Is it Me or My Ethnicity? The sad (and empowering) lives of Desi gays
When the road to self-love and identity inevitably involves oppression
The first time I downloaded Grindr I did so out of a malignant loneliness that had grown so great I was beginning to think I’d have to cuss off the next straight couple that crossed my sight purely out of bitterness. Had I known I would be met with such vehement white supremacist attitudes, desexualisation and cultural exclusion upon venturing out into gay culture, I’d have probably told my 17-year old self to turn around and run back into the closet.
Upon loading, Grindr presents itself as a no-holds-barred, headless torso-infested war zone in which anything goes. Like a digital brothel where gays of all creeds congregate, it’s quite apparent how attitudes toward fellow users are shaped into sleazy, distrustful reductions of human beings based off a few physical stats and a profile picture. There’s something intrinsically empty about scrolling through pictures of headless torsos for hours, both rejecting and being rejected based off whims only to find that after all your time and effort you’re not closer to feeling any better about yourself or making any kind of connection with another person.
A discussion of digital media’s shaping of our attitudes toward healthy sexuality would be incomplete without talking about the crux of all gay men’s lives: body image. Upon exiting the closet, many gay men are presented with an intense pressure to make up for lost time in teenagehood whereby straight peers were hooking up and forming romantic relationships left right and centre. This prompts the gay man to try to become as appealing as possible — and unlike privileged, self-entitled straight men who think they can be even remotely appealing to women simply by hitting on them and not working to make themselves worthy of attention — gay men aspire to be what they find attractive.
Gay media, from porn to TV shows to instagram feeds are saturated with images of extremely fit white men that become the standard to which all others are held. This breeds unhappiness even in otherwise perfectly attractive and in-shape bodies. The ideal of perfection is presented as the solution to the gay man’s troubles — if only he could look even a bit more like a fitness model maybe he’d get the attention and validation he needs to feel whole? Body dysmorphic disorder is an interesting thing — a painful, obsessive, horrifying curse of an illness but one that truly broadens your perspective on the workings of your own mind and its responsiveness to society’s bullshit. My own experience with it has felt like a burdenful omnipresence that latches onto my depressive thought cycles and neuroses until my views for the future and my own value as a human being sink into the lowest and most despicable levels. There’s danger in living in a culture where your appearance has more value than your achievements (and for what reason?).
To enter a world of digitally-mediated hookups, body fascism and racist aggressions requires a steeling of the mind that I’m simply not capable of. Sooner or later every fragile gay boy of colour cracks. Unfortunately, it’s simply not a choice that any of us can make to live without technological means to finding people like us. A peculiar thing happens when a gay man looks upon the endless boxcutter houses of the GTA’s suburbs and realizes how out of place he is in the endless landscape of nuclear heterosexual families. He realizes the landscape he was born into is one purely of deculturated (definitions to bolded words at the bottom), late capitalist heteronormative values, and this view of homogeneity becomes the backdrop against which all his interactions with queer culture are compared. This landscape defines the way in which he meets people — namely online interactions — and introduces concentrated struggles that quite accurately reflect the presence of hegemonies (such as white supremacy and eurocentrism) in the greater society.
Being Punjabi and having been born in Canada brings a host of unique issues, not the least of which includes alienation from your culture (why would I follow misogynist customs, a religion that feels out of place anywhere out of India, or commit to mastering a language that is barely able to express my struggles?) Homophobia and transphobia is rampant throughout south asian cultures — it’s as though the mere sight of queer brown bodies outside the norm of the typical cisheterosexual identity ignites an eternal shame to all involved, which is responded to via intense hatred. Interestingly, it feels like there are racist undertones to this hatred — these brown bodies are despicable, overtly sexual and outside the norm of what it means to be “brown,” so they’re othered and treated with disdain (while homosexuality remains a “white” concept in the minds of thick-headed, ignorant parents of colour.
Desi silence on issues of sexual health is horrifyingly tragic, especially considering how much stigma there is against south asians within the gay community. Take any brown gay boy in the GTA and I’ll guarantee you he’s at least once left the ethnicity field on his Grindr profile blank, or set to middle eastern, mixed or latino. Claims of sexual preference being innate and not learned through the heavily racist, white supremacist culture we live in feed into stereotypes of south asians being filthy, uneducated, unfuckable, desexual, poor, and uncivilized. I’m not asking for white gays to give me attention (I’d probably rather die than allow anyone with white privilege to appreciate me — they just don’t deserve the gem that I’ve grown to become through my struggles). What I’m asking for is the abolishment of racially-based sexual stereotypes. Don’t even try to claim that you rejecting me purely based off my ethnicity is anything other than blatant and unchecked racism.
