There’s a scene in the classic 2003 Gurinder Chadha film Bend It Like Beckham, where the main character Jess, a young South Asian girl, is speaking to her mate Tony about her crush on Joe, the dreamy soccer coach. This is when Tony makes the confession to Jess that he too has a crush…on David Beckham. Watching this interaction play out, I realized that I had never actually seen a gay South Asian before, onscreen or in real life for that matter. In a community that puts appearances and status above all else, and where the latest scandal is gossiped about by a cadre of intimidating “Aunties” poised and ready to pounce on exposing your shortcomings in love and life like a pack of wild animals, being gay was simply not talked about or even recognized as anything but shameful in Indian society. If anyone in my community was queer, I had not encountered them. So one can imagine how it felt being a closeted gay South Asian dude at the time. It was like I was the only one of my species. A lost, lonely 22-year-old with no sense of self whatsoever. Some weird anomaly created by a glitch in the queer Matrix, but nowhere near as cool as Keanu Reeves (and zero kung-fu skills). I was fucked.
So what do we do when we don’t see ourselves represented in our community? We turn to media right? This was 2003. There was no Instagram or TikTok. There were no “influencers.” Hell, social media was barely a thing, so movies, TV shows and magazines were pretty much the only game in town. Needless to say I didn’t see myself represented anywhere (except in the mirror sadly singing “Reflection” by Christina Aguilera to myself). I mean, of course there were Hindi films from the motherland, but there were literally no queer characters. And of course there were queer characters in American TV and films, but none I saw were Brown, and usually they all fell within tragic gay tropes that have plagued TV and films for years (hello Bury Your Gays). It’s like I was too gay for Bollywood, and too Brown for Hollywood. There wasn’t a space where I truly felt like I fit in. If representation empowers us to live proudly and be our authentic selves, then it was looking as if I was never going to come out of the closet.
Luckily for me, something shifted two years later. Although they weren’t South Asian, there seemed to be an influx of men in the media space that were normalizing simply being gay. Actors like Neil Patrick Harris and T.R. Knight, even failed astronaut and former frosted-tip boy-bander Lance Bass. Seeing these seemingly well adjusted and successful gay dudes on TV and in magazines, coupled with my own personal transformation happening, with a screening of Brokeback Mountain at the local theater thrown in, turned out to be the catalyst to finally come to terms with the fact that I was gay, and that was ok. In fact, it was better than ok, and I was ready to tell the world. It was nerve-wracking as hell, but mostly exhilarating and liberating. I started with my best friend, and it snowballed into a three-week “coming out extravaganza,” complete with celebratory gay bar hopping and greeting cards (Hallmark wasn’t quite woke enough yet to make a “I’m proud of you for coming out” card so I had to settle for one with male strippers on the front meant for older women. Not surprisingly, it still worked).
It was 2005, and MySpace and Facebook had quickly swept into the cultural zeitgeist to those of us in our teens and 20s. For me, it turned into an outlet to express myself and share parts of my life with the world (or in this case my friends list). I had even started a blog on MySpace (fuck I’m old) that I thought was oh so cool. So once I came out, I came ALL THE WAY OUT. I decided I wasn’t going to hide any parts of myself, but rather share who I was and my life experiences with everyone that cared to read my blog posts, or status updates on my “wall” (anyone remember those?). If I was the only gay South Asian in the world (obviously I wasn’t), then I was going to be the loudest and proudest. I wanted to not only do my part to normalize being gay, but I wanted others that were struggling to know that it was ok to be yourself. Your beautiful, messy, queer-as-fuck self.
I posted about dating. I posted about gay sex. I posted pics with the boy I was dating. All things that seem pretty innocuous these days, but back then it caused a bit of stir in my local South Asian community. After dodging the packs of bloodthirsty aunties at Indian weddings I was forced to attend with my family, I would run into Desi girls I had grown up with and be confronted with comments like “So I’ve been following you on Facebook (dot dot dot)”. And in my head I’d be thinking, “Oh so this is your bitchy, passive aggressive way of telling me you know I’m gay right?” But instead I’d sip my sparkling pink wine and just reply with, “Oh good for you,” and wait for the actual acknowledgement of my queerness that never came out of their mouths. I forced myself to don a steely exterior and a IDGAF attitude in these situations, but I must admit that part of me felt quite isolated.
It wasn’t until I traveled to NYC for work in 2009 and met DJ Rekha, a trailblazing queer South Asian, that I had this realization that there were others out there like me. I was surrounded by other gay Indians at her performances. I got invited to queer parties with names like Desilicious that had Indian Drag Queens and…OMG Brown lesbians! (I love lesbians.) It was unreal. I was like a queer Brown Harry Potter that had stumbled into the Drag Race India version of Hogwarts. It was amazing. But still this all felt very hidden. Like another world. And that wasn’t enough for me. It still isn’t.
Today, things are a bit different and progress has been made, but in many ways they’re still the same. Social media has helped break down so many barriers and stigmas for the LGBTQ community, yet countless members of our community still live in fear of being their authentic selves for any number of reasons, including being ostracized, losing employment, losing housing, or even losing their life. Being gay, lesbian, bi or trans is still treated like a dirty little secret in many South Asian households and families. You can go on Instagram and TikTok and find queer South Asians, but we’re still very few and far between. Which is why I feel it is so important for those of us that are out to our families and friends and our community to live as loudly and proudly as possible. There is so much work to be done, but we must shine our lights brightly so that our brothers and sisters living in darkness can find the path forward. I realize some will never get there, and that’s ok. But knowing how isolating and lonely it can feel to live in fear and in the closet pushes me to always be myself, share my story, post that pic, and live my life as boldly and brashly as possible. It’s not easy. I get it. But if it helps just one more person love themself enough to find the courage to come out, or even just survive one more day, then that’s enough for me.
Published on January 30, 2023