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Left to right: Patruni Sastry, Rajiv Mohabir, and Akshay Patel

Trigger Warning: Racism and queerphobia

Two decades ago, Rajiv Mohabir was young and hot, living his life in New York City with no fears. His family’s home was a melting pot of Indo-Guyanese and Western culture. Despite having lived in various countries, the Indo-Guyanese community always remained close to his heart.

This is when Mohabir decided to come out of the closet and revealed to his mother that he was dating a Black man.

“I remember her saying: I would rather you be with someone who is South Asian. So, the discourse has been don’t be gay to don’t be gay with a Black person,” recalled Mohabir, the memory still vivid and fresh. Young Mohabir was confused. He didn’t know what to make of it. His mother’s views have since progressed, but the anti-black sentiment and homophobia in his family and community haven’t grown old. A 2014 Pew study found that on average 80% of Pakistanis, Malaysians, and Indians thought that homosexuality was morally unacceptable. Research about the history and the current representation of LGBTQ Afro-Asian relations is scarce.

Mohabir remembers walking with his uncle when two Black people were walking in front of them. His uncle told him to slow down and Mohabir asked, “Why?”

His uncle said, “You are breathing in their dead skin cells.” Mohabir could not believe what he had heard. 

Fast forward a few years, his sister married a Black man and she was publicly shamed and humiliated at a family gathering. 

Mohabir got married to a man and moved to Alabama — the furthest he could go away to start his own family.

He stopped getting invitations for any weddings or community gatherings.

He lost his cultural home.

He occasionally speaks to his mother and siblings, but purposefully distanced himself from his father for his homophobic and racist views. “It is a grief that never ends, no matter how long. No matter how much I grow in my life, I always feel like I’ve lost my family. I’ve lost my entire extended family,” Mohabir reflects. 

Poet, author, and activist Rajiv Mohabir

Was Racism and Homophobia Normal?

Some South Asian scholars and writers believe that anti-LGBTQ sentiment in the South Asian community emerged in the early 1700s when the British invaded the Indian subcontinent and other countries, as also stated in Enza Han’s book British Colonialism and the Criminalization of Homosexuality. Under British rule, many of South Asia’s perspectives on sexuality were twisted into those of the conservative British empire.

Pre-colonial India is said to be the land of sexual freedom: the ancient erotic text Kamasutra was widely practiced which was inclusive of all sexualities; the Hindu scripture, Mahabharata had examples of same-sex relations and a transgender deity; and an old Bengali text, Kritivasa Ramayana, had descriptions of same-sex desire among women.

These texts do not outwardly classify such relationships as homosexual or queer because these relations were not categorized as a distinguishable aspect of one’s life mentions Dr. Vanita Reddy, an Associate Professor of English at Texas A&M University and one of the few feminist scholars researching queer Afro-Asian history and relations.

“Prior to the 19th century, same-sex relations [and other LGBTQ relations] were not coded as homosexual identities. The idea of homosexuality as an identity is actually an invention,” said Dr. Reddy.

The intersection of race and homophobia became a large part of the dialogue when the British transported Indian laborers to the African and Caribbean colonies like Guyana to build railways. Mohabir says, “[They] racialize us to be pitted against one another [South Asians vs Africans and Caribbeans].” Many Indians were told they were being taken for better job prospects. Mohabir’s ancestors arrived on those ships to Guyana. They prospered economically, built generational wealth and soon the Indian community members became high-earners in comparison to Black laborers. 

In 1964, when Guyana gained independence from British rule, the pressure of divisions broke. Deadly race riots erupted across the country and nearly 200 lives were lost. Since most Indian residents of British Guyana were considered British citizens, unlike in the Caribbeans, they took refuge in England after the riots. The anti-blackness evident today is deep-rooted and internalized by this pain of having to move away from their home. A similar scenario occurred in 1972 Uganda when President Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of all Asians.

Those who didn’t move to other colonies with the British were again exposed to the colorist caste system in India. Now abolished but culturally present in Indian society, a low caste Indian would often be dark-skinned and wouldn’t be allowed to worship in the same Hindu temple as a high caste Indian, who primarily had a lighter skin tone. 

The 1991 movie Mississippi Masala was a cultural reset for South Asian teens like Mohabir, who found solace in watching a Black man and an Indian woman elope.

But the movie also hit too close to home for many South Asians. The word “kallu” or “kalli”  (black) is a derogatory term in Hindi and Urdu used to describe Black people or South Asians with darker skin tones. It is casually thrown around in the movie as it is in real life within South Asian communities. Pontiac in Mississippi Masala says, “I saw that carpet cleaning kallu with Mina.” This happens after Mina’s (Sarita Choudhury) Indian family finds out she is with Demitris (Denzel Washington). 

