Published in Trikone magazine
From the moment we are born, we have voice. We come out crying, babble while crawling, and as the years go by, form complex sentences with dual meanings.
We use our words as weapons – both to protect our experiences and to defend against disapproval. But when we are faced with the most crucial moment, we find ourselves unarmed. Not unlike closing our eyes to settle a mind full of thoughts, we are shot to silence when we have the most to say.
South Asian Parent launched the #CanWeTalkAboutThis campaign to encourage families to break that silence, to brave issues otherwise dusted in denial or cloaked under crooked smiles.
We are masters of pretense but often ill-equipped to address reality. It was this that inspired us to create the visual to convey the presence of the South Asian gay population. You can flip away an article or change the channel, but if you see a person in front of you, you’d find it hard to look away.
The visual stands as a reminder to all those who find it difficult to address homosexuality in their homes that one day or another they will face a person or situation that will force their hand. That person could be their child, and words will have to be spoken.
It would be presumptuous, however, to mistake South Asian parents’ silence for negative judgment. More often than not, hesitation to have the ‘homosexual conversation’ is borne of fear and the inability to maneouver in a foreign language: the language of sexuality.
South Asians barely talk about sex, regardless of who’s having it. If we then have to talk about it between people traditionally unpaired, as inhabitants of an older generation, we are at the height of our discomfort.
Words roll painfully off our tongue and what we say is misinterpreted.
But from my conversations with many South Asian parents, including my own, I have found that words don’t always have to be weapons. In most cases, they are the only tools we have for tolerance.
I don’t know what to call them. Are lesbians also called gay?
Many parents don’t know what to call the LGBTQ community. Often the words to describe that population in South Asian languages sound crude and offensive. Unable to translate them into English in a politically correct manner, parents are unsure how to address the people they want to talk about.
Is it a choice, a phase, a problem? How do they know?
In describing to my mother why some gay people don’t like the term sexual preference or choice, I asked her if she had ever made a conscious decision to be heterosexual.
“If someone told you from now on you can only be attracted to women, would you be able to? If it’s a choice, can we all change it at will?”
She nodded in agreement, for the first time realizing sexual feelings could not be controlled. And that if you were forced to act in opposition to what you felt, it would be unbearable to imagine, let alone live out. My mother never had anything against the LGBTQ community, accepting it without knowing much. But this conversation changed her understanding from simple acceptance to sincere support. I’ve since heard her explain this exact concept to other parents.
Will he end up unmarried and alone? What if it’s harder for her to find a job?
In true parental fashion, an overwhelming barrier is fear. Fear their child won’t be accepted in society as ‘normal’ or be branded with a lifetime label that will disable their progress.
The only way to overcome this is by demonstrating that trapping children in the confines of who they are not rather than who they are is far more dangerous.
Solutions can sometimes sound unrealistically simple, and though the root of a problem can be reduced to a sentence, it’s the steps to getting families towards the small realizations needed for greater understanding that are most difficult.
And because words can be both our mortal enemies and best friends, we play safe and use them sparingly.
#CanWeTalkAboutThis wants to disarm that hesitation, to show that those awkward conversations and frustrating arguments are necessary. It takes time and the ability to endure pain from the people you love most, but the reward eventually comes.
In almost every parenting challenge – be it letting your child have a best friend of the opposite sex, use Facebook to post pictures of themselves at parties, or marry a person of a different religion – exposure is what eventually leads to understanding.
Of course, the downside is that responsibility falls on the people hurting most, the children who just want their families to accept them as they are. But if we look at the larger picture of happily-ever-after, it’s a small price to pay for being yourself, whether that be a homosexual, a doctor who switched professions to become a dancer, or a housewife who can no longer sacrifice her ambitions for her child.
Confidence is infectious. But if we waver in our desires, we simply proliferate our parents’ fears. We cannot expect our parents to defend our choices to the world if we cannot even muster the courage to defend our choices to them.
Many gay people are inspired by watching videos or hearing stories of others who have come out to their families. If it’s not enough motivation to brave difficult conversations for your own sake, think how your words might help build a language your own gay child, nephew or granddaughter could use.
Talk about yourself with your parents, and not only about sexuality. Open your heart. Explain that gay partners can love each other with the same intensity and commitment as any other couple. Invite curiosity. Don’t take offense at questions that sound judgmental. Divulge details. It is possible parents just don’t know how it all works. Think the best of your family, not the worst, despite their actions. We don’t need two sides fighting with nuclear weapons.
And at the end of the day, all words will have to be erased in order to truly feel. It could take one amazing conversation, a few heartfelt letters, or even ten years of being disowned – but the time will come when you’ll be able to sit in front of your family in silence, holding the hands of your partner. The acceptance will be unspoken.
And if that time never comes, it’s OK to surround yourselves by the people who see you as you are, and not as they wish you to be. After all, even parents will admit that family members are not always your strongest allies.
South Asian parents will eventually recognize, as the gay voice speaks louder and more honestly, that their barriers will only disable their own children. They won’t be able to look away at the strength of a younger generation who faced its fears for the sake of a future one. They will learn the language of sexuality, homosexuality and love. And one day, better words will be spoken.