cultural security. As she and other cishet people indulged in their well-intentioned sentiments, when it came around to the Queer attendees, there was a notable stoicism among their responses. For my half of the table, learning about Queerness was a matter of personal experience.
The Co-Chairs then delved into the forgotten sexual diversity of South Asian culture dating back to the Kama Sutra and early Tamil Sangam literature. The Kama Sutra is an ancient Indian Sanskrit text full of prose and poetry on sexuality, eroticism and emotional fulfillment in life. As Kandiraju and Prabhu noted, both these precolonial texts had segments dedicated to the homosexual relations of their time, but were often overlooked by the enactment of restrictions and fines that grew more punitive well into the Medieval empire, the Mogul empire and the British empire.
They went on to explain the effects of British colonial rule on Queer rights, which started with the Offenses Against the Person Act in 1861. This act codified consensual and nonviolent sodomy under physical and sexual acts of violence, resulting in a life sentence. Further, it begot Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which directly criminalized any intercourse “against the order of nature,” including consensual homosexual activity. The law was only recently ruled unconstitutional in 2018.
In response to this historical context, many attendees started to realize much of the current anti-Queer sentiment within the diaspora stems directly from its legal implementation due to British colonialism.
Next, Puri introduced the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 which specifically targeted “eunuchs,” a stigmatizing colonial term that refers to individuals who do not conform to British ideas of masculinity and gender. This inherently ostracized the Hijra community as well, a once venerated, diverse community of intersex people, asexual people, non-binary people and transgender people that held important religious and governmental authority during the Mogul empire. In the late 20th century, people across the South Asian Diaspora advocated against this law and for the recognition of the Hijra community. Then, in 2014, the Indian Supreme Court finally recognized Hijra and transgender people as a “third sex,” or “third gender” as indicated by the language used by the court system. This legal recognition served to safeguard their rights under the Constitution and laws made by Parliament and the State Legislature, and it marked a huge human rights victory signifying the expiration of another legal British influence.
Still, conscious perpetuation of social harm against the Hijra community and South Asian Queer people continues today. Historical legal progress only goes so far to protect individuals from rampant hate crimes, damaging stigma and forced invisibility within and outside the diaspora.
There’s something really cathartic in learning about the gradual Queer liberation in South Asia through the renunciation of colonial legislation, and Kandiraju explained it perfectly when I came up to her later:
“There is such a rich and deep history with regards to South Asians and Queerness. However, when these two identities are brought up, they are often seen as mutually exclusive — but this clearly isn’t the case,” Kandiraju said.
Clearly. And clearly, there’s a long way to go, but maybe Queerness was never meant to feel so alienating within South Asian existence. Queerness is a multitude of things that transcends any single identity or experience, just like the diaspora itself. The South Asian experience is inherently polylithic among its eight different countries, but ethnic assimilation to the model minority myth, a white supremacist ideology that upholds cisheteronormativity, diminishes this diversity. It leaves little to no room for intersectional identities, let alone Queerness. South Asian cishet individuals who implicitly subscribe to the model minority myth thus use this idea in order to perpetuate Queerphobia within the diaspora. Even so, recognizing the important roots of Queerphobia within our culture does not absolve us of the responsibility to actively fight against it today.
For the second segment of the presentation, UAAO President Gina Liu delved into the redefinition of Queerness and Queer activism within the diaspora. She started off by recognizing the historically derogatory definition of the word Queer as well as its reclamation in Queer liberation. She then explained how non-western countries are othered for their lack of conformity to western ideals, and in turn, homosexuality has now been duped into white progressiveness and ulterior pinkwashing under what is refered to as “homonationalism.”
Through homonationalism, nationalist regimes operate under the guise of progressiveness by associating homosexuality with their ideals. In their ostentatious performance of Queer liberation, they distract attention from their more oppressive policies. Israel’s campaign as the “gay mecca” of the Middle East is an extreme example of how pinkwashing is used to violently advance Zionist, anti-Muslim rhetoric. This ongoing campaign is a direct PR attempt to overshadow violence against Palestinians as a whole while aggrandizing Israel’s Queer rights agenda as the ultimate liberator of Palestinian and Arab Queer people.
Similar strategies are utilized by the radical right in the United States to push across conservative agendas while remaining palatable to woke America. Queer liberation in America is thus posited as the savior of young Queer immigrants, and being Queer as a member of a non-white diaspora is erroneously propogated as a privilege of white progressiveness unattainable in the homeland.
This perception of mutual exclusivity between being a Queer person and South Asian, to many families, means that the adoption of such “western ideals” takes away from traditional culture. When South Asian immigrant parents say, “We’re not American in that way,” they are telling us that Queerness is contradictory to our heritage — yet precolonial history teaches us that we are inherently South Asian in that way.
After introducing the facade of western Queer politics, Liu importantly made note of the oft-invisible histories of South Asian Queer people and Queer activism in the United States. She indicated the presence of same-sex relations as early as the first wave of Indian immigration in the 1880s particularly among Punjabi men, while explaining how, as mentioned in Nayan Shah’s book “Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality and the Law in the North American West,” they were often accused of crossdressing by white men because they did not conform to expressions of European manhood. Additionally, she mentioned the role of publications such as Trikone Magazine and Anamika Magazine in celebrating Queer identities across the diasapora and aiding the decriminalization of sodomy in many countries.
All this to say that seeing ourselves in history is important, and in some ways, validating, but history itself is seldom exhaustive. Liu wrapped up by reminding audience members that there is inherent value in our own experiences as we navigate very cisheteronormative and colonized spheres, saying, “Even if none of this existed, even if (this was) the first generation of Queer Asian people, that doesn’t make (your) experiences any less impactful or relevant.”
When the presentation came to an end, a moment of stillness came over the room. We don’t learn about this in history books. Attendees took a second to reflect on this new knowledge and express their revelations with the rest of the group, gradually breaking the thoughtful silence. This event marks an important first step in bringing awareness to POC Queer identities, and it is only the start of a much longer journey toward active and conscious allyship within the South Asian diaspora.
In talking with the organizers of the event, I was admittedly surprised, yet impressed by their commitment to understanding the South Asian identity beyond what is often homogenized and perpetuated as a monolith even within the diaspora and on campus — a space that thrives off of whiteness and cisheteronormativity.
Not only do we need more spaces dedicated to discussion of “taboo” topics, but we also need to foster spaces that are ardently inclusive of Queer South Asian students, starting with existing cultural organizations at Michigan, and extending to our greater communities at home. However, as one attendee mentioned at the start of the event, this movement cannot always be spearheaded by Queer individuals who risk social and cultural exile every time we may reveal this part of our identities. Thus, it is the duty of the South Asian cishet community to recognize the ways in which they perpetuate Queerphobic sentiment in ethnic spaces. As children of immigrants, we must uplift our communities and embrace the Queerness that is deeply implicated within our histories.
MiC Assistant Editor Easheta Shah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.