Given the above issues, my life has been a steady climb from the deepest lows of depression and suicidally terrifying body dysmorphia to a state of empowerment through the state of my own intelligence toward racial and social oppression. Once I faced general trends of rejection from white gays (and an omnipresent self-questioning of my own value while talking to the ones that actually treated me like a human being) I began to realize that I couldn’t afford to fit into white culture anymore, even outside queer circles. I am still learning to balance my own desire to raise the fitness level of my physique with gay culture’s insane obsession with having the physique of an elite athlete. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that you can have an average body type and be way better off in life than gym-crazed gays who live for their own vanity and external validation. The important thing for me is that I respect myself and my ethnicity for what it brings. The physical traits of my people — strong, angled nose bridges, skin the colour of the earth, hair like blades of grass over a living, breathing landscape — are defining features that set me apart from others. These have been a source of insane insecurity for me, and upon moving myself past just my relation to whiteness I’ve come to see these differences as more than just beautiful: they’re a gateway to an entire identity.
The longer we thirst after the white devil — what rapper Le1f once dubbed ‘Hitler’s gay squad of Aryan youth aesthetics’, — the longer we undermine the uniquely beautiful natural features of all people of colour and reduce the value of each individual of any non-white ethnicity. Coupled with digitized meeting places that reinforce unhealthy European standards of physical beauty, it’s no wonder gays of colour are brainwashed into ignoring each other, instead vying after the white devil and trying to look and be as close to whiteness as possible. The twenty-first century gay community feels vastly different from the aesthetic Wong Kar-Wei presented in Happy Together — it’s gone from a real, rustic and gritty appreciation of uniqueness and individuality in an otherwise oppressive world to an illogical urge to homogenize all into easily digestible, sociable and fuckable formats. Why is it so hard for society to understand that we’re not all supposed to look alike? (The answer: white people are in power and they don’t want their status challenged).
Straight people tell us that “it gets better” as long as we don’t off ourselves as kids. This is absolute bullshit. To tell it straight, the Toronto gay community is a disgusting cesspool of white supremacy — hardly worthy of being labelled a community at all. I felt uncomfortable with participating in gay culture until I reached a certain physical ideal (almost like a pseudo-closet). Call it a glow-up if you will, but it definitely drained me of my serotonin levels. I still feel as though it’s pointless participating in gay culture without white privilege.
On top of these issues, being a brown gay man entails not seeing yourself represented anywhere — not in music, movies, TV shows, or in day-to-day happenings. No one looks like you, no one thinks like you, no one lives their lives according to the same values. And you’re supposed to sort through all your mental and emotional baggage, dismembered, deformed chakras and societally-induced low self-image while being unable to reach out to others and have them truly understand your struggles due to the nature of their intersectionality. Thankfully, the uniqueness of our doubly (or more) oppressive scenarios gives us a unique perspective on the universe that most cishets could only dream of having.
Where I stand now is somewhere between forging a new ethnic identity for myself and trying to reach back into the roots of my culture to pull out aspects I identify with that empower me (did you know the ancient Hindu texts supported homosexuality and it was actually the British colonizers’ backwards, sexually repressed values that induced homophobia and sexual shame onto India?). New directions in social rights for queer people of colour must involve the dismantling of racism within communities of colour, the divesting off white beauty through the representation of diversity (even if we have to create our own opportunities/institutions) and the exposure and acceptance of queerness in ethnic communities. There is a power we possess in being associated with the world’s most culturally and spiritually rich countries while having our queerness force us to try to reach our full human potential rather than see procreation (or capitalist heteronormative romance) as the ultimate goal. We must look to our privileges, the places where we can recuperate our energies and find meaning, identity and value in life to bounce back and empower ourselves just as often as we fight against injustice. It’s our duty to support and uplift ourselves and each other so that we can thrive and shine in a world that’s bathed us in shame since childhood.
Sexual health is like a tonic that completes the angsty, repressed, rebellious and jaded teenage soul — it’s important for the ego, important for mental health, and a crucial factor in the development of a healthy personality. My late teen years felt like a mad rush to do whatever I possibly could to make myself worthy of being loved despite my ethnicity. The twistedness of this concept and its effects on my self esteem, mental health and relation to gay culture hardly needs explaining. I implore the day when gay men of colour can move past the white gayze to see aspects and dimensions of themselves that have intrinsic value. Nature has spared no effort in trying to make us all different — it’s time we celebrated it.
Deculturated (verb): to cause the loss or abandonment of culture or cultural characteristics of (a people, society, etc.).
Hegemonies (noun): (especially among smaller nations) aggression or expansionism by large nations in an effort to achieve world domination.
Heteronormative (adjective): noting or relating to behaviour or attitudes consistent with traditional male or female gender roles and the assumption of heterosexuality as the norm.
White Gayze (noun): derived from the concept of “white gaze”, which refers to looking at the world through a white person’s eyes and in relation to whiteness. Here, used to specifically refer to looking at the world through the lens of white people who are gay and therefore only seeing things in relation to white gayness and the associated experiences.
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