Integrating multiple intersecting identities into your whole self is a lifetime’s work. If you asked me in my teens and twenties how I navigate being Indian, immigrant, Muslim, and queer, I wouldn’t have known how to answer the question. As I reflect back on those years, I realize how much I negotiated my existence in different spaces: surfacing one identity at the expense of another; withholding parts of myself for fear of rejection; and assimilating to feel a sense of belonging.
I moved to the U.S. at the age of 12 from my hometown of Hyderabad, India. For eight years, my sisters and I hadn’t seen my dad — and my mom hadn’t seen her husband — as he built a future for us in the U.S. We were eager to reunite our family and start a new life in “Amreeka.” Barely knowing English, we landed in New York, met our dad in an emotional reunion, and settled into our new home in suburban Connecticut. I started middle school soon after and quickly learned how difficult it was to navigate being brown and an immigrant in a mostly white school. I wasn’t alone in this experience, which is heartbreaking but not surprising; new research from The Trevor Project shows that more than half of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) LGBTQ youth reported discrimination based on their race/ethnicity in the past year.
Kids couldn’t pronounce my name and called me “Manure” — even the teachers joined in. So, I changed my name to David, inspired by David Silver of Beverly Hills 90210, a show I loved at the time. I even colored my hair with blonde highlights, inspired by Justin Timberlake. My hope was that those changes would help me fit in and navigate school more easily. But they didn’t.
As I entered high school, I started experiencing my spring awakening and realized there was something deep within me that made me different from my classmates. I had felt it throughout my life and gave it little attention, but in high school it became impossible to ignore. I couldn’t name it, but as my feelings grew stronger, I could tell other kids could see this “secret” too.
“Faggot” suddenly became a word that surrounded me. I avoided going to gym class because it was not a safe space for me. My gym teacher eventually realized I didn’t want to be in the class and suggested I instead earn the credit by writing a couple of essays on health. He asked me to write a paper on HIV and AIDS.
In my junior year, 9/11 happened. My family owned a grocery store in town, my dad’s name was Mohammed, and everyone knew we all worked there. Suddenly, we stopped talking about being Muslim. Mom stopped wearing Shalwar Kameez outside. And dad started calling himself Moe. I internalized a lot of shame through these experiences and learned how to feel safe by negotiating my identities in different spaces.
As I left for college, I distanced myself from my family so I could express and experience my queer identity. As I went to Pride Parades, gay bars, and made queer friends, I hid being Indian or Muslim as much as I could, because I knew how much power whiteness wields in the queer community. It was difficult to find representation where these identities could co-exist. This constant negotiation led to a number of challenging mental health experiences that took me years to address and heal from.
A few years later, I was in Delhi for a summer program and joined a group that was planning India’s first-ever Pride Parade. A lot of media was set to cover the event, so we had gorgeous, colorful face masks available for people who wanted to march but maintain their anonymity. I grabbed a mask, but chose not to wear it while marching just a few blocks from the Parliament Building. As I marched through the streets of my own country alongside people with shared identities as my own, I finally felt proud to be Indian, gay, and Muslim. The power with which we all marched together made me let go of the fear and the mask.
I came out to my sister during my first relationship after being inspired by the movie Milk, based on the story of iconic queer rights activist Harvey Milk. It felt liberating to finally have a family member accept me. I made her promise not to tell our parents, but a few months later my Dad said the words I couldn’t find the strength to say myself. He acknowledged I didn’t like women, and said he’s okay as long as I’m happy. I knew my sister had told him, but didn’t find out until years later that she spent months talking with my parents about what it meant to be gay, how it didn’t change who I was, or their love for me.
That was when my identities began to find harmony together, and I could feel my whole self starting to come into focus. A few years later, I woke up at my parents’ house to see my mom making breakfast alongside my partner at the time. My mom didn’t speak English, and my partner didn’t speak Hindi, yet they giggled and pointed at things to jointly make breakfast. Those moments of parental acceptance, no matter how brief or seemingly small, made a positive impact on my mental health and in my life. In fact, for many AAPI LGBTQ youth, parental acceptance of their sexual orientation or gender identity is a protective factor against negative mental health outcomes, including suicide. I am grateful for the love my family showed me and my partner.
Organizations like Desi Rainbow, NQAPIA, and SASMHA didn’t exist when I was a teen, but I’m so glad they exist now to center and respond to the unique experiences of South Asian queer folks. Through them, I’ve gotten to know many South Asian queer folks whose parents responded in the same loving way as mine did. I also know many whose parents journeyed from rejection to unconditional love. A common thread that runs through many of our stories is the impact that allies, a supportive community, and visibility can have on our well-being. While most struggled through varying levels of mental health challenges, these are the things that saved us all.
Muneer Panjwani (he/him) is the VP of Institutional Partnerships for The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and mental health organization for LGBTQ young people.