Identity. What is Identity? We often think of identity as a collection of labels, descriptors that sum up the innate features of ourselves. British Asian, Indian, bisexual, queer, man. These are the labels that make up my idea of self. But what do you do when these labels conflict? Conflict with each other, with society or with your own sense of being? When the description, the definition, the ideas that make up these labels, causes issues? This tends to leave you in a difficult situation, one where you constantly struggle to resolve your identity. I’ve had to deal with this countless times throughout my life.
British Asian. I was born in West London, Southall to be precise, a densely populated Asian area. My Dad was born in India and moved over to the UK with his family when he was a child. My Mum was also born in Southall, and both her parents were born in India too. Growing up, I always saw myself as British Asian. That was the culture that I was born into and existed in. But this identity conflicted with itself. British and Asian are two words that felt like two entirely different worlds, and it seemed almost impossible to be both.
I often indulged in British culture (although more accurately, culture that was seen as outside that of the Indian/Asian sphere) which was frowned upon by the British Asian community. For example, I have never been a huge fan of bhangra and bollywood music, instead opting to listen to alternative rock/pop music from the emo culture. Many within my community felt that I was more engrossed in Western culture than the culture of my heritage, and was ostracised because of this. I was labelled a coconut (Brown on the outside, White on the inside) by all my peers for not being in touch with my roots as much as they wanted or expected of me. They saw me as different, alien, not one of them.
This made life difficult for me, as I felt a disconnect from my culture. There were many parts of my culture that I loved; the food, the spirituality, the colours, clothes and jewellery. But I was constantly made to feel too western. I wasn’t even allowed to listen to Christmas music at during my cousin’s Christmas gathering without being criticised by a family friend. I was also met with shock every time I did engage with my heritage, watching a Bollywood film or dressing in traditional clothing was met with exclamation from those around me, as they didn’t expect it from me.
On the other hand, I always felt too Asian for British culture. My childhood, my way of life, my interactions and experiences with family and friendship was always different from the British people I met throughout my life. They couldn’t understand certain behaviours, for example those of my parents, because they had a completely different family dynamic. Further to this, I felt a rejection from the British due to my heritage. My Brown-ness often meant different treatment from people in society. I would be questioned during passport patrol and stopped for seemingly random bag checks. I would have people ask me “where I was from?” and find them unsatisfied when I replied with “London”. Worst of all, I would experience racism, being called a “curry muncher” or told to “go back home”. The British didn’t want me any more than the Asians did. I found myself caught in the middle, unable to pull these two sides of my identity together.
Bisexual. A couple of years ago, I first uttered the words “I am bisexual”, but the road to get there was a long one. I knew from around the age of 11 that I probably wasn’t straight, but I didn’t know what that meant. I knew the term gay, but this term didn’t sum up who I was as I didn’t only fancy men. But I never knew of any other term. It wasn’t until I was 17 that I first heard the term ‘bisexual’. But upon hearing it, I also heard the term ridiculed, laughed at. I denied my sexuality for a long time because of this. Coming out as bisexual is so difficult because, as I learnt when I was 17, the term is constantly denied as valid.
Biphobia and bi-erasure is something that I, like many other bisexual people, have to deal with. Bisexual causes a conflict with a society that likes to deal in binaries; man or woman, straight or gay, Black or White. Even within the LGBT+ community, bisexuality is invalidated. We’re told to pick a side, told we’re really just denying our gayness and told we are not welcome in the space. We’re often told that we somehow have it easier, that we have ‘straight passing privilege’, which means that we don’t experience homophobia, that the burden on us is less and we’re more accepted by general society.
This could not be further from the truth. Society at large also rejects our bisexuality. They don’t somehow find us more palatable just because we may sleep with, date or marry someone of a different sex to our own. If we get attacked, we can’t say “I’m bi” to make them to go easier on us. In fact, we also deal with homophobia. We get all the same insults that gay and lesbian people have to deal with, all the while having to deal with the biphobia on top of that.
Man. This was my first conflict I had to contend with in my life. The idea that society holds of what it is to be a man is one that has never sat right with me. It has caused conflict with my own image of who I am. Men are supposed to be strong, act tough, talk tough. They’re supposed to be into sports, gym and drinking. Men are supposed to be muscular and have their pick of the ladies. I could not be further removed from this image. A slim guy with no discernible muscle mass, who’s emotional, loves soft toys and plays Pokémon. I was met with a lot of backlash over this and constantly told to man up. I’ve had to deal with degrees of toxic masculinity throughout my life.
This experience is worsened when you factor in the British Asian identity. British Asian culture is born out of Indian culture, with some selected western influences. This culture has very strict gender roles and, as a result, the toxic masculinity within the culture is intensified. I found myself bullied over not being manly enough. Even my own Dad used to constantly berate me, asking me when I would “stop being such a girl” and tell me off for crying.
This toxic masculinity is also what fuels the homophobia within the community. Gay was constantly used as a slur when I was growing up, it was never something you wanted to be. I heard my parents say countless times that they wouldn’t like it if any of us turned out to be gay. Even my own cousin, who is less than a decade older than I, stated she wouldn’t want her one year old to be gay, which shows how pervasive homophobia is in our culture. It is because it is seen as “unmanly”.
Men are supposed to get all the women, they’re supposed to have their pick. So what happens if you don’t like women? What happens if you like men? Liking men is something women do, so you’re seen as a woman and ridiculed for that, because women are seen as lesser. I recall when I came out to my Mum, one of her first responses was that “your dad always told me not to let you play with plushes”, somehow believing that my femininity must be a sign that I’m not straight. That playing with soft toys somehow “turned” me, and if only they took it away and raised me “like a man”, I would have turned out straight.
This homophobia is one of the reasons why I hid my identity for so long. I lived in fear that if anyone were to find out, I would be cast out. I was terrified at the thought of my parents disowning me and my community distancing themselves even further from me. I was worried that the bullying would increase and I would no longer be able to cope with it. Since coming out, I’ve felt free within myself, but I’ve been met with an opposing issue. Being a queer man in a British Asian community means dealing with homophobia, but being a Brown person in queer spaces means dealing with racism and fetishisation. I’ll be unpacking this issue more within the next part.
Putting all these labels of mine together isn’t an easy task. Resolving my identity is a constant struggle when they cause so much conflict. You’re constantly invalidated by people on all sides, by various communities, by society at large. It feeds a self doubt of whether you’re living up to those labels, whether you’re performing correctly.
I had a discussion with Shirine Shah, who I met at a Hungama event, on this exact topic. They stated that no matter what actions you’re performing, those labels still hold true. So when you’re listening to Blink-182, that’s Asian because you’re Asian. And when you sit down to watch a Bollywood film, that’s British because you are.
They stated that “language is a prison”. That whilst labels can be helpful for us to understand and explain who we are, find those with shared experiences and form a community, they can also be suffocating. The definitions and descriptions we give these labels pigeonhole us and restrict us from doing what we want to do. But in reality, there’s nothing stopping us. We can be everything, all at once. This resonated strongly with me, and I could not agree more with this sentiment. I believe that the labels do not define us, rather it is us that define the label. That all of these labels are just that, labels, and nothing more. Each person under this label, whilst having some common ground, are ultimately different. And with that mindset, we remove the conflict within our identity and accept ourselves for who we are. Unique.