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Gender Blending and Indian Fusion: A Look at Gender Identity in the Context of Culture

By Kiana Green

My interview collaborator is Rowen Thomas. Rowen's pronouns are They/Them/Their. Rowen identifies as genderqueer. Genderqueer is used to describe a person whose gender identity falls outside of the gender binary which means that they might identify as both man and woman or neither (National LGBT Health…2018). Rowen also identifies with pansexuality as their sexual orientation. According to the National LGBT Health Education Center, “pansexual” is “a sexual orientation that describes a person who is emotionally and sexually attracted to people of all gender identities”. Rowen is a first-generation Indian-American and was born in Houston, Texas in the early 90s. Rowen's family is working and middle class. When Rowen was young, their family moved from a more Indian community to a community that had a majority white demographic so Rowen could attend a better school. Rowen's family's religion is Orthodox Christianity. Rowen was assigned as my collaborator after I sent Stephen Loveless an email stating that I was specifically looking for a person of color within the LGBT community. I requested a person of color due to my desire to tell the stories and experiences of people of color within the community because they often times are underrepresented. There is so much diversity within the community and I feel that much of the time when stories of the community are shared, most of the stories revolve around white, middle-class individuals. LGBT people of color face issues of racism and colorism on top of sexism, ageism, and homophobia not only outside of the community but inside of it as well. Talking to Rowen gave me the opportunity to sit down with someone who has experienced many of these issues and also how they had to navigate through them. When stories about LGBT people of color are produced, a lot of times those stories are very negative and only place these individuals in a bad light. There are not a lot of inspirational stories about how these individuals were able to overcome things within their environment that were oppressive towards their different identities. Rowen was able to gift me some advice for individuals that share their identities and I think that the advice is valuable in showing that many people of color share some of the same struggles and that it is possible to navigate through the world while holding their identities.


Me: When and where were you born?

Rowen: So, I was born in Houston, Texas in the early 90s. I was raised in Houston, lived in Houston for a long time for most of my life. I spent a lot of time in the city and out of the city. There's parts of town that are really, really diverse and parts that aren't so diverse. There's lots of different communities of color and immigrant communities especially there. The part of town I grew up in is really, really white. My parents moved there when I was really young specifically so I could go to a better school but in a predominantly white area. So, they left the part of town where there were mostly Indian people where they were living before so that I could go to a different school district. So, it was kind of like living on the edge of two cultures constantly. There is always that tension because my family went to church growing up and that's kind of where my Indian community was. I went to school, and it was mostly white people. And there was maybe a handful of other races or ethnicities of students there. But it was always a really, really short list and I was definitely one of if not the only one of two or three Indian kids at the whole school. And typically, it was just me and maybe there was like a couple other students of different races and ethnicities that weren't white.

But it was like in the 80 to 90 percent white. So I grew up in a really weird kind of neighborhood and place. The neighborhood that my elementary school was in like three of the big basketball players on the Rockets team. Like Hakeem Olajuwon and a couple other people, they lived in the neighborhood where my elementary school was. It was like this rich ass white people neighborhood and like the only people of color who lived there were literally NBA players. So it was interesting, to say the least. I think race and ethnicity always were something kind of at the forefront of my mind. Because of that, there were literally parts of my life that were in this one world and parts of my life that were in this totally different world. I grew up at home speaking Malayalam. That’s my first language. English is my second language. I learned it when I went to school. And so, you know, even to the degree of when I was at home or at church, I was speaking a different language than when I was at school. So yeah, definitely it was diverse and also the parts that I grew up in maybe not so diverse.

Me: Was it difficult to kind of try to bring those two worlds together?

Rowen: Oh absolutely. I don't know that I really ever felt comfortable even with like bridging those two until after going through my undergrad and like moving out and being really feeling disconnected from it for a while and feeling kind of that sense of loss for kind of feeling like pushing it away and rejecting it for a long time. Like when I was growing up when I was at home or when we were with family or when I was at church or different events like that, you know, like holidays and stuff like that, we would be all Indian people, getting close, cooking Indian food and that was just normal. And then if ever I were to bring Indian food to school or wear an Indian outfit or something that was very normal in every other aspect of my life it was immediately met with ridicule and just like being bullied and mocked and teased. It was awful. Like very early I felt like that kind of need to, you know, assimilate for a sense of safety and a sense of belonging, you know, and---and validation. And it really wasn't until like going through college then leaving Houston and moving to Austin, going through a really big relationship and a big break up, kind of living out on my own, getting my masters, moving to a different state and feeling like oh I have this really deep sense of loss from like losing some of my identity that I didn't want to really hold on to because of whatever reason.

