Categories determine our lives. As marginalized folk, we work towards determinacy in a white supremacist society that tells us what we are, what we are not, and what we will never be.
By Leila Zainab
It’s Friday night. 7:30pm. In one hand, I clutch a recent copy of Bitch Magazine. In the other, a bag of Indian Store groceries with the essentials: microwavable naan (packet reads: InstaKhana), TV dinner-style channa masala, and one large box of ladoo. On my way to the checkout counter, I lock eyes with an Aunty at the cash register. She eyes me up and down as if to say, “Tsk, poor thing.”
No matter. I stride along; feeling empowered, independent, and ultra-feminist. On the train, I sit with my single bag, cross my legs, and dig into feminist commentary. Reading intently, I can feel eyes on me as I scan an article about the sexuality continuum. Joshunda Sanders writes, “I have always envied people who find the perfect sticker for themselves and proudly display it one way or another.” Loudly, I sigh in recognition. Folks stare at me. As a marginalized person, I am often acutely aware of the ways in which (white) folks register the enigma that is my identity expression. I am just your average Queer Desi millennial emoting to myself on the train. Nothing to see here.
I presume it is the combination of my identities that do not quite puzzle piece together in the American psyche: my brown, resting bitch face, my death glares at manspreaders and ‘splainers, my hairy legs, my lack of an “Indian accent,” my buzz cut, and my profound excitement when I overhear conversations about that darn racist [insert any institution here].
The stares are unmistakable. And I am almost comfortable with the discomfort at this point. Never fitting the norm becomes a club of sorts; part of the queer initiation process. But just as I am about to check my latest Snapchat, the discomfort deepens. I remember that in a few weeks, my family will be visiting me from Pakistan, and I begin to sweat.
Wait — do they know I’m queer?
At this point, they have pretty much accepted that I am “different” as they like to call it. Perhaps they will think it is another one of my zany antics. I cringe at the thought.
As marginalized folk, we work towards determinacy in a white supremacist society that tells us what we are, what we are not, and what we will never be.
Similar to the onlookers on the train and the aunty at the cash register, my family is filled with a combination of confusion, pity and shame. Don’t get me wrong, I feel as lovingly accepted by a conservative Muslim family as anyone could ever be. But the complexity still exists and it is worth noting. Though our families move across land and sea to give us all the opportunities that they didn’t, it was not for us to be free, but for us to swallow whole the American [read: colonized] (wet) dream for the sake of survival. Meanwhile, my not-so-subtle comments around the dinner table about my interest in (maybe) marrying a man/woman/person go unnoticed. Perhaps they think that brushing it off is progressive. All I feel is dismissed. But, it is these very conversations that keep us moving towards something bigger.
I tell my Khala that I am queer.
“What is quo, qua…?”
“Queer. For me, it is a term that refers to people who do not identify as heterosexual or gender normative.”
“But aren’t you just confused?”
“Absolutely. But not for the reasons you might think.”
Categories determine our lives. As marginalized folk, we work towards determinacy in a white supremacist society that tells us what we are, what we are not, and what we will never be. Sexuality and cultural identity overlap and manifest in the same way. This intersectional relationship has me questioning myself that leads me down rabbit holes. My family fights on the colonial battlefield shouting “Assimilation!” as their war cry. I, on the other hand, attempt an anti-colonial agenda, desiring liberation for all of us. Deep sigh.
What folks don’t know is that this questioning and negotiating of self never stops. We, as folk with multiple marginalities, do not have the luxury of being seen, or heard, or understood even in spaces that claim safety for the queerly identified. Often, these spaces are made for white, queer folk, who ask too many invasive questions that I myself may not know how to answer, let alone desire to share with such emotional intruders.
It is for our collective liberation that I fight, and for the ancestors that paved the way for me.
Though the work with our families can often be excruciatingly painful, it is undoubtedly the most important. It has taken me years, lots of bloody conversations, support from my chosen family, and a great deal of radical self-love to get through it. It has helped for me to see my family as part and parcel of my work in the world. In the same ways that I push back on anti-blackness at the kitchen table, I must also put forth queer query. Just as I desire to engage the South Asian-American communities in critical dialogue about racism, classism, casteism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and sexism, so too are the topics of discussion at my family reunions.
Indeed, we co-exist, we love, and we are, at the end of our days, “family”. And it is for our collective liberation that I fight, and for the ancestors that paved the way for me. Though it is often the desire for us to dismiss these parts of ourselves to get free, we will only continue to fragment ourselves in the process if we do not acknowledge the work that is to be done within the familial and ancestral realm.
“Acha, I see. When I was growing up in Bangladesh, we didn’t have these gender and sexuality options. I was told I was a woman so I married a man, and that was it. Things could have been different if we had these options,” says my Khala.
Steady, deep breaths. And the work continues.
Leila Zainab (she/hers & they/them) is an activist, performing artist, freelance writer, and social justice consultant. Leila lives in Atlanta, GA with her partner and two cats. Follow Leila on Insta & Twitter: @QueerDesiFemme. www.leilazainab.com