Growing up, I often felt lost, endlessly searching for unfathomable answers and some kind of purpose. The question of “who am I?” would ring loudly in my head and sometimes, it still does. In my attempts to understand my own being, I would find myself stuck in cycles of denial and hesitancy, struggling to come to terms with my seemingly contradictory identities. Bisexual, Pakistani, and Muslim. Holding this combination of social roles seemed impossible before, but now that I am looking to my ancestors, who knew existence and queerness before European colonialism, who tolerated and celebrated homosexuality and gender variance during Mughal rule in South Asia, I feel myself starting to settle into these parts of me with more peace and less conflict.
In many ways, existence is a complex, social process where being is rooted in identity, defined by the way we are perceived by the world and how we present ourselves. As an ongoing process, being changes with the knowledge and experiences we acquire throughout our lives. We are always shedding different versions of ourselves, inching closer to becoming the people we are meant to be. Each time we do, we are forced to face all the ways we contradict ourselves and the internal debates that leave us torn between two choices; to continue as we always have or to move on.
I had been convinced by the rest of the world that my queerness, my brownness, my religion were all contradictory. The homophobia and transphobia I witnessed growing up made me believe this. Everyone would say that being gay was wrong, that it was a “white people thing.” I experienced this internal debate all over again with the dissonance I felt between my queerness and spiritual connection to Islam. Witnessing others refusing to acknowledge the validity of queer Muslim existence extended the rift that was already taking up space between me and my Muslim, Pakistani roots. It took seeing another person of colour proudly announcing “I’m bisexual” for me to recognize that I was too, and that was okay.
Accepting my queer sexuality led to both the recognition and acceptance of my bisexuality. I knew myself better, and the way I perceived, navigated and presented myself to the world changed as a result. However, I still struggle with maintaining peace between these identities. In turning to my ancestors for guidance, I learned that homosexuality and gender variance weren’t tainted or formally criminalized in the subcontinent of India. In reality, it was a product of British colonization that continues to breed gender- and sexuality-based discrimination and violence now. Today, Pakistan barely teeters on the edge of the social tolerance its society once had towards gender and sexuality variance during the Mughal empire.
The little knowledge we have left of Hijra, the third gender in ancient India, lifestyle prior to British rule reveals valuable community-building practices. Digging into these has uncovered many teachings that resonate with my own journey and attempts to connect to my LGBTQ+ Pakistani ancestors. The Hijra experience is typically marked by leaving or being forced out of one’s home. This has led to a tradition of communal living for the sake of protection and survival, allowing Hijras to be in proximity to other community members and establishing safe spaces of their own design. I believe that the role of community within the Hijra lifestyle resembles the concept of ‘found family’ in the West. ‘Found family’ refers to blood-like bonds or strong friendships with others who have similar identities and experiences as you. It is a common notion associated with queerness in the West because it can become a crucial aspect of queer survival and resistance. Finding support and safety in strangers who speak to your experiences and are willing to care for you unconditionally is the central basis of ‘found families.’ Many queer folks in the West can understand and relate to the Hijra experience of being forced out of their homes over their queerness and/or gender variance. To survive, Hijras search for family and support outside of blood relationships just as queer people in the West do.
‘Found family’ has played and continues to play a significant role in my own journey towards self-acceptance and pride. My ‘found family’ consists of my closest friends, all of whom are queer. Before I met them, I did not truly understand what it meant to be authentic. In their company, I have learned how to celebrate and cherish my queerness, allowing me to better understand who I am and unlock my authentic self. When I think of how they helped me come into myself with their unconditional love and acceptance, and by constantly challenging how deeply I self-reflect, I remember this quote by Ocean Vuong: “
Being queer saved my life. Often we see queerness as deprivation. But when I looked at my life, I saw that queerness demanded an alternative innovation from me. I had to make alternative routes; it made me curious; it made me ask, ‘Is this enough for me?’”
My friends and the love they hold for me is enough; they have made me ask for and pursue the alternative routes of existence that led me to my ancestors. Because of the kinship I have discovered with them, I find myself flourishing in their care and striving to live fruitfully and purposefully, something I didn’t know I could do before. Having a support system filled with love and the warmth of safety allows us as humans to exist, to be, peacefully and fully. I think searching for and building safe communities to serve our authenticity and nurture our queerness allows queer South Asians struggling with their identities to connect to themselves, each other, and our queer ancestors.
Diving deeper into the concept of queer community and into Hijra history, we can tap into the mentoring and care-taking practices of our Hijra ancestors. There is another tradition where elder Hijras act as gurus to younger Hijra entering their community. The gurus care for and mentor younger Hijras, unconditionally accepting younger queer folks and offering them the appropriate love, support, protection, and resources they need. Building and maintaining safe spaces for queer expression and celebration can be a way of recreating this practice. Helping queer youth find themselves within these spaces, as we once did, places us in the similar role of mentors and caregivers that Hijra elders held. Giving back to the communities that helped us survive and become who we are today means serving the fulfilling care cycle, ensuring the support we once had will still be in place for those who come after us, seeking the same answers. Active community work and caring for the most marginalized members of our society replicates the practices of our Hijra ancestors. This can bring us closer to our LGBTQ+ ancestors and help us find a fulfilling place to fit into South Asian culture.
When we understand how the gender binary was forced upon us by British rule in an attempt to erase and eradicate Hijras in South Asia, we are able to begin deconstructing and abandoning it. Unlearning this ideology allows us to truly begin honouring and connecting to our Hijra ancestors who transcended such binaries and the concept of gender itself. In breaking down the gender binary, we improve our personal understanding of what it means to be Hijra. We can recognize how they seek the historical honour and agency they were forcefully stripped of, and how they continue to practice everything that made them threats in the British empire’s eyes. By unlearning and rejecting the gender binary, I find myself identifying with it less. I have reached another period of transition as I contemplate what it means to be a woman and what it means to exist beyond the confines of the gender binary. In deconstructing this colonial institution, I have gained a renewed respect for Hijras. Now, I see myself in South Asia’s Hijra population and in my Hijra ancestors, strengthening a formerly non-existent spiritual bond. Hijra have always known how to be beyond the western labels that have been decided for us. Taking a page out of their book, the complexity of being slowly begins to unravel.
To this day, I still doubt myself; “am I faking it?”, “can I really be a true Muslim if I’m queer?” Reconciling my queerness with my religion and my brownness has been a continuous and tumultuous journey. But when I first learned that homophobia and transphobia were introduced to Pakistan by colonial, European forces, that these attitudes were a product of white supremacy’s mark on South Asia, I started to recognize myself as a whole and not a mashup of random identities. Suddenly, I felt less disconnected from my Muslim, Pakistani culture. I wanted to learn from and understand my ancestors, their existences, ways of life and to seek their guidance. When I turned to Hijra history for guidance, I didn’t expect so many of their practices to resonate so strongly. I found the value I hold for community reaffirmed and framed as a form of connection to my queer Pakistani ancestors. In knowing and being able to respectfully adapt their community practices within my own life, I feel the dissonance between my queer, Muslim and Pakistani identities transforming further into pride and excitement. There is so much left to learn about myself and so many more ways to build relationships with my ancestors. My exploration of being has yet to come to an end, but I’m thrilled to be taking my ancestors on this journey with me.