This item is an audio file.

Oral History Interview with Alex

Alex is an Indo-Guyanese drag performer. In the oral history, Alex describes growing up in New York, navigating their Indo-Guyanese and Sicilian identities, their connection to multiple faith traditions, and their experiences as a drag performer at the intersection of these identities.

Gender & Sexuality

Duration: 01:03:06

Date: April 17, 2020
Type: Oral History
Source: Archival Creators Fellowship Program
Creator: Mustafa Saif
Location: New York, NY

Transcriber: Sophia Tareen

Alex (0:00):
I grew up in a multiracial home, my mother is Sicilian and my father is indo Guyanese. I grew up in a community that was very homogeneous, and I didn't fit into the identities that were predominantly found in the community I lived in. I was also raised partially by my aunt in my early childhood, who is Indo-Guyanese. With that, I was introduced, not just with my aunt, but in the time that I spent with her and in her or with her family, and the people she lived with, I was exposed to, or I had a very Caribbean or indo Caribbean definition of gender norms. And I guess societal norms in general.

One thing that in retrospect, I feel always stood out, and only as I began to become a little bit older, did I feel any tension with, is that I developed a passion for cooking. I was like two years old maybe, and I have memories of being in the kitchen with my aunt, and I would help her. maybe it was two or three and I was helping her knead the dough to make roti. And I'd always be in the kitchen watching her. And there's this very feminine energy with very, very distinct feminine gender roles that I always related to. For the first six years of my life. I was an only child. There was never any question at first for what I should be doing in terms of fitting in with the roles of society, or society's general norms.

My aunt lived with her daughter. My aunt is nearly 20 years older than my father. So she lived with her daughter and her daughter also had a daughter, so my aunt's granddaughter, who was maybe I don't know, three or four years older than me. And, in my interactions with her and in my interactions with the other members of my family that are immigrants to the United States, there was always a comparison between me and my cousin's daughter of -- “you're doing this like her, but you should be doing this as a boy.” My cousin's daughter seemed to drift away from the roles of women have to cook and clean. And particularly with cooking, that's something that I sort of fulfilled this role of like this checklist of this is what a good brown female person does. And in some ways, it was my something that interested me. But then, in retrospect, I feel that it was something very affirming of my femininity.

But then, in retrospect, I feel that it was something very affirming of my femininity in my childhood, especially with my, with my indo Caribbean family we always watched old Hindi films. So, films from the 70s and the 80s, and then, you know, the 90s and early 2000, 2000s films. And then, in my old, in my early childhood at the time, my cousin's daughter and I, we’d stand up in front of the, in front of the TV, when the item numbers would come on, and we’d dance to the songs. And I remember, I have this distinct memory of different occasions of taking a blanket and trying to wrap it into a sari, and mirror this femininity that I saw on TV. And I don't remember anyone saying anything at the time, but it was something that I related to, and these portrayals of femininity were something that that I just saw part with myself.

And as I became older, so the majority of children at the time, who were close enough to my age, were all pretty much female. And then I had some male relatives near in my age, maybe 3 to 10 years in age difference, and there are very few of them. But I began to spend more time with them. I must have been around eight years old, approaching, like my early in between 8 and 12. This was ‘07. I think I'm a product of the late 90s. Yes, I was spending more time with my older male cousins who, just one cousin and his cousins from another side of his family. And these are just more relatives from my Indo-Guyanese family. And they had a very masculine, or they presented themselves in a very masculine way. I felt as I grew older, especially approaching 12, 13, I realized that I really struggled to conform to this masculinity. And I didn't think much of it. I mean, I was always very feminine. And it was only until I spent it more, I began to spend more time with them that I began to feel pressure, especially as I became more conscious of, especially homophobia, Caribbean homophobia. And that is something that I just felt like I had to conceal this part of me. And I wasn't completely sure what it was, I wasn't completely sure what words I felt identified with. But I realized that there was something I was doing or there was something about me that was not accepted. My cousins would also use language that I sort of linked with this identity that I was somehow linked to, but not entirely sure how, like, they don't always say, “Oh, that's so gay.” And I'm sure there were a lot of other things that were said. In my experience, I've had a lot of upsetting things that somehow in my own, in my own processing, in my own trying to deal with everything, I just have completely blocked out. So I have a lot of memories of feelings, but I can't connect a lot of the feelings I have and had with specific events.

Alex (5:56):
Though, I just remember with that there was also a lot of Bullying of sorts of my older cousins and they didn't really treat me with respect. And in me, sort of being this like gentle person that somehow fulfilled different feminine roles. I was rejected.

You mentioned how cooking was something that brought you comfort during that time or allowed you to connect with your family. Can you talk a little bit more about what, like, were there particular dishes or particular moments in that space that you hold on to still?

