Breaking news – I have officially joined the ranks of the employed! Realizing that I don’t want to spend my post-undergrad gap year living with my parents was pretty good incentive to intensify the job search. And I landed one that I really love! It’s a job being a mentor to underprivileged/minority students who are usually first-generation college goers. The program I’m working for brings the students to campus early, and gives them resources to succeed. It’s a cause I really believe in, so I’m pretty excited about the job in general.
Part of the job was attending this conference at a local camp, with a mix of both former mentees and current mentors. The conference was titled “Empowering ourselves, Creating community”, and it involved a lot of story-sharing. Generally speaking, I’m not a big one for sharing my story – after all, it can be painful and I’ve (still) not come out to everyone in my life. But somehow, it seemed okay to try it out. First off, there were no Indians. Second, no one knew me in any context outside of being a mentor. And it was liberating to be so open! I was slow to start, but by the end of the first night I was happily chattering about my girlfriend, how I came out etc.
As the conference wore on, and we had more smaller group discussions, a Latino guy in my group made a really interesting observation. He said that we are all most comfortable around “nuestro propio gente” – our own people. And that got me thinking – who comprises the group I’m most comfortable around?
“My own people” is for sure not other Indians. Growing up, my parents always pushed me towards the proper desi activities – tennis, Kumon, piano, Bharatanatyam – and always encouraged me to have Indian friends. As a result, I pretty much despised all of those things, except Bharatanatyam, because at least that one got me out of the house for a while. I spent a lot of time reflecting on why I’m not comfortable around Indians, and a big part of it is my queer identity. I’ve known I wasn’t straight since high school, and that self-awareness coincided with some serious self-imposed distancing from the other desi kids. I got lucky enough in college to be counted as one of the “cool” desi kids, who’s “too cool” to hang out with other desis all the time, but that still wasn’t a label I was thrilled about. Because it’s not so much that I don’t like desis, as that I feel they wouldn’t like me if they knew the real me.
Then I wondered why am I so worried about other desis knowing I’m not straight? Indian kids are not much different from the “real Americans” at school. Let’s be honest – no ABCD (for these purposes, American-Born College Desi) is 100% honest with his or her parents. They’re all out having sex, drinking on the weekends, getting tattoos in risqué locations, smoking on occasion, and wearing clothes that would make their ammama’s faint in horror. Every desi has so much they’re hiding (or attempting to, anyway) that I wonder if it would be so awful if I came out to them – what’s one more secret to them? But then I remember that judgement is like a one-way mirror – people use it to look at others but can never turn that judgement upon themselves.
“My own people” aren’t other queers either, necessarily. I get a lot of crap from the “queer community” for a lot of things. I’ve been told that I “don’t look like a lesbian” – as if there is some guidebook that says what we’re all supposed to look like. And I’m not a lesbian. It’s the easiest word to use sometimes, but it’s not the most correct one. Plus, I have a lot of issues with the stereotypes that other queer folk place upon one another. I consciously decided not to live with my girlfriend this academic year, and “friends” asked if I was going to break up with her because I didn’t want to live with her, which is stupid. I just wanted my own place to get my studying done. And lastly, the queer female community at my university can sometimes be like a bad episode of the L Word. I try to really distance myself from the whole gossip/infidelity/drama/girlfriend-stealing. One offhand comment turns into the campus-wide OMG, and I’m not down for that.
So who are “my people”? I finally decided. It’s my girlfriend, it’s my best friend, it’s the friends I’ve made in college, it’s some of the girls on my rugby team, it’s the people at work, it’s my fellow DJs on campus radio – it’s people who know me for who I am. It’s people like you.
It’s the people around who I can be myself, all of the time. And recognizing that I have a group like that was so incredibly empowering.