PHOTOS COURTESY OF KASH AMIN
I’m not going to lie, I started this article a dozen times in the last two weeks and ended up deleting everything that I wrote. I just didn’t understand how to concisely pour my heart out about identifying as a gay desi. I had a point: I wanted that 15 year old gay South Asian living in Biloxi, MS, who sits in his room once his family goes to bed and Googles “Gay” and “South Asians” in the hopes of finding out more about himself, to read this article and realize that he’s not alone (ok, ok! I’m self reflecting).
I also wanted the average South Asian to read this article and actually acknowledge that hey, gay desis do exist. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned about our community, it’s that topics that are not socially acceptable are swept under the carpet, coined taboo, and spoken of in hushed tones. Well, not anymore. I realized after two weeks of drafting that the best way to do this was to be rid of inhibitions and write with simple honesty: Hi, my name is Kashif and I’m a Gay Indian/Pakistani/Sunni/Shiite/Punjabi/Muslim.
I grew up on the outskirts of Houston, Texas in one of the largest South Asian communities in the United States and am the son of strict, relatively conservative Muslim parents. My preteen years were spent in constant transit: school, weekday Quran study and Sunday school at the local Shiite mosque. If there were any points constantly being driven home by my parents, it was the importance of school, religion and image. Whenever taboo issue came up in our family, my parents would go into extreme damage control. They were like a PR powerhouse in the South Asian community, able to spin any story into general acceptance.
For example, one night, my sister eloped and married a black guy. By morning time, he had become a Nigerian Muslim who my parents had approved. As a result, I grew up lacking a solid sense of truth and my perception of reality was constantly in question. It was at a relatively early age that I decided I wasn’t going to live my life in what I perceived to be a typical South Asian fashion, hidden behind smoke and mirrors. As “Oprah” as this may sound, I was going to live my truth and, as a result, destroy any form of my own self-censorship. If I revealed everything about my actions, my thoughts, and who I am, then I was living a shame-free true self.
I remember when I first started to realize that I was gay. I was in my early teens and I would lie in my bed at night and pray with all my might that I would wake up feeling “normal.” I remember when I began to accept my homosexuality; I would drive to the nearest Blockbuster five minutes before closing time and rent Queer as Folk. I would shove the DVDs in a backpack, quickly run up the stairs and hide the discs underneath my mattress. When the entire house would fall asleep, I would sneak to the nearest computer, plug in my headphones, and watch what I thought it meant to be gay.
As I slowly started to come out of the closet, I realized that my co-identification as both gay and Muslim ran completely parallel to each other. There’s this one factor of your identity that you can’t change that has eternally damned you to hell. I would research until the wee hours of the morning trying to negotiate between religion and my sexuality, looking for a special aside that would allow me to live my life, yet still retain my Muslim identity. I learned that being a South Asian Muslim queer was, in itself, a contradiction.
At this point, I have this inclination to spit some intellectual shit about how, after 10 years, I’ve finally been able to reconcile my sexual and religious identity. But I haven’t. It angers a lot of my friends and family to hear me say that as proud and out as I am; I have accepted the consequences of a gay lifestyle in the Muslim context. I don’t mean this in a self-loathing, self-deprecating way, but I have to accept that, in the context of Islam, I am going to spend time in hell. But there’s this sense of knowing and accepting these consequences that has both empowered me and allowed me to begin to map out my “gay” future.
When you grow up in a Desi household, your life tends to follow some form of instruction: graduate, get a job, get married, and raise a family. A gay lifestyle tends to lack these instructions. There is no such thing as a real “gay” culture – we don’t share a common language, religion, tradition, etc. But by being Gaysi, I’ve been afforded something special. My expectations for my life tend to run in harmony with other South Asians: I want to get married, I want to raise kids (You’re not born yet, but know that your DADDIES love you!), I want that white picket fence, the three-bedroom house in the suburbs, and I hope to one day have a partner to share all of this with. I’ve also accepted the probability that I may have to do this alone.
The most difficult part of my own identity is that my gay South Asian community currently lacks a legacy and a vision. We are the first generation of out and proud gay South Asians and we have to start creating our own vision for the future. The world has this perception of gays as this sexually charged community at which the core is sex and everything else is in the periphery. I’m not saying I’m outside of this dimension. There have been many-a-times even I have woken up asking who/what the fuck I did last night? But so have many of my straight friends. Slowly, the gay Desi community has finally started to create something special: gay South Asian support groups in which our culture is part of our sexuality.
In our gay world, our sexual position/preference tends to fragment our identity (top/bottom/versatile/bear/twink/cub/etc.), but Gaysis, I believe, are the first ethnic minority to abandon these labels and focus more on our cultural being. From Trikone in San Francisco, a gay South Asian support group, to Sholay, a monthly gay Desi-themed party right here in New York City, we have started to relieve ourselves of our culturally produced shame. I’ve had the privilege to experience this first hand around the world from San Francisco to London. I spent a semester of my undergraduate career studying at the American University of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where “practicing” homosexuality is illegal and punishable by imprisonment. During my short semester-long stint, I visited an underground gay club in Dubai that was simultaneously being raided by undercover police officers, and traveled to private gay parties in random buildings in the middle of the desert that required special invitations to attend. Yet, in spite of all of this hiding, our community still perseveres.
Right now, most of the gay South Asians I know live in some form of the closet, while the gay community at large is ranting and raving about how important our gay rights are. However, it leads me to question: how do Gaysis expect the South Asian community to grant us our rights and acknowledge our existence if the majority of us live our most private spaces (our homes, our offices, etc.) in the closet and behind a cloak of shame? It’s because South Asian culture is so heavily indebted in its roots and a self-imposed normalcy that, we, as Gaysis, are constantly stuck in limbo. Who and what am I willing to sacrifice? My true sense of self OR my family, my job, my environment? For my opinion on the matter, I am going to have to very gay-ly and abruptly evoke the sentiments of RuPaul here and say, “if you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”
I volunteered to write this article hoping to increase our visibility in the South Asian community. Essentially, to bring a voice to the gay South Asian whose current circumstances don’t allow him to fully open that closet door. I know I’m very lucky to be surrounded by family (Hey Summer! Hey Amber! Hey Anju!) who have fully and publicly supported everything that I am. I’m very lucky to have a mother who, albeit privately, acknowledges my sexual identity. I also wrote for future children of Gaysi’s, in the hope that one day, I can take my son to my local mosque/temple/church and he’ll be able to publicly proclaim that his two babas have brought him here and it’s acceptable. Finally, I wrote for that confused 15 year old boy in Biloxi who feels alienated in his own environment. I have unwavering faith that his generation of queer South Asians will have a legacy. Just give us time to build it. —KASH AMIN
First published June 23, 2010. Updated on Nov. 26, 2010.