Letters to the South Asian Community
ON LIVING WHILE HIV POSITIVE | BY ANONYMOUS
Like many others, 2020 has been a very reflective year for me and as December 1st will mark the 32nd Annual World Aids Day, I am reflecting on my experiences as a Gay, HIV-positive man. 2020 will always be the year dominated by a new virus, COVID–19, which has widely changed the landscape of human life. There have been various parallels drawn between the two viruses, but for me, the fear of the unknown and, with that, developing a fear of each other is one of the most defining similarities.
In the West we are fortunate that HIV is no longer considered the death sentence it once was, it might not make the headlines that it once did, but it hasn’t gone away. In 2019 there were still approximately 38 million people across the globe living with HIV/AIDS and I am one of them.
Of these, 36.2 million were adults and 1.8 million were children younger than 15 years old. An estimated 1.7 million individuals worldwide acquired HIV in 2019 which marks a 23% decline in new HIV infections since 2010. This drop-in number is in part due to access to medication but it is also due to education.
My HIV journey began in 2005 while in my final year at university, I didn’t get an official diagnosis till the year after. Circumstances forced my hand and I plucked up the courage to take a test and confirm something that I already knew but didn't want to confront.
I’d consider myself to be an intelligent person and most of the time, rather rational. Looking back, that avoidance was bound by fear and denial. I was partaking in what would be considered ‘risky’ sexual behaviour, but I didn’t want to face the guilt and deal with the potential unchangeable repercussions this could have.
15 years ago if you indulged in the kind of sex I was exploring and enjoying, it was not a case of ‘if’ you became positive, but ‘when’ you became positive. In my naivety at the time, because I’d had a few lucky escapes, I thought I'd be fine and get away unscathed. However, unfortunately for me, viruses don’t discriminate and I became another one of the growing HIV statistics.
At age 24, receiving my positive diagnosis wasn’t a huge shock but it was also far from welcome news. I was a little indifferent at the time and very matter of fact, knowing I only had myself to blame. Looking back at that time I can say that I was in a state of shock and my indifference was denial about the impact that this news was about to have on me.
My diagnosis felt like a fulfilment of a prophecy that my mother had made when I came out. She told me “you’re going to get AIDs and die.” Those words played on a loop in my head that day and they have done, on and off at many a dark hour.
Like many LGBTQ+ South Asians, my sexuality has been the cause of both physical and emotional distance between myself and my family. They superficially tolerate me and my ‘choices’, but in avoidance of confrontation, they will never ask about who I’m with and the ins-and-outs of my life. My diagnosis made me create an even greater emotional distance between us, catalysed by the fear of being seen as more of a pariah and becoming a leper that was carrying a gay plague, which would have tipped the balance closer to disownment.
This was both a form of preservation for the relationship I had with my parents and also self-preservation to avoid any further rejection. In addition, it was a method to avoid having to live out the painful hypothetical scenario of what they would say or do if they found out, re-living the disgust and disdain that I had experienced when coming out. To this date, they still don’t know of my status.
Carrying all of this emotional trauma is part of the reason why I dragged my heels with starting treatment, a stint in intensive care with Pneumonia changed that. Up until that point, I’d been living “live fast die young” and pushing myself and my body harder, trying to prove a point; that I wasn’t this virus and that I wasn’t weak. I’d been fighting to be myself for so long and this became one more thing to fight.
Current HIV treatment practice now involves starting AntiRetroViral treatment as soon as possible, which works to bring a patient's viral load down to an undetectable level. This reduces the damage the virus can do to the immune system and helps stop the spread of HIV, as a person whose viral load is undetectable, is also untransmittable.
Modern treatments for HIV are far kinder to the recipient than those of the past as there are far fewer side effects. I have had very understanding HIV consultants at the clinics I've attended in the past 15 years, they have helped me adjust to a life which isn’t all about this virus and I’m fortunate enough that I’ve been given a treatment which is as close to swallowing a daily vitamin pill as can be. When I started treatment, seeing that pill was triggering. It forced me to face up to my mortality and meant I couldn’t hide from this virus anymore—up until that point I’d been running from it.