Alex (6:30):
I was always helping in the kitchen, I'd help in the days when my aunt was taking care of me, I would help her peel shrimp. I'd help her chop things, vegetables produce, but really, I think something that was really key to my identity was particularly roti, our bread. And it was, that had to do with something that felt It was something I loved that my aunt made. It's something I learned to make. And I made it really well, even from a young age. And it was also a marker of my brownness as I navigated from a young age, trying to understand what it meant to be multiracial, and also be immersed in a lot of communities where I was the only symbol, or the only person holding that brownness as an identity, which was really anywhere outside of my Indo Caribbean family. So, it's something I always have to explain, and I’d always have to explain “what is roti,” “what is this” and you know, some people, they wouldn't get it or they didn't appreciate it in the same way I appreciated it.

So then, eventually as I got older, maybe around between 8 and 10, I also began to help, and began to cook independently different curries. Particularly -- Indo Caribbean cooking was not just a symbol of my brownness, but also trying to find my Indo Caribbean femininity as opposed, or some sort of femininity that wasn't linked to a particular culture.

I do have some memories, so that are a little bit painful when it came to trying to do things that I thought that, I didn't really think of at the time as being feminine. It was just me trying to be helpful or me doing something good. I come from a Muslim family, and even though my family is Muslim, there are many aspects of Hinduism that are integrated with the way my family, specifically the generation of my family and the time of their migration out of Guyana, the way that we practice Islam.

We have crunched reefs that fall around Ramadan and the eat of the sacrifice and lead always involved chronic reading of having in Creole, we say the Meiji, but that is essentially just Imam. And we'd have maybe one or two Imams come with their spouses. And basically, all of my family members on my, all my paternal indo-Caribbean family members would come to one relative's home, and there was always the woman cooking the food, me helping in this process. And then, when everyone was there, I have one memory of me trying to help wash dishes or help trying to give out food. I don't know I was like eight, nine years old, and one particular and who I was not very close to, in some ways, there was sort of like a disapproval that I always felt from her. And I think it had to do with me being involved with cooking, or activities that one might consider feminine. Maybe she thought, she said to me, “You can't do this. You can't help pass out food. You can't help clean up, you can't help wash the dishes, because people are gonna speak.” And I didn't really understand that in this moment. But as I get approached twelve, thirteen years old and sort of became more conscious of queerness, or this sort of embodiment of my behavior, and my identity that was somehow rejected as society.

Memories like that became key or became,they caused a pressure and extreme pressure that caused me to become very closeted, and feel that I had to conceal and hide who I am. So of course, I said I'm mixed race and my maternal family, I never really had a significant amount of contact with them the way I did with my paternal family.

But the other thing is that my maternal family I have a significantly smaller number of cousins and I think, you know, one of the big differences that my father is one of nine children versus my mother is one of four. And so I obviously have a much smaller amount of cousins. But the other thing is my cousins on my other side of the family were significantly older than me. So my contact with them was very limited. Maybe once a year. I wasn’t having the same interactions that I was having with my paternal family. At this time, I always thought it was their whiteness. But as I've gotten older, as I say, whiteness, and in terms of the same interactions, I should specify that I mean in terms of having very strict gender roles or needing to perform specific, specific norms or fulfill specific norms. I thought it was sort of my maternal family's whiteness that it did not cause the same pressures, but what I see in retrospect is that my maternal family -- I'm in my maternal family. I'm the second generation born into the United States. Meanwhile, with my paternal family, I'm the first generation born in the United States. And with more stories that I've heard, as I've gotten older, there were the same, maybe even stricter set of norms to fulfill and sort of, cultural code to abide by as Sicilian immigrants to the United States in the early 1900s.

Anyway so, in terms of non-family life, I was at the same school for 13 years of my life, and I was one of the only people of color at, at the school, it was very small. One of the other challenges that I had with it was that it was an all boys school. Spoiler alert. I'm not a boy, but there was the same pressures of needing to perform, the sort of Alpha, male masculinity that I just did not connect with any way from my classmates. And they were also, they were also from very different homes, not only culturally but also socio economically. Their families were very wealthy and I was at school on a scholarship. I was bullied a lot in my early years there, and sort of as I approached high school bullying died down. But that's not to say, I wasn't met with the same, the same discrimination, or not just discrimination, I'm sorry, I should say aggression. So bullying was always linked somehow to my performance of masculinity and, or lack thereof, maybe, and also, to my athletic capacity. Particularly, there was a lot of bullying relating to gym class, and also in between periods or classes, where there was no one watching. I’d often report, you know, incidents, but not I was never met with any sort of really satisfying response or I never really felt there was anyone who really cared about what was going on. Some teachers that remember saying, even to my parents, boys will be boys. And I just remember there were a lot of incidents of me going home in tears to my parents about something that happened during the day. And, again, there are a lot of things that I've blocked out and I can't recall all of memories, but there were also moments of discrimination. You know, I hold a lot of different identities as a mixed race person. A lot of some I remember people saying, “Oh, I'm faking it.” “Oh, I just am saying that because I'm looking for attention.” I think with all of the really negative experiences I had from students, even from educators at the school, there was a lot that I just, I didn't want to have anything to do with it. And it caused me to reject the roles of masculinity, I think even further.

