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A Push for Visibility : New Collection of Writings Addresses Problems of Gay South Asians

April 21, 1993|SOMINI SENGUPTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rakesh Ratti wanted to publish the book that might have freed him from an anguished youth in a rural Northern California town. The youngest of seven children of farmers from North India, the 34-year-old writer grew up in Yuba City, puzzled at how he could be both Indian and gay, feeling lonely and misunderstood.

Inspired by that memory of isolation, Ratti's just-released "Lotus of Another Color: An Unfolding of the South Asian Gay and Lesbian Experience" is the first collection of writings by gay, lesbian and bisexual Indians and Pakistanis.

"If this book were on the shelf, it would have shown me that being gay was not at conflict with being Indian, that the two could coexist," says Ratti, a psychology graduate student who lives in Atlanta. "It would have given me the hope, that even though I was stuck in this little redneck town, I would encounter others like me.

"Gay, lesbian and bisexual South Asians are basically invisible in the South Asian community and in the mainstream gay and lesbian community," he says. "This is really an opportunity to make ourselves more visible, and to define ourselves on our own terms."

Coming to celebrate a literary event of their own for the first time, a handful of South Asian gays and lesbians gathered last month at A Different Light Books in West Hollywood for readings by Ratti and the book's other Southern California contributors. They listened to the writers intently, shaking their heads at moments of recognition.

"I used to feel like I had to lose my Pakistani-ness to be gay," said a 22-year-old Pakistani-American after the reading. "I feel like I've lived in a no-man's land, I've been an expatriate. Now there's a brand-new world that I had never imagined existed."

What makes the South Asian gay experience in America unique, Ratti says, is not just having to face homophobia in the South Asian subculture or racism in the largely white gay subculture, but the intersection of the two.

Most South Asians struggle with a fierce loyalty to family and a culture that shies away from issues of sexuality in general and views homosexuality in particular as an undesirable Western influence, he points out. For many South Asians in America, losing one's family, besides severing cultural ties, can mean losing protection from the racism they face as immigrants in this country.

Within the gay community in the West, Ratti says, South Asians feel ignored or stereotyped--as exotic at best, submissive at worst.

"If you are a minority here, especially if you haven't been brought up here, it's definitely a big issue to break ties with your family," says a 30-year-old Los Angeles man who writes in the book under the name Ankur.

"A Lotus of Another Color," published by Boston-based Alyson Publications, is a disparate collection of essays, poems and photographs by Indians and Pakistanis living in the United States, Britain and Asia. There are intimate accounts of coming out to their families, stories by Indian-American lesbians feeling exoticized by their white lovers, interviews with prominent gay activists such as Urvashi Vaid, a native of India and the former executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington, D.C., and lists of South Asian gay organizations.

Exploding the myth of homosexuality as a foreign import, there are photos of classical Indian sculpture celebrating gay encounters and a historical essay that uncovers homosexuality in Indian philosophy and religions by introducing gay and lesbian figures in the South Asian past, pointing to chapters on homosexuality in the Kama Sutra, even "outing" 16th-Century Muslim Emperor Babar.

"Most South Asians today seem to have forgotten that part of our history," says Ratti. As the Victorian mores of the British colonialists linger in South Asia, sexuality is not discussed in the open and "to bring up the subject of homosexuality then is to also open up that box of goblins that they're so afraid of."

While it is too early to gauge how the South Asian community in this country will react to the book, its contributors expect that many people will be supportive.

"I think, fundamentally, Indians are more open-minded, although we have our share of homophobes," says Arvind Kumar, the openly gay editor of the magazine India Currents, which gave the book a favorable review in its latest issue.

On the other hand, says Ratti, "a large part of the community is trying to be a model minority, and anything that portrays any part of the community as being aberrant in their eyes (they think) is going to undermine their status."

Ratti has an older sister and teen-age nieces and nephews who are supportive. Two brothers have refused to talk to him since the book came out and relations with his generally accepting mother have been strained. His father cut him off years ago when Ratti came out.

"At some point, we make a choice," says Ratti. "Do we do what we need to maintain our self-respect and integrity, which may mean having people cut us off, or do we give in . . . in order to keep those connections in our lives?"

Not all of the book's contributors chose to pay the price Ratti did. Many used pseudonyms.

Ratti sees the book as a symbol of a community emerging out of the shadows. But he also sees it as a political tool, challenging the gay community to deal with its racist stereotypes about South Asians and the South Asian world to confront its homophobia.

"If they (South Asians) take the time to read the book, perhaps . . . they will see to what degree we are an intrinsic part of their families," he says. "And given that, they can't simply shrug us aside."

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