Ajay Kusnoor recalls the fear he felt coming out to his Indian parents when he was a teen living in a predominantly white community in Texas. He was afraid of becoming an outcast and wondered whether his parents would ever speak to him again.
“A real fear for me was that it wasn’t going to end well,” Kusnoor said.
Unlike heterosexual relationships, queer relationships are not normalized in many South Asian American families.
For many in Kusnoor’s situation, coming out to immigrant parents, especially to South Asian parents, is not an easy task.
Kusnoor’s parents’ reaction was nothing like what he imagined — they flew out from Texas to attend his wedding to his husband. They’ve been happily married, he said with a smile, for three years.
When he moved to Los Angeles for law school, Kusnoor sought out a South Asian LGBTQ support group and came across Satrang, a nonprofit specifically for South Asians founded in Los Angeles in 1997.
Satrang — Hindi for “seven colors” or “rainbow” — was created to provide local support for the South Asian LGBTQ community through events that provide a feeling of welcoming.
Kusnoor attended a gala hosted by Satrang about a decade ago and said he was overwhelmed.
“For me it felt so unreal being in a space with a bunch of other queer South Asians,” Kusnoor said. “I have never found a community like this one in anywhere that I lived before.”
In addition to being a lawyer, Kusnoor is now Satrang’s arts and healing chair, in charge of finding spaces where the group can hold events.
Satrang’s goal is to provide a safe space for LGBTQ South Asians who do not have — or do not think they have — support at home, and to combat the feeling of invisibility, said Alicia Virani, the group’s president.
Every month, it hosts events ranging from a book club that reads books with South Asian LGBTQ characters, immigrant rights workshops, and transgender-safe groups.
When Arzeen Kamal, 37, immigrated to Los Angeles from Bangladesh five years ago, Satrang supported him with his journey coming out as gay, and also helped with his asylum case.
Kamal said he “feels more at home at Satrang” and relates to the experiences of others.
“It’s really about going somewhere and not having to explain yourself,” Virani said. “And not having to explain what it feels like to be the child of immigrant parents and coming out to them.”
Satrang’s annual club night at Hamburger Mary’s, a West Hollywood drag bar, made 21-year-old Jazz Kaur feel at home. Watching queer South Asians interact with their same-sex partners gave Kaur hope that this someday could be her.
“Being there made me feel so hopeful for myself and other queer South Asians that there are people who have created a blueprint for having a happy queer life,” Kaur said.
Kaur immigrated to the U.S. from India with her family and grew up in a household where she was unable to find a word that encapsulates her feelings and experiences. Words such as “LGBTQ,” “queer” and “gay” were not in her family’s vocabulary and made her feel isolated.
Kaur first embraced her Indian and bisexual identities marching at L.A. Pride with Satrang two years ago. Kaur felt the LGBTQ community was white dominated and seeing other LGBTQ South Asians at pride made her feel at home.
Some queer South Asian teens are not able to attend Pride with Satrang.
One reason queer South Asian teens believe they can’t be both South Asian and LGBTQ is because of an internalized cultural belief that South Asians were never LGBTQ.
“I kept getting threatened to get sent back to India because clearly I had been brainwashed by Western society and needed to learn my cultural traditions again,” said Sunjana, an Indian American teen who declined to provide her last name due to the fear of her parents.
Once her parents found out she was bisexual, they asked her “doesn’t that disgust you?” Sunjana’s parents said she lost a connection to her culture by idenitifying as bisexual.
This rhetoric of how the LGBTQ community was never part of South Asian culture is due in large part to an erasure of South Asian queer history, said Durba Mitra, Harvard University professor of women and gender studies.
“Through texts and textual traditions we see that there are many forms of same sex desire and many forms of gender expression that were part of everyday life in South Asia [before colonialism],” Mitra said. “We can’t say it was magical before colonialism and then colonialism took away the magic, but we can say there was more diversity in sexual practices.”
British colonial laws were tailored toward the major religions found in South Asia — Islam, Hinduism and Christianity, Mitra said.
“People perceive religion to be timeless but through so many forms and practices, we became stricter in our understanding,” Mitra said.
Many LGBTQ South Asian Americans say they feel unsafe in religious spaces. There are religious leaders who condemn the community in Southern California — for example, Upland Imam Marc Manley, who leads a small mosque called Middle Ground.
When asked in a interview about his personal thoughts on homosexuality, Manley called it “repugnant” and “disgusting.”
But others are taking a more open approach, that faith and queerness can coexist.
Imam Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed of the CALEM Institute in Marseille, France, is one of the few gay Imams in the world who is open about his sexuality. He teaches what he calls inclusive Islam.
Zahed said Islam has to become more inclusive or Islam will disappear.
“Islam is not the life, we are the life,” Zahed said. “We are Islam.”
Some queer South Asians said they feel conflicted by religion and feel the need to choose which part of their identity to remove.
“That’s where people find a home — by having a faith community — but then all of sudden feeling at odds with it,” Kusnoor said. “It’s a terrible thing to go through.”
Satrang, he said, understands this well.
“The reason for our existence is to fill that void for folks,” Kusnoor said.
For Sonya Kalara, a 21-year-old whose pronouns are they and them, being religious reinforces a South Asian queer identity.
“Claiming Hinduism made it easier for me to claim brown queerness,” Kalara said.
When Kalara discovered how there is queer history in Hinduism, they realized there was no need to “pick and choose” — they can be Hindu, South Asian and queer all at the same time and have an intersectional identity.
The need to “pick and choose” one’s identity comes from the lack of visibility of South Asians within the LGBTQ community.
“You almost never see South Asians represented,” said Diya, a 16-year-old Bangladeshi American who idenitifies as bisexual and declined to provide her last name for safety reasons. “It’s like, ‘is it just me?’ and I feel lonely.”
Diya remembers when she was 13 and a family friend at a wedding told her that someday she too will marry a “handsome Muslim desi boy.” Since then, she has felt as if she is living two different lives and fears coming out to her parents.
“Once I say those words out loud, it will change their perception of me,” she said. “The people who you always thought might be there for you might not be.”
Even in families that are accepting, the process of coming out can be a long one. Kalara’s mother supports them dating multiple genders, but to people above a certain age, Kalara still introduces themselves as “she.”
Satrang tries to be a bridge from the present to a future that is more inclusive.
Kalara remembers Family Fun day, a Satrang event, where South Asian LGBTQ couples normalized the queer South Asian experience simply by interacting with their partners and children.
“From a young age, I imagined myself with a wife and children,” Kalara said. “And if you don’t see that happen, it’s hard for you to envision that future.”