Body, Home, World: South Asian American LGBTQ+ Journeys

by Aashish Kumar

There are approximately 5.4 million South Asian Americans in the United States representing diverse religions, languages, ethnicities, and socio-economic and educational levels. However, this community is disadvantaged in unique ways when dealing with sexual identity and difference. The generation of citizens who immigrated to the United States originated from countries where colonial-era criminalization of homosexuality and subsequent repression erased the space for such conversations. In their newly adopted country, opportunities for conversations about gender and sexual identities are not widely available given the scant representations of queer communities of color in mainstream or ethnic media.

The lack of space for expressing a spectrum of sexual and gender identities within familial circles creates conflict and poses mental health risks for young South Asians. Over the last three decades organizations such as SALGA (South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association), KhushDC, Trikon, and Masala have worked hard to create safe spaces for the South Asian American LGBTQ+ community. However, there remains a lack of stories featuring the viewpoint of family members who must deal with their own “coming out.” After attending U.S. Department of State-sponsored Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminar (Alumni TIES) on “Arts, Culture, and Transforming Conflict” in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I was awarded a small grant and launched “South Asian LGBTQ+ Journeys: Using Narrative Empathy to Promote Understanding Among Families.” This project aimed to address this need through a culturally nuanced and inter-generationally communicative storytelling platform.

As a documentary filmmaker, I am aware of the power of “narrative empathy,” which is the sharing of feeling and perspectives, induced by reading, viewing, hearing, or imagining narratives of another’s situation and condition. Using a combination of an online interactive digital platform and in-person gatherings to listen, speak, and learn, I wanted to bring together families, the LGBTQ+ community, and allies. Prior to receiving the Alumni TIES grant, I already filmed and edited numerous family journeys and was finalizing the design details of the interactive platform titled The grant supported community forums where invited participants would be introduced to the online platform and its uses and asked to reflect on other opportunities for creating and sharing such narratives using co-created or participatory media methods.

A poster to showcase the “Body, Home, World: South Asian LGBTQ+ Journeys” project.

With the outbreak of the pandemic, I was forced to creatively work with the affordances of Zoom and to reach a wider online audience for the project. Two 90-minute online gatherings were held in partnership with national and transnational LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations. The inaugural event took place on February 24, 2021, in partnership with a community organization “Desi Rainbow Parents and Allies” (DRPA) and totaled 54 online attendees. It was co-moderated by DRPA’s executive director, Aruna Rao who introduced and led a lively discussion with other participants including Tejinder Gill, the parent of a trans child from Michigan, Reshna Maniklal, an Indian American queer womxn from rural South Georgia, and featured documentary participants, Vijay and Parag Mehta from New York and Texas, respectively. The discussion covered their journeys and the difficulties encountered by families of color in identifying resources, finding allyship, and educating family members on LGBTQ+ issues. Audience questions were selected from the chat or from previously surveyed participants.

The moderator and panelists for the launch of “Body, Home, World: South Asian LGBTQ+ Journeys” address the attendees.

The second event was held on April 18, 2021 and was attended by 43 participants and focused on how LGBTQ+ issues are communicated and influenced by transnational connections in the diaspora. The partner organization was a parent advocacy group from Mumbai, India called (meaning “acceptance” in Hindi) — Rainbow Parents, and featured the co-founder of Aruna Desai, Aashish Sawhny, a Mumbai-based queer filmmaker, Anugyan Nag, a New Delhi queer academic, and featured documentary participants, Vaibhav Jain and his parents from New Delhi. The event was moderated by Charmaine Hussain, a Pakistani-American parent of a queer child from the Bay area in California. The event followed a format similar to the first but with a detailed focus on the state of LGBTQ+ awareness and advocacy in South Asia.

Both events were preceded by a social media campaign featuring background information on South Asia and on pre-colonial queer history. With the help of a social media intern and a research assistant, I contacted all major South Asian advocacy organizations that work directly on LGBTQ+ issues or on broad advocacy. This list included SALGA, Khush DC, DRPA, Sakhi, and SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together) in the United States, and Noboprobhat (Bangladesh), Women and Media Collective (Sri Lanka), and — Rainbow Parents (Mumbai) from South Asia. Attendees at both events included queer activists from the United States and South Asia, family members, researchers, journalists, psychologists, social workers, and students.

The outreach and direct interactions with hundreds of community members during the course of this grant period has cemented my relationship with the South Asian diaspora in ways that were unimaginable. It has also given me key insights into the process by which concrete and micro-level interactions among community members create shifts in perception and overall change. The discussions affirmed that the active participation of a small number of allies, whether they are family members or advocates or writers or working in media, change the hearts and minds of the larger community. Another key insight was the need for LGBTQ+ issues to have a place in ALL South Asian American spaces and not just remain confined to the classic safe, queer-only spaces that have traditionally defined the South Asian LGBTQ+ movement.

Currently, I am working to add two more North American family journeys to the platform and launch these stories in Spring 2022. Thanks to the visibility provided by these grant-supported events, I was able to generate community funds through a crowdsourcing platform to support the next phase of this campaign, which will include sourcing and disseminating stories from South Asia and the wider diaspora. I also applied for grants to allow me to spend time in South Asia working with parent advocacy groups and other LGBTQ+ organizations on creating narratives specific to their lived experiences.

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Alumni TIES

Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminars (Alumni TIES) are regionally focused seminars for alumni of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs.