This year marks a lot of firsts for transgender political activists in the United States. Delaware State Senator Sarah McBride, a Democrat, became the first highest-ranking openly trans official in the country; while Dr. Rachel Levine, a former Pennsylvania health secretary and President Biden’s pick to be assistant secretary of health, stands to be the first openly transgender federal official confirmed by the Senate.
It has not been an easy road for either McBride and Levine, who like transmen and transwomen all over the world, including India, are fighting for their rightful place in civil society.
Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, reports that 1.4 million or an estimated 0.6 percent of adults identify as transgender in the United States. They are defined as people who live in a gender different from the one assigned to them at birth.
However, this may be far from exact. Jay H. Wu, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Transgender Equality, believes that this number doesn’t include people under the age of 18 and is low. “Trans people tend to face disproportionately high levels of discrimination and harassment,” Wu said. “When folks see what happens to folks like them, it can lead them to not want to come out.”
The picture presented above conforms to what is being reported about the desi transgender community in the U.S. They face numerous problems —being routinely stigmatized and isolated in the society. The most painful experience for them is not to be accepted by their families. Several activists and support groups for their families and allies are emerging in the role of mentors, extended family and community, and their efforts are highly illuminating.
Many trans people of color face the dual discrimination of race and gender. A 2008 nationwide survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and the National LGBTQ Task Force revealed that transgender and gender non-conforming people face pervasive discrimination in virtually all aspects of their lives. One of the most important findings of the study was that transgender and gender non-conforming people of color, including those who are Asian American, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander (API), face a combination of anti-transgender bias with structural and interpersonal racism, and “experience particularly devastating levels of discrimination”
Family Support and Approval
Several transgender activists admit it is painful to reconcile what their families have been taught about their sexual identity. In a March 4, 2015 blog on the South Asian Americans Leading Together or SAALT website, author and activist Aparajeeta “Sasha” Duttchoudhury writes: “LGBQ and transgender South Asians are taught that our families will never accept or acknowledge us in our entirety.”
Duttchoudhury is a leader in the South Asian Queer community and a role model to many college goers who are struggling with their gender identity. Duttchoudhury and Rukie Hartman’s 2015 book “Moving Truth(s) : Queer and Transgender Desi Writings on Family” was an eye opening autobiographical account of the struggles, 14 contributors had to go through relating with their families in coming out. In the book, each contributor makes a sincere effort for their families to understand them and start their relationship in a new light by reconciling any pain they have caused each other. It is a revealing collection of stories of the pain, suffering, struggle and redemption.
The importance of family acceptance has been highlighted in a 2012 survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality. The ‘Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey’ reveals that 43 percent of respondents maintained most of their family bonds, while 57 percent experienced significant family rejection. The survey also establishes that contrary to some stereotypes, families from racial minorities are more supportive of their transgender members than are white families. Forty-nine percent of Asian-American families judged themselves “as strong today” as they were before the transgender person came and/or transitioned compared to 45 percent of white families.
Model Minority Image Fractured
A majority of the South Asian American community is identified as ‘model minority’ and is valorized for their economic success. With a LGBTQ+ child, the family tends to treat itself as a failure in the community. Success is measured by following the heteronormative and heterosexual cultural norm and children are under pressure to conform to the expectations of the immigrant community. A deviation from the norm questions their minority status.
For parents, it challenges their immigrant dream, the intergenerational reciprocity – all the sacrifices they have made. For the child’s sexual orientation, the family tends to blame it on the child. Trans kids get the blame for the disappointment of their parents not achieving American dream. “This can make LGBTQ+ South Asian immigrants feel like they are carrying a unique burden,” Sree Sinha, co-founder of the South Asian Sexual & Mental Health Alliance (SASMHA), told Amanat Khullar in a Dec. 23, 2020 interview. Established in 2015, SASMHA is a collective of South Asian youth seeking to create dialogue, space, and resources for South Asian youth on sexual health, mental health, LGBTQ+ issues.
