Reflections from the Camps: ECSS
“We have such high hopes and expectations for these radical desi spaces.”
A counselor of ECSS approached me with these words, as we sipped from styrofoam cups of chai, in one of the short breaks between workshops. They had undoubtedly witnessed my discomfiture from an earlier activity, in which the group was collectively constructing a definition of “queer.” After ideas of gender and sexual identity outside of a heteronormative binary were written up, I stood to write the words “Brown” and “Other” on the board. I spoke of how in the 19th and 19th century, a “Turk” would have been assumed to be homoerotic by a European, and how there is a much long history of tying sexualities to the color of our skin. And living in a place which to some extent inherits this history, where the white gaze constantly others us, we are already “queered.”
This definition was rejected by another participant, who had shared with us that they had been outed as queer to their parents and forced to leave her home at a very young age. I could feel the room’s collective discomfort, mixing with the spiced aromas from the stove in the fans. Another person suggested that the phenomenon I was speaking of was already covered by “Islamophobia.” Perhaps because I veil rather conservatively, I think that many people in the room had read me as a straight woman from the moment I walked in. In any case, I felt that I had not suffered to claim the queer identity the way my peer had. I decided to cross the half-written word off, and returned to my seat. The workshop moved to the next topic. I itched to say that Islamophobia paints the brown other as an orthodox and violent other -- virtually incompatible with queerness in the Western imaginary. I wish I could stop caring about the Western imaginary, but I knew that the way I viewed myself and those around me was bound up with its myths.
I was relieved when the break came, when the counselor came by to speak to me. I nodded appreciatively at their words. I felt selfish for nursing hurt feelings, after hearing the difficulties faced by my peer. But when my already tenuous grasp on the word queer was challenged in one of the few spaces where I had expected to exist comfortably as a queer Muslim, I realize I was a little heartbroken. I explained my feelings to the slightly older counselor, and they heard me out and seemed to understand my disappointment perfectly.
But if not for that earlier moment of discomfort, I might not have been able to articulate one of the most important processes taking place at ECSS: that we were an impossibly diverse group, that “South Asian” is an unfathomably diverse term. We gathered for the very purpose of understanding each other through each other’s words, to complicate and break down the harmful narratives, or the silences, that we have inherited about each other. This work is radical.
This group is a work-in-progress, and that’s the point. It has already provided a warm, brown family from which to take respite from the hurts we face in our daily activist work and movement building.