There’s a moment in Mindy Kaling’s new teen dramedy “Never Have I Ever” when protagonist Devi Vishwakumar attends a Hindu religious ritual and is confronted by her own Indian-ness, or lack thereof. Most immigrant children can relate to her experience and have probably asked — or will ask at some point in their lives — these two questions: “Am I too American?” and “Am I not American enough?”
My older sister was born in India and lived there for the first few years of her life, enough that her Hindi is quite good and almost sounds native. She is Indian. She loves ’90s Bollywood movies, eats our mother’s Indian vegetarian cooking without complaint and converses fluidly with our older cousins.
Comparatively, I was born in California and have lived in the same Bay Area city my entire life. I do not like older Bollywood movies (or even newer ones), I fuss about my mom’s food and talking to our older cousins is out of the question. I always felt alienated from my culture and extended family during our frequent summers in India.
But over time, that changed. There wasn’t a certain point when I decided that I wanted to be more Indian — it just happened. I asked more questions about my family history and conversed more with my paternal grandfather. I tried — and mostly failed — to be more diverse with my Indian eating choices. I took a Hindu mythology class and a South Asian history class at UC Berkeley and loved them both. And my Hindi is getting better; it’s becoming more fluent and less accented, though I still occasionally fumble with sentences and phrases, amusing my family.
High school was the time for self-realizations. Coming to terms with my Indian American identity was quickly followed by another recognition: The world isn’t as straight as I thought it was.
Realizing that I was bisexual wasn’t so much a sudden sexuality crisis as it was a slow burn. I realized that I found women just as attractive as men. Of course, I did struggle during my sophomore and junior years with whether I was really bisexual or just projecting. It took talking to other queer people at school and online for me to finally accept the label.
I may not be the best person to speak on bisexuality. I’ve never dated anyone, nor am I out to anyone but my friends and my sister. For three years, I’ve been debating whether I should come out to my parents. Each time, I hesitate because I dread how they will respond because my parents are Indian.
India has a complex history with the LGBTQ+ community. Although Hindu mythology and historical Indian culture feature some gender and sexual fluidity, India still harbors British-enforced conservative penal codes. It wasn’t until September 2018 that the Supreme Court of India overturned Section 377, which criminalized homosexual sex and same-sex relations. This was considered a landmark victory for Indian queer people.
But Indian queer people still face bigotry and discrimination. Although each Indian generation becomes more accepting, in smaller towns, young queer people stay closeted for fear of being ostracized by the traditional, family-oriented structure of their communities. They lead unhappy lives or find themselves in arranged marriages. Worse, sometimes they come out — or are forced out — of the closet only to face the bigoted responses of their families.
Although I don’t expect that kind of response from my own family, I also don’t know what I can expect. I’ve treaded the waters slightly with my parents, and it’s become apparent that they might not even be sure what bisexuality is. Conversations featuring explanation trail off, especially because I become too self-conscious about accidentally giving myself away. I would like to say they’d accept me because we live in the fairly progressive and LGBTQ+ friendly Bay Area, but I’m still unsure, especially considering the history of Indian queer people.
My dilemma is also not helped by the lack of proper bisexual representation in Hollywood. Bisexuals are like unicorns; it’s hard enough finding a character who actually says the words “I’m bisexual” in the media, let alone one that is portrayed as a multidimensional human being.
On the same note, South Asian representation in Hollywood is poor but getting better. “Never Have I Ever,” in particular, struck gold, and seeing Indian Americans such as comedian Hasan Minhaj on screen helps me feel a bit more comfortable in my brown skin.
Growing up in the Bay Area, I felt trapped in a sort of bubble universe that was incredibly diverse and progressive, but I never really saw myself on screen or in other characters. I didn’t always feel valid as an Indian American and sometimes felt like I had something to prove. Realizing I was bisexual only further drove home that point.
I have a feeling that given time, I will feel as comfortable and valid in my sexuality as I do in my brownness. Hopefully, one day I will come out to my family and be accepted for all of whom I am. And if we don’t see a bisexual brown lead on television soon, I will write that bisexual brown lead. Future generations of queer Indians or Indian Americans deserve to feel just a little more comfortable in their own skin.