By Kiran Patel
It’s fair to say that most people go through “the phase” as a teenager - putting up barriers with your family so that you can figure out your identity is a canon event.
And they can’t interfere.
But unfortunately, for queer kids, writes Kiran Patel, that phase can be permanent.
It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly my phase started. The world gave me signs long before I was a teenager that being gay and South Asian meant I should put up those permanent barriers as soon as possible.
I thought about how my relatives looked at me with disgust when I played with Barbie dolls or dressed up in feminine clothes as a kid.
Or that my only references for being queer and Indian were Bollywood representations of Hijra harrowly surviving on the outskirts of society.
Or how my immediate family’s lifelong radio silence on queerness spoke just as loudly to me as any directly homophobic attack could have.
Things weren’t looking too good for me.
So, throughout my teenage years, I consciously and subconsciously distanced myself from my family so that I wouldn’t be hurt by them not accepting my queerness.
After all, the possibility of being outright rejected by the only people that I’ve ever known and loved all my life would be far too much to handle.
But I’m not alone in my experiences. In fact, they seem to be a rite of passage for young, queer South Asians.
The experience of coming out and finding chosen whānau features in Re:’s new docuseries Queer Academy.
What is preemptive distancing?
This act is called preemptive distancing which is when queer ethnic individuals distance themselves from their families at an early age to psychologically and emotionally protect themselves.
“It’s a way for queer ethnic people to preserve their emotional energy,” says ethnic queer researcher Vinod Bal.
“If [people] believe the likely outcome of coming out is not being accepted, being disowned, or violated - which are often the case in South Asian households, they’re preparing for it by emotionally distancing themselves.”
Coming out is one of the defining moments for queer people.
The idea of coming out can be terrifying for queer people, Bal says, because they don’t know whether it will be a “completely validating or completely traumatising experience”.
“That scale of uncertainty makes them psychologically detach themselves from their loved ones to avoid being affected by their reaction.”
‘It was a way for me to mitigate my losses’
Karan, an Indian gay man in his early 20s, says he began distancing himself from his family at the age of 13.
He completely shut himself off from his parents and stopped talking to them about anything going on in his life.
Creating that animosity between himself and his parents was a way to “mitigate losses” and emotionally protect himself in case they rejected his queer identity, he says.
Although his parents ended up accepting his identity, Karan says that his decision to distance himself felt rational in the moment.
“I had no idea how they would react, and I assumed it would probably be quite harsh.”
He believes that the barriers he put up as a teenager “strains my relationship with them to this day.”
“I still feel uncomfortable telling them things about myself. My mum feels like she’s missed years of my life.”
When asked if he regrets distancing himself, Karan says he regrets all the “missed opportunities to have a more transparent relationship with them”.
“It sucks that I don’t have the same relationship that my friends have with their parents, where they’re like their rock. I’ve had to depend on my found family for that.”
However, he says he doesn’t believe anything would change if he were to discuss his distancing with his parents now.
“It would be hard to put into ways that they would understand. I think some irreparable damage has already been done, and it’s too draining to revisit.”
‘I’ve basically had to reparent myself’
Being feminine at a young age, Viv says, meant they were constantly needing to emotionally distance themselves from their family.
Viv is a 32-year-old Indian queer person who says they were often seen as a target.
And because of this, they instinctively put up barriers between themself and everyone.
“I assumed they’d be derogatory towards me,” Viv says.
When they decided to come out, the reaction from certain family members affirmed many of these fears.
“It was quite a traumatising experience, so I slowly distanced myself. It’s still painful for me to revisit, because it was something that was supposed to be precious.”
Following this incident, Viv says they had to “reparent” themselves and “give [their] queerness the love that it never got”.
“I needed affection, guidance, and support during my queer journey. So, I’ve had to learn to give these things to myself. I’ve had to practice a lot of self love for my own well-being.
“But in learning to do these things, I’ve also become more compassionate towards my family and their journey with my queerness.”
Strategise, lie and divert attention
Researcher Vinod Bal says having to hide your queerness forces queer South Asians to permanently be on high alert.
