Experiences of Racism Diasporic Queer South Asians Face in the West

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A huge thank you to Sam (they/them), Joe (he/him), Ramya (she/her), Medha (she/her) and Rohan (he/him) for speaking to me about their experiences of growing up and living as queer and South Asian in various western countries (Australia, Austria, Spain, Germany, United Kingdom, USA). 

Note: Some names have been changed for confidentiality purposes.

Diasporic South Asians whose families have settled in various Western countries often find themselves struggling between two identities: that of their family’s culture and that of the culture they have grown up with. But what about the experiences of queer individuals within the diasporic South Asian community? Members of the community have even experienced so much racism that growing up they even believed ‘being gay was a white people thing’.

The UK NGO Stonewall’s report ‘LGBT in Britain: Home and Communities’ highlighted that of half of black, Asian and minority ethnic LGBT people experienced some form of discrimination from peers in the community because of their ethnicity, and this number rose to 61% of black LGBT individuals. Clearly racism is a problem faced within the Western LGBTQ+ communities, a community that itself is still a heavily marginalised one, despite many gains having been made in the past few years.

Rejection and Invisibility of Queer Brown Bodies

Dating is a difficult subject for queer South Asians to navigate in the West. Rohan shares his experience of dating in the past, and while not dealing with any outright racism, it was hard to not be able to share an important aspect of himself.

“I found myself feeling dissatisfied with not having aspects of my culture in the relationship.” Rohan

These interactions can range from uncomfortable and alienating, to even more negative experiences. Dating apps such as Tinder and Grindr can be a cesspool of toxicity, with transphobia, femmephobia, fatphobia and racism present throughout.

“I don’t get approached on dating apps. Sometimes it can be frustrating because it makes you feel excluded and different from other people. Not just race, but my gender identity (I identify as non-binary), makes it even harder to connect with people. I feel like my body is different, just the colour of my skin is different, so it makes sexual interactions alienating.” – Sam

For a lot of queer people with brown bodies, it is hard to be seen as desirable because of Eurocentric beauty standards prevalent throughout the West, and these ideals have seeped into queer communities. Women, non-binary and transgender individuals also face the issue of constant harassment and violence when in public spaces. It is extremely draining for individuals who deal with many marginalised identities.

“I live most of my life in physical spaces in fear of what might happen. I often do not feel safe in public due to a fear of catcalling, or racist comments, or biphobic comments from those who know me. This constant anxiety wears down at my energy.”  – Medha

Feeling Rejection from Both Communities

A common experience for South Asians in the diaspora is to feel like a unique individual in the communities or spaces we are a part of.

“What ended up happening is that I would often be the only South Asian in a queer space, or the only queer person in a South Asian space.” – Joe

“When I hang out in South Asian communities, I feel like sexuality is more likely to be stigmatised and hence don’t feel comfortable, but when I’m with other queer people the Western-centric culture makes me feel uncomfortable as I can’t express the worldview and culture I have as a South Asian with being ‘exotic’ or ‘teaching others’ or a spectacle.” – Medha

This further adds to the feeling of diasporic South Asians having a struggle with our identity. Sexuality is rarely spoken about in South Asian communities, and alternative sexual identities are rarely ever acknowledged, and if they are, it is done in a disparaging way.

“Occasionally people would be like ‘oh my god, brown people are so hot, my ex was brown. All the people I’ve dated are brown. So that makes me uncomfortable as well.” – Sam

This fetishisation is a huge cause of alienation felt by many queer individuals. The feeling of just being acknowledged by the colour of your skin, and nothing more that you have to offer, is an extremely objectifying feeling.

Queer South Asian Culture and Its Importance

For many of us growing up as diasporic South Asians, we are already faced with a constant ‘tug of war’ between our cultural heritage and values learnt in Western settings. Add queerness to the mix, and navigating our identity becomes a messy minefield, with how we should behave and how we want to behave being pulled in so many directions. We often feel like our identities can’t merge and mix, and these aspects of our lives need to be so compartmentalised that we have boxes for each of these identities. Experiences of finding our cultural and queer identities interweave and are emotional and overwhelming, but most of all affirming.

“I distinctly remember searching on google on the topic of LGBT+ in Sri Lanka but couldn’t find a single person who shared their story; most of the information was negative- usually regarding the lack of rights in the country. I was weeping with joy when I discovered the Pride in Sri Lanka Facebook page and beaming at the photos of the parade that took place this year.” – Ramya

“I love Bharatanatyam dance and always conceived of it as a classical, traditional part of Indian culture. But going to a queer space and having conversations with people and watching a Bharatanatyam performance reminded me that a lot of it is queer and gender bending and subversive.” – Joe

Queer South Asian spaces allow us to reinterpret our culture, history and traditions from a queer lens, which is incredibly powerful. Through these experiences, we are also able to connect with fellow queer South Asians, which is further affirming to our identities.

“I’m lucky enough to have some great LGBTQ+ people of colour friends that I try to meet up with on a regular basis. I guess in a way, we create our own little South Asian queer space.” – Rohan

“Thankfully from university and beyond, I finally came out of my shell by meeting other queer people of colour and learnt to openly share my experience. It was a saving grace and I didn’t feel alienated for the first time.” – Ramya

Concluding Thoughts and The Future

It is important to ensure that the South Asian community (as well as other cultural communities) are represented, without being tokenised, across the spectrum of organisations and events. LGBTQ+ organisations can also do a lot more to partner with queer communities. It is also encouraging and inspiring to see diasporic South Asian communities create their own, self-run spaces, whether it be through the medium of NGOs and collectives, such as Trikone; club nights, such as Hungama; or even pride marches, such as Imaan organising the first ever Muslim LGBTQ+ pride. Notable individuals have also made amazing gains in terms of representation. A major example is Lilly Singh, popular and successful Canadian YouTuber of Indian descent, becoming the first queer woman of colour to get her own late-night talk show on a major network. The queer South Asian diasporic community are making strides in the community, and the future growth and visibility of this community is looking hopeful.

Featured image source: Detroit News

Harshil Shah is the Program Officer at the Queer Resource Centre at One Future Collective.