I was approaching, ah no. I was conscious of my attraction to men from the age of 10. And that was something I always had to hide. At the time, or as I became more conscious of queerness, I thought, maybe I'm gay. Or, eventually I did come out as gay, but it was something that I just felt I needed to hide. Another component of this, I think is also religious indoctrination of you know, having a Muslim father and a Catholic mother. And I always interpreted their spirituality as being very religious. And the messages that I was getting from religion were that I, that queerness, that my queerness, my attraction to, to men was something that was not allowed. And it wasn't necessarily anything they said in particular, but it was just the messages that I was getting generally. I also have memories from going back to [inaudible] of the imam, giving a sermon and what would always come up the day of judgment and walking - and I never really paid much attention to specific details - but walking into the gates of heaven, and judged for your sins, and my only sin was that I was attracted to men, I had the sexual attraction to men. And I just remember it eating me up, and there were moments separate from this, but linked to this idea of being judged and being sent to the burning fires of one just having these haunting images of the way, the [inaudible] described hell.

It was a fear that would keep me up at night, and I used to pray that “please make me, make me straight, make me attracted to women. or I’d pray, crying and apologize, and say I'll never do it again. And at a really young age, with no one to speak to, and with no one, no one I could trust to speak to, and then also having no representation of, of my queerness and my brownness. That was in any ways familiar, it was something I felt like I had a lock up and keep to myself, and that is what I did.

Mustafa (17:38):
I'm really curious about what what it looked like to have parents who have different faiths and then what the expectations were around religious practice for you.

Alex (17:48):
For me, there was never an expectation of having to pray or having to be religious. And I think those are pressures that I sort of, gained from outside forces, that were not my parents. My maternal grandparents passed away when I was eight years old. And that was the first time my mother started going to church. And she would go to church every Sunday. And in terms of my father, he never, I never really saw him pray, but he'd speak of going to masjids in his youth. I think one thing in particular is our unique practice of Islam as indo Caribbean people, but also very much so far with his specific generation, I find its people don't practice Islam the same way and people, a lot more people in younger generations conform to a practicing of Islam, or people try to conform to the way Islam is practiced in other parts of the world, in the Arab world or in South Asia.

And so my father never took me to masjids growing up. The only time I think I was went for a while was either for funeral or for, or for weddings. But when it came to Eid or Ramadan, that was something that was not really part of my, of my life. And my father always told me that when he first came to United States, originally he migrated to the United Kingdom, with the coming of independence in Canada. And he came to the United States from the United Kingdom. And he found that there were a lot of people pressuring him to perform, or not perform, to practice Islam in the way they did in their countries of origin in the Middle East. And that was something that my father found really upsetting and I think that caused a disconnect with him in some ways, not necessarily in spirituality or religion, but in finding spiritual spaces.

Alex (19:56):
And there was also, my father went to a Hindu school growing up, and there were different members of his family that were Hindu, despite his family identifying as Muslim. And there were also discussions of whether the Hindu mythology or feeling a connection to Hindu deities. When my mother began to become more religious and more spiritual in my childhood with the passing of her parents, she also began to start praying. She tried with me, but I was sort of resistant and saying the rosary before going to bed, and that's something I always see her do. But she did it more with my younger sibling, who so now at this point in my life, after I turned six, I do have a younger sibling in the, in the general picture, and I think my lack of connection was sort of this this fear of, of going to hell, and trying to confirm that. And even one thing I remember also was this prayer clock that my Muslim Indo-Guyanese aunt had.

Alex (21:05):
And it said, it was a Christian prayer in English. And it was something she found on the street in from some vendor in the Bronx. And it was always something that was from an early age, I remember. At one point she bought one from me as well as something in my house was something in her house and into something in her other daughter's house that I sometimes mistake, and you press the button, a light come on, and there were two children. I think it's also important mentioning that they were white. So in sort of the way race connects with religion and images that we get in early childhood, but it was something that I remember my aunt, myself, my Muslim and myself and her granddaughter, we repeat, not necessarily as a ritual per se, but the Relating particularly to religion, but in active praying, there was never any pressure, I guess, of religion that I experienced, then from home, I should say, but the sort of, Oh, I have to deal with this fact that some people are saying that I should be going to hell.

Alex (22:44):
And maybe with religion, I should, you know, I can compensate or not make up for my sins as an act of penance of sorts. I tried reading the Quran, I tried reading the Bhagavad Gita, and in sort of like, a deal that I would make in my prayers that, if I do this, please forgive me for being, for the sexual attraction that I'm now conscious of.

And it wasn't, the scripts that I was trying to force myself to read, wasn't even in English. I had the Quran in Arabic And I had the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit. So I had no clue what I was reading. I was just reading words. And I think that's something that I was reading words and making sounds. And it was something that I think is very particular to my family's religious experience, especially my father's family, that hear these scripts in other languages, or manifestations of religion in different languages, but no one in my family, my father's family, understands or speaks any of those languages.

