- She had endured sexual abuse, rape, racism, and transphobia. That did not deter her from founding Parivar Bay Area, an organization that serves and celebrates Trans and Queer South Asian communities in India and the U.S.
Since 1999, June is celebrated as L.G.B.T.Q.+ Pride Month to affirm people’s different identities and celebrate their culture and community. In their suffering, denial of their identity, and freedom of expression, the Pride Month is a reminder of the Queer resilience to demonstrate their solidarity and assert their humanity. In his New York Times column recently, “My journey to Pride,” Charles M. Blow writes that Pride Month “presents a concentrated opportunity to be seen, in jubilation and triumph, to recognize the struggles, commemorate the fallen, and to honor the progress.”
Against this background, here’s the story of 41-year-old Anjali Rimi, a desi transgender activist from Oakland, known for her LGBTQ activism in the United States and India. She calls herself a proud South Asian woman, a successful corporate executive, investor, and entrepreneur who is not afraid to share her trans experience. She is the founding president of Parivar Bay Area, a nonprofit established in 2018. For Rimi, it is a movement to fight the injustice that people of color are subjected to in a white-dominated, patriarchal, and heterosexual society.
Rimi was born in a lower-middle-class family in Hyderabad — her father was raised in Odisha and Bengal, and her mother is from erstwhile Andhra Pradesh. Rimi realized her feminine self, trapped in a male body. She knew that she was different from her male siblings and peers from a very young age. “I did not fit the mold of a male child, the prestige of the family.” She took up a traditionally feminine role at home — did most of the cooking while her mother worked. As a result, she was not included in family events and discriminated against at home.
Rimi also suffered sexual abuse, rape, and physical assault at the hands of peers at school and neighbors. By age 11, she was sexually abused at least three times by three different people in school and neighborhood. “At 14, I was sexually assaulted, and in the same year, I was raped twice. My family had to go through shame, humiliation and we lost everything overnight,” she says. The family had to move, and her dad had to leave his job. Her family held her responsible.
Rimi knew that education was the key to gaining acceptance by her family and community. She excelled in school to prove her worth. Rimi’s father did not even acknowledge her transgender identity. Her mother was supportive but feared that as a transgender person she might end up as a sex worker.
She recalls, “most discrimination came from children at school.” She had to leave a part of her true identity to cope at school, work, and maintain close relationships within the community. “When my parents saw me making something of myself, she was very proud. But it took a long time”. But all along, she felt like a fake.
Journey to the U.S.
In 2001, Rimi came to Idaho to join graduate school just a month before 9/11. Her brother was already settled in here but was not very supportive. She felt utterly alone. In her feminine clothing, she quickly passed as a woman but felt racial prejudice as a brown person in a dominant white milieu. Rimi recounts how she has survived hate crimes as a woman of color.
Passing as a man helped her move up the ladder at work, people stopped questioning her competency. However, hiding a significant part of herself made her feel incomplete. Nobody knew she was trans except her family and her partner. “
Rimi began transitioning around 2004 and was edged out of her job in California due to transphobia. Her boss was extraordinarily homophobic and worked against her work visa. Coworkers began to see her as incompetent based on her new identity. She lost her job and had to move to Canada.
In Canada, she used passing privilege as a woman at work and had more success in her job. She moved back to the U.S. permanently in 2013. Using her passing privilege to blend in, she was less susceptible to discrimination and vulnerability but received backlash when people would find out she was trans. She also realized her ability to pass as a woman was a source of privilege that many trans people don’t have in the Indian community.
The 2016 pulse shooting incident in Orlando made her recognize how important intersectional LGBT advocacy is because “there are lives at stake.” She finally came out publicly in 2018. Looking back, she feels sad that she had to hide her identity and her true self for all those years to achieve her career goal and to garner respect, higher status, and better pay.
Role of Parivar
Rimi founded Parivar Bay Area in 2018. Parivar focuses on community building by celebrating Trans and Queer South Asian identities in India and the U.S. She says, “If there’s one thing that both the hijras in India and the trans people of the Indian diaspora in the United States have in common, it’s the community and showcase how people, in all their despair and joy and valor, attempt to live together.”
There are between 400 and 600 people involved in Parivar. The board consists entirely of Trans and Gender Non-Conforming (GNC) South Asians. It is financially supported by the LGBT asylum project, the only San Francisco-based nonprofit organization dedicated to providing accessible legal representation for LGBT asylum seekers fleeing persecution due to their sexual orientation, gender identity, and HIV status. Parivar also partners with up to 20 organizations in the U.S. Many of the members are cis, gay men, second-generation immigrants, and are primarily South Asian diaspora.
Rimi helps write grants and uses her business-focused perspectives to grow the organization and create networks with other organizations, particularly other trans organizations. She realizes that no such organization addresses varied discrimination within the South Asian diaspora — women suffering from domestic abuse, gender-nonconforming queer trans folks struggling for their identity or persecution of religious minorities. “These issues drove me to change the world for the better because I didn’t want other people to go through what I went through.”
Parivar has introduced the Arivani art project for trans women in India in the U.S. This gives them the option to make a decent living and hope to get away from sex work. It recently opened a global marketplace website, parivarbazaar.com, to sell their art. It organizes advocacy programs around supporting the victims of abuse in collaboration with Maitri, an organization in northern California that addresses domestic violence.
During COVID, Parivar has been helping trans women in India who can’t work, especially the sex workers, beggars, dancers, and singers. Rimi has started SITAL (Save Indian Trans All India Lives) and supports over 50+ communities/birdaris across 20 states. Rimi says, “we have raised close to $110K to help people on the ground. For further details visit www.parivarbayarea.org.
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.