Where do I begin? Being born and raised in north Toronto to an immigrant working-class South Asian family, in the late 1980’s, was a struggle in itself. This was an area where people of colour stood out like a sore thumb.
When my parents arrived in Toronto seeking opportunities and better lives, their focus always lay on education. “I don’t care what you do. Just study, education will give you everything.” Entering elementary school, I was the only brown child among close to a thousand students. That was of course until my younger siblings were old enough to attend. Over the years, there were a few brown faces that stood out, but overall less than a hand full, and barely any of my age to associate with.
My perception of brown-ness existed only within my family, religious spaces and on film. Growing up, my identity was constantly ridiculed as different – from the “too smelly” curry I’d bring for lunch to the days I forgot to wipe holy ash (bhasm/vibhuti) from my forehead after morning prayer.
When puberty hit, the concepts society perpetuates about fairy-tale endings and finding “the one” started to become relevant in my life. But I soon realised I was attracted to the wrong people. Wrong not because of their skin colour, age, occupation, class, religion or the way they treated me – but because of their gender.
Through high school and early university I had no gay peers or friends, but just the exaggerated television stereotypes of gay people, all of whom were white. University didn’t turn out to be radically different,and brief exposures to queer culture still left a void. Even as I began to work in the LGBT service sector, the brown queer presence was missing.
Then one day I stumbled upon a short film on YouTube called ‘Brown Like Me.’ And there they were- other brown people with similar experiences, facing similar barriers. ‘Brown Like Me’ produced by the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention (ASAAP) highlighted the experiences of 6 queer-identified South Asian youth living in the Greater Toronto Area. It was refreshing to hear candid narratives about identity labels, homophobia, coming out, pride and family. Being gay wasn’t just for white people. Being gay didn’t make me any less South Asian.
Little did I know that I’d end up working as an educator at ASAAP a few short years later. My work now involves working with Gay, Bisexual and Trans men to break down barriers to accessing healthcare and safer-sex information. Most importantly, I work to create a space where South Asian men feel comfortable being themselves with no shame about who they are.
It is interesting to work in a field where I can honour my own lived experiences, where I don’t have to hide any part of who I am. But that’s not where it ends, I still have to live and interact with mainstream notions of sexuality, guilt and shame.
For the most part South Asians are not the most comfortable talking about sex and sexuality. Is it because we aren’t having any? Funny, I didn’t think the Kama Sutra was for coffee table reading, nor did I think that population of India surpassed a billion through abstinence. Yet we shy away from these discussions, push them into a category of shame and turn a blind eye.
The decision of who makes you happy in a relationship isn’t an easy one especially if you’re attracted to the same-sex. For those who think that being gay is a choice- here’s a question: Who would choose to be in a relationship that would result in social isolation, ridicule, both physical and mental harassment, family rejection, and systematic discrimination? To clarify, this is NOT a choice, it’s just who you are and there’s NO shame in that.
I would love to live in a world where the journey to find oneself isn’t so long. In my work, I am reminded of those moments of isolation and fear. Moments where I realize that although I have come to a place where I am comfortable in my skin, there are many others still waiting to be who they are. Whether in Canada or elsewhere, let’s never let the opinions of others decide who we can and cannot love.
Editor’s note: This article was previously published here and has been reprinted with the author’s permission.