Dussehra, Navratri, Golu, and Durga Puja all come around at a time when Halloween and fall decorations start appearing on the lush lawns of American front yards. For desis, the festivities become a significant season and reason to proudly affirm their South Asian identity.
But not for all – cultural and religious celebrations are not inclusive for the ostracised LGBTQ+, making their options for festivities limited, even in the US. Now, the community wants to reclaim these festivals enjoyed by more than a billion people worldwide – Hindus, who believe that the soul is not gendered.
Reclaiming the Celebrations!
This year, hundreds of queers and their families are celebrating an inclusive Dussehra to simultaneously assert their spirituality, sexuality, and desi identity, at a joyous time symbolising the victory of good over evil. Rainbow flags are taking their place in rangolis, Golu, and Durga puja decorations amidst dance and music.
The Founder and Executive Director of Desi Rainbow, the group that is organising the diaspora Dussehra celebration along with Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, Aruna Rao feels that the LGBTQ+ community should not have a binary choice between sexuality and spirituality, which leaves them on the margins.
“We are centring LGBTQ+ people within a celebration – to be at the centre, not watching from the sidelines. We want to reclaim our place and our kids' place in celebrations, which are a big part of our lives as immigrants,” she says.
Desi Rainbow has organised inclusive festivities in the last one year since its formation. This has come about after years of the desi LGBTQ+ people repeatedly sharing with Rao that "they feel like a stranger in their own community". This year, the celebrations remain virtual due to COVID-19 restrictions, but the organisation hopes to start in-person festivities later.
Desi Parents Come Together to Support Their LGBTQ+ Kids
New Jersey-based Aruna Rao strongly missed inclusive festivities and support as a parent of an LGBTQ+ child.
"When my kid came out in 2015, I was devastated in spite of being a progressive parent. There was support, but only mainstream support. It was hard to be vulnerable amongst people who didn’t know your culture."Aruna Rao, Founder and Executive Director of Desi Rainbow
She formed a network of peers who identify as LGBTQ+ and their families. “We all need a friend to listen to our concerns, reassure us and offer us a helping hand. For many desi LGBTQ folks and their families, that was not easy to find,” says Rao, who formalised Desi Rainbow Parents & Allies in October 2020.
Indian Americans are the fastest growing immigrant group in USA – rising by about 50 percent in the last decade to 4.2 million. Silicon Valley CEOs, top physicians, Washington DC power brokers – the rise of the Indian diaspora is considered an extraordinary coming-of-age story.
A majority of these privileged immigrants made it to US based on their competency and hard work. That very ambition is now driving their perseverance at not only finding the best available guidance, but also organising to create culturally sensitive resources for their children. Families are rallying in support of their young ones so they don’t have to choose between being gay and being desi.
How Coming Together is Helping Parents Navigate Their Kids' Journeys
Referring to her teenage gay son, California-based Bhavna shares with pride, “He has the strength to support me, instead of me supporting him. He is very positive and mentally strong. Our love, that’s what gives him that foundation, that somebody has his back.”
Bhavna and her husband ensured that no topic was off the table during dinner-time conversations. Sixteen-year-old Virat (name changed to protect the minor’s identity) is an outspoken, pro-women and LGBTQ+ activist. When he told them that he is gay, “Honestly, I was not fine,” recalls Bhavna.
She asked Virat, “Are you in an exploratory stage and think it is very cool?” His response – "this is a very difficult path and I would not take this by choice" – struck her and her husband as very mature. After which they immersed themselves into the quest for learning so they don’t have to hide their pride.
The Indian American couple have spent the last six months finding allies, says Bhavna, adding, “When you see other people in the same boat, what all along you were perceiving as the wrong, odd boat, hearing about the brighter side of how other couples are doing, parents with more experience, helps a lot. "I have been there and you will be fine" – is reassuring.”
Helping Their Children Walk Down the Path of Self-Acceptance
All across North America, hundreds of desi parents with queer children, like Silicon Valley-based Bhavna, have found a community, a safe space for their families to have the camaraderie they need, in the Rao's organisation.
"It is a solid representation of desi LGBTQ+ people. Their kids look happy, all blending in the spectrum community. I have been taking Virat along. I have never seen him so happy. He asked, "Mumma can I do my nails," and I said "yes beta, do what you like." My husband attends the fathers’ sessions. No self-imposed guard rails – we can be ourselves without any inhibitions."Bhavna
“It is one of the best things that could happen to the South Asian community,“ says Chicago-based Rahul, whose fifth grader daughter Mina (name changed to protect the identity of the minor) was born male. Rahul and his wife observed that that their child liked playing with dolls, wearing long hair, and nail paint when young.
In the second grade, their child declared that she identified as a girl. “We formalised that she wants to come dressed up to school as a girl and use the girls’ bathroom. Mina asked for a name change and chose one. The principal was very kind. The teachers sat with Mina and spoke to all the kids in class – that we will call you Mina and you will be a girl,” remembers Rahul.
Dealing With the Scrutiny Back in India
Mina’s family is an active part of Desi Rainbow and recently hosted a group meet at their Chicago home. They have carved an accepting circle within the "largely nosy desi community," but some family members in India have commented, “Be a little strict and enforce rules now,” says Rahul, continuing, “I understand that they have our good interests in mind. They are fearful due to a stereotypical image created in India, of the marginalised hijra community, who have no jobs, nowhere to live.”
Some of them feel fortunate to live miles away from India as that, according to them, shields their LGBTQ+ loved ones from a lot of stereotypical scrutiny and insults. However, desi families lean on each other to prepare for when they will come out to their extended family back home. Having desi allies helps in navigating family acceptance, and cultural and societal pressures.
“Kitne kitne logo ko bataoge (How many people will you tell?). They will say – "Oh, you went to US, this was expected"... That is one big worry. I don’t want people looking at him curiously, so I am postponing an India trip. My biggest focus is that my child is happy, that is half the battle won,” reiterates Bhavna.
Rejecting Regressive Ideologies: Leaps Towards Inclusivity
With a rise in Indian American numbers, desi LGBTQ+ organisations like Satrang, Trikone, Rainbow Desi, etc, who welcome desi queers in their fold, are gaining significance. US Census data shows that Indian Americans enjoy a standard of living that is roughly double that of the median American household, led by substantially higher educational attainment.
Some of these achievers, not the ones to remain ignorant and unaware, are rejecting regressive notions that being queer is shameful, and are instead standing solidly with their children, becoming their strengths, bringing along inclusive, cultural celebrations like Dussehra, Eid, Gurupurab, Diwali, Navratri, etc, wishing that their sparkle will also warm the hearts of LGBTQ+ folks back in their homeland.
(Savita Patel is a senior journalist and producer, who produced ‘Worldview India’, a weekly international affairs show, and produced ‘Across Seven Seas’, a diaspora show, both with World Report, aired on DD. She has also covered stories for Voice of America TV from California. She’s currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She tweets @SsavitaPatel.)