Illustrations by Stephanie Cheng

South-Asian, queer and new to life in Toronto—it’s complicated

Avneet Sharma wondered if he’d always have to choose between being gay and being Indian

I’ve always loved pop culture but bemoaned the lack of queer South Asian representation in film and TV. My third year in Toronto, after moving from Bolton, Ont., to study film, the most relatable on-screen images for me were those of the two Sri Lankan victims of the Bruce McArthur murders in the gay village at Church and Wellesley. My unease each time the victims’ headshots flashed on the TV screen was compounded by the fact that no news outlet ever explored the effect of the serial homicides on the queer South Asian community—on people like me.

Living independently from my Indian-Canadian family for the first time, I felt like this unfolding news story cast a dark shadow over my experience of being young, queer and South Asian in the city. I’d hoped to find belonging in a diverse city like Toronto, but in those early days, I wondered if I was ever going to be seen as fully human, or just as the type of guy who fell victim to some man’s sadistic fantasies.

Before the move, I’d looked forward to having more freedom for exploration, both sexually and romantically, than I’d had under my parents’ roof. However, my experiences using dating apps to meet people in the city only reinforced the fears those McArthur victim images struck in me.

Dating apps such as Grindr often set up situations in which I’d chat with men, only for things to quickly turn uncomfortable. I often got the feeling, when guys started getting explicit in their chat without my consent, that they only seemed to want to get to know me because they fetishized brown men. I’m not sure if they made me feel better or worse than those men who brushed me off, with words that made it clear they held disdain for Indians.

Many of the feelings of being either insulted or dismissed for who I am, that first year, felt all too familiar. My middle school years in small-town Ontario were rough. I was mercilessly ridiculed for everything from enjoying The Devil Wears Prada (still love it!) to having Bollywood songs on my laptop.

Illustration of a south asian family sitting around a table with pride colours

After being outed before I was ready in the eighth grade, I’d eventually found an accepting niche in the gay-straight-alliance at my high school. It was great to finally have people to talk with about my sexual identity, but, much like my high school in general, it was a very white space. I didn’t feel that the conversations we shared in that group encapsulated the experiences I was having with oppression: In a sense, I felt like an outsider among outsiders.

Beyond school, I’d find myself at family gatherings surrounded by Indian cousins who’d use homophobic slurs to insult each other while playing the video game Super Smash Brothers. The feeling of belonging and not belonging in both groups established a dichotomy for me between being queer and being Indian that hasn’t fully gone away.

Back then, I felt like I had to choose between being Indian and being gay. So, I chose gay. It was only after moving away from home that I started to regret how disenfranchised I’d become from my cultural heritage. I barely spoke Hindi or Bengali (my parents’ languages); I hadn’t watched a full Bollywood film in years; and I had very few friends of Indian heritage at university.

A big shift happened for me last summer, when I started performing in drag. For my act, I named myself Kala Rani (Hindi for “Art Queen”), with the surname Chakravarthi, a Hindu Bengali name that pays homage to my dad’s Hindu Punjabi heritage and my mom’s Muslim Bengali background. It was the first time I’d engaged in a queer activity while also incorporating my Indian identity. I no longer wanted to have to forsake my cultural heritage to go deeper into my queer identity, and it felt good to marry these two fundamental parts of who I am in such a public way.

After doing a few drag performances at The Beaver and The Drink, I was contacted by Anu Radha Verma, who was curating performers for brOWN//out, the South Asian heritage stage at Pride Toronto. She asked me to perform, and I said yes. This experience would allow me to do a mash-up of Cheryl Lynn’s song “Got to Be Real” and the “round chapatis” scene from Bend It Like Beckham on stage. I was excited: Not only was this gig happening during Pride, but I would also get paid—paid to be me!

Through this experience, I met fellow brown drag performers Tifa Wine and MangHoe Lassi. Off-stage, we discussed our struggles with family, how we didn’t feel in our element on Church Street, and the best queer-friendly places to purchase saris. This made me feel less alone in the world. For once, I could be both gay and Indian at the same time.

Illustration of a south asian family hugging in front of a window

Shortly after making those connections and experiencing the sense of belonging I’d hoped for when I first moved to Toronto, I deleted all the dating apps from my phone. For the past year, my experiences of queerness have mostly been academic: I became interested in queer theory, and this field will be central to my thesis.

My parents have always been tremendously invested in my education, but now that I’m taking classes like Queer Writing, Queer Spectatorship, and Sex in Cinema, it’s really hard for me to talk with them about school. The irony of not being able to share details about my studies with Mom and Dad at the point where I’m finally as enthusiastic as them about academia is not lost on me.

While I’m out to my siblings now, I still haven’t come out to my parents. I’m not sure if they know I’m gay and are in denial, or if they genuinely have no idea. When it’s relevant I will tell them, but the fact I haven’t yet means I do lead a double life of sorts—though I don’t like the connotations of being sneaky or duplicitous in that term. Obviously, my parents know I have some kind of personal life, and I suspect that even if I were straight, I wouldn’t discuss my romantic life with them until I was in a serious relationship. As it stands, it’s just something that is unspoken in our house.

I’m not as worried about opening up to my parents as I used to be. However, it took me almost a decade to get to this place. Having other queer South Asians in my life has helped me figure out how to integrate different aspects of who I am, rather than choose which side to inhabit at any given time.

A few months ago, I saw the movie Bohemian Rhapsody for the first time. Though there are many aspects of the film that are flawed to me, from a queer perspective, there was one scene that resonated. In it, Freddie introduced his brown family to his partner Jim Hutton. The way that scene dealt with coming out in the context of a family tea with mithai (Indian sweets) made me tear up. This tiny scene in a long film validates the intersectionality of being gay and being brown. I wish I’d seen that type of on-screen representation when I was much younger. Feeling seen and represented in ways that inspire hope goes a long way to making you feel less alone.

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