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Feature
By Ankita Rao

South Asian Lesbians Speak Out

When Sivagami Subbaraman came out, she was not an emotional teenager or a single woman in the city. She was well-educated, married to a good man and starting a successful career in academia—living the life her parents had planned for a traditionally-raised Tamilian daughter.

But Subbaraman, raised under caste and creed in India, didn’t settle for a life without discovery. Though she was in love with her husband, she knew she was attracted to women. She knew she had to come to grips with a history of child abuse and incest. And she appreciated that her new life in America gave her enough distance to understand her background and identity.

At women’s studies conferences, Subbaraman got a taste of America’s lesbian community, which she perceived at the time as a group of white women dressed mostly in flannel and jeans.

“I didn’t see myself there,” she recalls.

Her idea of sensual was different: a woman in a sari, long hair—the quintessentially beautiful Indian woman.

Thirty years later, Subbaraman is the director of the LGBQT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and transgender) Resource Center at Georgetown University, and she is the first South Asian to become the director of a gender and sexuality issues program.


Sivagami Subbaraman

“The whole process of coming [out] as a single woman—that process of immigration—politicizes you,” she says. “We have to struggle that much harder.”

A member of KhushDC, a gay South Asian group in Washington, DC, she is no longer isolated in her identity, but she knows there is still a long way to go. Only a handful of states recognize same-sex marriages, and discrimination persists in the workplace, school and religious institutions, despite increased awareness.

Luckily, women across the country like Subbaraman have dedicated their voices to working for a chance to confirm their equality in government and society and pave the way for the next generation.

And the world will have to listen.


Sapna Pandya

Sapna Pandya’s Story
For the past three decades, August 15th has marked a day in New York when Bollywood music blares down Lexington Avenue and the Empire State Building glows green, orange and white. This is the India Day Parade, honoring India’s independence in 1947 and the roots Indians have cultivated in America.

The event has been less than empowering for gay Indians. When the South Asian Lesbian & Gay Association (SALGA) of New York City applied to participate in the parade, they received no response.

“I don’t want to say they were rejected, but they completely ignored it,” says Sapna Pandya, a DC resident and activist.

SALGA tried to call and reapply to no avail. They responded by protesting at the parade, holding up posters saying “Mummyji, I’m gay” or “Gay Proud Indian”. An older Indian man stopped to ask, “Aren’t you legal in Delhi now too? Why can’t you march here?”

Recent laws in Nepal and India, such as “377”, allow sex between men and grant equal rights to hijra or eunuchs. In fact, American-born Pandya says it was easier to be “out” in India than in South Asian communities in America.

While immigrants like Subbaraman came out across the ocean from her parents, Pandya said the next generation of South Asians, born in the U.S., has a harder time accepting their gay identities. The immigrants could recreate themselves, but their sons and daughters struggle with the conservative nature of upper class life and traditional values.

“The South Asian community was very straight, and the gay community was very white,” she says.

When Pandya moved to Mumbai for public health work, she connected with other South Asian lesbians at ladies’ nights and meet-ups. Her colleague, a fellow lesbian, helped introduce her to a LGBTQ community. She came back to America recharged.

Pandya’s own family, starting with a supportive sister, grew accustomed to her choices and lifestyle. Her parents were surprised that their daughter, who for years had brought home boyfriends, was anything but heterosexual. But in time they became “slowly more and more amazing,” meeting her partner and trying to understand their connection.

Pandya and her partner were engaged earlier this year, and her family gave her their support.


Sapna and her partner, Sahar on a recent visit to Luray Caverns


Vega Subramaniam and Mala Nagarajan

Vega Subramaniam and Mala Nagarajan’s Story
Vega Subramaniam and Mala Nagarajan have been together for 12 years. Their devotion is apparent in the way they order coffee, fill in each other’s memories and speak of their struggle, both separate and united.

The road, although not always clear or peaceful, led to activism for South Asian gay rights—a decision that Subramaniam says is “directly related to my survival.”

When she met Nagarajan in Washington State, Subramaniam was teaching sociology and dating a man who lived in San Francisco for six years. Eager to connect with South Asians in a non-diverse location, she logged into Saw-net, a South Asian listserve, where she had her first online communication with Nagarajan.

Online South Asian communities played a role in Subbaraman and Pandya’s stories as well. Both of them reached out through Desi Dikes, a Yahoo internet space for women from India, Bangladesh and other South Asian origins to speak about sexuality and their personal stories.

