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Suddenly Someone Else Sees You


Excerpts from a growing collection of queer personal histories
By Mustafa Saif |
JULY 24, 2020
Note: Some quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.

These are fragments from stories queer and trans South Asian folks have shared with me. I have been holding their words close to my heart for inspiration, rearranging quotes as affirmations, and replaying their voices to keep me company.

Collecting these stories reminds me of the vulnerability and immediate intimacy I have often shared with new acquaintances upon discovering our intersecting identities. So many of my dearest queer friendships have emerged from this instant desire to tell the story of our whole journeys to one another and bear witness to our process of becoming our present selves.

As I share these stories, I have been resisting the instinct to impose structure and organize narratives according to preconceived ideas of experience or identity. I am hoping rather to allow them to exist in conversation in their own messy way. I am curious to find common threads in these histories without forcing parallels and leaving room for the ways in which these experiences are singular.

In being open to wherever their stories lead organically, I am finding surprising points of resonance — who knew so many queer South Asians would mention The Babysitters Club as a pivotal childhood reading? There are echoes throughout these stories of finding strength to recover from rejection and abuse, feelings of being alone and misunderstood, the joy, expansion and even discomfort of meeting others with similar experiences, learning to inhabit our bodies, and visions for a radically inclusive future. But also, I am hearing points of dissonance and divergence, including the ways in which even queer South Asian spaces can leave some feeling isolated and unheard. I am incredibly grateful to be able to sit with all the complexity and contradictions of these beautiful stories, and these excerpts represent a few points of connection for me.

Photo by Todd Franson
I was honored to interview Urooj Arshad, a queer muslim activist from Pakistan who co-founded the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity and who helped organize the first LGBTQ Muslim Retreat in 2011. In her oral history, Urooj recalls growing up in Karachi during the dictatorship of Zia Ul-Haq, with a convergence of Islam and nationalism as a cultural backdrop to her early education. Urooj immigrated to the Chicago suburbs with her family at the end of high school and later found queer community during college in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. Urooj recalls being spotted wearing rainbow accessories on campus and being invited to meet with members of Khulli Zabaan, a former queer South Asian group based in Chicago. Her first reaction on meeting other queer South Asians was tempered by a familiar discomfort—

“I couldn't have imagined that there were other people like me, which I think is a very common experience. You know that feeling of like, ‘I am the only one’, and not even knowing what to do if you meet other people like you. That heartbreak or that pain that suddenly someone else sees you is just too much.”
Despite these initial feelings, Khulli Zabaan, other LGBTQ organizations in Chicago, and the Desh Pardesh festival in Toronto became important sources of connection for her. In the oral history, Urooj also describes the ways in which 9/11 transformed her relationship to her Muslim identitiy, and the ways in which she helped resist islamaphobic narratives, particularly within feminist spaces. In 2016, following the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting, Urooj organized responses among queer muslims, as we found ourselves suddenly under heightened scrutiny—

“Regardless of how we've been treated by our communities, we will never allow our stories to be used to advance Islamophobia. We would never push that narrative. And we fought so hard against the narrative, and there were so many amazing stories that came out and so many people came out and Muslim LGBTQ people came out after Orlando just so that they can say, not in my name. You will not use this to advance Islamophobia in my name and my story. That was beautiful and heartbreaking and really hard and devastating.”
On the first day of Ramadan this year, I interviewed another Muslim from Pakistan, with very different queer experiences. Marina is a bisexual woman who was born in Saudi Arabia before her family moved to Islamabad when she was eleven and later to the U.S. In her oral history, she describes a relationship with a woman while living in Pakistan and the violent reactions she endured upon being discovered by others, as well as the ways in which she has reframed her relationship with Islam in adulthood. I was particularly interested in hearing of her challenges navigating visibility and erasure as a bisexual person, as well as her own process of creating space for her identities—

“I think it was a little bit scarier to say out loud that I'm bisexual. But I think it also helped me, because a lot of stuff in my life has been kind of fuzzy. And I've just been trying to figure it out for most of the time...When you say it out loud, then you're really saying this is part of who I am, you're giving it clarity, you're giving it a name, and for me giving it a name means giving it space. In this case, it meant finally giving myself space.”
Marina was one of several folks who qualified many memories with the word “fuzzy.” I initially assumed people would tell their stories linearly flowing from childhood through the present, but queer oral histories stitch together moments in surprising ways. Instead of simple linear trajectories, I am fascinated by these “fuzzy” or “nebulous” memories and the ways in which erasing or smudging memories can protect us from reliving difficult moments.

Some of the most beautiful recollections I’ve heard from interviewees are less about movement through time and more about the scents and physicality of moments. In a particularly olfactory history, Bishakh Som describes fragmentary memories from her childhood in Ethiopia along with trips to India—

“I remember little details, like snatches of music or a glass ashtray that was very heavy that we had that my dad would put out during parties...Even to this day, if I cook with mustard oil, that's a very strong sense-memory. When the mustard oil heats up, that smells to me like Kolkata...It's kind of like the first thing that hits you when you get off the plane. There is like the smell of the heat and the like thickness of the air, and then further into the city more like a sense of frying and oil and fish. I don't want to veer into cliche territory, but those were very strong sense-memories for me. Sort of something that my mom and dad were able to transplant into New York with their cooking and stuff...but I can never get back to that, that certain specificity of foodly aroma.”
After immigrating to New York as a child in 1974, Bishakh eventually studied and practiced architecture for several years. Drawing on her lifelong practice of illustration, she recently-released the graphic novel Apsara Engine. Bishakh describes the intersection of her illustrations with her own “hatching” as a trans woman after decades of being misread by cisgender gay men—

“Being trans is not a question of reinventing yourself necessarily. If you can see all the things that were causing all the readings in the past — there was something to that dissonance like static that suddenly becomes a tone...The varied and multiplicitous quality of transness is something that accommodates a lot of psyches, and I thought that was an amazing thing after this sort of rigidity of the kinds of queerness that I grew up with. It was so liberating to be in this kind of multicolored world of possibilities. I felt like suddenly I was on another planet where I belonged...Drawing and creating worlds through drawing is almost analogous or a parallel strategy to creating your own world as a trans person”
This tension between being misread and mislabeled versus being seen and understood carries through many of the stories I hear. In her oral history, Anjali R. describes many different ways of navigating these tensions as a trans woman while living in 4 countries and 11 cities.

