By Shiva Subbaraman
Stories have so many beginnings.
The other day someone asked me, “so how did you end up becoming the founding Director of an LGBTQ Center at a Catholic institution?”—his question implying if not a sense of miracles, a clear sense of my marked status as an outsider to all of the communities he envisioned: I am not American, male, white, and most certainly not Catholic. It was also an unspoken call to justify why I might have been hired: a compulsion to reiterate my credentials. He could not understand, he said, what authority, and by implication, what authenticity I could possibly have to speak on behalf of.
He had no comprehension at all of all- girls’ catholic schools and colleges in India that
shaped the most formative 20 years of my life; that St. Thomas and St. Francis Xavier are household names where I grew up. That we have a small hill near where I lived called St. Thomas Mount, where he was martyred. I can tell you the differences between Franciscans and Dominicans and Jesuits and Benedictines. That the hallways of Georgetown University are more familiar to me than were the cornfields of the Midwest where I went to graduate school. I am silent.
I am silenced.
To me or my fellow Indians it does not feel so odd at all that I should now be working –a Tamilian Brahmin woman at a Jesuit school –doing LGBTQ work—that very paradox offering me the most creative space yet to re-make myself as madisaar dyke. (*madisaar =nine yard sari worn by Brahmin women).
I came to the US three decades ago. I came here rather than go to England to rid myself, I told myself, of my colonial education. And in these decades spent wandering the hallways of US academia in various avatars, I have come to realize that I was delivered like Caliban from my British colonial education only to be re-colonized by another—that of American multiculturalism.
I arrived a feminist: Mary Wollestencraft, Harriet Tubman, Virginia Woolf, Simone
DeBeauvoir, Sivasankari, Kannagi–wind under my feminist wings. I arrived a Brahmin, a feminist, a divorced woman, a Tamilian—each of these descriptors invoking a particular gestalt.
I became in the intervening years: the wrong Indian, an East Indian, a non-white Caucasian, a Third World citizen, a woman of color, an Indian American (to distinguish from American Indians), and most recently a South Asian. In the Sophoclean wisdom of the Immigration world, I was a Non-Resident Alien; and for close to two decades now I have been a Resident Alien. Now, when I go across spaces to what I still persist in calling home, I am not expatriate, not Tamilian, but have become quite simply a compact Americanized anagram: NRI–Non-Resident Indian; or increasingly, OCI (Overseas Citizen of India). I have grown to be a very brown alien bird.
I just recently learned the words for my queerness in my mother tongue (that no longer feels native): the words roll off my tongue self-consciously. Alien spaces that I must learn to occupy. Nangai. Orupaaliruppu; irupaaliruppu. Thirteen ways of looking at a queer brown feminist bird.
Of what exactly are we afraid to speak? In the US, I am constructed quite simply as South Asian, and in one of the following slots: L,G,B,T, Q. But my identity as a member of Khush (Indian word for LGBTQ) is neither simple nor singular.
We do NOT self identify as South Asian: we are Sri Lankan, Nepali, Bhutanese, Bangladeshi, Burmese, Afghani, Iranian, Malaysian, Pakistani, and Indian; we are Muslim, Sikh, Zoroastrian, Parsi, Buddhist, Hindu; we are from Bihar & Punjab (across borders) & Kashmir & Assam & Dacca & Khulna & Northwest Frontier Province & Jaffna & Trincomalee; and as if this were not quite enough we are Chettiar & Sunni & Gajjar & Brahmin & Sanketi & Burgher & Malay; and we are Tamilian from Tamil Nadu & Sri Lanka; and we can be Mirpuris & Saraswats. And of course we are FOBs and ABCDs and ABCDEFGs.
Why do I invoke this laundry list of identities?
I want to suggest that these are the unspoken histories of our identities as Khush—the hidden freight of our silences. Our understandings of ourselves is a dance at the intersections of all these multiple identities. In simple terms: we must understand our Khush identities in the context of our religion, caste, region, language, and geographies. And yet, by and large, much of what I speak about here is irrelevant and tangential to the US LGBT context, and remains subterranean to our community identity as we try to fit our many identities into the neat and angular acronym: LGBT.
