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Being A South Asian Lesbian In San Francisco Is Harder Than I Thought

Fearing her Pakistani Muslim parents wouldn’t accept her, this class of ’17 grad ran away days after earning her degree, only to face the Bay Area’s own biases.

Being A South Asian Lesbian In San Francisco Is Harder Than I Thought
“Being gay wasn’t necessarily a choice,” says this recent grad, who cut ties with her family so she could live and work openly as a lesbian, “but I think running away was.” [Illustration: Wenyi Geng]

Jamila graduated from college in May, then promptly ran away from home. Growing up in a Pakistani Muslim family in a small American town, she feared her parents wouldn’t accept that she was gay. So Jamila wrote them a coming-out letter, then packed her bags and headed with her girlfriend to San Francisco. She’s had no direct contact with her parents since.

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Speaking on the condition of anonymity (“Jamila” is a pseudonym), she shared what it’s been like navigating her first full-time job as an out lesbian, after abruptly severing ties with her family back home.

Her account has been edited for space and clarity.


“My Parents Can Barely Fathom Me Marrying A Boy Outside My Religion”

My parents really wanted me to come back home after college. The plan was I would stay at home and I would commute to the public-health graduate school nearby, which was 30 minutes away. They were like, “We’ve let you have your fun. We let you go to college and stay at the dorms.” Desi [a term for the people and cultures of South Asia and its diaspora] families are very conservative; a lot of Desi kids that were around me ended up going to [the local commuter school] for undergrad, too, to save money.

My girlfriend and I got together my junior year, and we knew that if we wanted to continue our relationship, that with my culture and religion, it wasn’t really going to work. It wasn’t going to be allowed. My parents can barely fathom me marrying a boy outside my religion, or a boy who isn’t Desi. I knew the only way I could be with my girlfriend was if I ran away. We knew San Francisco was extremely gay-friendly and progressive, and we wanted to get away from the Midwest.

I think a lot of people would assume, if I was running away from a Pakistani Muslim family, that I was being abused. They would think the culture is terrible, and that I’m being oppressed as a woman. That’s not the case. My parents are just conservative. They’re not bad people.


Special Report: What It’s Really Like To Be Out At Work In 2017

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“I Didn’t Want To Seem Like A Pity Hire”

A month before graduation, this recruiter emailed me about a job [at a tech startup]. After three interviews, they wanted to fly me out for the fourth-round interview. I started freaking out: How was I going to fly to San Francisco without my parents knowing? I [also] didn’t want to tell [my prospective employer] I was running away. I was interviewing for a job and didn’t want to seem like a hassle; I also didn’t want to seem like a pity hire. The company was paying for me to come there and expected me to do a whole day of interviews, stay the night, and then come back.

So I lied to them and said I had finals on Tuesday and Thursday, [and] would it be possible for me to fly in and fly out on Wednesday? My girlfriend and I switched phones, so I took hers to San Francisco [this way my parents couldn’t track me using the Find My Friends app]. The interview happened, and I flew back. My parents never figured it out; they never texted or called. I was lucky.

I graduated on May 21 and left for California two days later. I had dropped off my stuff at my girlfriend’s house a week or two before school ended, so she could pack everything into her car. [The day we left,] my brothers were in school, my sister was babysitting, and my parents had left for work. My girlfriend picked me up, and then we just drove for three days to San Francisco. Within the first two or three days that I was there, I got a call saying I got the job.

“As The Child Of Immigrants, You Carry This Burden Of Fulfilling Your Parents’ Dreams”

One of the reasons we moved to San Francisco was because of how accepting people are here. We told ourselves, “If we’re going to go to San Francisco, we’re going to be out, and we’re going to be proud.” So I’m pretty much out at work. It was awkward because I’ve never had to come out to people. I didn’t know what words to use. Am I “lesbian”? Am I “bi”? “Gay”? “Queer”? And so at work, I would casually say in conversation, “me and my girlfriend.” That was the easiest way for me to come out because [I didn’t] have to say “I’m gay.” I didn’t have to tell my life story.

I don’t know if [my coworkers] would understand [why I ran away]. Since a lot of them are South Asian and East Asian, I’m also really nervous about telling them because parents are so valued in our culture. Especially as the child of immigrants, you carry this burden of fulfilling your parents’ dreams. They’ve struggled and worked so hard. I don’t want [my coworkers] to think I’m ungrateful for what my parents did. I don’t want them to think I’m selfish.

When I ran away, I left my iPhone behind because it could be tracked. I bought a cheap, $20 pay-as-you-go phone from Walmart. This is such a first-world, privileged problem, but I struggled with learning how to use it. So people at work would say, “Why don’t you just get an iPhone?” I’d say the monthly payments are really expensive, and they would then ask, “Why aren’t you on your parents’ plan?” A lot of them have financial support from their parents; either they stay home and don’t have to pay rent, or their parents help them in some way.

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It’s ironic. I’m not afraid of being judged for being gay. I’m afraid of being judged for running away. Being gay wasn’t necessarily a choice, but I think running away was.

“I’m Still Trying To Navigate My Identity”

Even though a lot of people at work are Bay Area–raised, or California-raised, I think they are very heteronormative in the way that they think. And since about half of them are South Asian or East Asian, that’s another layer of heteronormativity.

I honestly think straight people don’t realize there’s this whole world of gay culture, and that within it there’s different realms. A lot of people think of gay culture as white gay men, and I think the mainstream media, especially, doesn’t know a lot about lesbians or queer women.

I’m still trying to navigate my identity. We don’t have a lot of gay friends, so I’m just learning about gay culture myself. I don’t want to practice doing that in front of [the new people I meet here]. And I don’t want to scare them; maybe the reason they’re okay with me being gay is because I’m so straight-passing. I don’t think they’re homophobic, but it’s like when white people sometimes don’t realize they’re being racist.

I don’t have a problem with being a Desi queer woman. But I think the queer community is not as accepting of Asians, and the South Asian community is not as accepting of LGBT individuals. I grew up in a very white, suburban place, and I hated being Desi. But then when I got to college, I learned that the reason I hated myself was racism and colonization. I started missing my Desi self so much–the food, the language, Bollywood movies. In college I fell in love with being Desi.

Now, in the Bay Area, I have this longing to be integrated with Desi culture, and that’s been really hard for me. A lot of the South Asians here are connected through their families and are childhood friends. I don’t know how to introduce myself into those groups. I think some of [my South Asian coworkers] assume that because I’m gay, I must be really Westernized–that I must not speak Hindi or Urdu, or that I don’t know Desi culture that well. And it’s the exact opposite. I’m so proud to be Desi.

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“The Wound Is Still Really Fresh”

I don’t have the heart to tell them. I don’t want to assume what my coworkers’ lives are like, but at the same time I don’t think they’ve had difficulty in this sense. It might be different if I worked around gay people.

I got tired of people asking me if I’m going home for the holidays or asking about my family, so I’ve been slowly starting to say I’m estranged from my family. It lets them know I’m not talking to them and that it’s a touchy topic. The wound is still really fresh for me.

About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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