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How queer South Asian American representation helps reduce community's stigma

"I think it's also sort of undoing a lot of that damage, of being able to see people — queer people — as people, not restricted to certain roles," one person said.
Lilly Singh Tan France and Jameela Jamil.
Lilly Singh, Tan France and Jameela Jamil.Getty Images

When “The Good Place” star Jameela Jamil came out last month, it was met with controversy surrounding her intentions and timing. But one factor that may have been eclipsed was the impact this could have for queer South Asian Americans.

Many South Asian Americans treat queerness as an "otherness," passing it off as an intangible Western concept. But prominent LGBTQ figures such as Jamil, “Queer Eye” star Tan France and Lilly Singh, host of "A Little Late with Lilly Singh" provide relatability and representation, members of the community say.

“It's this level of euphoric excitement, at least for me and at least for some of the folks that I'm talking to, around just seeing folks who look like that and who their parents could see and be like, ‘Wow, OK. So maybe this is a thing — this might be real,’” said Khudai Tanveer, membership organizer for the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance.

YouTube personality Andy Lalwani, 24, tells NBC News he feels inspired by France because he is an openly gay man who doesn’t shy away from his culture.

“I'm half Indian, and I don't really see a lot of people still on the internet that represent that,” Lalwani said. “So seeing some people who will relate to me, like Tan France, is the best example because he also does bring a lot of that stereotype down with how people who are South Asian men should dress, or should act.”

Lalwani himself runs a YouTube channel with nearly 10,000 followers, and he said people reach out to him because they think he’s busting stigmas, as the entertainment industry still often depicts Indian people as call center workers, doctors and other stereotypes.

“I think I've gotten messages myself, and I'm not, you know, as prominent as other people like Lilly [Singh] and others in the media, but people really are reaching for that person that they can relate to,” Lalwani said.

LGBTQ issues in South Asian cultures

Gowri Vijayakumar, an assistant professor of sociology and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Brandeis University, makes the point that South Asian and South Asian American communities are not uniformly repressive of the LGBTQ community, and that many strong social movements exist in South Asia today. But she also acknowledged the communities’ history of gender, sexuality and caste-based repression.

Vijayakumar said caste oppression has a long history in South Asia, and controlling sexuality is part of maintaining caste boundaries. She pointed out that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalized homosexuality until India’s Supreme Court struck it down in 2018, was a result of British colonial law.

“I think when the British were in India and South Asia, they thought of, you know, for example, transgender people as an example of, you know, sexual immorality, and they really wanted to repress it,” Vijayakumar said.

Representation: it's complicated

Some also feel like they have to pick one of the two identities — either South Asian or queer, explains Nikhil Londhe, the chairperson for the San Francisco branch of Trikone, a South Asian LGBTQ nonprofit. Seeing people such as Singh, France and Jamil who embody both helps spark conversations, he said.

“Growing up, I didn't even know what being gay meant,” Londhe said. “And the larger representations that you would see in films would just be these caricatures who would essentially either be preying on other men or be unnecessarily effeminate or just added there for comic relief. So I think it's also sort of undoing a lot of that damage, of being able to see people — queer people — as people, not restricted to certain roles.”

But many LGBTQ South Asian Americans don’t feel represented. Some criticized Jamil, who is half Indian and half Pakistani, for coming out amid controversy over her hosting HBO’s upcoming voguing competition show “Legendary,” as voguing has roots in the black LGBTQ community.

University of Texas, Austin, student Mayuri Raja said while she thought it was terrible Jamil was pushed to come out publicly, her role on “Legendary” takes away a spot from a queer black person who could better represent ballroom culture.

“I don't think she's completely in the right here, and I can understand why she felt like she had to come out to justify herself, but the problem isn't with her queerness,” Raja said. “It's the fact that she's South Asian, and not black.”

Raja said she doesn’t feel represented because she doesn’t see prominent LGBTQ South Asians leveraging their privilege to uplift other marginalized communities.

“To me, queer South Asian representation would actually be South Asian celebrities in the media who are embracing queer ideology and a radical leftist politics, who are allying themselves with other queer, black, indigenous, people of color folks, and using their platform to actually elevate these issues,” Raja said. “And I don't see that yet.”

Representation is just the beginning

Representation, of course, doesn’t simply fix everything. Washington D.C.-based data scientist Ritika Bhasker, 30, said they appreciate hearing South Asian-specific stories, like when France talks about his relationship with his parents. But Bhasker doesn’t feel the conversations mirror those they have with their queer South Asian friends.

“The conversations tend to begin and end with representation, or rather, not representation but the presence of South Asians on TV, or queer South Asians on TV,” Bhasker said. “And the conversations don't go any further on class, and privilege and a lot of other key things that are missing from this conversation that really need to be had before, I think, a lot of other people feel represented.”

For people like New York University drama student Neeta Thadani, 21, shows like “Queer Eye” help her educate her own family. She said a lot needs to be done for South Asian American families to understand what these issues look like in their culture.

“My story is completely different from Tan France's and Jameela Jamil's, but they're all still very valid because they show a scope of what being queer and South Asian could look like,” Thadani said. “And we've seen a lot of what being queer and white looks like. We've barely also seen what being queer and black looks like. I just think that those intersections can exist and they can happen.”

Representation was important for Thadani, who only realized she could see people who look like her in films after watching ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’ When she told her family and friends she wanted to be an actor, they would point out that ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ was a Bollywood movie — but Thadani wanted to be someone like Meryl Streep.

“But I never had an Indian version of that to look up to, and never really a queer version of that to look up to,” Thadani said. “So I do think representation is so important.”

Thadani doesn’t want to be defined by two aspects of her identity. She doesn’t want to see a South Asian American's on-screen coming out story focus on the protagonist’s race and sexual orientation or gender identity as a plot.

“One day, I hope we get to a place where I can, I mean, be out there in the world auditioning for things and being in things, and my whole selling point is not that I am brown and bisexual,” Thadani said.