By Shivani Seth
As someone who comes from a pretty tight-knit South Asian family, community and social relationships have always been concepts that I’ve thought about and talked about. Community is one of the cornerstones of my understanding of the world. However, even though I came out as bisexual almost 12 years ago, I didn’t experience inclusive bisexual community until I was almost 27 years old.
This was due to a number of deep-seated issues: discomfort with many of my identities, a sense of conflict and repression around my experiences where I grew up, a lack of visible queer people where I grew up, and a lack of queer South Asian role models. Oh, and I didn’t have cable; the closest thing to LGBTQIA+ visibility that I experienced was the show “Will and Grace.” Not that I didn’t love them then, but I realize now just how problematic they were and I can’t even.
I ended up stumbling into the space I needed while in graduate school. It never occurred to me how much it had been something I’d been missing. You see, the school I attended is a famed women’s college. I’d felt fairly weird about going, but loved many things about my program. I’d never been terribly comfortable with myself as a woman or with many other women. I often felt confused and alien to myself. I stumbled around when speaking to other women. This was reflected in several years of denial around my identity as a bisexual woman and later, my identification as a genderfluid/genderqueer person.
The idea of being on a mostly women-only campus, especially navigating spaces with other women of color, was terrifying. I felt totally inept and out of place. Some of that was archaic sexist crap and some of that was genuine social awkwardness. Some of the ideas I’d been taught had never fit with my idea of myself. Stumbling into a community of women who broke down some of those walls and supported me as I figured some of that out was a gift.
I spent months living with queer, intersectional, thoughtful, and passionate women. They loved and nurtured me and put up with my numerous breakdowns and breakthroughs. And those were many. Like the day that I finally began realizing how much of my subconscious brain had patterns that kept me from thinking about being attracted to women. Then there was the time that I finally realized that the sense of not feeling like my sex and gender went together was so pervasive that it went back as far as I could remember. In another instance, I learned the word ‘genderfluid’ and wondered if perhaps this was finally a word for how I felt many days of the year. When I finally began earnestly exploring my sexual and gender identities again, trying to do some of the thoughtful work that had seemed impossible in the past, it was this community that supported me. It was a new experience.
They sat with me as I chopped my long hair off and threw it into a trash can, as I’d always wanted to do, a la Mulan. They went with me to get short, new haircuts. They lent me clothes, took me shopping, and told me that no matter what I was wearing, I looked great. They let me make blunders without getting upset or angry, explaining why certain things I said or did were problematic in subtle ways. They listened to questions about what certain words meant, explained jokes they made, and reassured me that all that I was learning related to whom I thought I was. They listened as I tried to figure out what my queerness meant, beyond stereotypes that I had been taught and the self-hatred that had developed.
Most importantly though, they were mirrors for my experience. One friend told me of her frustrations with being sexualized and asked for threesomes, but not seen as someone to include in a relationship. Some spoke about trauma experiences and the difficulties of navigating their sexuality as a result. We ranted occasionally about being seen as confused or “in a phase” by friends and family. Some spoke about their own sense of alienation from their womanhood and the process they used to come back to it. Some just played ping pong with me and listened really well. They helped remove the overwhelming sense of loneliness that I experienced around my identities.
One particular friend, who recalled my tearful moments during our gender studies class the year before, hugged me close when I saw her for the first time in months and asked how my journey was going. I didn’t know how much I needed someone to know that I was still struggling, still confused. She didn’t assume that I should have had it all figured out and she didn’t impose her ideas of what being a “real” queer person was. I didn’t know the amazing comfort of being seen and understood. It was such a relief, to not have to justify and explain my existence.
When I began the process of coming out (again) to my friends and family as bisexual and genderqueer, everyone just accepted it. It wasn’t a big deal, unlike the first time. I had lovely bi women who taught me that it was still ok to hug hard, even if I was acknowledging my attraction to women. They reminded me that it was still ok to dance with each other and have a great time. I had friends who flaunted and loved their bodies and that taught me to love mine more. I had bi men who talked to me about their process of coming out; we compared notes on the differences. And I began to see that some of the things that had held me back for so long weren’t from me, but were from a world that wasn’t made for me. However, that world could be reshaped somewhat, inside of me, with the help of these friends.
Recently, I went to a conference where I was privileged to meet lovely queer South Asian women involved in social justice, who I suspect will be role models for me internally for much of my life. Like water in a parched plant, all of these experiences filled me in a way that I hadn’t known was lacking. But when it occurred, the change was obvious and instantaneous.
It felt like coming home, to a place where I was finally, truly myself. There is no way I could ever fully describe the extent to which having a loving, welcoming, group of queer friends meant for me, especially one that is accepting and loving of bi women. It wasn’t anything formal or organized, but it worked well. What I do know is that without it, I wouldn’t be writing right now.
So, to my lovely queer, feminist, intersectional lovelies: this is for you.
Shivani is a queer 2nd generation Punjabi-American living in the Midwest. Her work and interests include social work, improvisational theater, and intersectional activism. Discover more of their writing on Twitter [at] ShivaniSeth05.