Dossier 18: The All-American Queer Pakistani Girl: The dilemma of being between cultures

Publication Author: 
Surina Khan
October 1997
Word Document83.62 KB
number of pages: 
I don't know if my grandmother is dead or alive. I can't remember the last time I saw her. It must have been at least ten years ago when I was in Pakistan for an extended visit. She was my only living grandparent and her health was beginning to fail her. Every once in a while, I think she's probably dead and no one bothered to tell me.

I'm completely out of touch with my Pakistani life. As a kid, I remember being constantly reminded that I was different by my accent, my brown skin color, the smell of the food we ate, and my mother's traditional clothing.

And so, I consciously Americanized myself - I spent my early childhood perfecting my American accent; my adolescence affirming my American identity to others; and my late teens rejecting my Pakistani heritage. And now, at the age of twenty-seven, I'm feeling the void I created for myself.

I can hardly speak Urdu. I certainly can't read or write it. I have no idea how many cousins I have. I know my father comes from a large family (eleven brothers and sisters) but I don't know all their names. I've never read the Koran and I have no faith in Islam.

Sometimes I think of what my life would be like if my parents hadn't migrated from Pakistan to the U.S.. We moved to Connecticut in 1973 when I was five. Most of my family has since moved back to Pakistan, and up until seven years ago, when I came out, I went back somewhat regularly, but always with a little ambivalence. I never liked going back. It made me feel stifled. Constrained. People were always talking about getting married. It was either, "Oh, you're almost old enough to start thinking about finding a nice husband", or, "When are you getting married?" Now I imagine they'd say (with disappointment), "You'll be an old maid".

Fortunately, my family is of a more liberal mindset when it comes to Pakistani society. By American standards that translates into conservative. (My mother raised money for George Bush). In any case, I was brought up in a family that valued education, independence, integrity, and love.

Unlike some of my cousins, I never worried about my parents arranging a marriage for me even though I saw several of my first cousins arranged into marriages, sometimes with each other. Once I went to a wedding where the bride and groom saw each other for the first time when someone passed them a mirror after their wedding ceremony and they both looked into it at the same time. That's when I started thinking my family was "modern". Unfortunately they live in a fundamentalist culture that won't tolerate me.

I can't even bring myself to go back for a visit. The last time I was back was seven years ago for my father's funeral. And sometimes I think the next time I go back will be for my mother's funeral. She asks me to come visit every time I talk to her. And I tell her I'm too busy, that I can't get away.

Three years ago I finally answered her truthfully. I told her that I didn't like the idea of travelling to a country that lashed lesbians one hundred times in public. And more importantly, I didn't feel comfortable visiting Pakistan when she and I had not talked about anything important in my life since I had come out to her.

Pakistan has always been my parents' answer to everything. When they found out my sisters were smoking pot in the late 1970's, they shipped all of us back. "You need to get in touch with the Pakistani culture", my mother would say. When my oldest sister got hooked on transcendental meditation and started walking around the house in a trance, my father packed her up and put her on a plane back to the homeland. She's been there ever since.

Being the youngest of six, I wised up quickly. I waited to drop my bomb until after I had moved out of the house and was financially independent of my family. If I had come out while I was still living in my parents home, you can bet I'd have been on the next flight to Islamabad. When I came out to my mother, she suggested I go back to Pakistan for a few months. "Just get away from it all. You need some time. Clear your head", she begged. But I knew better. And when I insisted I was queer and was going to move to Washington, DC, to live with my girlfriend, Robin (now my ex-girlfriend, much to my mother's delight), she tried another Pakistani scare tactic. "You and your lover better watch out. There's a large Pakistani community in DC and they'll find out about you. They'll break your legs, mutilate your face". That pretty much did it for me.

My mother had just validated all my fears associated with Pakistan and I cut off all ties with the community, including my family. Pakistan became synonymous to homophobia. My mother disowned me when I didn't heed her advice. But a year later when Robin and I broke up, she came back into my life. Wishful thinking on her part. Though I do have to give her credit, not only for nurturing the strength in me to live by my convictions with integrity and honesty, but for eventually trying to understand me.

I'll never forget the day I took her to see a lawyer friend of mine. She was on the verge of settling a lawsuit started by my father before he died and was unhappy with her lawyer. I took her to see Maggie Cassella, a lawyer/comedian based in Hartford, Connecticut, where I was again living. "I presume this woman's a lesbian", my mother said in the car on the way to Maggie's office. "Yes, she is", I replied, thinking, oh no, here it comes again. But my mother totally took me by surprise. "Well, the men aren't helping me, I might as well go to the dykes". I didn't think she even knew the word dyke. Now, that was a moment. Her changing attitude about my lesbian identity was instilling a desire in me to reclaim my Pakistani identity. The best way to do this, I decided, would be to seek out other Pakistani lesbians. I barely knew any Pakistani people aside from my family and I sure as hell didn't know any, or even know of any, Pakistani lesbians. I was just naive enough to think I was the only one. Having rejected my culture from a young age, when I came out I identified only as a lesbian. I knew other lesbians but I didn't know any Pakistani lesbians, and so it didn't occur to me to identify myself as a Pakistani lesbian. And in my zeal to be all- American I threw myself into the American queer rights movement - not realizing (unfortunately) that there is an active South Asian gay and lesbian community in the U.S. - and many of us are here because we're able to be queer and out in the Western world where at least there is a queer liberation movement.

The conflict I'm experiencing seems relatively simple to me - I don't know how not to be out anymore, and if I went back to Pakistan to find that my grandmother is indeed alive and well and still wondering why I don't have a husband, I'll tell her politely, "I'm not interested in marrying a man, but I am looking for a wife. Know any good women?"

Source: --- This is an excerpt from an essay which will be published in Generation Q: Inheriting Stonewall, a collection of essays being published next fall by Alyson Publications

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