We know we exist but why aren’t we visible?
There seems to be this long running joke in the south Asian queer community that desi queer women are like unicorns. You always hear about us but you never see us; why is that? Why is it that we seem to be shrouded in mist even when we are taking visible steps forward to make our presence more known?
What are the factors that contribute to our invisibility?
If you take a step back and look at the LGBTQIA community as a whole you will see that 2% of the UK population identify as queer; that is just over 1 million people. The total UK population of Asians and Asian British in a 2011 census is 2.3%. Of which only 0.9% identify as queer which is roughly around 13,000 people.
In the queer community, Asians make up around 1.3%, South Asians will make up a small percentage of this group and within that desi queer women make up an even smaller percentage. The more we drill down the more glaringly obvious it becomes that we become lost as a minority within a minority.
Culturally we have been brought up to be obedient, meek women to be wed off and have children and serve our husband’s needs. This predominantly means that if we rebel against this system it takes a long time to shake off the bad habits we have picked up.
We’ve only been present in the UK a few generations; our upbringing probably does not encourage healthy debate within the household, so we are not used to being challenged on our opinions and feels like we are being attacked on our point of view. We seem to be scared of conflict as we are nurtured to keep our voice quiet.
There are louder voices in the wider community that drown out our own voices. This is a problem within our own community as our queer brothers have a stronger presence than our sisters and don’t always use their voice to support us.
Whilst at an event designed to start a discussion about desi lesbians and why we’re invisible there was a queer brother in the crowd who asked, ‘What can we do as brothers, to help you?’ Which is a very valid question. The response from a panelist was to help support our voice and give us a space to speak and create meaningful discussion. This would’ve have been fine however he then asked a question about a Bollywood actress that had passed away whom had nothing to do with the queer movement; which in turn wasted precious time in the discussion and contradicted his first question and took the platform away from what is relevant to us.
This was an isolated incident as it was one individual that caused the disruption. The other brothers in the event were silent and encouraged the women to speak up as well as create a safe space.
Inclusivity is also an issue; we as a community are not inclusive. We host events at venues with little to no disability access, we also have events where we encourage a drinking culture where a lot of our sisters will not be comfortable attending due to religious beliefs or personal preference. We can’t take the standard LGBT approach to setting up our events of clubbing and drinking as it will alienate our sisters.
The community is currently biased in giving opportunities to those that they know rather than creating an environment where anyone can stand up and get involved and have a voice. We don’t give everyone equal opportunity to make a difference and encourage them as activists. We seem to value or own ideals of what a community should look like and how a successful event looks like rather than creating something sustainable that can take care of itself if we removed our involvement.
Who is visible and do they use their voice to help us?
There are a few visible desi queer women in the community, the most famous one would be Shamim Sharif an author and film director who has adapted her novels into films. Her work has left an impression on her audiences that we are not alone; we exist.
We have strong groups that are run by activists such as Gaysian which is run by Reeta where she is using her voice to help bring our fragmented community together. There is the Hidayah LGBTQI + Muslim charity that have created events in the largest cities in the UK to create a place of gathering every month.
The NUS has LGBT reps like Sara Khan and Noorulann Shahid who are helping provide visibility to us and provide support to those that need it. There are loads of individual that helping bring visibility to desi queer woman.
How are we going to change the culture to accept us?
If we are to change the culture we need to start a discussion that involves everyone that is relevant to what the issue is. We’d need to be reaching our parents, family, friends our entire community to educate them that we are here and we aren’t going anywhere. This step won’t be fixed overnight or even in a year; it will take a lot of natural discussion to start the movement in the right direction where we could see results within the next decade.
How do we become more visible?
There are a few things we can start doing to become more visible. We can start more discussions and take our narrative back into our own hands. I don’t want the first thing I google about south Asian LGBT UK to be about how ‘We’re conforming by marrying’; I would rather have relevant media about us appear in a google search. We need to work together to make our communities more visible and accessible. Are we doing everything in our power to make sure we are catering towards everyone within our group?
We need to promote our events, we need to make it easier for everyone to see what we are doing and where we are doing it. Consistency will make it easier for us to find one another and make us visible.
We need to support each other and give everyone equal opportunity to voice their opinions without fear of ridicule or having another member of our community erase their experience.
We don’t need to be loud to be found. We need to love and respect each other.