Yeah, so that is my experience with religion. And my queerness at the time. As I became more conscious of this queerness, it was always something I needed to hide. So first of all, I was like, the only brown person, was the only person from a different position socio-economically with the kids I went to school with. It was something I was just beginning to understand. And it was always, “I am different. And also by the way, you all treat me like shit.” In school, nobody explicitly called me any derogatory terms relating to queerness. It was just something that you don't talk about. It doesn't exist. We don't have that here. And we're not going to talk about it. And it's not safe for that to exist here.

I was like 14-15. So as I said, I was in this all male school, and there were some events that we had with all female schools. And I befriended some of the students from those schools. And it was like the first time I had people treating me kindly and with respect that I just didn't have in my schooling. And I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m human,” but also, at the same time, it was when I began to interact more, or not just interact, but it was when I found queer, queerness online with YouTubers.

Alex (24:50):
And I had this challenge of “Okay, they can be queer because they're white,” but then I am Brown. I am Indo-Caribbean. I come from a Muslim family. That can't exist. I mean, they can exist, I just can't exist. Seeing these Youtubers sharing their queer experience, and their Coming Out and seeing that It Gets Better videos, was really influential in me trying to come around and accept my queerness.

At that time, it was just being a feminine gay boy. Then came the time when I was 15 that I was going to finally come out. And initially before I came out to my parents, I texted this one person at the time who identified as female, and now he uses he/him pronouns. And he was one of the students I met from the all-girls school. And he was one of the first people I texted to say, ‘Hey, I'm gay,’ and it was I was terrified. I - his reaction was that it’s totally fine and then he came out as Bi. And then finally, I found the courage to come up to my parents, but it was okay, what's going to happen? What is their reaction going to be? I think I'm more concerned about my father's reaction. Am I going to be kicked out of the house?

And like, I just carried so much shame and first I told my brother, and my brother, it was the story of “okay - I, some people like boys, some people like girls, and it was never I didn't have the courage at first to say, ‘Hey, I'm gay.’ And it was more of going around it in a different way. And then finally, my brother went and told my mom, “mom, Alex likes boys”. And then she came, and I didn't know what to do and I was about to break down in tears. And then she went and told my father and they sort of came to me. And my father didn't really have much of a reaction like, “Oh, it's okay.” My mom was like, “How do you know? Are you sure?” And sort of this panic that caused me to feel even more shame and more fear.

Alex (27:21):
And, and then I think with that, there were moments of there were moments that sort of caused or that caused a sort of distancing between me and my parents that, you know, it seemed like they accepted me, but I wasn't sure. And I was really surprised by my father's reaction, because I expected him to have a much more intense reaction with everything, with all the message I was getting from the rest of his family.

Mustafa (27:50):
What was your relationship with your parents like before? What were some of the ways you were connecting or disconnecting outside of this conversation prior to that. And then, what were the expectations around sexual or conversations around sexuality and sexuality and dating?

Alex (28:08):
There were no conversations about that. And I think that has to do with to some extent with my father being in indo Caribbean immigrant in the US. And culturally, that's something you don't do. But then also my parents are older parents. From a generational standpoint, it's just conversations that they did not have with their families. And it was conversations that could not be had.

I was beginning to explore manifestations of brownness, I didn’t want anything to do with the social life that I had in school. And I wasn't having the same exposure to brown culture, or the some bollywood movies. It was something I had to take into my own hands. And what I connected most with was up and coming Bollywood films and new songs, the item numbers, and I used to listen to the BBC Asian network. I listen to their, their radio programs for music.

And that's how I discover and interact with brownness. And there's always something I did by myself. I mean, there were no other brown people. The one or two other brown kids by school, complete jerks who treated me awfully. And they also came from very different families, they were people who were ashamed of their brownness and felt the need to conform to their, to conform to the general whiteness of the school. And, like, didn't think we're not capable of having any conversations about culture, or being proud of that. And participated in sort of the discrimination and bullying that was linked to that that I experienced in childhood and early teen years. So yes, I come out I'm not having the same conversations. I'm also at this time in trying to connect more with my brownness I begin studying Hindi and Urdu. A lot of it is independent at first and then eventually I do take classes some privately in Mandirs.

I began exploring more South Asian food and exploring how, or exploring the differences in South Asian food compared to Indo Caribbean food. Sure, in the Caribbean, we have curries and different, different representations of South Asian food and bread from puri to roti to, to chapati to kheer, a lot of different things that still carry, were carried across the ocean with indentured servitude.

And so I'm finding that my brownness is more connected with South Asian people, and sort of at the time, that's what I connected with. That's what my father connected with as well, and manifestations of Caribbean culture, especially Indo-Caribbean culture only developed after my father's emigration out of Guyana, and was something that I never really had a lot of contact with, but was something that, even in my early childhood. I had my father's younger siblings or other siblings who would have records of older Caribbean and Indo Caribbean music from Soca to the Indo Caribbean folk music, Chutney, which I have since come to discover is very similar to Bhojpuri folk music.

As I'm trying to accept my my queerness more, I find the documentary Muslim Drag Queens, which was a British documentary featuring Asifa Lahore and some other drag queens. And at this time, I'm also watching drag race and I'm like, ‘Oh my gosh, if Asifa can do it, I can do it.”

