The Road To Acceptance: In Conversation With Aruna Rao

Desi Rainbow Parents & Allies is a support and education group for parents, allies, and friends of LGBTQ+ individuals. It aims to promote understanding and acceptance among South Asian immigrant families in the US. We at MTTN sat down with Aruna Rao, the founder of Desi Rainbow Parents & Allies, to know more about her journey. 

About Aruna Rao—As a mother of a transgender child, Aruna Rao is extremely supportive of LGBTQ+ individuals and wishes to advance the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. In addition to being the founder of Desi Rainbow Parents & Allies, she serves as a board member of PFLAG—United States’ first and largest organisation for LGBTQ+ people, their parents and families, and allies. Being a community mental health advocate, she has been the Associate Director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness of New Jersey (NAMI NJ). She also founded SAMHAJ, an alliance of health providers and researchers focused on community mental health and wellness. 

 

MTTN: We would like to start by asking how did Desi Rainbow Parents & Allies come into fruition? What has the journey been like for you?

Aruna Rao: I am a parent of a transgender kid. When my kid was in high school, they came out first as queer. It was a huge shock for me. Being an Indian American immigrant, this wasn’t something that I had been exposed to or had much information about. However, I understood some basic things because I had worked in mental health for many years. I knew that this wasn’t a choice, and I couldn’t change my kid even if I wanted to. Earlier, I wasn’t doing anything actively hostile, but it took me some time to figure out what I should be doing to support my kid. I had a lot of fear because I was really worried about how people are going to treat my kid. Even I thought about what can be called as a standard parent response—What will people say?”

After that, I spent a lot of time educating myself. I started seeking support for myself and went to a lot of mainstream resources in this country. It was considerably helpful—I learnt a lot about the queer community and what I should be doing as a supportive parent. But I never found people like myself. To find immigrant brown mothers, or any parent for that matter, in the parent support communities was impossible. Soon, I started feeling like I am not the only one; it is not like I can be the only person with a queer kid. It ended up being like an incentive for me to create my own community. So that’s how Desi Rainbow Parents and Allies started—it was just about my personal effort to expand my community. That was a few years ago; now, it has essentially become much more. My interest in building my community is still there, and it has been successful in bringing me a chosen family of not just other parents, but also lots of queer people which has been a wonderful experience of my life. The reason that I started was one thing, and the reason that I am moving ahead is to actually provide this resource to a community that really, really needs it.

 

MTTN: You must have come across a lot of people—supportive ones or those who are open to understanding, and even the ones who are currently not supportive of their children. So, how do you reach out to these different kinds of people, so that they can come together in one group and support their kids?

Aruna Rao: That is actually a struggle. It’s a real challenge because the bulk of people who need help, in fact, the people who need the most help are never going to reach out because there is so much prejudice and bias about LGBTQ identities. 

So, we have tried multiple things. First, we tried to reach out to the mainstream parent organisations, which is somewhat ineffective because you find people who are already far along in their journey. People like me, for instance, are a part of PFLAG, which is the largest US-based parent and ally organisation. So, I found some people through that, who are already very supportive and those people are committed to the community. 

The second most effective way we have found is to reach out to the LGBTQ community because they, in turn, tell their families about this. Many people in the LGBTQ community are desperate for their parents to understand and support them. So when they find out that there is such an organisation, their immediate reaction is—maybe even my parents can change”. I find that the bulk of parents that come to us are people who love their kids but are struggling to accept. Their kids themselves play a huge role in such matters as they refer them to our organisation. 

 

MTTN: So these people must come from a lot of different backgrounds, following which there must be a lot of linguistic and cultural differences as well. Do you think that hampers your motive in some way? Or do you find a way to connect amidst all the differences?

Aruna Rao: For immigrants in the US, as well as other countries, who are part of this diaspora—we have a sense of connection that goes beyond national origin or religion. We find ourselves as foreigners in another country, so I think we have that solidarity already. Even if we meet someone from a different religion or a different country of origin, we recognise each other as part of a minority. 

In terms of language, there are people among us who speak more than one language. In our support group, we currently provide facilitators for anyone who wishes to speak in the available tongues. However, for now, our reach is limited to the middle-class and upper-middle class strata. So, they are people who speak the English language, even if not fluently. We still have to build our capacity to be able to serve people in more languages. 

 

MTTN: There is a certain stigma attached to the LGBTQ community in society. Do you think that’s something particular to South Asian families? Do the present socio-political institutions have a role to play?

Aruna Rao: I have been a part of parent and ally groups that cut across nationalities. One of the things that I have encountered is that almost every group thinks that they have a particular set of circumstances that makes their prejudice very high. This is true for the African-American community in the US; it’s true for Asians; East-Asian communities are also dealing with their own set of prejudices. In terms of the South-Asian community—people who have some kind of origins within the sub-continent—I think we have a lot to unpack.

The first thing is that my generation—the people who now have kids in their 20s—were raised in a world in which LGBTQ people were erased. My only recollection of any kind of gender non-conformity is seeing the third gender communities begging at traffic lights. I lived in India until my early 20s, but I had no interaction with anybody who was out, other than these significantly marginalised groups of people. We grew up assuming that this is wrong, it’s weird, it’s freakish. So it is shocking to know that our child, who we have spent so much time and effort raising, is going to come out as a member of this community. We think, “So that’s what my kid is going to become—marginalised, dealing with poverty, and dealing with vast amounts of prejudice”. I would say our reactions are very much fear-based and protective.