“I didn’t think I could be Indian and queer,” Subramaniam says.

Nagarajan came out to Subramaniam in their first conversation, but they remained friends until both of their other relationships started to fall apart. Even then, they only agreed to have a summer fling.

“It was the summer fling that lasted a lifetime,” Subramaniam says.

They were married in 2002. Two years later, a marriage lawsuit cast them in the spotlight. Subramaniam and Nagarajan were among the six couples in Washington state that were denied marriage licenses by King County, represented by the Northwest Women’s Law Center and Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund.

Their names were splashed across newspapers in America and India. Any question of coming out to family and the community was erased when the publicity from the case hit the media.

“I thought, ‘Oh shit, my mom’s going to kill me’,” Subramaniam says.

Eventually, the frenzy subsided, but their relationship with their parents remained unsteady. Both had one parent who accepted their choices—in Nagarajan’s case, her mother, and in Subramaniam’s, her father.

“I don’t think our parents realized how deeply it hurts when they aren’t accepting,” Nagarajan says.

Nagarajan and Subramaniam moved across the country to Washington, D.C., where both of their families lived, to support their aging parents. Subramaniam became the Director of Programs and Partnerships at South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), and Nagarajan got involved with the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA).

The gesture of shifting their lives for their parents spoke volumes.

“We’re killing them with kindness,” Subramaniam jokes. “They can’t have resentment when they watch us clean their house.”



Vega Subramaniam and Mala Nagarajan

Nagarajan remembers the first time Subramaniam’s mother looked her in the eye and called her “ma”, a term of endearment in Tamil. In that one word, the hope of tolerance, if not acceptance, was born.

_______________________________

Armed with their love and a sense of responsibility, women like Pandya, Subbaraman, Subramaniam and Nagarajan continue to be ambassadors for the South Asian gay community.

With dark childhoods, harsh words and family struggles in their past, they commit their time for the next generation—a generation they hope will have an opportunity to discover themselves without the boundaries of ignorance.

The process will take time, Subramaniam says. The South Asian community and the gay community need to share its stories, change its dialogue and learn how to be allies. But they know the importance of a safe space, and their dedication is unwavering.

“We have a privilege,” Nagarajan says. “We didn’t necessarily ask for it, but we feel an obligation to break down the barriers.”

LGBQT Organizations in the U.S.
Satrang: Southern California's South Asian LGBTQ group was formed in1997 as a volunteer organization in Los Angeles. Satrang provides peer counseling, HIV/AIDS efforts, meet-ups and outreach for LA and surrounding areas. With over 300,000 South Asians in the area, Satrang estimates that there are 30,000 South Asian LGBTQs in the community.

KhushDC: Serving Washington, DC's South Asian LGBTQ community since 1994, KhushDC incorporates social life, activism and awareness in its mission. KhushDC events include a trademark happy hour, "Chutney Saturdays" and "Chat n' Chai" discussions. With the formation of KhushDC-Girls, the organization provides a political voice and support group for LGBTQ women as well.

SALGA-NYC: The Big Apple's organization has been a safe space for South Asian LGBTQs for over ten years. With a monthly gathering and a hotline, SALGA seeks to alleviate discrimination and oppression for sexual minorities. Socials and activism are all part of the group's effort to support Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and other South Asians in the NYC area.

Trikone: San Francisco's South Asian LGBTQ organization was the first
organization to serve this group. An award-winning magazine, newsletters and socials are part of Trikone's widespread outreach and wealth of resources. With support for women, teenagers and parents in the community, Trikone celebrates South Asian culture and LGBTQ pride to empower the community.

Trikone-Chicago: The Midwest's space for South Asian LGBTQs has support the community since 2008. The fledgling group hosts events at campuses, coffee shops and bars to promote political, social and educational awareness. Supported by the Queeristan blog and SA LGBTQ group Khuli Zabaan, Trikone-Chicago is the newest go-to for the queer Desi community.

Trikone-Northwest: Another offshoot of the Trikone family, the organization serves the Pacific Northwest, based in Seattle. With events like a BollyQ party and pride potlucks, Trikone-NorthWest supports a growing South Asian LGBTQ community.




Ankita Rao is a freelance writer, yoga enthusiast and Indian food lover based in Washington D.C.

 


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