“If you go looking into the archive you are not going to find it [history of LGBTQ Afro-Asian relations]. There are a lot of examples of heterosexual Afro-Asian representation, but you cannot talk about anti-blackness and homophobia separately,” explained Dr. Reddy, who has been searching for historic or cultural material on LGBTQ Afro-Asian couples, advocates, or relations overall. She has since reframed her research to Queer Afro-Asian political alliances from a feminist perspective. She discovered a series of Black and Asian queer feminist newsletters from the 1980s, Ache and Phoenix Rising, based in San Francisco which detailed the networks, alliances, and safe spaces created by African American and Asian American feminists.

Shared Experiences

My first experience with racism in a South Asian context came earlier than expected.

It was the first day of middle school, new town, new people, new school. My curly hair confidently parted down the middle. The morning was spent with my mother and my hairbrush in a tug of war to detangle my hair. She knew little to nothing about curly hair, she is a Kashmiri beauty of Persian-Jewish descent with silky, straight, shiny hair. The monsoon moisture in the air puffed up my hair more, making me look like Einstein.

As I walked the wet cobblestone streets to school, I was stopped by a gang of boys and girls, who I suspected to be my classmates. They stood dumbfounded with peculiar expressions on their faces, looking at me as if I were an extra-terrestrial. 

“African!” one boy said. “Noodles!” shouted another. Both prepubescent boys were pointing at my hair, inviting the others in the groups to join in on the torment. They erupted in laughter, touching my hair as if I were a zoo animal.

To prevent such future encounters, I cut my hair short.

The narrative changed, but now it was about my gender because I looked like a boy. That wasn’t digestible for many because a good Indian girl must have straight, long shiny hair.

I shared this experience with my college friend, Akshay Patel. He was upset but not surprised because he too had a story to share.  

Patel grew up in a small town in England’s West Midlands, in a community of mostly Asian immigrants with no queer representation. In our journalism college in London, he was an out, loud, and proud gay man but back home, he was a shy, quiet boy.

One afternoon, during the pandemic in  England, he received a call. He had been scouted as a contestant in the BBC dancing-plus-dating reality show, I Like the Way U Move, where he would learn a dance routine with a professional dancer with the hopes of falling in love.

‘I Like the Way You Move’ poster with Akshay and Josh.

He spent the past decade not just accepting his sexuality, but also making his Indian parents come to terms with who their son truly was. He sowed seeds of doubt throughout his teens to ease the eventual conversation of him coming out.

A few days into filming in London, when Patel partnered up with Josh Nkemdilim on the show, Patel knew he would have to start the battle all over again. Nkemdilim is a professional dancer from London of Nigerian descent. The war against homophobia had a new nemesis — anti-Blackness.

During a mixer at the show, Patel was attracted to Nkemdilim for his energetic personality. “I’ve always been so driven by the person and their personality. So for me, I love somebody that’s just themselves.” 

The trailer of the show has Patel confidently saying, “I am falling for Josh hard and fast.”

Initially, Patel’s parents laughed about him being with Nkemdilim. They thought Patel was cracking a joke. Patel too has seen the normalization of anti-blackness in the vocabulary used in his community. 

Antiman, a book by Rajiv Mohabir explores race, sexuality, and cultural identities.

Furthering Research and Narratives

Moving north to the icy tundras of Canada, you reach the hometown of Ammaar Kidwai in Toronto. A researcher at Ryerson University in mental and sexual health, he spends his days interviewing gay and bisexual South Asian men about their experiences of homophobia and how it has affected their wellbeing. He found the discrepancies that South Asian Canadian gay and bisexual men face with regards to sexual health are rooted in mental health issues caused by homophobia and racism.

Kidwai is gay, Muslim, and Pakistani. His story is not that different either. Though he married a white man, he always wondered — what would have happened had David [his husband] been Black? 

“Had David been a teacher and Black, I would have stopped seeing my dad’s face earlier than it happened,” said Kidwai.

Kidwai hasn’t had a proper conversation with his father in years. When Kidwai was dating his current husband, his father would call him “Ammaar’s friend” and refuse to acknowledge anything more. 

Both Kidwai and Mohabir said that they have had a fair amount of anxiety, depression, and identity crisis growing up. 

Kidwai learned from his research that microaggressions of homophobia and colorism from one’s own community have led to traces of PTSD emerging later in life.

Mental health for queer brown folk often looks like unlearning both internalized homophobia and anti-blackness in order to accept ourselves, our bodies, and our experiences as enough, as a whole, and as beautiful,” said Kidwai.

For Mohabir, he has the power of his pen.

“I write when I feel like shit,” Mohabir said jokingly. Rajiv Mohabir is now an acclaimed writer and professor, and his 2021 hybrid memoir, Antiman has accounts of his life experiences and Mohabir’s way of navigating the conversation about race, sexuality, and cultural heritage in his community.

The Queer Brown Experience Is Traumatic

A group performance by Mobbera Foundation. Anil Kohli is sitting in the front. (Image Credit: Mobbera Foundation)

Crisp, winter morning at 7:30 am, I say hello virtually to Patruni Sastry and Anil Kohli, two drag queens based in Hyderabad, India. Sastry is pansexual and Kohli is non-binary.

