My child came out to me several times, from early childhood to adulthood, before I actually understood what he was saying. When he told me, as a 6-year-old child, that he was a boy, rather than the girl he had been assigned as at birth, I explained it away as him being a tomboy. When he told me he was gay in middle school, I told him it was a phase, and he would get over it. It was only when he was in high school that I began to take what he said seriously.
After all, what does a child know about their sexual orientation or gender identity, right? It turns out, a lot. One’s internal sense of gender identity is felt by age 3, and you know which genders you are attracted to by age 10. But my obtuseness is not unusual, in fact, it’s the norm in South Asian families. We carry a lot of fear and shame about LGBTQ+ identity linked to what we were taught by our families and the culture we are raised in. Our ignorance might be understandable, but it is also harmful. LGBTQ+ children have high rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide due to familial and social rejection. Almost half of all transgender youth contemplate suicide. Losing family support also means a greater chance of problems at school, running away from home, living in poverty, being vulnerable to violence and assault.
As I learned more about LGBTQ+ identity, I began to learn that I, a middle-aged Indian American, was capable of growth and understanding as a parent and as an ally to the community. My instincts and training as a mental health advocate gave me insight into how to help other families on the same journey as I was. I began to seek out and was welcomed into South Asian American LGBTQ+ spaces, and the outpouring of affection and need was extraordinary. I discovered a loving, vibrant community where Desi LGBTQ+ folks hugged me, called me “Aruna Aunty” with love and pride.
LGBTQ+ identity is nothing new in India (or anywhere else in the world). From ancient temple sculptures depicting gay sex to the existence of “third gender” communities, LGBTQ+ people in the subcontinent have always been visible. The current shame and stigma attached to these identities resulted from colonial efforts to criminalize sexuality or gender expression that deviated from cisgender and heterosexual norms. However it originated, it’s time for us to change before we cause any more damage to our children.
Desi Rainbow Parents & Allies was incorporated as a non-profit organization on October 7, 2020, and in one year, the number of people who attended support groups and events has grown from 200 to over 1000. The pandemic forced our work to become virtual, and that actually helped us grow into a global community. People join our online support groups from all over the United States, Canada, and other countries.
Desi Rainbow’s work is in building intergenerational support networks for both LGBTQ+ folks and parents who have faced rejection; in teaching community organizations about allyship; advocating for equality and in providing possibility models for LGBTQ+ kids and their families.
We run unique programs that center Desi LGBTQ+ people, such as a Story Time for young children and their families to learn inclusion and allyship, and regularly host talks with Desi LGBTQ+ possibility models. We host queer-inclusive celebrations of holidays such as Dussehra, Gurpurab, Christmas, and Eid to bring together LGBTQ+ folks with allies and celebrate our faith and family. We have initiated a Peer Support program called Saathi, where LGBTQ+ folks and parents offer personal support to those seeking help for coming out, learning acceptance, and family conflict. All our work is volunteer-run, with LGBTQ+ people and allies offering their time and skill to build community-based support.
My allyship journey has also brought me to a place where I have built a strong, loving, relationship with my transgender, pansexual child. I am so proud of him, and of all our LGBTQ+ kids for having the courage to live their truthful, authentic lives.
Aruna Rao is the proud mother of a transgender child who is dedicated to creating a loving, inclusive world for LGBTQ+ people. Aruna is the Founder and Executive Director of Desi Rainbow Parents & Allies, an organization dedicated to creating awareness of gender and sexual diversity in the South Asian diaspora. She also serves on the national Board of PFLAG.