“I was pretty homophobic growing up,” says Mala Nagarajan. She thought homosexuals were child molesters and mentally ill. It was a tough reconciliation for her since she was simultaneously trying to understand her own feelings for women.
Nagarajan is one of three co-directors for the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance, NQAPIA. She was deeply involved in organizing “Transgress Transform and Transcend,” the first-ever national-level conference for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ) Asian Americans, South Asians and Pacific Islanders on August 14-16 at the University of Washington.
What hurts these communities is there is no culture to talk about these issues, says Nagarajan. “Somehow, if we talk about them it becomes real.”
Norma Timbang, one of the coordinators for “Transgress Transform and Transcend,” says the conference is an opportunity to talk about issues that specifically affect the queer Asian Pacific Islander (API) community, such as marriage equality, immigrant rights, social identity and rights in the work place.
The chance for people to come together with common goals is a great way to jump-start a social movement and make sure the API LGBTQ community’s voice is heard, says Timbang.
It is a voice that is often misunderstood, evident through Timbang’s stories.
Timbang, who identifies as queer, is Filipino American. She says within the API/Filipino community there is “very little understanding of what it means to be queer.”
“People assume I am lesbian, but I’m not,” says Timbang. People assume she has no family, but in fact she has two grown children, a grandchild and is expecting another one any day.
Timbang first revealed her identity to the Caucasian lesbian and bisexual community in the 1970s. She then hid her identity in the early ’80s when she decided to get married and have children. It was a secret she kept for 15 to 20 years.
There is a strong influence of Catholicism in the Filipino community, says Timbang, which comes with moral judgment. This led to situations where Timbang was called a sinner to her face and felt there was a limit to her freedom of expression during events like the Gay Pride Parade. But she also noticed API/Filipino community members come out in support during the parade. Timbang credits that to education.
She stresses being an ethnic minority because she is exposed to the same discrimination as any other API, a point of mutual understanding.
But she found only partial understanding from her family. She revealed her identity again after her parents passed away. Her family had a mixed reaction. Two of her siblings understood and accepted her, the rest did not.
For Nagarajan, this conference plays an important role along these lines; to give one another the courage to speak with their families.
It was a struggle for Nagarajan’s parents to understand their daughter and for Nagarajan to understand herself. It required a reconciliation of sorts for two cultures.
Nagarajan comes from a traditional South Indian family. Her family moved to the U.S. in the 1960s because, in part, her father worried about dowry for all of his daughters and wanted them to get an education.
As Nagarajan discovered her identity she thought, “I should belong to a mental institution because I shouldn’t have the feelings that I do.” It was difficult for her to reconcile external and internal expectations as an Indian American, an issue that can affect anyone, straight or not.
This internal struggle led to cycles of depression through her life and suicidal thoughts when she was 16. Nagarajan says she was so scared of herself and who she was.
However, Nagarajan started to explore the gay and lesbian community. She saw people lead a normal life and began to see a future for herself.
But culture and identity fractured when Nagarajan came out in 1991. She was 23 years-old. She divorced herself from her Indian roots, ones that she had recently started exploring. She says there is a feeling of disconnection from the ethnic community because homosexuality is not accepted and not talked about; the sense is that it will bring shame to the family.
Her parents struggled as well. Her mother continued to try and “change” her and her father would not enter Nagarajan’s home where she and her first partner lived.
“It’s a long journey,” says Nagarajan. Particularly for Asian families, there are no cultural references regarding a situation like this. But there is the expectation of a traditional heterosexual marriage and children. Immigrants try to retain their culture and hold onto societal values they came here with, without recognizing how much their home countries have changed, says Nagarajan.
But much has changed for Nagarajan. She had a Hindu wedding with her partner who she has been with for 11 years. Her parents now invite her and her partner to stay with them and visit, to be a family. She thought it would never happen.
My “parents [were] willing to examine their own values, where they came from and examine their own belief and reconcile both things with their children’s life,” says Nagarajan.
Her father says he may never accept his daughter’s lifestyle, but he loves her. The turning point for her mother, says Nagarajan, was when her mother spoke on a parent panel for South Asian queers back in 2000. She related her story of how she couldn’t accept Mala as a lesbian; how she blamed her husband for this; how they should have gotten Mala married. After she spoke, there wasn’t a dry eye in the audience. It was a story all too familiar. This is when she started to question, how can we hurt our children like this?
From then on, she resolved to believe that her daughter was okay, she didn’t need to try to change her. “This is her dharma (duty).”.