And I began ordering makeup. order it in the mail, hide it from my family. I found a queer support group at some time around this time as well need some friends and was like, “Oh my gosh, I can be as flamboyant as I want, and nobody says anything” and I'm like this Queen Hello, good morning, good night. I've arrived. It's my awakening. It's my rebirthing. I started experimenting with something I only did in my bedroom which was in my parents basement to be on like a Friday night after my parents went to bed. I locked the doors. I thought my makeup was bomb.

I'd be taking Snapchat videos, thinking I was incredible. Now I was busted. Okay, my look was busted. But I was doing something radical in my life. And it was really important in me accepting my queerness and then, as I, still in high school, and having questions of gender and like, ‘wait a minute, what am I doing?’ This feels like this is what I'm supposed to be doing in terms of things I take from drag from putting on makeup to female clothes to jewelry.

Alex (33:07):
And it was something really that sparked a lot of questions of uncertainty. It also goes back to my early memories of childhood, of how I used to watch Bollywood films with my family, like what - four or five and start wrapping myself in a blanket, and lip synching to the Bollywood films in front of me, in the TV with my cousin. And so here's the adult version of that.

At this time, even though I had come to a point where I had accepted my queerness, it was something I had to continue to hide, never came out to my paternal family, and was something I had to hide in school every day. And it was really hell and having to perform this masculinity, and I was always very conscious of the way I spoke the way my hands moved with my you know, different hand gestures, my posture, and we had a dress code of having to wear ties and shirts and long pants and it was something that was very masculine.

This is where I became really aware of my dysphoria. And I started wearing things that I wear in drag. And that was, I found that I didn't know what was it felt, affirming. Now I can say that word. I didn't know what it was, but it just felt right. And as I began to have more contact with different queer people and engage in different conversations about queerness, I gained the language to describe the different things I was feeling. And I tried playing around with different pronouns. And at one point I was using he and she pronouns. And then they came time, especially approaching graduation, where I really did not click with masculinity. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, am I a trans woman?’ And I felt like all this pressure and like, I had the panic attacks. And again, there was nobody I could really talk to at school, could talk to, I felt like I couldn’t talk to my parents about Tthehe things I was dealing with. And I felt like, you know, sure, I had different queer friends at this point in, in high school that I could talk to, that I met through that support group, but the only, there's only maybe five, less than five people. I felt like I could really trust but also people who had the same feelings that I was feeling. And particularly this one, this this one person that I met who I first introduced from that all girls school, the one person that began publicly identifying as trans at the school. So at the same time, I found my drag mother. It was very bizarre. I will say I was in a, these group, these adventures that I have, like on a day off from school or like on a weekend where I venture into downtown Manhattan, where, you know, there's the village. There's the East village, Greenwich Village where I just felt really queer spaces that I felt safe. And I would look I'm going to thrift shops and look for things to add to my collection of Drag and there was this woman, like, “Oh my gosh, where are you buying these high heels?”

Alex (36:14):
“Oh, I do drag” thinking, you know, here I am. I do drag by the way I'm busted, looking but mostly over here at or now. But she said all my friend has tried you should meet my friend in retrospect I'd be really “you're just telling me that I should meet your friend because your friend does drag and I do drag.” That's a little bit odd. But she was a sweetheart, and it was the connection that I dont know, it was meant to happen. And I need her friend A few months later. And my drag mama and I were still in touch and I, at this time, I’d go to I’d go to his apartment in Brooklyn, travel I don't know two and a half, three hours, from my home in the Bronx. In all my makeup, spent six hours doing drag, practicing makeup.

Alex (37:09):
And it was a relationship that sort of, could explore drag together. He, at the time, I don't know, this 23 - 24 maybe, and he worked in hair, and being with him, and sort of learning more about makeup, not only was it crucial to, you know, just drag, but also trying to find ways that eventually I discovered for me trying to affirm the identity and affirm gender dysphoria.

I mean, a lot of things that can be, on the theme of gender dysphoria. There's a whole realm of things that I can discuss from being called the name of you who I was given at birth, Alexander, or always being called ‘he’. At school was always ‘boys,’ ‘guys,’ student or it was never anything gender neutral, and not was also something that I carried, or sentiments, I felt that, you know, every time any of these masculine identifiers were used with me was something that just made me feel really upset and icky. And I didn't really have a dime of the vocabulary to describe it. Back to the drag early beginnings, after watching the documentary, Muslim Drag Queens, I actually reached out over Twitter to Asifa Lahore, and I came up with this drag persona. And that was sort of the birth of my drag, I came up with the name. And to me my drag persona at the time was, “I can be brown I can be Indo Guyanese, I can also be Sicilian, I can also embody the different bodies that I can be in sort of come together to be this sort of like, I don't know if this some people have described doing drag feeling like you're wearing a cape and you're invincible and that is how I felt. It was it was my sort of saving and coming out of this dark place.

