OPINION: We need more South Asian queer stories and voices

by Shivani Dave | Unaffiliated
Thursday, 18 August 2022 08:00 GMT

Decoractions for the Manchester Pride festival are pictured in Manchester, Britain August 25, 2019. REUTERS/Peter Powell

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Shivani Dave reflects on why there needs to be more positive LGBTQ+ representation in the South Asian community

Shivani Dave is a freelance journalist and broadcaster at Openly and Virgin Radio

Growing up I never thought Brown people could be LGBTQ+. That’s an absolutely ridiculous thought, but when I was younger, it made total sense. 

I’d never seen anyone from my ethnic background who was also part of the LGBTQ+ community. 

As we are approaching the end of the annual South Asian Heritage Month, I hope more space is created for LGBTQ+ South Asian people. 

The UK government shows that South Asian people in England and Wales account for 7.5% of the population – or about one in every 13 people, making us the largest ethnic minority in Britain. 

We are a vast community, comprising people originating from a Smörgåsbord of cultures, traditions, languages, religions and nationalities. The South Asian community in the UK has members with heritage from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, The Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. 

Despite this incredible diversity and massive population size, there are so few queer stories for us to look up to and see ourselves reflected in. 

The closest thing to representation I had access to came in the form of the long history of Bollywood making homosexuality a punch line. 

Or in the 2002 film, “Bend It Like Beckham”, which was doing a lot of heavy lifting with two examples. One, when Tony (played by Ameet Chana) looks like he wants the world to swallow him up when he tells his best friend, Jess (played by Parminder Nagra) that he is gay. 

And the second, when Jess (Parminder Nagra) ferociously denies she is a lesbian, disgusted at the suggestion. 

The latter has actually provided a younger version of myself with perfect representation. This sort of vicious denial of homosexuality was frequent in my youth when everyone else seemed to see my queerness coming a mile away. 

The lack of positive LGBTQ+ representation in the South Asian community made me susceptible to believe coming out would be the worst thing I could do. 

I thought I would lose my friends and lose my family. So I lied – to everyone around me and to myself.

While there is very little research looking at the mental health outcomes of South Asian LGBTQ+ people, there are studies which show that LGBTQ+ people overall have higher rates of mental health problems than their straight counterparts.

And that some BAME groups have higher rates of mental health problems than their white counterparts.

None of this is aided by the compound effects of racism in gay spaces and fears of homophobia in South Asian spaces. 

It was only when I embraced my cultural identity, sexuality and gender that I realised how wrong my assumptions were. 

LGBTQ+ acceptance in South Asian culture is still not the default but not knowing it is a possibility forced me to hide who I am for years. 

Since coming out, I have had mixed experiences in queer or South Asian spaces, but I have only become closer to the important members of my family.

Positive experiences of being queer and South Asian have been a game changer for me and, apparently, for others who have reached out to me via social media. 

Total strangers have opened up to me, sharing parts of their identity they had never shared with anyone else while telling me they had never knowingly spoken to another queer and Brown person before. 

It is heart-breaking to receive these messages, I remember that feeling of isolation. 

Heart-breaking, but it also lights a fire in me to fight to change the poor representation of my community and show the Brown queer joy. 

Openly is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation dedicated to impartial coverage of LGBT+ issues from around the world.

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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