Log Kya Kahenge? (What Will People Say)
Sexuality is still a taboo topic and the LGBTQ+ community often faces stigmas associated with their gender and sexuality which can be very painful for both the individual and the family. It is still treated with shame and guilt, as a deviation from the norm, even though more and more people are coming to accept that it is a biological thing prevalent in every society.
Feroza Syed takes great pride in being a trans woman and is a celebrated real estate broker. Born Feroz in a Chicago-based Muslim family from Hyderabad, she has made Atlanta, Georgia her home for the last 33 years.
Her journey has not been easy.
In her talk with the Desi Rainbow Parents and Allies group on Feb. 6, Syed said when she formally came out at the age of 19 while a student at Georgia State University, “about 45 members of my biological extended family and cousins stopped talking to me. Most of them still don’t talk to me to this day. The negativity I saw when I came out really pushed me away from my culture and my family.” Syed feels disturbed by the religious and cultural discrimination in the desi community. Parents put a lot of pressure on their children to hide their queer identity, threatening them that if they do not comply to the heterosexual norms, they will commit suicide or will withhold their love.
Syed is now a successful activist, role model to many like her and is well recognized. “Now my mother takes great pride in my success, my activism, and publicity… When we transition, our families transition with us.”
Similarly, Hrishikesh ‘Hrishi’ Sathwane, a member of Pride X recounts his family’s reaction in a discussion held on Feb. 13. “My father used to emotionally pressure me, ‘your mother has high blood pressure and she will die,’” he says. Parental pressure is the hardest for the children who are financially dependent on their parents, and have to live with them and need the most support.
PrideX is a global, social for-profit organization, founded by driven Industry leaders from diverse backgrounds, joining forces to lead and progressively drive growth for the global Pride community.
In many cases, the family choses to ‘remain in the closet’ due to societal fear. Kingston Kodan, 43, whose family immigrated from India to the United States when he was 10, told Amanat Khullar that “the fear of ‘log kya kahenge?’ forces them to remain in the closet as being the family member of someone who is queer or trans for the rest of their lives.”
The Trans Community in India
The situation with the trans community in India is somewhat different than the diaspora. Many of my trans friends in India say they were abandoned by their families at a very young age and had to make a living on their own, facing sexual abuse and exploitation.
On Instagram, a young boy shared that when he revealed his sexual orientation on Feb. 6, his parents “freaked out.” For them he was the best until that day. The following day, everything changed: He heard his parents tell him, that he is “effeminate,” “not male enough,” and “an eunuch,” and not their child. There are instances when parents even threaten to commit suicide.
But Aruna Desai of Sweekar points out another reality. “In numerous instances, it is not the parents but the children (who) commit suicide,” she says. There are many cases of attempted suicide by the children as well.
Nandi, an attendee at the session organized by PrideX on Feb. 13, says it is the most painful experience for a child when a family knowingly brushes it under the carpet. “‘Log kya kahenge?’ affects the children… Love and community acceptance don’t go hand in hand.,” he says.
Religion as an Identity Marker and a Constraint
Hindu culture is shame-based and tied to the fear of social ostracism. It is different from guilt, the threat of afterlife tied to Abrahamic religions. For the Muslims it is the fear of going to hell and the punishment of the soul. “Many Muslims feel being LGBTQ is a sin, so they mistreat and alienate family members who come out,” Syed says. “Some families stop talking to their kids, cut them off, or even throw them out.” Both systems are equally punitive and are ingrained in the people who have been brought up in a culture where homophobia and transphobia are the norm.
Syed says education is the key. “Hate is rooted in fear. Fear is rooted in ignorance. We must cure ignorance if we want to make change,” she says. People need to be more educated on the history and true stances of LGBTQ folks in Islam. “Muslims for progressive values has some great workshops and events,” Syed notes.
Family comes in many shapes and forms which gives solace and provides a safe space to its members. My research with transgender people suggests that one may have very supportive parents, chosen family, a mentor, supportive friends, and the supervisor or teacher.
Ishani Duttagupta in her June 23, 2018 article “Pride & No Prejudice: Indian LGBTQ+ community in U.S. find acceptance” in The Economic Times, observes that there is more support for the desi LGBTQ + community here in the United States, especially with the active role of a network of South Asian support groups. Trikone, set up over three decades ago, its sister organization Trikone Northwest as well as others such as the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association, NYC; Satrang, LA; and Khush in D.C., are a few examples.