Alex (39:02):
So even today, what was important to me in the Muslim Drag Queens documentary was the representation, and that was something I did not have anywhere else. Asifa had this really impactful moment, it was really impactful for me, and helped me come out of a dark space.

And every, initially when I was doing drag, it was always “I'm doing this for all the queer people that don't, that can't seem to find any representation of themselves, of their religious identities, of their ethnic or racial identities, and need some form of an inspiration or reminder that it's okay and you can be queer and brown and whatever identity you hold.” And that was always part of my drag, persona and drag, drag mission. At this time, I mean, I finished high school I walk in pride in, drag it around. Rainbow sari, that was really I think, powerful for a lot of. for myself in terms of “here I am. I'm being brown and I'm being queer.” And all my life, I was given this message - ‘No, you can't do that.’

Here I am.

Alex (40:17):
I go off to college, and I ended up bringing drag to the college. It was a very small college still is a small college. I don't think that's changing anytime soon. In rural New England, New England. I really hated the ruralness of it and, the something, it was really hard to manage, coming from such a diverse background, and they're not being the same diversity of people there. I couldn't find a lot of what I needed, but I brought drag and I ended up doing a drag show and found other people who were experimenting with drag. So the closest city is Montreal. When I could I found my way there.

Alex (41:01):
And, well, I was there, in the limited pockets of time that I was, I would get up and drag and I'd go to drag shows. Sure I had no problem, and there was nobody telling me I can't hold these identities and I can't do whatever I want and present myself whatever I want. But it was really, what felt like only me doing this, and sure there were like a handful of other people in what was already a very small institution, but the contact with other people was so limited with the general responsibilities of being a student at this time.

At this time, I also, I began including they/them pronouns into my, my series of pronouns that I am using, and I am exploring gender more. I'm exploring more presenting myself as more feminine and feeling like I have the freedom to do so. In school, I could never, you know, show up with lipstick or blusher, whatever, I could never do that at home. And now I have this freedom to do so. And I'm also connecting more and finding more brown, queer brown people through social media, through Instagram, and I begin connecting with other drag, drag artists.

Alex (42:20):
I think the other thing that was crucial about drag in Montreal is the age of consumption of alcohol and cannabis in Quebec is 18. So, which creates an opportunity for me to enter night life in a way that I couldn't in New York. And I think nightlife for queer people, has been really a crucial way of coming together. Being shunned in so many different ways in society and trying to find other people that were similar to me was really challenging.

Alex (42:54):
So then I had an injury that caused me to take a leave of absence that same year. And I returned to New York City recovering from my injury. But then I have really developed drag more and I've really come to a place where, at the time, I felt like I established my skill set in makeup where I felt really comfortable with the way I looked in drag. And I become recognized by other drag artists in New York. And later that year, I perform in New York City for the first time. And a lot of my drag was always me - sorry, a lot of it was always just through social media, and that was my outlet. And I go back to school. I'm still…[inaudible].

Mustafa (43:46):
What was it like your first time performing in New York City?
What were the feelings or any of that?
What was the reception?

Alex (43:48):
You know, it was really exciting because it was a space that was for those, for brown, or not just brown for Asian people. It was a drag artist who performed, who gathered different Asian drag queens, and drag performers together to present Asian drag showcase. It, and it was one of the first places where I felt really comfortable. And like, oh, “here's the space that I can exist, and people are here for it.” And I tried to do that in the first drag show of blending different cultures that I that did first drag show I did away at college, and it was something that - that I have my Bollywood number and then I have my English number. And it was important for me, I think it was also important of showing people “Hey, there's a world outside of this small town.” One for drag but also becoming more culturally sensitive. And I remember there were like some other - I was a first year student at the time, there were, there were seniors about to graduate who were struggling with their queerness, who were from Indian and Pakistan, and they came up to me, like, “Oh my gosh, that was so incredible.” And realizing the impact that I have of this art form was really, they felt really fulfilling to me. And so I'm doing more drag, posting more, engaging more with people on Instagram, at the same time also discovering, okay, I think in terms of gender, I identify as non binary. And then I began using exclusively they and them pronouns.

So, you know, I continue my way through academia, and other societal expectation. And I also, in moments when I can escape that, I engage more with drag artists in Canada, in Montreal, in Toronto. And it was an important outlet for me. I mean, not just like, oh, here are the spaces that I can escape to where I can exist.

Alex (46:03):
But also becoming more aware of and building or making sense of my different, the different identities I hold. And so with this all, they've all been exclusively with brown, South Asian communities, and then there's the fact that I am Indo Caribbean. And there’s maybe one or two other Caribbean, Indo Caribbean people involved in these communities. But for me, you know, becoming — trying to immerse myself or study South Asia and South Asian culture, whether it be through courses I was taking to independently studying Hindi or Urdu or trying to dabble with Punjabi to exposing myself to South Asian music.

I began, and it was all out of a mission to fulfill this sort of, there's something missing. Sure. There's the fact that I'm not having the same contact with my brown family but also like my family came from India, or they came from British India, but there was so much that was lost with indentured servitude.

