#PrideMonth: Reclaiming My Culture As A South Asian Queer Man In The First World
Editor’s Note: Pride Month looks a little different this year. All the jubilation that used to spill out on the streets has been transferred to the screen. Life, nevertheless, is still a rainbow and will always be. All throughout this month, as we put on our VIBGYOR-coloured glasses, we pledge to bring you stories of finding love, finding friends, and finding ourselves. So, sit tight and enjoy the joy-ride that this colourful is.
One of our first stories this month is that of Adam Jussab’s who, through a process of learning and unlearning, found his identity as a South Asian queer man in England.
Here’s his story in his own words.
My childhood is explainable as a sort of an Indo-centric feel.
I spent my years back and forth between the cultural quarters of my home state of Gujarat, Mumbai, and London. I was born into a first-generation immigrant family to a young mother who wasn’t necessarily ready to have me. That being said, I was actually raised by the women of my family — not only my mother but also, and perhaps, more importantly, my grandmother — my Baa. I remember her yanking me out of school and all of us disappearing back to India for years on repeat, all of our hopes and worries stuffed inside our well-oversized suitcases with her multi-coloured Brahma Kumaris’ custom-made ‘Om Shanti’ fabric-bands wrapped around handles.
My adolescent upbringing in India consisted of running around the grounds of mandirs
playing games like Antakshari with other village children, who, now that I look back, were the best of my friends, my original style icons. It’s almost pitiful that I haven’t been able to see them in over a decade now.
I still remember the ever so stylish Gujarati girls who had the most beaming of textures on their dupattas, gold studs in, and long silhouettes dragging across the ground. The local talent shows that we all used to dress up for in our fanciest attire, the afternoons we spent at different farmers’ markets sipping on cold glass bottles of Coca Cola, are all still fondly etched in my memory. No memory, however, can beat the rooftop summer nights when my family would drink themselves into oblivion, happily blasting and dancing to Lata Mangeshkar’s entire discography. To be apart of such a community and identity for so long was the most monumental.
No matter where in the world I was, or how whitewashed I became whilst attending schools back in the UK where ethnic culture was labelled as ‘taboo’, and where I was culturally stereotyped, deep-down, I always felt the connection.
All of this somehow began to change during my teenage years. For the first time in my life, I found myself losing the connection within my own identity. Looking back at it now, it seems almost silly that I would even ponder over not perceiving myself as a South Asian man. At that point, however, I was trying my best to reject everything that I essentially was.
Can Any Of Us Ever Run From Who We Really Are?
Irked by everything about my real identity, I started thinking of my school as the only escape from the scent of my home that was always beaming with the redolence of my mother’s cooking. Day in and day out, I was greeted by my mother, who always seemed to be standing near the stove, mixing and churning something or the other, her thick dark brown hair bunched carefully into a ponytail as she threw in ounces of masala into the pot.
Growing up, I don’t think I realised the real G that my mother was. A trained Kathak dancer, between then and now, to me, she is the most beautiful embodiment of a modern-day British-South Asian woman. A real urban Madhuri Dixit of some sort! She’d have multiple thick gold rings on. A gold name-chain on always — there was forever drip on her body — whether or not she was cooking, doing dishes, or hotboxing the kitchen with the scent of her strong cigarettes.
Now, I know everybody says nothing could ever beat a mother’s food, but my mother was another level of Indian excellence when it came to cooking. Truly the most iconic woman even to this day!
My mother is also the sole reason good food was one of the gate-keeps that brought me back to the rich culture I’m a part of. Even as my identity was slipping through little cracks as traditions usually do, Mum’s Bengali lamb curries and Baa’s famous Gujarati lentils, somehow always found a way to bring me back home. Food was probably the only thing that kept me connected to the real me when I didn’t even want to be me.
As I grew up, the number of trips back home started subsiding, and ultimately thinned out. My teenage hit me the hardest. Growing up in England, or anywhere in the western world, no matter who or what you have around you at some point or another, you usually find yourself with self-identity issues. For me, most of my issues stemmed out of the stereotyping I was exposed to by systemic racists around me. Now that I look back, all and more of it was a product of colonialism and ideas of White supremacy over South Asians. Unable to comprehend it at that point, I started feeling embarrassed of myself and my ethnic identity and started trying hard to fit the ‘western standard of living’.
Growing Up As A Brown Queer Person
My friendship circle consisted mainly of women of colour and other queers, but it wasn’t until I met my best friend of now a decade when we realised the struggle it really was to be from our background and be a part of the LGBTQ community.
