There are other queer Desi people that have been brought up in the US, but even their experiences won’t be the same as mine.
Hi, I’m Darshan Shah. I’m from Lake Mary, Florida.
It was my sophomore year at the University of Florida. New to coming out, just kind of came out to my closest group of friends. We were on our way to my first gay bar. I went with a few other queer people that I had met on campus. It was probably maybe our third time hanging out together, and we went to the only gay bar in, I think, a hundred-mile radius. It’s called The University Club.
It’s a weird bar. You enter from the back. Seems appropriate for a gay bar, maybe. Go up the stairs and you’re greeted at the door by a lesbian, who’s just like, “It’s five dollars.”
I walked in the door, and there was this moment of feeling like I am not alone. That there’s a whole community of other queer people like me. I saw two gay men making out, super open, super comfortably. I saw just the kind of interaction between people as they tried to get to know each other, they were ordering drinks, and having that moment of excitement that I wasn’t alone. That there was a sense of community, that there were people out there.
Having a good time. The music’s great. I’m on the dance floor, loving it. As the night progresses, in what I now know is traditional gay bar fashion, shirts start coming off. Suddenly, the dance floor was an endless sea of just white gay men, with little hair, almost no body hair. Then there’s me, brown skin and body hair. The friends that I had come with, one of them clearly had shaved his chest, and it just made me start to think, “Should I be doing that? Should I be shaving my chest hair? Is this what I’m supposed to do because I’m gay?”
There was just an added layer in that moment of realizing, “I’m the only Indian person in this space. I’m the only person who has this level of body hair, who comes from an Indian background.” Suddenly, feeling super removed from that community. Suddenly, the music that was really great to dance to, felt not mine, and just something to bob along with. I left pretty quickly after that. I was like, “This isn’t my space any more.”
Fast forward, five years of trying different gay bars, making different communities of friends, I moved to Chicago for grad school. I was invited by someone on Grindr to this queer Bollywood party. I didn’t know anyone going, but I was like, “I’m going to go. I just have to show up. It doesn’t matter.”
Got to this little bar that was outside of the Boystown area, and walked through the door. I was greeted at the door by a drag queen. Had her chest hair out. She was wearing a bindi and a sari that was, like, mostly well-pleated, and she shoved a samosa in my face, and was like, “Eat up. You’re too skinny.”
Suddenly, there was something that was so familiar to my culture. Something that every skinny Indian kid knows, that the auntie that’s like, “Honey, you need to eat a little more.”
There was music playing from songs that I had listened to growing up at home. Things like Dum Maro Dum that are just so iconically Bollywood. Just feeling that sense of, “Wow.” There’s like… “This is my community.” Suddenly, it’s a community of queer Desi people that listen to the kind of music I do, eat the kind of food I do. Once again, you find me on the dance floor, the place that I am super happy, and just jamming out to the Bollywood music.
As I talked to all of these queer Desi people, I realized that they were all born in India. One of them suddenly hinted at, “But you were born here. You’re American. This isn’t your culture either. This is a version of Indian culture but you’re American.”
There was also this sense of have I gone too far? Am I too gay? Everyone was still a little reserved. There was this feeling of am I being too feminine? Am I being too expressive with my style of dance? It was just a sense of why in this space that’s supposed to be queer and Bollywood, do I have to not be queer and Bollywood?
It was weirdly the same experience that I had in Gainesville of feeling like I found a community, feeling like I was engaged, and then suddenly feeling removed from that community very quickly. I didn’t know what to do with that. I didn’t know how to process that feeling of, is this… do I belong here? Do I belong anywhere? Do I have to be born in India and Desi, or do I have to be a white hairless twink? How do I find my little part of this rainbow of a community?
So, now, however many years later, after having these two starkly different but kind of the same experiences, of feeling like I found a community and then realizing it wasn’t perfectly aligned with who I am, I feel like I now go to queer things, to Desi things, to queer Desi things, and just feel like Why do I try to make everything fit perfectly to who I am? It doesn’t have to. If my personality is multifaceted, why can’t my experiences be multifaceted? Why can’t I find that thing that connects me with this particular piece of a community and just celebrate that?
There are other queer Desi people that have been brought up in the US, but even their experiences won’t be the same as mine. So, if someone wants to come and dance Bollywood and in their full-fledged… all the femme, all the color, all the movement, they should feel loved and welcomed and accepted. I’ll probably be right there with them dancing.
Today, I go out and volunteer and try to create events that are queer and Desi, and that might be a Bollywood party, that might be a potluck dinner, that might be just a conversation with someone. But making sure that there’s that moment of you’re not alone. I may not be able to relate to every part of you, but I relate to you somehow.