There were people taken from different parts of British India with different languages. And within a generation or two those languages disappeared. And what was born was Creole.

Alex (47:17):
And our identities become creolized. And I had this curiosity and I wanted to connect with ‘Where did my family come from?’ What does it and — grapple with being a descendant of coolie labor? And being Coolie, that is the word that we have in Creole to describe South Asian people and brown people. It can also be a slur.

So as I'm dealing with all this, I begin to feel this disconnect with South Asian recognize this is something that is different. And still, it's something that I'm trying to sort of rationalize and make sense of.

Alex (47:57):
I have the South Asian origins and I have these heritage languages that I've studied and I can speak to an extent, but being Indo Caribbean is different and trying to - are they completely separate categories? Of course, there's an overlap. But, you know, there's a different experience in life. And with that experience, there are different privileges that come with that, or ways in which people have different power in society and with different South Asian people. In sort of talking about my experience as an Indo Caribbean person, it was sort of, in some ways looked down on or it was never really, it was something that was not fully understood, or people had no idea where Guyana was.

Alex (48:45):
In trying to explore communities with other Caribbean people, they were always pretty much completely Afro-Caribbean. And unfortunately, with the history of the Caribbean, and especially the history of Guyana, there is a lot of racism. And I remember I was in Montreal, getting my hair cut. And there was this Afro Caribbean guy cutting my hair, I was so happy to meet another Caribbean person, especially being in the middle of, in the middle of nowhere in New England. And finally seeing, “oh my gosh, a person of color. Oh my gosh, a Caribbean person. Oh my gosh, a Caribbean person from my country.” But I was met with a lot of animosity from him that really stems from the racist history of Guyana. And the rest of the Caribbean of it was a mechanism that formed because, or that the British use to manipulate us and maintain control. I was met with this message of ‘you should, you know, you shouldn't be so proud to be guyanese especially being Indo Guyanese.’ And he asked me different questions about guyanese politics and history, and it's like something I don't know about. I grew up in the US. It was just a lot of aggression.

I mean, my whole life, it's sort of been experiences of rejection in different ways. And it's been challenging to have that rejection from, okay being rejected for being queer. But then whether it be in a Caribbean community, I'm rejected because of my, my, my yes my queerness but also my my coolie-ness my brownness my South Asian is my indian-ness. And in South Asian communities like, there are areas where I could connect just like with Caribbean communities with music or culture or food. But then there are areas where I can't connect and I think my experience is different, more so because of my, my study of South Asian language or languages. I can understand a fair extent of Bollywood songs and some Punjabi songs as well. And that's not an experience that most Caribbean people have. And, and so I come to this point to yes I recognized we're different but also trying to navigate where we are there are strict borders and where there are not strict orders. Some of the things that I mean, that I didn't really question a lot in my late teens was listening to songs on the BBC Asian network. And there were singers like, let's say Mumzy Stranger, Apache Indian, who were South Asian. I think Apache Indian is Punjabi.

Alex (51:36):
But they grew up. They are South Asian, they're not part of a Caribbean community, but they appropriate Caribbeanness in their music. And it was something I was like, ‘Oh, that's like, that's part of me. That's like, the brown. It's the Caribbean.’ But it's them taking this Caribbean that I felt a frustration with. Because of this appropriation again, it's like we're not really this feeling of rejection of not being seen mainstream or recognized mainstream by South Asian people and the many complications of and taboo topics that come up with indentured servitude, I think impact differences between descendants of Coolie communities and Coolie indentured servitude communities and their descendants and South Asian people.

Alex (52:39):
I think, you know, one factor is yes, there's language. Another factor is, I don't think my father has experienced it more in his life than I have. But I've grown up with stories of it, of differences in caste. There is no caste I mean, there is caste in to a degree in South Asian, I'm sorry I mean Indo Caribbean communities, but I think that's disappeared. It's more of something of previous generations but the only manifestations of caste in my, that, that were relevant to my upbringing were the Brahmins. Just being the priests, the Brahmins at the Mundir. But it's not the same way of there being sort of more strict boundaries between castes. And I know that has dissipated a lot, or disappeared in in South Asia today, but in experiences that my father has had being indo Caribbean, it's something that he has or — growing up with stories of those experiences is something that I also somehow find, not just find, but it's something that that sort of is a reminder of here are differences and its something that was never part of our culture. It's not our immediate culture, or our new Creolized culture, but it's something we recognize as a marker of our difference.

Alex (54:13):
Something that is recent that did happen was that I got a nose ring. And my ears pierced and I considered part of my transition as a non binary person, and for a lot of people, it can be something that's like, Oh, it's just the nose, right? No, it's just you just got studs in your ears.