We now speak of how we used to force ourselves into predominately white communities. We speak at great length about our experiences of dealing with rejecting culture, White friendship circles, and how somewhere along the way, we unintentionally switched up our food pallets for colonial acceptance too.
I remember the times we would go to our white peer’s houses and their parents would call us racial slurs for fun, make ‘curry jokes’ and we’d just laugh it off thinking it was “witty British banter” when, in reality, it was racism. It was situations like these that made me and the people around me feel the need to strive for White acceptance back then. To some extent, unfortunately, even now.
Add to that, the experience of growing up queer as a person of colour.
South Asian culture has historically had space for the LGBT community. Intersex, transgender, and homosexual people have always found space in pre-colonial Indian narratives. The term ‘Hijra’ refers to mythological beings that excel at song and dance in the ancient Hindu culture. The modern-day homophobia, particularly the erstwhile section 377 of the IPC was a colonial relic. It’s unfortunate and paradoxical that colonial homophobia still grips the minds of the once-colonised.
Now, this is not me saying western countries do not rejoice and enjoy the vast options of cultures whether it’s within fashion, food, or worldwide cinema. My point is that growing up as a British Asian just like for many people of colour, I ignored the beauty of my incredible motherland and all that came along with it even after having partially been raised there. One of the most important things to emerge out of it, however, has been the opportunity to reflect on the various debates pertaining to Britain and the so-called ‘third world’ and the neo-Orientalism that’s there to Western narratives about South Asia without acknowledging the post-colonial connotations. The fact that the percentage of racial and religious attacks against minorities has seen a whopping 23 per cent rise in the past year is an issue that should and must be taken up. It’s high time we stopped shrinking ourselves to fit the White narrative.
Finding my way back to Bollywood for me was where it all changed! I went from watching classics throughout my childhood to not watching Bollywood at all. I slowly started to educate my self on topics they didn’t teach us, Brown kids, at school, about the true the horrors of the world, the history of the country I lived in, the partition of India, and I became obsessed with wanting to know more about my being, my culture, and my own family’s history.
But Bollywood was a door to a completely different world. I remember how obsessed I became with 90’s/2000’s Hindi music.
I felt a light in me that I didn’t have for years when I listened to Shreya Ghoshal, A.R.Rehman’s, and Lata Mangeshkar’s music. A couple of months after that is where I fount the director of my life, Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Before him and movies like Devdas, Bajirao Mastani, and Umrao Jaan, I never viewed my culture the way non-western cinema perceived it.
Watching his films made me realise just how much of our being I hadn’t appreciated. Aishwarya Rai, Madhuri Dixit, Deepika Padukone, Sri Devi, Rekha, and Zeenat, all became my everyday muses. It was the beginning of my journey of ‘decolonising’ my self without me even truly realising.
It wasn’t long until I started trying to share as much as I knew with others on social media. Whether I was sharing cinematography, music, art, or my own experience and take on South Asian beauty and fashion, I started talking. I tried to be different from other creatives, I tried my best to highlight important issues, and educate others when necessary, whilst also knowing how I benefited from my own light-skin privilege.
I remember the first time I came across a wave of brown-skinned activists and queer creatives, of the same descent. Sanam Sindhi, an LA-based Indian creative who also runs @southasiaarchive
on Instagram, London-based Simran Randhawa of Indian and Malaysian heritage, made me realise that there were other people like me out there who related to me and whose experiences I could relate to. It was greatly reassuring that I was not the only person trying to have a conversation about the colonial trauma we now face as a community.
Own Your Narrative
So, I say that if it takes art for people of colour to feel connected and understand our cultures, so be it.
I want to go out and say that our experiences are valid and will forever be valid, and in the quarantined world of 2020, I have seen nothing but myself and other creatives thrive.
Over the last few years, owing to all of this, I have grown so much. I am loud, queer, not settling for toxic societal gender roles, and unapologetically South Asian to the core. I’m no longer rejecting my culture, my being, my very own existence, and I am no longer allowing my self to be boxed into a stereotype. I’m just here trying to have a voice, find my voice, and trying to give others like me a voice. I want people to know what it’s like to be a lonely queer boy in the world, and what it means to come out of the box.
And this is the time to speak up, own our narrative, and dismantle the internalised colonial trauma — one step at a time.
Adam is 20-year-old London/Midlands native of Indian heritage. A proud musician, activist, herbalist (of some sort), and creative, he’s trying his best to stay true to his self-identity and highlight his heritage, and what it means to be queer and desi in post-Brexit England.
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