Pride month: ‘Body, Home, World’ documents stories of queer desis

Aashish Kumar
Aashish Kumar

Aashish Kumar leads campaign for greater awareness of toxic masculinity in the South Asian community.

For far too long gender diversity remained a consciously ignored topic in desi households in America. For a generation of South Asian Americans, who continued to create new strides in their professional identities in America, it was these little details back home that were left untouched and unexplored.

However, things began to change and as Americans too moved towards a more rational approach towards gender diversity, the LGBTQ causes began taking some space in South Asian narratives, even though it meant shaking up the apple cart a little bit.

As June marks the Pride month, we talk to Aashish Kumar, a Fulbright awardee who is leading a campaign to greater awareness of toxic masculinity in the South Asian community. His crowdfunding campaign will take place all of June, celebrating the month of Pride.

Kumar, a tenured Professor at the Radio, TV, Film Department at Hofstra University, recently created  www.bodyhomeworld.com  an interactive documentary portal that chronicles intergenerational stories about gender and sexual diversity in the South Asian diaspora.

Kumar talks to the American Bazaar about his documentary portal, the issue of queer conversations in South Asian communities and the need for LGBTQ activism among desis in America.

Read: US Embassy in India celebrates Pride Month by bathing its façade in rainbow (June 28, 2019)

American Bazaar: Tell us about your documentary portal BodyHomeWorld. Why did you choose this medium and do you think it is an effective way to reach not just the young queer in South Asian community but also the older generation?

Aashish Kumar: Back in 2010 an incident at Rutgers University resulted in a tragic death of a gay student Tyler Clementi.  Tyler’s suicide was triggered by a betrayal of trust by his South Asian roommate Dharun Ravi.

A lot was said in the courts about his complicity and lack of respect for the gay community. For me it wasn’t just about Dharun.  It made me think about all the young South Asians who may be growing up in homes where LGBTQ+ issues were either never brought up or were diminished or erased when encountered.

At that time my son was 10 years old, and even though ours was a progressive academic household, we weren’t discussing gay rights in the context of the South Asian or Indian community.

As a parent and as a filmmaker who had worked on civil and human rights films, it was clear that the path to bringing LGBTQ+ rights in a visible way to our living rooms had to involve families given how central they are in South Asian culture.

Having only produced traditional linear documentaries I initially framed this film project as a multi-character story about families with queer children.  Around this time I was also getting interested in new ways of documentary storytelling which were using creative coding to create user-driven narratives and distributing them freely online.

By “user-driven” I mean when viewers are recognized as having unique stakes in the story, are given multiple ways to start watching a story, and get to choose when, for how long, and on what device.  It seemed like the perfect solution to telling a story that clearly had two strong narrative lines each of which needed centering.

Families had their own process of understanding, communicating, and growing while LGBTQ+  individuals needed a space quite their own to describe their journeys.

The online interactive platform that I eventually chose does exactly that – places both narratives within the same space yet with their own distinct pathways that viewers are free to navigate between on their own time.

I chose to place these stories as part of a 3D digital mandala which is culturally resonant in the subcontinent as a representation of the cosmos.

Above all I wanted to create an artistic and innovative community resource that could be accessed freely in one’s private space, and could serve as a source of strength, visibility, and inspiration for both queer folks as well as family members learning how to live and embrace difference.

I am aware of the technical challenges posed by an innovative and experimental platform such as ours, and am working in our next phase of the project to create a simpler interface for those among us who prefer a more traditional method of viewing documentary stories.

AB:  The South Asian community in the US has made great progress in every possible field, but why do you think that when it comes to queer recognition and rights the community hasn’t been able to break barriers. What kept them closed?

AK: It is fair to say that All Americans have evolved in their thinking about gay-rights over the last two decades.  The changes have been sweeping if one thinks of one’s own lifetime – I remember Clinton’s proposal for civil unions and “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policies from the mid-90s and yet here we are with recognition of marriage-equality, anti-discrimination laws, and some big strides in media representations.

When it comes to the South Asian community, we confront two big levels at which this evolution has taken a different path. Firstly we need to recognize that as immigrants from a post-colonial society we came to this country with deep disruptions and distortions in our understanding of gender and sexual diversity.

In the wake of Colonial-era anti-sodomy laws, representations of sexuality and gender fluidity in our art, mythology, sculpture, and public discourse were completely erased and replaced with a rigid heteropatriarchal framework of thinking about the “normal” way of being.

Not to say that there weren’t already fertile grounds for such a framework among many sections of Indian society. Secondly, as immigrants who came into this country cherry-picked by a narrowly permissive immigration act in the 60s, we were defined largely by our status as a successful, professionalized minority.

