Sonali (Alyy) Patel is the Executive Director of the Queer South Asian Women’s Network, author of “Don’t Tell My Parents: Queer Diasporic Truths,” and a PhD Student in Sociology at the University of British Columbia.
The start of December marks an exhilarating yet anxiety-ridden time of year. As a Queer South Asian woman who is not out to my family, there are three things that I can expect this month. First, at least one person — if not more — will offer unsolicited advice to come out to my family and insist that my parents will love me anyway (fun fact: they will not). Second, my family will consistently remind me that I need to find a nice boy to marry. They will also probably ask me why my obviously masculine-presenting girlfriend has not found a man yet. Out of love and concern, of course. And third, somebody will make the cringe "see you next year" Dad joke on December 31.
Much to everybody's surprise, I'm not mad that my family cannot accept me. I understand. However, I am deeply disappointed by how many people feel compelled to pressure me to come out without understanding the culturally unique consequences of doing so. And this isn't an isolated experience. For a recent research study, I interviewed forty queer South Asian women across Canada about their experiences of navigating the closet and found a very consistent narrative.
Here is what they told me:
Queer South Asian women in Canada face conflicting cultural expectations. On one hand, there are expectations from one's ethnic community to remain closeted. Since an individual’s actions reflect the collective integrity of the family unit in South Asian culture, coming out as non-heterosexual threatens to damage the entire family’s reputation. This means it will incite merciless gossip and risk parental ties with their extended relatives. To protect their family from this pain, Queer South Asian women must remain closeted.
On the other hand, there are expectations from the 2SLGBTQIA+ community to come out and leave behind any family members who do not accept their sexuality. This set of expectations fails to consider the culturally unique consequences and barriers that impede the ability of queer South Asian to do so. Nevertheless, the latter is associated with a notion of "living your truth," while the former is seen as living a lie. However, for many queer South Asian women, being in the closet is how they live their truth. It allows them to safely engage in queer spaces and relationships and family and ethnic community without giving up one for the other.
Despite the fact that being in the closet allows queer South Asian women to embrace both their sexual and ethnic identities, LGBTQ+ people and allies often recommend severing ties with unaccepting family members. While they may have good intentions for doing so, it constitutes a form of micro-aggressive violence — and more concerningly, it is deeply exhausting for queer South Asian women to experience regularly.
Ambika (a pseudonym) described her experience of being micro-aggressed by her white queer colleague at a 2SLGBTQIA+ organization:
“[My co-worker] in training basically said like, ‘maybe you just don’t try hard enough to be out. You need to be more overtly out.’ ... They basically pinned it on me and were like, ‘It’s on you if [family] don’t get it and screw them.’ And I was like, ... that’s not the way family works – not the way I was raised, at least. It was weird to get that pushback from a co-worker to be like, ‘you’re not out enough.’ And I was like yeah, I’m trying, trust me, but this is as out as I will be.”
For many queer South Asian women, coming out to parents is not as simple as telling them and then severing ties if they are unaccepting. Durga (a pseudonym) explained to me how deviating from expectations of being in the closet leads to violence:
“In South Asian families, if your parents don't accept your sexuality, then they won't necessarily kick you out or cut off ties either because that would incite gossip. … So then, family rejection literally means violence. … If they don't like that you're gay, they will be violent and abusive until you do what they say.”
It is an unfortunate reality that many queer South Asian women in Canada whose parents suspect or learn of their queerness become subjected to emotional, verbal, physical and financial abuse. The most prevalent form is emotional violence, which includes guilt-inducing comments, such as, "We did so much for you; how could you do this to us?"; "You are so selfish, you're not thinking about anyone else"; "Don't come to our funeral"; and "Do you want us to die?," as well as threats to commit suicide if their child continues to be queer, which was commonly said by South Asian mothers.
The women I spoke to also described experiences of physical violence, such as slapping, hitting and choking, which were inflicted in an attempt to repress queer tendencies.
These are a few of the consequences that may arise from coming out in South Asian families. I do not intend to suggest that all South Asian families are violent and/or unaccepting of their queer children. In fact, there are several South Asian families that accept and unconditionally love their 2SLGBTQIA+ children. For example, Nidhi Shukla, Lavina and Anjali Chakra to name a few. However, the violence is also a reality for many.
The fact that queer South Asian women’s experiences are severely underrepresented in media, research and communities allows micro-aggressions against them to continue, and even become normalized. Hence, many do not see how they are perpetuating harm by telling queer South Asians to come out to their parents, when in fact, coming out can be deeply dangerous.
As we prepare to see our families this holiday season, I have some tips for engaging with your 2SLGBTQIA+ peers:
- Don't ask your queer peers if they are out to their families.
- Don't pressure your queer peers to come out.
- Don't pressure your queer peers to cut off ties with unaccepting family members.
The simple solution here might be to drink your eggnog and mind your own business. But in all seriousness, being queer and South Asian is hard enough as it is. It would be a holiday wish come true if our peers could support those of us who want to exist as queer people without coming out to our parents.
If you, or a gender-marginalized 2SLGBTQIA+ South Asian person you know, are seeking chosen family this holiday season, I recommend checking out the virtual events hosted by the Queer South Asian Women’s Network.
Author's Note: The inability of many parents to accept their queer children, as well as the various forms of family violence, are a product of the colonial erasure of queerness in South Asian culture.
This is an opinion letter. It does not reflect the opinions of The Ubyssey as a whole. You can submit an opinion at ubyssey.ca/pages/submit-an-opinion.