And so it definitely was a slow process to kind of reconnect with my family and culture and not be afraid to bring that with me wherever the fuck I go. So yeah there was definitely lots of tension and it was always very hard to bridge the gap. Something I think about a lot as a professional, as a person who does research, as a person who presents at conferences, is like what my identity, cultural background, and family history tells me is something that I'm wearing to be professional, to be presentable, to feel like I'm putting myself together, doesn't necessarily translate that way to a Western audience. It isn't received in the same way or it is perceived as not appropriate in whatever context. And so, it can be really difficult to like go to conferences and that has to do with my race and it has to do with my gender and it has to do with a whole lot of other things too like bullshit colonization and a whole lot of other layers. But like it's definitely taken a lot of courage and working through my own shit and unpacking some of my own internalized racism and genderism and transphobia and colonization and all of that shit to kind of feel it's OK for me to show up as my authentic self and what I believe is putting my best foot forward like whatever---however, it impacts you and it's not seemingly appropriate in a Western context, like I don't really give a fuck anymore. But it's definitely taken a long journey of not feeling that way for a lot of times and in a lot of places and where I didn't really show up my full self. So definitely a lot of difficulty with that.

Me: When would you say you started your journey with gender expression and identity? And how would you say you took those first steps in order to be comfortable with doing that?

Rowen: I think that in the question of when did I start my journey with gender, like as soon as the world started forcing me to think about it in a way I started fighting back and never felt comfortable from a young age like wearing pink dresses or like dressing up. My mom used to love putting me in like matching outfits with little hats and little light purses and little shoes with little socks and everything that matched. And like every single one of those pictures from my childhood, my face is like--- my eyes are totally black. It's like just “I'm going to kill you like get me out of this shit” kind of face, you know. So, like in that way from the fucking beginning, I've always kind of felt that there was something different about me in the way that I showed up, I guess.

When I was younger, I think a lot of folks including my family might have considered me a tomboy. I struggled with growing my hair out. I wanted to play softball. Like I cared more about rolling around in the dirt than dressing up or wearing makeup or playing with dolls or stuff like that. And a lot of my cousins were guys and so I just ran around with a pack of boys growing up. Like that was just what I did. And it just always made sense. And so, then growing up I came out to my parents when I was really young, like ten or eleven, as an atheist. And I struggled with kind of my connection to

spirituality and faith and religion. My family is not only Indian but they're also Orthodox Christian. They trace their church's history back to like 58A.D. when St. Thomas the apostle of Jesus came to India so they were not converted through like missionaries or anything like that. So, like there's not even just "Western Christianity" but like very rooted in Indian culture kind of Christianity. And so, it's like a really big part of my family. It was a really difficult process for me and kind of my first of many coming outs. A big part, not like the only reason, but a huge part of what never sat right about hardline Christianity and many other religions was sexism. And that was where it was rooted. So even though that wasn't necessarily a step that I took explicitly about my own journey of gender discovery, it kind of was because it made me fucking angry. And at the time I identified as a woman and it made me very, very upset. And that's kind of the gender and the sex that the world had forced onto me. And I didn't really feel a need to break out of it because I could be in my gender the way I wanted to be which was loud and angry and critical, and wanting to tear down the patriarchy.

And I think that was like the first of many steps. I came out way, way, way later in life to my family and like publicly about being trans. And I've always kind of known, I didn't have the language for it, I always have identified as gay or queer in some way and like I feel more comfortable identifying into like pansexual/panromantic, a little bit on the ace, and asexual spectrums in terms of romantic and sexual identities. And that just took some time to find language but stuff that I kind of always knew about myself that the gender of other people didn't really factor into whether or not I was attracted to them. I was attracted to people who made me laugh and people who were cool and people with great style. Those were the things that were important to me about whether or not I was interested in other people. Their gender was not even something I thought about or considered really. And so, I came out as trans to my family when I was in the first or second year of my master's program, so like I had to be like twenty-two or twenty-three something like that. And it was really difficult because I had been out kind of socially with my friends in Austin where I had lived for almost a decade and it was really difficult to come out to my family at least for me. Not necessarily because they would react poorly but just because of the fear of how they were going to react. It was really more difficult for my brother, it seems, than it was for my parents. My parents like didn't have a lot to say but you know ultimately at the end of the day they were kind of like, "You're our child and we love you. And that's the most important thing is that we care about you and we want you to be happy. And like we don't really get it but we're kind of working on it and we'll go from there". And my brother is my only sibling (he's younger than me) and he stopped talking to me when I came out and didn't talk to me for about three years. My parents visited this summer and my brother actually came with my parents when they came to visit me in Greeley and that's the first time that I've seen or talked to him since I came out.

