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Centering Queer and Trans South Asians


A reflection from our Archival Creators Fellow
By Mustafa Saif |
JANUARY 23, 2020

Archival Creators Fellow Mustafa Saif explores the challenges around creating their participatory storytelling project in the Queer and Trans South Asian community, and the reshaping of the dialogue surrounding queer experiences. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Years ago, I go through the few photo albums my family collects and remove all the photos I can find of my younger self, embarrassed that they captured me before I learned to police my queer gestures. Throughout my life, I have become an expert at deleting photos, erasing records, and making some of the most important parts of my life traceless.

When I started this work, I worried that my participation in my own erasure and my desire to resist surveillance were in opposition to the goals of building an archival collection. Now I am hoping that helping to build a collection on South Asian queer and trans stories will allow me to explore this gradient between visibility, privacy and erasure. I am curious to see what emerges when we archive the imprints of erasure, have more ownership in creating our traces, and acknowledge the ways in which restricting access to our stories can be empowering as well.

In designing a participatory story project modeled after SAADA’s First Days Project, we have been confronted with the reality that there is no universal moment or experience that queer and trans South Asians can all identify with. One of the challenges with this work is in resisting the urge to impose structure and in avoiding projecting my singular experience onto others, while also searching for unifying questions.

Many existing participatory storytelling projects on queer and trans experiences are centered around coming out, which effectively excludes a wide range of queer and trans experiences, particularly for people of color. This framework creates pressure to follow a single trajectory to become coherent to others, and centers some presumed straight audience to come out to.

I am hoping instead that we can find common themes that may resonate with queer and trans South Asians, while also leaving room for people to share how these assumptions might restrict them. We are hoping to learn about the moments which have felt most meaningful to their journeys as queer and trans South Asians—whether these moments are centered around building connections, navigating visibility and surveillance, dealing with erasure and mischaracterization, or something entirely different.

As a queer Muslim, I recognize the ways in which cataloging our experiences can jeopardize safety and increase our vulnerability to surveillance. Yet queer and trans people of color have always found creative ways to exchange our experiences, to share intimacy while remaining anonymous and discreet. This work will challenge us to reassess the types of metadata we typically might deem important in building a collection. I am eager to see how the archive can make room for an intimate exchange of stories without giving away all of our secrets. I am so excited to learn from the people I collaborate with on finding ways to catalog feelings, moments, experiences, and meanings rather than coordinates and identifiers.

In addition to collecting oral histories and inviting people to engage with a participatory storytelling project, this collection will include archival records from queer and trans South Asian groups. Many of the ways our communities build connections are lost over time, and oftentimes the significance of these moments of activism and organizing are underestimated by the folks who hold these memories. It has been so fascinating and rewarding to learn of parallel tracks across space and time as queer and trans South Asians navigate similar but distinct challenges. This work asks how people make the first steps towards seeking community - what are the tools, mediums, spaces, objects and events that have allowed us to connect? It is also exciting to push the boundaries of the types of materials I once thought of as archival “records” to encompass the ways queer and trans people have connected digitally.

As I am collecting records and stories, I find myself needing a reminder that inclusion in the archive is not an endorsement. Interwoven into the archival records of queer and trans South Asian organizing are also the traces of queer and trans South Asians replicating problematic power structures within organizations, of fractures and rebirths of those who were excluded even within these groups, of a constant grappling with needs for greater inclusivity. I am hoping this collection helps highlight groups within our communities who are often excluded by the questions we ask and the ways we build community. This requires - among many other intentions - being careful to draw in folks of diverse genders and faiths, interrogating our sometimes limiting definitions of “South Asian”, and asking how queer and trans folks not living in major urban areas on the coasts build community.

I feel so grateful to learn from all the amazing people who are opening themselves up to collaborate on this work.

Many of the ideas described here and surrounding the conception of the project were developed in discussion with prabhdeep singh kehal, Suzanne C. Persard, and Neha Rayamajhi.
Outside of this fellowship, Mustafa works as an ecologist and spend much of their time thinking about soil, fungi and trees. Mustafa's family is from Hyderabad, and they were born in Saudi Arabia before growing up in Texas.