The LGBT+ community amongst British South Asians, whilst largely quiet, is making slow, discreet waves. Well, more like ripples underground. A stand out line from the movie Bend it like Beckham, after Tony’s admission of ‘I’m gay’, is Jess responding with ‘but you’re Indian!’, suggesting the two to be mutually exclusive. The movie was released in 2002 and whilst a similar sentiment and taboo remains in British Asian society, there is a Gaysian platform in the UK, Club Kali where people of colour from the whole LGBT+ spectrum can dance away the night, and there’s been slightly increased media representation on mainstream shows.
Attitudes within families are still moving at a turtle’s pace though. This is why I am not yet out to all of my loved ones. I was born into an East African Indian family. We are all ethnically Indian, with my dad’s side having migrated from Kenya, my mum being from India and me being born in England. This causes room for a lot of opinions and many things within our culture are taboo from mental health, and menstruation, to sex and sexuality. As a child or young teenager I was never told about many things by my parents and simply left to my own devices to figure things out. They assumed school would cover all of the need-to-knows and anything outside of this I would learn myself or was just not applicable. The topic of sex and sexuality to this day has never come up. I am 24 years old.
I have had older aunties pushing their heteronormative presumptions onto me at weddings and family gatherings though. ‘How old are you now?’, ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’, and ‘I know a good boy, he’s studying to be a doctor.’ These and similar phrases are more frequently said to people I know and myself as we get older. They have to be male, ideally Indian and in a traditionally good profession.
I didn’t give much thought to my sexuality when I was younger. My one encounter as a child was obsessively wishing to be close to this girl in year 6 who always had the shiniest lip gloss on and nicely combed hair. I thought I was just weird and brushed it off. ‘Til 20 years old, I was straight as an arrow. I came to this conclusion despite not having dated much before, because I had crushed on the likes of Craig David and Channing Tatum. Then I fell for a transgender man.
I tried to not admit it, but once I had said it to myself, I knew it was true. We dated briefly as circumstances meant we could not continue a long distance relationship, but I liked him for a long time. I thought maybe I wasn’t straight, then I convinced myself I must be straight, because him being transgender meant he was a guy that I loved, just in a female body. Then I had a crush on a cis-woman, which meant I had to cross-examine myself. I felt more confused than ever and decided to set my tinder settings to viewing ‘all’. Then to just ‘guys’. Then again to ‘both’. I went back and forth like a tennis ball.
Whilst my friends were aware of my intricacies of love life, I had never really labelled myself. The first time I labelled myself aloud as pansexual may have been to some colleagues when it came up in conversation. Additionally, to this day, I have only been on one date with a woman, which has lead me to question if there is any point me belonging to the LGBT+ community at all. I have wondered: do my feelings and crushes even count? And then I thought to myself: I never questioned if someone is valid as straight, even if they’ve just had one or no dates! I felt ticking ‘straight’ on the disclosure form felt like a lie now so would veer to ‘other’ or ‘pansexual’ instead, which felt more accurate and comfortable.
Due partly to the ingrained cultural taboo, and the fact I am not open with my family about this subject anyway, this self-acceptance took a long time. The added cultural element means I can’t run out of the closet into open arms, but it is ok to take your time and you shouldn’t feel guilty about how you take your journey, as it can be a complex process. Dating when you are Indian can be complicated enough without the added pressures of not being heterosexual. Sometimes it is just out of misunderstanding some of the terminology and at other times, there is a deep-seated prejudice – like in other cultures – and knowledge and acceptance runs along a spectrum.
I am currently dating a man; in secret, because quite frankly I don’t know if he’s the one I will be marrying just yet. However, despite being in a heteronormative relationship, I am more comfortable and proud to call myself a pansexual than ever before. Even though I am not out to my family, I am happy at the progress I have made privately. It may not be overtly visible, but it has allowed me to write what you’re reading now, which would have been unthinkable even two years ago.
Read Keenal’s blog here https://wayfaringgujigirl.com.