But it was something that I always connected with brown women, and brown femininity, and it was something that I always felt was missing. I finally get my piercings in Montreal and I just felt so happy that I could cry that I cried, I did cry. And it felt like there was this part of me that was always missing. That finally I have, now I feel complete. And body, or gender gender affirming surgeries was something that caused a lot of anxiety for me when I was struggling or questioning my gender and with drag, my drag, I present as, as a woman and present as female. And I felt like this confirming of like, I have to be a trans woman, if I'm going to not identify as male, and, you know, that's not the case. But I had a lot of anxiety. It's like, I don't know if I want this. I don't know how I feel about my body. And it's like, I think it's questions that I still continue to ask myself but one thing that my father said, when I got my my nose piercing was, you look like a bound Coolie. And that was a term that was, he explained to me, it's like that's like the most real, raw Indian. And sort of like the epitome of brownness. But when I didn't really understand what he initially told me that was that it had more to do with indentureship and bound, Coolie being bounded, chained, locked up in the agreement or the you know, the complications, whether it be like physical chains, or like the bound to indentureship which was typically a five year contract. And it was really interesting. He sort of said this in like a pride or joy and he sort of joked that I should go tell my aunts. Oh, look, I'm about Bound Coolie now my nose ring that, you know, I they have not seen I have not shown them. It's something that I think is a continued exploration and of my queerness and my brownness.

Mustafa (56:47):
It sounds like you're someone who is splitting time both like across borders and then across languages. Can you talk about how your pronouns fit into that or like how you can voice your pronouns affirming you, in in multiple spaces and languages.

Alex (57:08):
It's been a journey I'll say.

Initially, yes I said, I was dabbling with between he and she pronouns and I added they pronouns he, she, they, and then finally, I just settled on they and finding comfort in that, but in other languages, there isn't the same flexibility with gender neutrality.

So I'm a polyglot. And there are a lot of languages that I speak that some are good with gender neutrality, some are not. You know, we have gendered pronouns in English in other pronouns or other languages, whether it be Hindi or Urdu or Farsi or Dari. There is no gender. Except in South Asian languages when it comes to adjective endings and verb endings, those are gendered. And so I sort of, in most languages, where there is a gender I sort of lean most towards femininity. In the romance languages, whether it be Italian or Spanish or Portuguese, I find myself most comfortable with, with feminine pronoun endings or adjective endings, and it's complicated for romance languages or even Arabic where there is there is male, there is female, there is no, there is no something in-between, something neutral. And those, there are, there are communities of trans people that have been moving to create a gender neutral language, which just does not exist. In English, it's much easier to be gender neutral when you speak. Even though we've had to reappropriate the pronoun ‘they’ are create other pronouns like ‘Z’ or ‘Zer’ and for example, in Spanish there, people often use the pronoun ‘elle’. Sometimes people also use ‘x’ or the @ sign to designate gender neutrality. But the difficulty is how do you pronounce that have you just add an ‘X’ or an @ sign to to mark gender neutrality in a word that typically and an either an A, or an O.

Alex (59:28):
In French it is is easier. I guess when you know obviously in Montreal, I use French a lot more than a lot of the other languages that I have studied and that I'm exposed to. And it for me, there is a little bit easier because there is a pronoun that has been created of combining masculine and feminine gender endings and gender pronouns. It's called ‘iel’. And when it comes to adjective endings, one thing that I appreciate is that it's often cases it's the masculine ending, and a period, and then the feminine ending to show gender neutrality, if that makes any sense. For me, it's often, I mean, when it comes, the what I find sometimes challenging is having to explain that to other people. Some people get it, some people don't get it. I mean, it's the same thing in English, ‘I have to explain Oh, by the way, I use they/them pronouns.’ And when it comes to navigating things like dating and intimacy, with different apps that exist, it's something that can be challenging.

Alex (1:00:47):
Sometimes people get it. Sometimes, that I am met with resistance or some form of transphobia and aggression.

I was chatting with this one Quebec hockey player who was like, ‘I think you're just confused.’ And ‘I think you're actually just a feminine gay guy who thinks they're bisexual.’ The other thing is that when I talk about my sexuality, I don't really connect as much with the word ‘gay.’ I think that's, I think there's the word gay in terms of explicitly meeting homosexual but then sort of gay in some ways being used to connect with different queerness and queer communities.

Alex (1:01:35):
But, of course, that's very limiting doesn't encompass the identities that it should in that context. But when it comes to my sexuality, I find I like I prefer the word queer. And sure I can talk about my gender is queer, but my gender I feel is non binary. I feel sure identify or I am sexually attracted to men

And when I am attracted to a man and that man is attracted to me, is that man really gay if I don't identify as male? And then of course, I'm attracted to other non-binary gender queer, a-gender, other trans people. And maybe that is where my homosexuality lies.

Alex (1:02:28):
But as I've become more conscious of my identity and been able to engage in different conversations, and engage with different gender and sexuality related texts and scholarship, I have really been able to question, sort of deconstruct gender and sexuality for myself and make more sense of my identity. I think, you know, nothing is fixed. Nothing is, you know, definite, I think things are very fluid. I mean, who knows, maybe, in a few years I realize, I have an enlightening experience and realize there's a whole other component to my identity.

Collection: Mustafa Saifuddin Fellowship Project
Item History: 2020-07-17 (created); 2022-01-13 (modified)

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