Last week, my sister and my mom filled me in on some scandalous drama that went down between them and my extended family. This is the same “family” that I have arguably done an excellent job of keeping at bay for almost 7 years -- right after I moved to this country.
In a heated argument, my straight cousin (who hilariously has his pronouns in his bio) decided to bring up my sexuality, as though this would paint me in a bad light.
“You know… we talk about Karan, right? The he might be… gay?”
At this moment, my sister showed up for me in ways that I couldn’t imagine. “I told him that regardless of what Karan does, that’s his business, and also nothing to be ashamed about,” she said.
I was so grateful to have her by my side, and to have done something I would have never expected her to do -- stand up for me.
Then I thought to myself, why was I not expecting her to defend me? Had I really been left to fend for myself throughout my entire life?
The feeling of being on my own was something that I have always contended with. When your identity, your speech, your body, and your being is constantly under attack, even by your closest friends who you’d expect to protect you, you sort of get the hint.
Earlier this summer, I wrote about coming out as bisexual to my parents, something that panned out in a way I never thought it would. After that, my mom (who initially reacted poorly) showed me affection in her own ways -- buying me a pair of shoes or two -- and things went back to normal. Even if she was processing this on her own time, I was thankful for it.
And though the people that I cared most about had accepted me, as though I was acquitted of a crime, other distant relatives who had already chosen my sexuality for me remained ignorant.
As my sister told me this story, she left out the juiciest gossip for the end. The same cousin, who I am so thankful to have now blocked out of my life, owned up to… incest.
Imagine -- bringing up someone’s sexuality as a point of contention in the same breath as admitting to incest with your own first cousin.
“Yeah, wanting to sleep with people of different genders is the same as fucking your cousins, actually,” I said in utter disbelief.
My mom and my sister laughed.
When I sat down to write about the queerness and LGBTQIA+ identities in the South Asian community, I was almost a little stumped on what to address.
I thought about starting this entire piece as a feel-good piece, talking about how significant it is that a brown dude like Kal Penn came out, because I can’t even imagine growing up having that kind of a person to look up to.
But maybe it’s years of bullying, assault, and repressing my emotions, but even in the midst of optimistic news and representation, I can never seem to remember iconic queer Indian representation or people that weren’t ostracized.
When I think about queerness in Indian pop culture, I can only seem to recall the relentless invasion of my namesake, Karan Johar’s privacy, and the constant transphobia, dead-naming, and shaming (even in well-intentioned coverage) of people like Bobby Darling.
In addition, bisexuality is never even understood, let alone explored in South Asian pop culture. We’ve always been invisible to the world, so to have space in brown media seems like asking for too much.
I recently watched a TikTok video where someone said how brown women keep showing up for brown men, combating the creepy Indian guy in DMs stereotype -- but straight brown dudes would never do the same for them.
I’m then reminded of how dating within the South Asian community as a bisexual brown genderfluid dude is… somewhat similar. Brown women will be the first to hate on toxic masculinity -- and rightfully so, but will also disavow the masculinity of bisexual men because they’re not “manly enough.”
It’s no wonder I was shocked to see my sister standing up for me, because even straight brown women haven’t shown up for me when I’ve needed support.
Maybe the constant interrogation of Karan Johar in society made my cousin feel as though it was his place to also position himself as an arbitrator of my sexuality, but though I could blame him all I wanted, the issue is clearly one that is bigger than me.
If the lack of positive representation of queerness (which really is just a colonial hangover) was enough to condition me to not accept help from others, then anti-LGBTQIA+ rhetoric had likely conditioned people (including straight brown women) to treat South Asian queer folks as sub-human, with standards of living that could be conditionally dictated to them.
That’s why I’m choosing to be negative today -- maybe to incite some sort of call to action -- given that I have the platform of 5X Press to do so.
This is not to erase the activism of those who have come before me and created large-scale change, but some days it is just beyond difficult to see the positives.
Make no mistake -- the subjugation of queer South Asians goes well beyond just pop culture. I cannot even begin to speak to experiences of non-binary brown folks, queer brown women, and those who live within the margins of the margins of the margins.
When we haven’t even started to accept the more palatable, classist, and glamorous versions of queerness, how do we address the disproportionate effects of a deadly pandemic on this community? That conversion therapy is still covertly practiced? That queerness has been weaponized to justify fascism in one of the world’s most heavily militarized and occupied regions?
Maybe one day, for my cousin, it will finally click that one of these things is not like the other, that incest is arguably much, much worse, especially when it is of no cultural relevance.
And then finally, maybe the day after that, we can include queer voices to talk about the violence -- be it geopolicial, sexualized, physical, or emotional in nature -- that continues to hinder thousands of lives.
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Karan SaxenaMore by Karan Saxena
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