Rajashree Sathawane, mother of Hrishi Sathwane, in the Feb. 13 discussion with PrideX, showed her courage to support her son who came out much before the internet age. The first parent to join the San Francisco Pride parade in 2007, she talked about how many relatives moved away from her after her son came out. “I have to live with my child,” she said. “I often hear that ‘to gain something one has to lose something,’” she added.
For Desai, who supports and advocates for her gay son, Abhishek, and the entire LGBTQ+ community in Mumbai, India, says, nobody else is important except “my husband and my son. She continues: “When a child is interested in something, let him follow to excel in it. With parent’s support, they can flourish in whatever they want. Let the children choose the world.”
Many respondents say that ‘queer’ becomes an excuse for their discrimination. Sathawane recalls how when her son got married, people asked her why she let him marry a man. To which she replied: “If you follow your child’s choice of who he or she wants to marry, I did the same thing with my son.” Her son Rishi emphasizes that if parents support, it helps with the child’s self-confidence.
Groups like Sweekar and Desi Rainbow Parents and Allies are examples of parent’s activism. Formed in 2016, Sweekar is a Mumbai-based group formed by the parents of Indian LGBTQ+ children with the aim of supporting each other to fully accept one’s child.
Similarly, Desi Rainbow Parents and Allies was conceived in 2017 for South Asian families and friends of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning individuals to learn about LGBTQ+ issues, find community with one another and learn how to better support their loved ones. They organize zoom support group meetings and talks for parents and family, as well as separate ones for the allies.
Choice of Career
My discussions with parents establish that their acceptance and support provides not only academic success and professional achievement of the LGBTQ+ community, but promotes their leadership role in community activism. Trans communities are politically active.
For example, Duttchoudhury wants to be a social worker after she completes her master’s in social work. “I still wonder if my parents are proud of me,” they say, adding that they are honored to be role models for people like them.
Sathawane notes that for parents to support their children, they will be successful, and their “confidence will grow.” Noting that these children are already facing challenges, she urged the society to “understand and support.”
Studies conducted in the U.S. as well as in India reveal that economic independence remains the key issue for the LGBTQ+ community. Many transgender people have taken up advocacy in colleges and universities to reach out to people in need and strengthen the visibility of the South Asian American trans community.
Syed points out that in South Asian culture, the LGBTQ+ people don’t have enough emphasis on therapy, with no outlet for men or women to express themselves or look for help or share information because of shame and guilt. “It was hard for my mother to call people and get help or have someone to talk to,” she says. “Reaching out to people in a community is difficult when you’re already being shamed for having an LGBTQ child.”
These activists would like to see more visibility for the trans people in society. As of the 2020 election, there are more than 375,000 trans people who do not have IDs that show either their correct name or gender marker or both, according to an analysis by the Williams Institute. At the same time, around 260,000 trans voters live in a voter ID state, where they could be disenfranchised for lacking proper identification. One has to show a certificate of surgery in order to vote.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reports that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in America are still the target of discrimination in society. Many state legislatures advance bills to restrict transgender people, limit their protections, and use religion to discriminate against them. “These measures target transgender and non binary people for discrimination, such as by barring or criminalizing healthcare for transgender youth, barring access to the use of appropriate facilities like restrooms… or making it more difficult for trans people to get identification documents with their name and gender” ACLU said.
When asked about things you can do to help, Syed says, “Call your state legislature and fight against discrimination, support local trans led organizations, continue the conversation and educate others, lead with love.”
(Top photo: Kalki Subramaniam, a transgender rights activist, artist and founder of the Sahodari Foundation in India. Credit: X. Alice Priya)
Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, U.K. Her current research interests include diaspora studies, South Asian religions, and immigrant women’s identity making in the diaspora in California. In 2017-18 she received a Fulbright scholarship for field work in India. Dr. Pandey is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Her 2018 award-winning documentary “Road to Zuni,” dealt with the importance of oral traditions among Native Americans.