The lives of heterosexuals are all about ANDs, not ORs. For over twenty years, I have been trying to “come out” in the US –as a Tamilian (whose cultural and political ethos was often marginalized in the national politics of that time); AND as a Brahmin (shaped by the anti-brahmin rhetorics and politics which gave me a particular sense of my privilege and put my marginalizations in context); AND as a feminist shaped as much by Sivasankari (a Tamil writer) as Virginia Woolf; AND as a woman married to a man who chose to walk in the queer world; AND as an activist and an academic. The US however demanded a somewhat uni-dimensional coming out: a singular, lean lesbian.
For those of us who live at the intersections of several identities, we often struggle to find a space we can call “home.” And often it seems that home is in those gaps. Those fissures. Those fragments. Our lives are lived parenthetically betwixt “ quotes.“ Despite our theoretical emphasis on intersections, we live in a binary world that makes our multiple identities oppositional. Conflicted. Competing.
Moments of simultaneity and wholeness are perhaps a gift in any world. And the few moments that I have felt “whole,” when I can be a sari and jean wearing Brahmin-queer-Tamilian-feminist who dances equally to the blues & bhangra, and listens seamlessly to MS and Lady Gaga—such moments have been rare and few. When I think about it, these would not be remarked upon in the hetero world at all, where such togetherness is an everyday, lived reality. Yet, in our world, it is infrequent. It should be our right to have—as individuals and as a community.
Our lives are about silences. Our lives—as trans, as kothis, as bisexual, as gender queer, as nangai, as lesbian, as gay—our lives are about silences. The silence of knowing and not-knowing; of acceptance and denial. The silences of our families and communities about all of who we are. And there are the silences within us—we are both silent and silenced by fear and by love: fear of our family and love of our family that holds us in thrall.
We must go where the silences are.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people — are NOT singular, single, alone, disconnected islands of people. Often our own parents are the first ones to discriminate against us in the gay and lesbian community; some of the parents grow to love us despite who we are; a few brave parents embrace, accept, and celebrate us, our friends, and our lives. We are part of families and we are families; we have and we are mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, siblings, grandparents, cousins and second cousins, and friends, and ancestors. We are part of the fabric of our world. So if we are counted with all of our families and friends, we are not 5% or 7% or 10% of our world. We are more. And we need to be counted differently.
So I want to use this moment to CALL OUT to our selves—to hold ourselves accountable to each other and for each other—because we are the community we seek to build and to find, and we are each responsible for and capable of building this community. We have to be that which we want to find. And that is the mystery and the paradox of our community work.
And that is why I think our places of coming out need to be spaces of coming together—of all of who we are and who we can be. But they also need to be places where we can grow into being and becoming all of who we are not. And creating such spaces is about making our universe large—so that such competing and conflicting binaries can come together as shimmering, shining possibilities. Each moment making possible the next.
Sivagami (aka Shiva) Subbaraman feels very privileged and honored to be the first Director of the LGBTQ Resource Center which was created in 2008. Since her arrival, she worked to offer a full palate of programming, support and educational trainings and workshops. She has worked extensively to build across differing communities and groups, and to weave their work into the larger tapestry. She has presented at several national conferences (ACPA, NASPA, JASPA, Expanding the Circle, Creating Change) on her experiences in doing LGBTQ work in a Catholic/Jesuit context, and has been invited to several campuses to serve in a consulting and advisory capacity.
Prior to coming to Georgetown, she worked as Associate Director, Office of LGBT Equity, at the University of Maryland. While there, Shiva co-developed and implemented the Rainbow Terrapin Training program, the LGBT Peer Education program, and Words of Engagement, an intergroup dialogue program. Shiva worked on the two-year Ford Foundation funded INTERACT (Intergroup Dialogue as Pedagogy Across the Curriculum) project, which integrates intergroup dialogues in curricula. Prior to this she worked as Assistant Director, Office of Human Relations Programs at UMD, and has also taught at Macalester College, Drake University, and University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.
She is a feminist activist, and serves on the board of several local community organizations. In her varied career, she is most happy to report that she also managed a coffee shop for several years that allowed her to continue her scholarship in a way that being an adjunct professor could not. She has also realized, much to her consternation, that there lurks “a geek” in her humanities soul.