Anjali is the founder of Parivar, an organization for trans and queer South Asians based in the Bay Area. Anajli describes growing up in Hyderabad, immigrating to Ohio, and finding queer community during graduate school in Idaho. Throughout her journey, Anjali describes the ways in which queer South Asian spaces perpetuate transphobia—

“I decided to transition because I gathered the courage, and I got a lot of pushback from my own community saying ‘that’s great, you’re doing well, but just dress up on the weekends.’ And I still went ahead with it...I existed in this very South Asian male cis driven community, where I was told that, ‘we'll do your hair and you can do all that, but tomorrow we are going to Tahoe and you cannot be dressing up like that.’”
In founding Parivar, Anjali hoped to provide a space that centers gender non-conforming and trans folks—

“My biggest hope for Parivar is for it to exist, even if I don't. I want it to be a movement and a mechanism and a space that is sustainable for the cause of centering trans and GNC [gender non-conforming] folks and powerful and welcoming all LGBT queer folks going beyond cisness and going beyond Hinduism and fighting Islamophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and to go to every place in the country.”

Satvika Neti. Photo by Shauna Miller @propheshee.
Many of the oral histories I have collected come from people who have founded queer South Asian spaces where they do not exist or where existing spaces fall short of promise. In a group interview with Anish, Deepshikha and Satvika I heard about the origins of Rangoli, a queer South Asian space in Pittsburgh. Echoing the challenges I hear from many founders of these spaces, Anish describes the effort associated with bringing together community under a broad South Asian queer umbrella—

"I learned that it wasn't the paradise I expected it to be and that everything is not perfect. That was really tumultuous. There was grief involved, because for so long, I wanted there to be this strong, cohesive community. When I found that with these folks in Rangoli, it was very positive, and I expected a similar experience when we connected with the community on a larger scale. But I found out that there are still a lot of problems. Even within this niche group, a lot of intra-community problems arise where patterns of privilege still manage to present themselves. That was really difficult to come to terms with. But I think it was an important realization and one that's real.”
While Rangoli was founded relatively recently in Pittsburgh as the first LGBTQ+ South Asian group in the area, queer and trans South Asians have been organizing for decades in the U.S. [see for example, The Desi Queer Datebook and NQAPIA’s Queer Asian Compass]. As I collect stories, I often feel overwhelmed by this realization and my own experience of feeling disconnected without access to this history for most of my life. Satvika describes a similar feeling of finding one’s own place in the context of this larger history—

"This whole community has existed way long before us and will continue to exist. There was a part of me that was like, where was this when I was young? Why didn't I have it?...It was really easy to feel like we were going at it alone and like this was our thing and realizing that it was kind of a drop in the bucket was really powerful."

Mani Soma. Photo by @abdullahsyed
I was surprised to hear about finding points of connection within family history from Mani Soma, who performs as the drag artist KaMani Sutra. In their oral history, Mani describes growing up in Hyderabad, dancing from an early age, and looking up to their grandfather who was also a performer—

“I used to see my grandfather doing stage acts...While growing up, I saw his wigs, his jewelry, his sarees. Everything was kept in a huge trankupette — like an iron box or an iron suitcase with a small lock in it...So I was like, oh, this is cool. I think it is fine to do it...I've been dancing for a very long time. And calling it as drag is a very new concept for me.”
Despite this personal connection and being careful not to project labels on their grandfather, Mani describes the ways in which their performance has not been accepted by family and has added a third layer of revelation to conversations with family—

“I had to come out like three times. Like I came out as gay. And then I came out as a genderqueer person. And then I came out about my drag.”
In their oral history, Mani also describes learning to embroider lehengas while working with their mother, the “bollywood drama” of their six-year relationship with a classmate, and their excitement and nervousness while organizing a flash mob as part of Queer Campus Hyderabad at Osmania University. After immigrating to the U.S. and finding queer community with KhushDC, they describe marching at Capital Pride in a lehenga and the emergence of a bearded drag aesthetic that pushes limits as they perform across North America.

I also heard about drag as a mechanism for finding oneself from Alex, whose drag persona provided an opportunity to integrate their Indo-Guyanese and Sicilian identities while growing up in New York—

“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...it was my sort of saving, and coming out of this dark place.”
In finding themself, Alex beautifully questions the borders between identities in a way that resonated with many of the stories I have heard—

“My whole life has sort of been experiences of rejection in different ways...Being rejected for being queer, but then whether it be in a Caribbean community, I'm rejected because of my queerness, but also my cooliness, my brownness, my South Asianness, my Indianness. And, in South Asian communities, 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...I recognize we're different, but I’m also trying to navigate where are there strict borders and where are there not strict borders?”

Mustafa Saif 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. Mustafa's fellowship project centers queer and trans South Asian experiences across the United States. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.