If your self-perception cages you into performing that identity, any suggestion of deviation from this norm – whether it has to do with mental health, sexual or gender diversity, or as we are increasingly seeing, caste hierarchies – is seen as diminishing that identity and is responded to with denial or erasure.

Finally as immigrants we live in a media environment which for the last fifty-odd years has seen very little representation of people of color. It is only now – and largely due to the streaming revolution – that media representations of black and brown people are becoming more available.

In such an environment it is even harder to imagine, discuss, debate, reflect, and engage in difficult dialog – processes that all communities need to undergo as they evolve and experience generational changes.

AB: As a straight male documenting the journeys of coming out, were there any obstacles that you faced? Have there been any challenges?

AK: I think with any boundary-crossing comes the issue of accountability and trust.  I was keenly aware that my background and privilege were likely barriers in gaining access to these deeply personal stories that I wished to portray.

One has to remember that there is a long and ongoing tradition of stories of oppression and marginality being told poorly by those who have never experienced them.

Because of my prior work on civil and human rights with South Asian grassroots advocacy organizations, I had established myself as a filmmaker who is invested in highlighting our community’s struggles in a compassionate and open way.

I reached out to some of the same individuals to introduce me to LGBTQ+ networks and organizations.  You cannot undervalue trust – and oftentimes we trust the word of others who we value.

I always made sure that I explained why I was invested in this project, to take pains to describe how I myself have evolved in my ability to have conversations about sexual and gender diversity, and to be upfront that for me LGBTQ+ rights are human rights.

That I have just as much interest in defending brown communities against violation of their civil rights as I have in making us aware of our internal diversities which may need recognition and respect.

AB: What would you say about LGBTQ activism among the desis in America. Do you feel it has grown?  Any instances that made you believe that change may be near?

AK: In the space of the six or seven years since I began researching and working on this project I have seen a remarkable shift in desi activism on several fronts.

Read: A Sikh American’s rainbow-colored turban wins praise from Obama, becomes social media sensation (June 5, 2019)

The first wave of queer activism in the 80s and 90s led to the establishment of safe spaces and organizations like Trikone, SALGA, Khush DC, Satrang and others dedicated to serving issues encountered by queer brown people.

The second wave starting in the late aughts has seen the interpenetration of these issues in broader South Asian advocacy organizations such that there is now a recognition that these are not just queer issues, but South Asian issues just as important as voter registration drives, bias crime education, housing discrimination protection, and mental health advocacy.

Most importantly there are now organizations such as Desi Rainbow Parents and Allies and Parivar that have created space for families, trans individuals, and faith-based conversations, as well as organizations like Equality Labs that remind us of the intersections of caste, queer and trans identity, and challenge existing LGBTQ+ organizations to rethinking their rights-based compass.

These are indeed heartening advances but we have ways to go in our journey towards normalizing and respecting differences.

Body, Home, World: South Asian LGBTQ+ Journeys is a living history of our community’s sexual and gender diversity.  The project began as an independent creation funded by an assortment of small academic research grants but mainly driven by my investment of time.

In 2019 the project was awarded a small grant by the Department of State to create community engagement and conflict-resolution using art.  Because of the pandemic the grant activities were postponed till 2020 which is when two virtual events launching this project were held.

The first of these held on Feb. 24, 2020 was a premiere event in collaboration with Desi Rainbow Parents and Allies and attracted a diverse audience of activists, family members, and allies.

The inaugural story featured the journey of the Mehta family from Texas as told by Parag Mehta, a prominent desi activist, and his father Vijay Mehta.  The second event was held on April 18 in collaboration with Sweekar, The Rainbow Parents from Mumbai with parents and advocates joining us from India and Bangladesh.

The second story featured the transnational journey of Vaibhav Jain who came to this country as a public health graduate student and met a gay Indian-American (Parag Mehta), but had to encounter the complexity of bringing along his Indian family on their journey of acceptance and celebration.

The platform now has over an hour of documentary content which has been lauded by viewers and organizations. Since its launch the site has been accessed by viewers spread over 62 cities in 19 countries.  We are excited to make the entire digital diaspora our audience.

The task of keeping community resources such as “Body, Home, World” is a communal one.  With this in mind we launched a crowdfunding campaign that is running during Pride month to raise $7,500 which will go towards production, editing, music and online platform expenses.

Our future plans include adding two more stories to the North American edition, expanding the portal to include stories from the subcontinent and other parts of the diaspora, and creating a section that will accept submission of stories from desis throughout the world.

The crowdfunding campaign can be accessed here:  https://gofund.me/784f2249

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