To date I’ve been on treatment for approximately 12 years, currently, I’m on my third treatment regime. I have been relatively lucky with my treatments and I’ve had limited side effects to my physical health, I’ve been able to go about my day to day life quite normally. There have been good periods and also bad periods but I am happy to say that currently, the balance between my regime and any side effects is good.
When it comes to my mental health however, the impact of the virus has taken a much deeper toll. It’s only now that I feel comfortable to discuss it publically—10 years ago, at a time before PrEP, there was still a lot more stigma attached to HIV. To this day, disclosure of my status is often met with rejection. This has led to a level of secrecy and anxiety around discussing my status and not wanting to put myself into a vulnerable position. There have been many times, post-disclosure, that I’ve been treated differently by partners, both emotionally and sexually and not wanting to be subjected to being asked if I was ‘clean,’ has led to me developing my own avoidance and prejudices towards HIV-negative men.
Post-diagnosis I’ve only had one relationship with an HIV-negative person and even this was very short term. This comes from not wanting to have to explain to the other person the ins-and-outs of living with HIV. Relationships are hard enough, and having the pressure of HIV on top of this isn’t something I have the emotional labour for, at this moment in time.
I’ve had a relatively normal work-life since my diagnosis, HIV has been the cause of much anxiety at times. I’ve abstained from disclosing my status on application forms to avoid prejudice and I’ve had some very difficult moments while adhering to medication and the side effects. In a previous role, I believe I was managed out of the position due to my HIV status and the impact my medication had on me. HIV is covered under ‘The Equality Act’ and all people diagnosed with HIV are considered to be ‘disabled’ regardless of their health status. All employers need to make acceptable adjustments around these. However, many people like me continue to face discrimination regarding their HIV status even to this day. The trauma and the stigma attached to HIV has dented my self-confidence and it’s often stopped me from exploring working positions overseas.
Living with HIV as a South Asian man has been lonely. It's isolated me from my community even more than coming out did. Partially due to my self-imposed exile but also through the distance that keeping a secret and having to continue to do so does to your personal relationships. When you combine these feelings with my initial experience of being rejected, and the trauma that I faced when I came out from within my community, it has made me wary of other South Asians. I can only assume this is a similar experience that others within our community have too. HIV is still very much seen as a 'gay disease’ and carries with it all of the cultural and societal prejudices of that label.
However public I can be about other aspects of my life and my sexuality, living with HIV is one area that I keep very private and only share with those I truly trust. The fear that I had around coming out is nothing compared to the anxiety I have of my parents finding out about my status; I feel the tolerance that my family has towards me would be completely negated and I would be disowned. This secret would force them to be confronted with me as a sexual being, would highlight the sins I have committed in their eyes and with this revelation, I would bring shame to them. For them, HIV would be a testament that I was being punished by Allah.
I admire those who have been public about their status such as Ash Kotak. It is through their work and visibility that we can start to educate our communities around HIV and AIDS.
I hope my words can help others and to let them know that they aren’t alone.
ON TRANS HISTORIES | BY JAMES ROGERS
With trans and non-binary identities being the subject of so much contention in society, it would be easy to assume that this is the way it has always been: that gender non-conforming and non-binary people have always faced opposition. However, this is very far from reality.
South Asia’s religious and cultural heritage has celebrated multiple genders and sexual expressions uncommon to Western societies for thousands of years. Hinduism's first sacred texts depict various stories of same-sex love and gender-morphing figures. These texts, dating back as far as 4000 years, also celebrate a “third gender” which was used to identify people who did not fit into the binary categories of man or woman.
Hindu mythology also has several examples of deities changing gender, manifesting gender fluidity or combining genders to form androgynous beings and even blessing people by giving them different gender identities.
These celebratory mentions of trans identities in ancient texts like the Kama Sutra and the Mahabharata are a testament to the sexual diversity that is an integral, yet often overlooked aspect of South Asian culture.
The people who identify as the “third gender” in those sacred writings are also known as the Hijra. According to one text, when Lord Rama (one of the most prominent Hindu deities) went into exile for fourteen years many people from his kingdom followed him out of love and respect. When Lord Rama found out about this, he ordered all the “men and women” to return to their homes. After returning from exile fourteen years later he saw that the Hijras, who were neither men nor women, had stayed in that same place. Pleased with the devotion of the Hijras, Lord Rama blessed them and said that they would bring good fortune on various auspicious occasions like childbirth and marriage.
