Sandra Dickson reflects on The Adhikaar Report. Sandra is a Pākehā bisexual cis woman. She has been active in community building and activism inside Rainbow communities since she came out 33 years ago, including through Hohou Te Rongo Kahukura, a charity dedicated to building Rainbow communities in Aotearoa New Zealand that are free of family, partner and sexual violence.
This striking new report from South Asian LGBT+ focused community group, Adhikaar Aotearoa, raises uncomfortable isses for the many communities it speaks into and from. But being uncomfortable – rather than unsafe – is part of growth, and the ethnic queer voices championed here make it clear how much growth is needed.
It’s a timely and critical call for change, in the context of growing diversity in Aotearoa. In the 2018 Census, 27% of our population were born overseas. Ethnic peoples, the majority from Asia (specifically India and China) totaled 17%, or just under one in five of those living here.
Authors Cayathri Divakalala and Vinod Bal bristle with rage when they say “our communities face threats against their lives that others do not.” Based on 43 interviews with diverse South Asian LGBT+ people living in Aotearoa, the report explores in depth the threats of queerphobias, racism, xenophobia, fetishisation, conversion practices, harassment, abuse and physical and sexual violence.
They argue, based on the experiences of their interviewees, that ethnic LGBT+ people’s lives, needs and aspirations are largely invisible - not only to wider Aotearoa New Zealand, but inside South Asian communities and ‘mainstream’ LGBT+ communities. One example they describe is “coming out,” which might be much better understood by ethnic queer people as a part of “letting in,” or choosing very carefully, over time, with whom to share sexuality or gender journeys. Letting in allows a consideration of cultural, social, religious and familial contexts, and the importance of extended family networks both pre-migration and while settling in Aotearoa.
Another is that failing to recognise historical trauma – such as coming from a country in which colonisation has rendered your identity illegal – means failing to meet ethnic LGBT+ people where they are. The authors persuasively argue that the recurring themes from interviewees of fear, anxiety, disappointment, insecurity, exclusion, isolation, rage, and self-harm are both alarming and crucial to necessary change in Aotearoa. In addition to criminalising queerness, religious extremism, ethnic conflicts, and civil war frame suffering for many from the South Asian region, so for South Asian LGBT+ people, ongoing connections to ancestral lands can be fraught as well as crucial to identity.
The usefulness of the authors’ concept of “Victorian puritanism” has ramifications for other projects seeking wider acceptance of sex, gender and sexuality diversity. The specific colonisation which turned cultures of acceptance to cultures of non-acceptance in South Asia also sought to stifle Māori and Pacifica fluidity and love, embodiment and expression. Decolonising the rigid binaries imposed by Victorian puritanism are positive for everyone seeking to live under, above or beyond the Rainbow in Aotearoa.
Struggling to reconcile queerness with ethnic identity has profound impacts on the wellbeing of those interviewed for this project. Racism inside wider Aotearoa communities is ubiqitous, including the centring of whiteness inside LGBT+ communities. Malar shares ideas for change:
“We need non-Eurocentric ways of addressing our issues and working towards change. We must start at our homes. We cannot bring our parents to support groups. White peoples’ way of talking about the nuclear family does not apply to us. We have more than that.”
Dating experiences are significantly impacted by racism for South Asian LGBT+ people. Not only the appalling pre-emptive racism of “no rice, no spice” messages on dating apps, but explicit rejection after sharing photos was reported by interviewees, often. Sundar describes trying to date other gay men:
“Some would tell me they are not into Indian men. They do not think it is racist to say this. To some, the colour of my skin is one of their fetishes.”
Xenophobia was also experienced by interviewees, in social and dating contexts. Rishi says:
“once I start talking to them [white gay men], I don’t have a New Zealand accent - that identifies me as an immigrant. [T]hey’ll say [they’re] not interested.”
But overwhelmingly, interviewees raised their sense that queerness in Aotearoa by definition means whiteness. The ideas about who is queer, what being queer looks like and who belongs in queer spaces are all framed by whiteness. The kinds of activities LGBT+ organisations offer do not always fit the needs of LGBT+ ethnic people. These issues make these spaces extremely uncomfortable as Lakhsmi shared:
“it [queerness as whiteness make it] insanely isolating [for LGBT+ people of colour], I can’t even put it into words.”
Lack of LGBT+ ethnic representation and/or active suppression and violence inside South Asian communities also takes a toll, as does the idea that queerness is a “white people thing,” or associated with some kind of mental health imbalance. Sarika says:
“whilst I fully accepted that fact that I was lesbian, I rejected the fact that I was Indian.”
For many interviewees, genuine threats to their lives underpin the fear of telling their families, including extended family members, crucial in South Asian communities. This means navigating trauma on a daily basis, and speaks clearly to the gaps in understanding current narratives of “coming out” have. Ishant, when asked how his extended family might respond to him being out says:
“I think that there is a 90% chance that they will beat the shit out of me. [Even] if my parents don’t do anything to me, my relatives will. I’ll be dead for sure, I know that. I don’t blame my parents or relatives, it’s just the time they grew up in, the system just says you’re going to burn.”
The authors also explore the importance of navigating reputation inside South Asian communities, particularly when ignorance of LGBT+ lives exists. For many interviewees, their families simply did not believe them when they tried to let people in. Kalani says:
“many men, including my dad, think that women become lesbians or bisexual because they have not found the right man for them yet.”
Intersections between the wider impacts of structural racism and transphobia were explored by Kaylia:
“I feel that most South Asian queer people in Aotearoa aren’t able to get access to that sort of thing due to parents not wanting to give money for transitioning, probably because of generational trauma, and that whole thing about wanting to look good in front of other South Asians, whereas white queer people tend to be able to access that sort of money much easier, in my experience, which makes them more ‘acceptable’ to the LGBTQIA+ community.”
There are stories of loving and supportive families here too, with interviewees noting that younger generations in particular were more likely to support queer siblings.
The report celebrates the resilience of ethnic LGBT+ people more broadly, dealing with multiple marginalisations and systems – including mental health supports in particular - which are not safe or culturally relevant. But it’s an activist celebration rather than a satisfied one – “we should not need to live our lives through resilience.” Rather, the right to be free, to love and to be oneself is where Adhikaar Aotearoa are heading, via comprehensive recommendations for policy and law makers, community groups, education institutions and the media.
Hearing the voices of so many people in this report is a definitive strength. Too often in Aotearoa “Rainbow” communities, lack of resourcing and community dynamics has meant a very small number of people speak “for” us. Historically, this has meant we hear more from Pākehā, from our cities, and from those with more power, including social capital. Authors that are not just telling us what they think, but letting ethnic voices speak for themselves via substantial quotes, makes this report a rich, vibrant, if often harrowing, exploration of South Asian LGBT+ experiences.
I said this report bristles with barely contained rage, and it does. But it’s also full of love – in the careful sharing of interviewee voice, in the acknowledgement of complexities upon complexities. But more than anything else, in the commitment to change. “We will never stop fighting for you,” say Adhikaar Aotearoa. I believe them, and I hope this report gets the audience it deserves.
- Sandra Dickson