So like it's definitely a very active process that's happening and you know I came out to them as trans and kind of through some time of self-discovery explored my own gender expression and identity and found kind of a nuanced way to identify more, which is non binary and my gender expression or gender identity being genderqueer, gender fluid, gender fuck, those are definitely all terms I identify with but really just the construct of a gender binary even in the form of a spectrum is just not enough to contain the amount of gender that is held in me, right? That's like the best way that I can talk about it. It's taken a long time to let it come to that place and it wasn't easy. It's kind of an always ongoing process because I think that I started at a place of feeling like femininity was crushing me. Then I transitioned and lived in the world as a man for a while and then felt like masculinity was crushing me. Then I was like "Why am I letting gender crush me like this?". And I’ve just kind of been wrestling with that question ever since. So yeah, at this point I guess it's like in my gender journey I'm like still on it. And I think that it is a like inherently political process too.

And as much as it is about me as an individual and like me feeling a deeper connection with my roots and my ancestors and my history because like there is a very, very like reaction deep and documented and kind and alive history of trans and non-binary people in India and specifically in the state of India that my family is from that is predominantly Christian, which is like ironic, but like fucking like they're literally right there like if you pass laws about it and shit too like that's the wild thing too, right? The state in India that my parents are from has passed more progressive legislation protecting trans women in the workplace than any fucking state in the United States.

I really appreciate the opportunity to tell stories about folks of color in the queer community and like a lot of my own research focuses on those folks so like I was excited when you told me about that-- that you know rationale when you talk to Stephen about who you wanted to be paired with because I think like a lot of the assumption like yes there definitely is dissonance and there is tension, right, between our identities but at the same time we also, I think, let those stereotypes sweep under the like fact that sometimes it's folks in the United States that are the ones that are backwards, you know? And like we're not looking to places in the other world that are finally breaking free of the like chains of colonization and like no fuck you like we've been this way [outside the gender norm] for longer than you have told us we can't. So yeah, anyways that is to say that like yes, the gender journey is still happening and but yeah, it’s always been happening too.

Me: What has your experience been like as a person of color in the LGBT community? And more within the community itself and not necessarily with the outside forces of the world.

Rowen: I think that within the community it has been like, I want to say that there's a lot of really good and a lot of really bad. I think within the community it has been incredibly powerful to be able to connect with other queer and trans people of color. For example, some recent opportunities I applied for a leadership summit program through an organization called Our Boulder County which is a nonprofit that works in like Boulder and Longmont in the surrounding areas and they focus on essentially supporting and advocating for the LGBTQ community. And they basically write a grant for the Health and Human Services, I think, Department of the Colorado State and they've got a butt ton of money to pay all of the folks to come to this summit. So, it was like an application process, you apply and then if you get in you get---there's the initial retreat which is like a Friday/Saturday/Sunday. They paid for your travel, they paid for the hotel, they paid for all the resources and all the stuff that you used and hired facilitators for that whole weekend and really help you develop whatever you want. It was such a cool opportunity and so I think right like when we are uplifting some of our most marginalized folks which unfortunately are like queer and trans people of color, especially trans women of color, transmen of color.

And that's like statistically verifiable, right? Like it can be really magical and powerful and have such an amazing impact. And I often find myself answering this question starting with the bad, so I try to be really intentional that starting with the good this time. I think that sometimes it can be really tough though because unfortunately either you know oppression coming from white LGBT folks or even like internalized and horizontal oppression coming from other LGBT folks of color who can kind of you know, whether it's intentional or not, kind of weaponize the community against people of color. And like you know whether it's forcing them to kind of choose between their experiences or their identities or impressions or invalidating their experience because it might be different from the White LGBT experience or like you know not understanding the impacts and consequences that being a person of color and the dimension that adds to a person's sense of safety and security when it can, you know, come to being out and things like that. Like one of my own personal experiences I feel like reflecting on I've had partners in the past who were members of the community but were white and who really didn't understand and kind of felt a sense of almost exasperation at how long it took me to come out to my parents because it genuinely took me about like a year, a year and a half to really work up the nerve and the courage like sit down and talk to them and like make this space to have that conversation. And like I was working through therapy about it the whole time. And like still kind of felt a sense of pressure to kind of just do it without any kind of respect for not only my own agency but also some of the other like the differences and cultural context that we were coming from and they had a family who was very open and super supportive and had already other out members in the community in their family and things like that. And it was just like such a very different context, you know. I think that's kind of a minor example of it but I think that that can really impact folks' safety and security, right? And forcing people to be out or outing them, right, without their consent can be really, really dangerous. And it's not really anyone else's decision to make [a big deal] about someone's safety about their friends or family and whether they know that person is out. So, I think that I feel like that is one of the biggest ones. And I think probably the other thing I think is just a general like lack of understanding whether that is about from folks in the LGBTQ community who don't understand like how the experiences of people of color in the community can be and are different than theirs.

