Thursday, February 25, 2021

#Sec377: For culture, for queer

SIDDHARTH SHARMA on living openly gay in the South Asian community

Reading Time: 4 minutesUnlike most young Indians, for me, coming out to my parents was no big deal. Yes, there were issues, but nothing compared to what many others faced.
I’m glad for the court’s decision to once and for all decriminalise homosexuality not because I have a personal agenda, but because it will allow millions of Indians to finally live and love with dignity and openness.

Siddharth Sharma

I have always been confident about both, being Indian and being gay, but it bothered me that hardly anyone spoke specifically about being gay in the South Asian community, which is how FOBGAYS+ (Friends and Family of Brown Gays, Lesbian, Queer, Transgender, Axesual and Intersex+ people) came about.
The way that most other LGBTIQ+ organisations work is in a bit more of an Anglo-Saxon context, and tend to focus on the individual’s rights. There’s more focus on protesting and campaigning. Activism obviously needs to be active, but it doesn’t need to be harmful and it doesn’t need to be aggressive.
And in our South Asian community, shouting doesn’t work. What works is slowly introducing people to things in a way that celebrates cultural context: casual chats over chai.
Members of FOBGAYS

And so, that’s what FOBGAYS+ tries to do: break the cycle of misunderstanding, fear and intolerance. I worked with my cousin Giti and brother Siddhant to create the organisation, and the reactions I got from people were mixed. Some people were very nonchalant about it. Other people were awkward. Someone told my parents to go take a parenting class, saying, ‘Don’t worry, we can fix this’.
But it wasn’t the only challenge. There’s a lot of racial discrimination within the gay community and South Asians tend to sit at the bottom of the pyramid in terms of perceived attractiveness. So we’re trying to flip that discrimination based on race and show that we’re proud of our culture.
I want to send a message to the wider queer community: we are here, we are South Asian and we are part of this movement. And it’s also a message to the South Asian community: yes, we do support queer people, but we also support our culture.
To that end, my team and I decided to use symbols that would resonate with everyone. We’ve used colours that are reminiscent of Indian streetscapes. The elephant is a symbol of being proud. And the The Golden Girls, Giti introduced us to the show. We were re-watching it, and as soon as the theme came on, ‘Thank You For Being A Friend’, we realised that it was perfect for what we were trying to do.
FOBGAYS The Golden Girls

There’s a lot of resistance I faced within the South Asian community, mostly centred on ideas of the flagrant display of sex. In India, prudishness and the criminalisation of same-sex relationships form part of the homophobic legacy of the British Empire. Some of the content that we put up about sex… for some people it was too much. Indian and South Asian parents don’t tend to have “the sex talk” with their kids.
But the judgement will hopefully prompt people to think about these issues in a more humane way. We’ve only just started to reach out to the Islamic community, talking to people who are both Muslim and pro-gay rights. One person was Greens MP Dr Mehreen Faruqi, an active Muslim who spoke out in support of the Same-Sex Marriage Bill in Australia.
I think it’s imperative for people to tell their stories. For any cause, you need to have people with their own experiences to come out and be willing to share. And unless a story is told in a particular language, it doesn’t exist in that language. It’s been so important in communicating the experience of queerness in a way that is relatable and accessible to the Hindi-speaking community.
The court’s decision is a huge step in that direction and the judgement will give people courage to speak up. It’s a huge opportunity to create a solid foundation for equality. The pride parades, which have been going on for a few years, are getting bigger and bigger every time. When you have more groups and people marching for actions and calling attention to an issue, you create a little bit more pressure on the government to do something. And it puts the wheels in motion for our culture to start talking about this kind of thing.
As told to Stephanie Newman

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