These accounts lead to the celebration of the Hijra in pre-colonial South Asian society. They often held positions of high esteem, belonged to a special or holy caste and were considered to hold religious authority with the ability to cast blessings upon others. They even held demi-god status and were hired to dance, sing and bless households, newly-weds and newborns.
Then came the British colonists with their Western ideas of what society should look like. Binding their binary and patriarchal structures around a beautifully colourful culture, the Hijra’s identity stood at odds with Western morality and the coloniser’s concept of sexuality and gender. In 1864, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was put in place which criminalised non-procreative sexualities and whilst it was not specifically targeted at the Hijras, it criminalised them as a group. They were also placed under the ‘Criminal Tribes Act’ in 1871, labelled a threat to society, stripped of their inheritance rights and a campaign was launched to rid them from public consciousness.
This policing of identity and individuality had specific repercussions on the Hijra’s way of life and status within society. The community was stigmatised to the point that it still lasts to this day in many parts of South Asia and after being ostracised for more than a century, the Hijra community find themselves in a complex and contradictory position in society. Whilst Hindu mythology worships them, British colonists demonised them, meaning that today they are admired by many as demi deities and vilified by others as deviant and dangerous.
Along with many in the trans community, both in South Asia and the rest of the world, Hijras nowadays have few employment opportunities available to them due to discrimination and obtain their income through begging, sex work and performing at ceremonies. They are frequently subjected to brutal and public violence, even in police stations, which is often not investigated.
Their very being is viewed as a commodity for religious blessings, removing and despising any other form of their identity. In reality, the hijra identity is actually a unique blend of biological, gendered, and sexual identities underpinned by religion and bound by a tight-knit social structure.
Seeing how our native lands have been obscured by colonialism and Western societies is painful. These structures birthed and fed rampant homophobic and transphobic beliefs in cultures that once held fluid beliefs on sexuality and gender, which displays just how toxic the foundation of today's society is.
With a lense on the South Asian community, when you merge the white-washing of our native cultures along with cultural stigmas and internal barriers within the community it is clear to see that LGBTQ+ South Asian people require additional support. GAYSIANS are working to support this community with various projects and campaigns directly focusing on the needs of these vulnerable people with a unique set of experiences. You can read more about how we are doing this here.
To any trans or gender-queer people reading this, regardless of your religious beliefs or background, you are godlike. Not only because ancient civilisations celebrated you in this way, but because in being who you are you show a supernatural strength to exist in a society that tells you you shouldn’t.
And for the rest of us, in a world that vilifies us as LGBTQ+ people; that tells us we’re dangerous and demonises us—let’s glorify one another and praise ourselves as the deities we truly are.
ON BLACK LIVES MATTER | BY ANOUSHKA KHANDWALA
I’ve been thinking about how to add something meaningful to the conversation surrounding George Floyd, Tony Mcdade and Christian Cooper, and more widely the systemic abuse, incarceration and murder of Black people at the hands of the state.
In search of a valuable addition to the discourse that’s already been happening, I’m going to write about what I know.
My experience as an South Asian person of colour, is not the same as a Black person of colour. The terms BAME or POC are often used to paint with an extremely broad brush over the experiences of a large group of communities that come with their own network of privileges and oppressions. The term POC centres non-white people against a backdrop of whiteness, and in focusing us only in relation to whiteness, often robs us of any identity that we try to claim beyond this term.
While this term can be useful in many ways—for political organising, or diversifying homogenous institutions—I fear its over-use is in danger of perpetuating the same systems we’re trying to fight against. It acts as a banner for non-black people to shroud ourselves in, invisible from those holding us accountable.
When an Asian man stood by and watched as a Black man was murdered by a police officer, it evoked in the world’s memory a great history of Asian complicity in upholding the status quo.