“You’re always thinking about the ways that your identity could endanger you. So you develop these mechanisms to work around it and distance yourself from that danger.”
For Viv, this meant strategising, lying and diverting attention. Those are three things they believe become ingrained in queer South Asians when they’re distancing themselves.
“You learn to lie about the toys you play with, think up excuses when asked about marriage, and strategically avoid questions about your sexual identity. You learn to act as anyone but your true self.”
For both Karan and Viv, excelling in academics and work helped alleviate focus from their queerness.
Karan says “because I saw my queerness as a deficiency for so long, I tried to make up for it in other areas, like my education, which my family would celebrate”.
“It also meant that I could divert conversations about my identity, and therefore not form any deep bond with them.”
Cooked into the culture
Karan and Viv, who asked for their last names not to be included for privacy reasons, believe that their preemptive distancing is explicitly linked to the cultural stigma they grew up around.
Karan says his family weren’t super religious. “But I knew I would be violating traditional norms like marrying a woman or having biological children if I came out.”
He recalls his family believing that being South Asian and being queer weren’t compatible.
“My mum was fine with queerness because she thought it was a ‘white person thing’. It didn’t cross her mind that I could be queer.”
Viv believes that their mum’s apprehension to their queerness is mostly due to her fear of community perceptions.
“I don’t think my Mum is that concerned herself about me being queer. It’s more of a ‘what will other people say?’ thing.
“South Asians are a tight knit community, so those perceptions matter.”
Stigma, gossip and respectability politics in South Asian culture leaves queer people in vulnerable positions, AUT social science professor Camille Nakhid says.
“Queer people are extremely sensitive to these quieter acts of discrimination from their own ethnic community,” Nakhid says.
“The community may even think they’re doing queer people a favour so that they’ll change. It’s understandable why queer people would try to distance and protect themselves from these constant attacks.”
How can it be prevented?
For Bal, it’s important for parents to create an environment that makes queerness visible.
“Without outing your children or assuming their identity, you can leave subliminal messages to show that they wouldn’t face any danger if they are queer. Gently introducing them to queer symbols, imagery and media can go a long way.”
Karan says targeted initiatives towards South Asian communities collectively would be a good place to start.
“They’re very peer minded. If we’re able to reach them at a collective level and get rid of the stigma that queerness isn’t a part of our culture, it would hopefully make queer kids not feel so alienated.”
Don’t let the phase become permanent
I often wonder how different things would have been had I known it was okay to be myself.
All the lost hours I spent locked up in my bedroom because I didn’t have the energy to be around people I assumed wouldn’t understand me.
All the important family events I skipped out on because I was scared of being hounded with personal questions.
All the missed opportunities to be vulnerable with my family because I had trained myself for years not to be.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m so grateful for the love and support they’ve given me since coming out.
I know I’m one of the lucky ones.
I only wish I had realised sooner that all these little tugs and pulls of our familial thread, which felt minor as a teenager, would accumulate into the agonising emotional distance that exists between us today.
But I suppose that’s our cross to bear.
You might think that your child’s distancing is just a phase. But the possibility of losing your relationship with them simply isn’t worth the gamble.
Kiran Patel is a writer and activist from Te Whanganui-a-Tara. He is currently a postgraduate student at Te Herenga Waka and is studying towards a Master of Arts in English Literature. When he’s not busy procrastinating, he works part time as a Staff Writer for Salient Magazine, and volunteers as a Trustee at the queer South Asian charity, Adhikaar Aotearoa.
Made with the support of NZ On Air.
Watch the full series of Queer Academy now.
Where to get help:
- Adhikaar Aotearoa: Connect on Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn.
- 1737: The nationwide, 24/7 mental health support line. Call or text 1737 to speak to a trained counsellor.
- Suicide Crisis Line: Free call 0508 TAUTOKO or 0508 828 865. Nationwide 24/7 support line operated by experienced counsellors with advanced suicide prevention training.
- Youthline: Free call 0800 376 633, free text 234. Nationwide service focused on supporting young people.
- OUTLine NZ: Freephone 0800 OUTLINE (0800 688 5463). National service that helps LGBTIQ+ New Zealanders access support, information and a sense of community.
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