As a child, Kohli’s parents compared their skin tone to other family members, calling them dark. These comments were exacerbated by queerphobia later in their life.

“I live in a country where being fair is good, slim is sexy, and heterosexual is the norm,” said Kohli with deep sadness in their voice.

The drag queens described the integrated racism and colorism present within the Indian LGBTQ community. One such incident occurred when Kohli joined dating apps to find like-minded people.

“People said you’re fat, you’re dark, you’re black, no one will come to you. No one will get physical with you, but I have stood up for myself and it has been a long journey,” said Kohli.

Throughout the call, there were sniffles and Kohli’s voice was shaking. They were reliving the nightmares.

Soon after Sastry recalled a heart-wrenching encounter from last year.

It was a regular evening of performances for the drag queens. Afterward, they stepped out to grab snacks at nearby street vendors wearing their drag outfits and were followed by two men. One was smirking and his eyes kept rolling up and down, scanning the bodies of the drag queens.

The other stopped them and asked, “How much do you charge?” — implying they would be open for sex work. 

Sastry and Kohli find empowerment in being their authentic selves, which has involved overcoming colorism and homophobia.

Love Is Love

Sunu P. Chandy is a social justice activist through her work as a civil rights attorney and a poet. (Image Credit: Sunu Chandy)

As cliché as it sounds, love does help conquer all. That is the story of Sunu Chandy and her wife, Erika. They met through mutual friends at an event at Prospect Park park in Brooklyn, New York.

Christmas season last year, the arctic blast was engulfing the East Coast, and Chandy and her spouse were at home in Washington DC when gifts from Chandy’s parents arrived in the mail. They sent sheets and a Christmas card addressed to both. These gestures mean a lot to Chandy as they had just moved, and bed sheets were an intimate, thoughtful gift. She couldn’t imagine this ever happening.

“I’m so grateful for all of the acceptance, inclusion, and warmth that they’ve shown my partner; the gifts are symbolic of acceptance. It’s not a small thing to have them write both our names on it.”

Chandy is the legal director at the National Women’s Law Center influencing social change, pushing LGBTQ  and gender rights. Chandy is also the daughter of Christian immigrants from Kerala, India and her wife is African American. About 25 years after coming out to them, Chandy’s parents have become more welcoming of her spouse into their family.

“You may have a family that is accepting one part of your identity but they still can be incredibly offensive and exclusionary when it comes to other really important parts of our identities,” said Chandy.

Chandy gave her parents an ultimatum after she adopted her daughter. “I was not going to allow my child to face bigotry on my watch. I was not going to have her spend time with family who do not accept me,” said Chandy. This conversation led to important changes. Recently, her parents sent her links to a trans speaker at a mainstream Christian event in Kerala.

I kept searching for stories like Chandy’s. Little did I know that the happy ending I was searching for was next door in New York…

Mala Kumar, the Director of Tech for Social Good at GitHub met her Nigerian wife in Ghana while traveling for work. Kumar is a second-generation South Indian American and her parents accepted her marriage, though Kumar said it was a long journey to get there.

Kumar was swiping on Tinder and found the love of her life four miles away from her hotel. They have been together for five years and got married two years ago.  She and her wife continue to “give each other so much strength, and that definitely comes from their different adverse experiences.”

In my journey to find stories of queer Black-South Asian relations, I saw LOVE that transcends race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality. A love so deep, that in its natural and purest form, will never cease to exist. I leave you with this poem by Sunu Chandy:

Sleet 

(Sleet occurs when snowflakes falling through a small layer of warm air in the atmosphere begin to melt. The melting snowflakes then refreeze when they pass into a layer of colder, freezing air.)

 

The weatherman said, Sleet is usually a transition

moment in the weather. It just, holds the place,

between snow and rain. But today, the sleet

has lasted all day long. I walk home

in the Friday evening sleet, painful

and unrelenting. There was nothing

transitional about it.

 

And this is how it feels,

with my family.

 

Stuck in this land between

acceptance and rejection,

a moment that should have been transitional,

but instead, decades of sleet. Not disowning me

but not quite allowing me in, either.

 

One day everyone is warm

and laughing, and the next it’s as if

five separate conversations never

took place. The conversations become so slippery

that sometimes I must stop

calling altogether. Until the next pretty

and deceptive email: Look, we won

marriage. My father tells others

that he has no Biblical, or theological issue,

with his daughter being gay. It’s just he wished

that she was married to a man

and had a couple of kids.

 

One day it’s the lovely snowflake

of how is she doing, and even singing songs

at our wedding. And the next it’s the painful

hailstorm of no pictures on their mantle.

 

And yet, how can I possibly leave them

for good, when I am still thrown

 

something promising,

every eleventh conversation.

— Sunu Chandy


 Tanya Kaushal (she/her) is an international multimedia journalist from India via the UK, and currently a master’s candidate at Columbia Journalism School, New York. She reports on a bit of everything but mainly social issues. She is the secretary for the South Asian Journalists Association at Columbia Journalism School 2021-2022.

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