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Queer Brown History

Reflections on Accepting My Queer South Asian American Cultural Heritage
By Nikhil D. Patil |
NOVEMBER 19, 2021
Nikhil's chosen brother Sumon helped connect him with the broader queer South Asian community in the United States. Photo courtesy of Nikhil Patil
Growing up, I struggled to reconcile my South Asian and my queer identity. To me, the two seemed as far apart as the moon from the earth. I spent my childhood moving from place to place, country to country, yet I don’t recall ever encountering another person who openly identified as both South Asian and queer. I assumed I was alone in my effort to integrate these two seemingly incompatible parts of myself. It was difficult to feel comfortable with both identities and how they presented themselves in me, so eventually I decided to hide in assimilation. I found comfort and kinship with those I saw around me, mainly families who were Southern, middle class, white and heterosexual. In my late twenties, when I finally came out as bisexual to myself and others, I had already established an incredible network of non-queer friends. I never felt the urge to connect with the broader LGBTQIA+ community, much less the South Asian LGBTQIA+ community.1 After all, what did a “baby gay” like me need queer friends for?2

When I started my SAADA Archival Creator Fellowship Program in October 2020, I set out to document the lived experiences of South Asian Americans during the early years of the AIDS crisis in the United States. Seeing the shadow of the AIDS epidemic reflected in the trajectory of the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis around me, I felt an urgency to collect records and learn lessons from a corollary moment in history, from one epidemic to another. What resulted from this work was not just the formation of my archival collection “Excerpts from an Epidemic,” but also a journey into the past where I discovered a lineage of queer South Asians in the United States spanning decades. While I am grateful for having had the opportunity to help expand our collective memory of HIV and AIDS in the US by preserving their stories, the most meaningful part of my fellowship experience has been finding and embracing my queer South Asian American community.

It’s hard to untangle the history of AIDS in the United States from queer history in the United States. Given the disproportionate impact of the AIDS crisis on the LGBTQIA+ community, it made sense to begin my search for potential oral history interviewees by identifying queer South Asians who were in the US in the 1980s and 1990s. With the help of my friend Sumon who was actively involved in the community at the national level, I identified many region-specific organizations such as Trikone, Khush, SALGA, and Satrang, that were focused on supporting LGBTQIA+ South Asians. Not only was I able to find several leads for my oral history interviews through members of these groups, but I also uncovered the hidden roots of a rich, deep, and interconnected queer history of South Asians in the United States that spanned decades and continents.

Early in my fellowship, I conducted an oral history interview with Arvind Kumar, co-founder of Trikone in the San Francisco Bay Area. He introduced me to Trikone magazine, a newsletter-turned-quarterly publication that served as a pre-internet communication forum for queer South Asians across the world, from India to the United Kingdom and to Canada3. While browsing the Chicago Gay History archival collection, I discovered an oral history interview with Ifti Nasim, a queer Pakistani American poet who escaped persecution and emigrated to the US and who was a legend in the queer South Asian community. When I interviewed activists Radhika Balakrishnan, Devesh Kathu and Sridhar Venkatapuram, it became clear how South Asian Americans have leveraged their “otherness” and channeled their anger against social injustice by fighting for the marginalized and vulnerable in our community. In fact, their experiences paralleled my own journey into becoming a public health activist. Throughout these interviews, I noticed common threads and mutual connections, illustrating how seemingly disparate clusters of South Asians were actually part of a complex diasporic network stretching across the country.
Trikone, a community of queer South Asians, march in the 1986 San Francisco Pride Parade. Photo courtesy of Arvind Kumar
This rich tapestry of stories, narratives, and lived experiences that make up the collective history of queer South Asian Americans is worth preserving and sharing. The value of any archive is not just as a collection of records about the past, or even as an understanding of the present, but really as a roadmap for the future. As I think about the next generation of queer South Asian Americans, I wonder how they will make sense of their intersecting identities as South Asians and as queer people? Will they feel alone, as I once did, or will they feel pride in their intersecting identity? Serving as evidence that queer South Asian Americans existed in the past, and shedding light on both our struggles and also our joys, I hope my archival collection will remind them there are others who share their beautiful identity, and that we will continue to exist into the future.

In his book How to be Gay, David Halperin, a professor of queer theory and a historian of gender & sexuality, says, “Unlike the members of minority groups defined by race or ethnicity or religion, gay men cannot rely on their birth families to teach them about their history or culture. They must discover their roots through contact with the larger society and the larger world.”4 It feels cliché to say this archival project helped me connect more intimately with my queer South Asian American community, but it did. Researching the history of the AIDS epidemic in the United States and collecting oral histories of queer South Asian Americans forced me to reflect on the importance of having not just queer friends but a queer South Asian American community. Though the loss of a generation of “elders” to the AIDS epidemic has led to a fragmentation of the memory that could have been passed down to the next generation, it is my hope that by actively participating in my queer South Asian community, I am helping ensure the continuity of our collective memory, keeping alive our queer history which is still being written.

[1] LGBTQIA+ is an inclusive abbreviation and a collective term describing the most prevalent gender and sexual minority identities: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, and asexual or ally.
[2] A “baby gay” is slang for a person who identifies as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community and has very recently “come out” of the closet.
[3] Trikon, meaning “triangle” in Sanskrit, is the oldest LGBTQIA+ South Asian organization in the United States. Founded in 1986 by Arvind Kumar & Suvir Das in the San Francisco Bay Area, Trikon spun off several chapters across the US including Chicago, Atlanta, Tampa, and Michigan, among others. Trikon eventually changed its name to Trikone.
[4] Halperin, D. M. (2012). How to be gay. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Nikhil D. Patil, MPH (he/him/his) is a global health researcher working at the intersection of infectious diseases, technology, data, and design. His fellowship project focuses on documenting the lived experiences of South Asian Americans during the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States, drawing parallels between those early years and the current COVID-19 pandemic. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.