Mala Nagarajan and Vega Subramaniam are often referred to as the “Indian-American Lesbian couple that sued Washington State.” The couple got married in the city-owned Seattle Aquarium in 2002, in what is popularly known as the first Hindu-Lesbian wedding in North America. Together for 13 years now, Mala and Vega are huge icons for the Desi LGBT community in the U.S.
We are honored and very excited to bring you an exclusive interview with this wonderful couple who are great role-models for our community. We are so grateful to Dr.L.Ramakrishnan from Chennai, who made this interview possible. Thanks so much, Ramki!
You can read the first and second parts of the interview here:
What made the two of you join the fight against Washington State’s Defense Of Marriage Act ?
Vega: At first, I was against our joining because as a feminist, I didn’t see marriage equality as a fight worth having, much less my fight. But in the Washington state case, there were at the time we were asked to join no other people of color plaintiffs, and that didn’t sit well with me and compelled me to join the lawsuit. Over the course of the last seven years, as I’ve learned more and have a deeper understanding of the different ways that legally recognized marriages between same-sex couples will have a transformative impact not just on the lives of the couples themselves but also on our society, achieving marriage equality at the federal level has become a non-negotiable for me.
Mala: I remember hearing for the first time about the case the morning before the case was filed in King County. We were asked if we would be interested in participating. I was eager to at least have the choice to get married. I recall us looking for other couples for whom getting married would have a more immediate impact. Most of the couples we thought of were bi-national. After asking a few of them and being told, “no, I can’t jeopardize my visa status” or something similar, I felt obligated as a U.S. citizen with privilege to participate in the case. When we got a call from an India Abroad report the morning the case was filed, I was very excited about having queer desis represented in mainstream desi community and hoping that we could at the very least generate some conversation around LGBTQ folks in our community. Over the last 7 years, we’ve definitely experienced how community and extended family response has positively influenced those most close to us who were not accepting, but who now are.
Perhaps, wishful thinking, but I really want to see more open conversations and dialogue and recognition of LGBTQ South Asians – I want to see that amongst our elders and amongst those who have power in mainstream South Asian organizations and communities. It’s really incredible to see so many LGBTQ South Asians working on different fronts of the struggle. I’m particularly excited about the work that’s being done now in our religious communities – the temples, the mosques, the gurudwaras, the churches – to push the boundary of acceptance out. I see our participation in the lawsuit as one of many, many turning points of change.
Vega: I wish I knew more! I know that I get jazzed by the little that I read – like the Queer Azaadi march in Mumbai – and I’m excited by the growing activism in cities throughout the country (shout-out to my homies in Chennai!). I try to envision what an international queer solidarity movement would look like sometime in the future, but at this juncture I hope that the queer movements in India/South Asia are able to stay as rooted in local contexts as possible, especially given the inordinate amount of NGO funding that comes from Western countries.
Mala: So much courage – the fight to have 377 read down, the parades – it’s amazing to have my relatives mention them to me! In 2006, Vega and I had the chance to meet LGBTQ folks in Bangalore and Chennai. I found it so humbling to be in the presence of such amazing activists and hear their stories. It’s heartbreaking and inspiring to hear the stories and the courage of activists all over South Asia and beyond – In India, in Pakistan, in Nepal, Egypt, Palestine, South Africa.
Unfortunately lesbians are at the bottom of the spectrum in India. What do you think can and should be done?
Vega: This question is so complicated that the best my brain can process is a simple response. As in all societies, this is why movements, in order to be successful, need cut across issues. There are clear intersections between gender, religious, caste, class, and queer issues, and the movements to address them should be equally inter-sectional.
Mala: Suzanne Pharr talks about homophobia being a tool of sexism, and I agree. I think our LGBTQ community has a lot of ground to cover when it comes to fighting sexism, classism, ablism. I think our gay-identified brothers all over the world need to be allies to lesbians and trans folks. It is in the intersections where we should all be grounded.
Have you experienced first hand homophobia?
Vega: well, in the overt sense (e.g., hostile remarks from strangers, being beaten up on the street), only very occasionally and not brutally. But in the institutional sense, such as tax discrimination, discrimination in social security, health insurance, marriage recognition (!) and so forth, yes like all the rest of us. By “first-hand,” I mean getting letters and notices on a regular, almost weekly basis that remind me in so many words that I’m second-class, such as, “please note that while we offer domestic partner insurance coverage, because your marriage is not legal you will have to pay income tax on the increased benefits from that coverage” and other such rot.
If you could magically become a straight couple, would you do it? Why or why not?
Vega: Who’d be the man? Mala and I would have to arm-wrestle for it, and she’d win because she’s bigger than me, and that would piss me off so much that we might have to break up. So, no. And seriously, why? If I could magically become white, I wouldn’t. If I could magically become taller, I wouldn’t. If I could magically become anything other than what I am, I wouldn’t. I just fundamentally don’t believe that what I am and what we have are flawed. I’d rather use my magical prowess to turn society non-homophobic.
Your perfect Bollywood Gay/Lesbian pair would be:
Vega: Shabana Azmi and…almost anyone. Bollywood actresses are severely feminized in ways that I don’t especially find appealing. Also (or relatedly?), I feel like there’s way more homoeroticism among the male stars than the female, sadly. Can I include Xena? Hey, she visited India!
Your favorite Queer themed book & Movie:
Vega: Book: I know I’m dating myself here, but “Woman On the Edge of Time” and anything else by Marge Piercy. Movie: Mala and I just watched a Canadian one that I thought was so lovely, “Breakfast with Scot.” I really appreciated “Chutney Popcorn” for many reasons, including that it was one of the first, if not the first, desi queer film that didn’t have “coming out” as its focus.