Also how they don't understand how they might contribute to and be complicit in why those experiences are different, right, and why they are perpetuating and how they are perpetuating racism or transphobia or colorism or any of those things around people of color in the community.

Me: What would you say would be the biggest way that non-people of color could help these situations?

Rowen: Oh yeah. That's a great question. So I think that like depending on whatever the situation is, right, like if they don't understand or they don't know or someone is like putting in the like emotional effort to drop some knowledge for them, right, like I think that this is a problem that folks in privilege whether it's white, cis, straight or other types of privilege really able-bodied class privilege national privilege or whatever. I think what folks in positions of privilege have and do a lot, I think that is kind of a symptom of the US society, is that we are not willing to step in shit. Right? Like we're not willing to put ourselves out there because we're afraid of making mistakes because if we make mistakes, we look stupid or if we ask for help, we look stupid. We don't want to look stupid. And I think a lot of that is really toxic. I think that it's also very ablest. I think that it also prevents us from understanding that making mistakes is a part of humanity and it's never going to go away. We're always going to be fallible people and creatures, right? That is just the nature of humanity. And once we kind of wrestle with that fact I think people, in general, like once they wrestle with that individually and I think it's societally, too, people can start to more embrace like learning and growth as a process that includes failure and making mistakes. And I say that not to mean that a person who makes racist mistakes is excusable, right, but it's how they respond when people call them out on their racism or try to educate them on their racism.

Me: What do you think is the toughest obstacle to overcome for someone who shares any of your identities? Do you have any advice for other people on how they can get through it as well?

Rowen: So, I think it depends on where they are. Whether that means geographically in the world or like in life or in terms of its support. I think that for folks who have you know some kind of non-binary gender or not heteronormative, not monogamous sexual or romantic orientation or identity I think that one of the biggest obstacles can also honestly be like a feeling of self-worth or validity. And I think that even though that is an internal sense of thing or something I think it is very heavily influenced by the context that they're in: the messaging that society gives them, the laws that their state or country passes or doesn't pass. So, I think that that it takes-- it honestly takes like a lifetime to unpack all of that stuff you know and to really start treating yourself and thinking of yourself in a way that has value and that might sound really depressing and sad. But I think that it is you know like representation. That's why our position to be such a powerful tool. Because just seeing a model of someone who is like you, and isn't the only representation of that person, isn’t dying or suffering from a disease or being beaten or you know like being just like brutalized in some kind of way or being you know only portrayed as the villain or whatever or as a joke.

And I think for folks who share my gender identity or my sexual orientation or romantic orientation I think the most important thing is to find those positive representations, find that community, find that support because that's one of the biggest obstacles and I think that there might be more nuance obstacles that are more difficult for individual people depending on their own identities or circumstances or experiences and what not. But I think that that is a really core one that can help folks tackle some of those other bigger obstacles of fighting for our rights, of advocating for access and advocating for resources and support or space. But also, unfortunately, some of those things like resource, space, access, support are required to build that self-worth and unpack all of that shit.

End of Interview

I would say as an anthropologist student, this was the most difficult, yet most rewarding paper that I have written so far. The interview with Rowen came out to be an hour and fifteen minutes long which came out to a little over thirty pages of content. The paper was difficult for me as an anthropologist because of the amount of knowledge that Rowen had to share was so great that I really struggled with what information to place in the final draft. This assignment really forced me to learn how to focus on certain themes that are important to my mission and also the overall goal of the assignment as well.

Rowen's experiences and outlook were very powerful to hear about. This story has made me realize that as an anthropologist I find purpose in seeking out the stories of marginalized people and sharing them with the rest of the world. I think it is important to tell the stories of people of color within the LGBT community because of the amount of intersecting identities that exists within this part of the community. Learning about how Rowen's ideas of gender stemmed from their family background regarding being Indian American and growing up in an Orthodox Christian household really made me see some of the connections between cultural identity, gender identity, and sexual orientation. It is interesting to note that there is a struggle between expressing one's gender and cultural identity in the US especially since the gender norm is binary and cultural norms are based on Western views of what is normal. Individuals that are not a part of mainstream American culture are tasked with finding ways to retain their identities in a society that tells them that every one of their identities are wrong and refuses to make space for them. With this paper, and hopefully future ones like it, I hope to educate people who may not identify with any of the identities that are discussed and to give hope to people that do share any of these identities.

[1] Glossary of LGBT Terms for Health Care Teams. (2016, March). Retrieved from http://www.lgbthealtheducation.org/wp-content/uploads/LGBT-Glossary_March2016.pdf

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