Tracing Their Stories: The Role of Indian Diaspora Activists in the United States’ Queer Movement

Tracing Their Stories: The Role of Indian Diaspora Activists in the United States’ Queer Movement

October 29, 2022 | Author: Shalaka Laxman

The role of Indian-Americans is often neglected when it comes to the LGBTQ
movement in the US, despite the significant presence of the diaspora and India’s rich
history of LGBTQ acceptance.

Gender fluidity was a recognized concept in ancient India. Queerness can be traced
back in Indian history, from ancient epics and scriptures to medieval prose, poetry, and
art. Besides literary proof, India also has plenty of visual depictions of homosexuality.
The most striking example is in Khajuraho town in the central state of Madhya Pradesh,
where the Chandela dynasty built a temple complex around 950 AD and included erotic
sculptures that vividly portray homosexuality. Similar temple art can also be seen in the
13th-Century Sun Temple in Konark in the eastern state of Orissa and Buddhist
monastic caves at Ajanta and Ellora in the western state of Maharashtra.

These explicit portrayals of homosexuality were shocking for the British colonizers, who
tended to control such overt displays of sexuality. Consequently, the British prohibited
consensual ‘homosexual conduct’ by introducing Section 377 in the Indian Penal Code
in 1861. However, criminalizing homosexuality reflected European principles based on
religious sentiments (primarily Christian beliefs) more than Indian instincts.

Fast-forwarding to a century later, South Asians had begun migrating in waves to
different parts of the world, with the United States slowly building a South Asian
diaspora community. Queer South Asian-Americans also started coming together and
organizing after The Stonewall Uprising. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the community
started connecting through broader movements, such as the women’s movement and
Asian American or people of colour spaces. By the late 1980s, gay South Asian groups
started forming across the nation in San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles, and
internationally in London, Toronto, Delhi and Bangalore. Trikone magazine also
launched in 1986 and offered a supportive, empowering, and non-judgmental
environment for LGBTQ South Asians and their allies to connect. By the 1990s,
conferences like Pride Utsav in New York and San Francisco and events like Toronto’s
Desh Pardesh wove queerness into their cultural and arts programming and united
South Asian activists across the country.

Activists are essential players in the queer South Asian-American narrative, and Urvashi
Vaid was a visionary with a tireless passion for her work in the LGBTQ+ rights space.

 

Urvashi Vaid was an Indian-born American LGBTQ rights activist, lawyer, and writer. An
expert in gender and sexuality law, she held a series of positions at the National LGBTQ
Task Force, serving initially as its media director before becoming its executive director.
Vaid began her career as a staff lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union before
holding various roles in advocacy groups, academic organizations and philanthropic
foundations. She fought extensively for LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, anti-war efforts,                                                                                        immigration justice and health care justice, among other social causes. She published
numerous columns, reports and books, including ‘Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of
Gay and Lesbian Liberation’ which won the Stonewall Book Award in 1996. Urvashi
Vaid died of cancer on May 13, 2022, and is survived by her longtime partner, political
humorist Kate Clinton.

Other notable LGBTQ figures such as Lilly Singh, Tan France, and Alok Vaid-Menon
have helped bring the South Asian-American queer experience to the mainstream and
provided the community with relatability and representation.

 


Lilly Singh is a Canadian comedian, actress, talk show host, and YouTuber who
previously appeared under the moniker Superwoman, her YouTube username. Born
and raised in Scarborough, Ontario, Singh began making YouTube videos in 2010 and
went on to host "A Little Late With Lilly Singh," making her the only woman and openly
LGBTQ person to host a late-night broadcast television show.

 


Tan France is a television personality, fashion guru, and style expert of Netflix’s
renewed Queer Eye series. Born Tanveer Safdar, Tan grew up in a strict Pakistani
Muslim family in South Yorkshire, England. When he was seven years old, he visited his
grandfather’s denim factory and fell in love with fashion. As an adult, Tan moved to
London and worked corporate jobs for major retailers like Zara, Selfridges, and Chanel.
After taking a leap and moving to the United States, he succeeded as an independent
fashion designer, starting the fashion lines Kingdom & State and Rachel Parcell Inc.

 


Alok Vaid-Menon is a gender nonconforming writer and performer who grew up in
Texas to Indian immigrant parents. They use their creativity and platform to explore
gender, race, trauma and belonging themes, championing and bringing visibility to the
trans community. Alok Vaid-Menon is Urvashi Vaid’s nephew, and says their aunt was
their first ‘queer protector.’ In 2017, Alok released their inaugural book of poetry,
‘Femme in Public,’ a meditation on harassment against transfeminine people.

 


Shalaka Laxman works as a Product Manager in London, focusing on developing sustainable financial products for large corporates. Before moving to London, she previously lived in New York and graduated with a B.S. in Commerce from the University of Virginia in 2014. Outside the day job, she writes a weekly newsletter with the latest developments in the sustainability space and runs By Shax, her own independent, conscious art and homeware brand. Shalaka grew up in Dubai before heading to the U.S. for university and enjoys reading, traveling, and all things cat-related, alongside time with family and friends.