Trying to Speak and Live

The Construction of South Asian Lesbian and Gay Identities
Nayan Shah

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Silenced in both South Asian patriarchal societies and in white queer communities in North America and Europe, South Asian gays and lesbians have had to invent themselves, often with new words and names of identification. We've appropriated khush, which means happy, and some have reconfigured it to mean gay, while others have defined it as ecstatic pleasure.

A lesbian collective in the United States used the Sanskrit word anomika, meaning nameless, to address the lack of names in South Asian languages for relationships between two women. A new lesbian collective chose shamakami, which in Bengali means desiring one's equal.

A South African graduate student in New York writes of the alienation and fear of rejection he feels from his family. "I'm an outsider, an outcast in my own natural community, a hidden, silenced, non-person. To participate in the life of my family, I bury my sexuality, my politics, my anger as deeply as possible. I suspect there's a secret dread in my family that I might ultimately shame them horribly." He fears that the support and affirmation he receives from his family may disappear once he reveals his sexual identity. This dependence on family and South Asian communities for affirmation has paralyzed many gays and lesbians in South Asian immigrant communities. Members of Khush in Toronto have discovered that, "The greatest obstacle to our members coming out is a fear of losing our ties to our families and communities. We are a people whose sense of identity is constructed in a very large part by these institutions." I think here is where it's obvious how race, to me, structures the fact that there are very few safe havens.

One woman wrote in Shamakami, "I know not any word for myself/but khush/and even that is a mocking translation/I cannot envision living in India/preserving my 'American' individualism/loving a woman/building a home with her/defying family, friends/ignoring disapproval, silence/and still speaking, still fighting/to prevent silence." Trying to speak and live, we confront the contradictions of our identities head on. South Asian heterosexists have often denied the authenticity of queer identitified South Asians by labelling homosexual relationships as 'a white disease,' insinuatingthat our presence in North America or Britain has "contaminated our minds and desires." These heterosexists attempt to use the politics of race to condemn lesbians and gay men. They perceive queer identities as a threat to the cultural integrity of South Asian immigrant communities. Ironically, these heterosexists unquestioningly accept the historically western notion that heterosexuality is natural, normal, and biologically correct, and that homosexuality is unnatural and perverse, to buttress their position.

In an attempt to resolve the conflict between national racial identity and sexual identity, several South Asian queers have searched for "our very own gay tradition." Shivananda Khan states that sex between those of the same gender is discussed in many Hindu texts and sex manuals. Homosexuality was also depicted in religious statues. And Subodh Mukherjee of Calcutta has explored the descriptions of tantric initiation rites, Hindu festivals and sex which celebrate homosexual acts. The descriptions of sodomy in the Kama Sutra...and references to women loving women in the Mahabharata have been used to establish that there is a gay tradition for Indians. Giti Thadani, a lesbian living in Delhi, has also embarked on an archeological project which substantiates Shevanan's claims. She interprets the texts such as the Rig Veda and sculptures which depict sexual acts between women as revelations of a feminine world prior to 1500 BC where sexuality was based on pleasure and fertility, but not on the practice of progeny or identifying children with the father. That's her way of saying 'patriarchy.' Giti's analysis begs the question, "So whatever happened to the Vedic Dyke?" Giti argues that this world was suppressed by the emerging dominance of patriarchy and its vestiges were systematically destroyed since the Aryan invasions. And so here we have a sense that the Vedic Dyke existed and then she disappeared.

These new histories reconstruct and revise the master narratives of the past which have sought to erase differences and ignore contested values. The alternative visions that we can create can empower us to reclaim and remake both our present world and the understanding of these historical contexts that shaped it. But there's a danger if there's a refusal on our part to question and problematize these very strategic narratives that we use, these new histories. And this is precisely what Shivananda does when he interprets Giti Thadani's work as proof that same sex relationships were socially acceptable several thousand years ago in some parts of South Asia. The presumption here is that sexuality is a definable and universal activity. It ignores a variety of cultural patterns and meanings. How do we know that a representation of two women embracing meant sex for the historical actors of the time? And even if they did refer to it as sex, does sex have the same meaning as it does for us today? How does one go about proving that some social practices are acceptable and highly esteemed? What kind of evidence does one need to make these kinds of claims?

The representation of physical acts does not necessarily reflect social acceptance. I think about the fact that it could mean the exact opposite. And so I think it's very important to understand the context, the map of social reality of the time. We can begin by reading legal texts, religious documents, court texts, and even the placement of sculptures within architectural complexes. These texts, of course, are usually prescriptive; they provide ideals. They cannot be used to understand attitudes, actual behaviour or motives. We can use these texts and materials to speculate about how people lived and thought. Perhaps, though, the only people we will know anything about are the elite men who wrote and were written about, who endowed temples and who designed law.

And as we do that, we also have to question the people that are writing about these things because Indian history has been very much a site of Orientalism, ancient Indian history in particular. There are certain political agendas at stake in making certain claims that have been made about Indian history and the Indian past. Orientalist scholars have presumed that India was more primitive, sensual and eroticized than the repressed, civilized Western Europe.

While the project of reclaiming and reconstructing the past is critical for present political and cultural struggles, let us not read too much of'us'today into the past. South Asian lesbians and gay men are present now. On that alone, we demand acknowledgement and acceptance.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
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Nayan Shah
Nayan Shah is a queer activist and writer in San Fransisco.
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