Asians, for centuries, have scrambled over Black bodies in search of proximity to whiteness. When Gandhi was evicted from a whites-only train carriage in South Africa in 1893, the event catalysed his campaign for a ‘special status’ for Indians. It was not just that he wanted to be closer to the status of white people, but that he wanted to escape being grouped with Black people.
Today, under the guise of ‘diversity and inclusion’, Asians like Sajid Javid are fast forwarded into cabinet, only to implement policies that don’t just illegally deport Black people from their homes, but pass bills that ensure their own parents would never have been able to emigrate to the UK.
Casteism is embedded in Asian culture, to which colourism is inherently attached. Historically, richer South Asians from ‘higher’ castes spent their time indoors, and aligned themselves to the British while under colonial rule, if it meant they could retain their riches. Those from ‘lower’ castes worked outdoors, their skin darkened by the sun, and thus, the idea of lightness equating to desirability was borne. From a lust for skin bleaching, to a renouncing of black partners when white spouses are often seen as climbing the societal ladder, colourism has remained wedded to Asian culture.
What is it that results in this hatred of darkness, and worship of the light? We can claim that colonisation played a role in holding us hostage to our own biases, but those biases existed before the East India Company reached the continent’s shores, and have pervaded our culture for many years after independence was declared. It’s now up to us to decide how we extract these dangerous ideas from our mindset.
Somehow, donating money, arguing with family members and educating myself doesn’t feel enough anymore. I’m still weighed down by the complicity of non-black people in white supremacy. And when I feel jaded or numb, I turn to history.
The British Black Panther party, formed in 1968 as an island echo of their African American friends, operated under the ethos of ‘political blackness’, which brought the Caribbean, African and South Asian communities together. This time chronicled an immense crescendo in ‘multiculturalism’—the publication Wasafiri was founded by Susheila Nasta, platforming writers like Ben Okri and Vikram Seth, while New Beacon Books made space for political organisations like the George Padmore Institute, which archived the struggle of the African, Caribbean and South Asian communities in Britain. These were times where Black and Brown communities worked hand in hand together to battle a common oppression.
What happens when the oppression is not so common any more? When those who once stood beside you are in fact alongside those pushing you down?
I don’t pretend to know all the answers, but what I am sure of is that this work begins in a deep seated place in each of us. Acknowledgment that we are in fact different from the Black community, that we’re not entitled to appropriate their culture and get away with it by labelling ourselves as a fellow person of colour. To understand that in fact, Asian privilege is more insidious and fleeting than white privilege, and because it is less explicit, we have a lot of work to do in unravelling the anti-blackness rooted in our traditions. In fact, it’s not just about anti-blackness any more—we don’t get a pass from the word racism just because we’re people of colour. Going forward, it’s integral to acknowledge Asian privilege by unearthing the racism that festers in our communities.
What can we do? Read. Listen. Speak. Act.
There have been an immense amount of resources floating around social media which serve as educational anti-racist resources—engage with them (@mireillecharper’s ‘10 Steps to Non-Optical Allyship’ is a great place to start). Listen to your Black friends, but also listen to your family members—due to the pandemic, a lot of South Asians are spending lockdown with their families. Use this time to educate them, in the same way you’d want your non-queer allies to use their time to educate those around them. When a parent makes a passing racist comment, speak. Help them understand the interconnectedness between anti-black attitudes and police brutality. These conversations with family are difficult, and come with a whole host of intersectional struggles, but in some ways this is the most critical offering we have. This work starts in the home. Act, and think critically about your actions. If protests are being organised, is it wise to attend a mass gathering during a pandemic which is killing Black people at four times the rate of white people? If you are going to attend in solidarity, what precautions can you take to do so safely?
There is little accountability for acts of racism, which is why we need to wield our privileged status to hold people accountable for their racist actions. Read. Listen. Speak. Act. And remember, in the words of Audre Lorde, ‘your silence will not protect you’.
We’re currently working in partnership with Black Lives Matter to bring you content around anti-black racism in South Asian communities. Meanwhile, the official channels for the UK chapter of Black Lives Matter are listed below. Please follow and support them, whilst being mindful of the importance of promoting official information.
UK Black Lives Matter Twitter
UK Black Lives Matter Instagram
Uk Black Lives Matter Facebook