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Shame Undone

Opinion | October 15, 2019

I applied to Tufts at 18 years-old because I was excited by the prospect of attending “one of the top LGBTQ campuses” in the country, an honor that the institution is constantly touting in its promotional materials and on its website. But within my first week at Tufts, I realized that I felt othered by the queer conversation and community that surrounded me. 

I was intimidated by the dexterity with which my peers were able to talk about their sexuality and gender, as if there was an entire wealth of knowledge that I had missed, even though I was grappling with the same questions at the time. Conversations would seamlessly transition from a complaint about a French professor assigning a paper and an exam in the same week to whether polyamory was typical of a queer experience, and I felt embarrassed that I was too uncomfortable to participate.

Now, reflecting back on this as a junior (still deeply closeted to my South Asian community back home, open only to close friends at Tufts), I realize that it wasn’t everyone. It was my White peers who could comfortably speak loudly, while I could not. This is neither novel nor specific to Tufts; White privilege dominates these conversations within LGBTQ communities beyond our institution. There is still a lot of shame I experience in trying to talk about my own sexuality, pleasure, and gender (both separate and intersecting), and it is difficult to disentangle where it is coming from. 

To unpack this would be a vast undertaking, so I’ve chosen instead to focus on the things that have helped me.

I want to start with the poet Alok Vaid Menon, a trans artist, poet, and activist. My South Asian queer friends and I are constantly referring to the Instagram captions of their posts, which  swiftly bring us both comfort and knowledge. As I parse through my own ideas of gender and whether or not I am gender non-conforming, the best post of theirs that has helped me is one in which they write, “being non-binary is not new. this rhetoric of new ‘gender ideology’ taking over is White fragility. these are racist narratives that deliberately conceal the lived reality of gender variant BiPoC. [Black, Indigenous, People of Color]” They go on to speak about the specific racialized systems in place that “erase gender variant peoples,” which is what often precludes the idea that non-binary people of color do not exist.

When I read this caption, it felt like a deep fog had been lifted—the beginning of shame coming undone. It is a reminder that gender non-conforming people have existed in the South Asian context (and beyond) since precolonial times. Seeing this in my peoples’ history has been deeply cathartic. The Instagram account @southasianarchive, curated by the artist and curator Sanam Sindhi, also frequently posts photos of India’s trans and hijra communities in an effort to represent South Asian beauty accurately. Though there are no extensive captions accompanying the photos, the photos and their quality speak for themselves. They perform a significant task in making me feel like these gender expressions are, in fact, art, even if they historically have not been viewed as such. 

Representations of South Asian sexuality on the internet—not to be conflated with representations of gender—have also been formative in my view of myself. The photography account @catharhear, based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, consistently represents South Asian and Southeast Asian sexuality. One post of a South Asian couple embracing each other in a car, both wearing South Asian prints, is particularly breathtaking; it’s a glimpse into an intimate moment. It is so significant for me to see a photograph like this casually appear on my screen because it normalizes and glorifies the love that is being exchanged. It is not something to hide, nor something to shy away from, and the prints that both folks are wearing normalizes this kind of affection in a South Asian context. 

Other artists like Raveena Aurora and Diaspoura bring South Asian sexuality and queerness into their music and audiovisual work. Raveena’sTemptation” features her alongside a Black femme artist. The song and video allude to unspoken feelings for a woman, which is not only beautiful, but also the first time I’ve seen a South Asian person openly make art about being queer. 

Seeing South Asian people engage in desire with joy and celebration has been deeply transformative for me. The conversations that stem from consuming media in this way allow me to see myself in a much larger context than what is and is not talked about amongst my peers at Tufts. This media has enabled the realization that South Asian queer folks are beginning to have these conversations around the world, even if I’m only having these discussions in person with the five or six people sitting in my kitchen.

Much of my lack of knowledge before finding these sources can be attributed to my upbringing, where I didn’t speak of such things as openly as I’ve been able to with my friends at Tufts. But I’d be remiss to paint my upbringing as the sole cause of supposed repression, as if South Asian culture doesn’t have its whole wealth of knowledge, practice, and approach to these topics that are different from the approach many White folks take at Tufts. 

The best gift that Tufts has given me has been my friendships with Black and Brown queer people. These relationships have sustained me and pointed me to a lot of resources, mainly on Instagram, that have eased my processes of learning and unlearning. Stumbling upon captions, music, and art midday when I’m supposed to be doing something else, and then talking about it later with my friends has been the most significant process of healing at this institution.  I realize that a lot of the otherness I’ve experienced comes from the inherent Whiteness that surrounds these conversations. But the queer freedom that folks experience at Tufts cannot be said of all places. 

These resources have been the first step in viewing myself in the overwhelming narrative of queerness as a solely White identity. I am unsure of the structural upheavals it would take to make every non-White queer person at Tufts comfortable in joining conversations about queerness and gender, nor do I feel this should be my task alone. These conversations do not center us in the first place, so I’ve opted to look elsewhere: in the comments of an @alokvaidmenon post, in the grainy photographic quality of @brownarchives, and around a kitchen table to discuss it all. I put forth instead the idea that queer imaginaries rest outside of the White WGSS major that loudly talks about how “stripes are a gay thing for everyone,” and for me, these imaginaries have started here.