The other thing that I have found is that there are a lot of religious barriers. I see families who are coming from communities where the religion actively tells them that this is wrong; that it’s a sin to be LGBTQ. The parents are struggling with that as well. They are religious people, and their religion is saying that it is immoral to identify oneself as a part of these identities; so they think that their child is doing something which is against God. 

Lastly, I’ll talk about one of the things that really struck me. I myself am a Hindu, and I have encountered a lot of mythology and a lot of stories that are so affirming—particularly of gender-fluid identities. I think that there was a big break in how these traditions moved or shifted. For instance, before British colonialism, I think there was a sort of tacit acceptance, perhaps, at least from the historians’ account that I have been reading about. So there was some kind of acceptance that sexuality and gender are fluid. The whole Victorian prudishness that came with colonialism stuck. Instead of leaving this general understanding of queer identities in place, we adopted this prudishness or a kind of fear. One of the things that I want to point out is that it is a different experience for people who remain in India or other South-Asian countries because things on the ground are changing. Consequently, their assumptions are affected positively. I am so encouraged when I see pride parades being organised in places like Bhubneshwar and small towns across the country. For us immigrants, we come with a particular set of understanding of what LGBTQ means, and it never changes for us. We basically maintain this kind of ‘holy’ idea of what our culture is about and what our social attitudes should be. So we find it incredibly hard to shed those attitudes and even though we live in a country which is relatively liberal, we keep thinking as it’s those people’s problem and not our problem. Like our kids are never going to be queer, but those people’s kids are. I think these are all the various things that we have to deal with, and of course, our culture, in general, is very prudish about sexuality. It’s not something we want to talk about at all.

 

MTTN: If people’s thoughts and opinions are so rigid about this matter, how do you attempt to break these taboos? In your personal experience, is there any particular process that you approach to help the parents understand the situation better?

Aruna Rao: I won’t say that there is any particular strategy that will break these taboos. I don’t think it’s possible to remove these implicit bias; it’s a tough thing to work with. It would be wonderful to see every parent who stepped into one of our support groups walking out while waving a rainbow flag and saying, “I now understand”. But what happens, most often, is that some of their fears are lessened because they see another community of parents much like them, who look like them, sometimes speak the same language, and have very similar backgrounds as them. They see other parents being out and proud as parents. That has a significant impact because they don’t feel so lonely and isolated anymore, which I think is the main issue for most families. If your community is not open about it and in return, you can’t be open about it. So that’s one way of changing behaviour.

It’s also a process of time. Sadly enough, most South-Asian LGBTQ people don’t feel comfortable coming out early, because there’s a chance they can be cut-off financially. There are also instances of people being taken to conversion therapy or people being physically abused; for all these reasons, kids don’t come out early. When they do come out, and if there is some element of love and understanding in the family—even then it takes some time for parents to get where they need to be. Sometimes it takes years which is not really what I want to see, but it does get better over the process of time.

What we focus on is not making people into activists. It’s more about how you can change your behaviour. For instance, if your kid is transgender, how can you think about changing pronouns? Or if your kid has a same-sex partner, how can you think about making the partner feel welcome or at least being part of the family? It’s not about trying to change attitude because that is much harder. If there is already some family bond in place, if it was a good family relationship right till the time of the kid coming out, we draw on those strengths and make parents feel less isolated and lonely. One of the strategies that we keep talking about a lot is—fake it. One of the biggest fears that parents have is going to a family function and being the recipient of all the questions—”Why isn’t your kid married?” or “Why is your kid blah blah blah…?” One of the things that we tell them during these circumstances is that—keep your head high, be open and courageous. If you fake it, people won’t feel compelled to attack you. Ours is a culture of silencing and shaming, so if you don’t demonstrate shame, you are less likely to be shamed. These are some of the strategies. So you see, we are not working on making these people social justice warriors, we are making them better parents or we are trying to support them in becoming better parents.

 

MTTN: You’re a mental health advocate, and your work in that area is phenomenal as well. Do the two fields ever overlap; do you see any connection between mental health and the LGBTQ community?  

 Aruna Rao: There’s a lot of data out there that points to this. For instance, the Family Acceptance Project, which is based in San Francisco, has done quite a lot of research on the subject. It basically shows that isolation and rejection increase the chances of mental health issues. That’s true for all marginalised communities where being the minority can give you the feeling of being rejected. 

In the case of LGBT+ people, they are rejected at all levels—by their family, peers, and society at large. It’s the sense of isolation and being under attack that creates a lot of these issues. Rates of depression and substance use are very high; suicide rates are extremely high. Talking about the statistics in the USA, the studies done by CDC showed that almost 50% of transgender youth attempts suicide. It is a horrifying statistic, and this is something that I feel needs to be studied more. That’s why the need for family acceptance is so, so urgent. One of the things that the Family Acceptance Project has done is to track the trajectory of youth whose parents accept them. What they found was that all those scary statistics about suicide, depression, and substance use risk all drop when the family is accepting. It sounds like a simple thing—rejection causes mental health issues which in turn causes suicide risks. But to address it is very hard. The more support you give these children, the better they will be. That’s part of our mission too—we aim to reduce mental health risk by increasing family acceptance and social acceptance.

 

MTTN: There are people out there who are struggling with their identity and sexual orientation, as well as parents who are confused and in denial. Apart from getting in touch with you or focusing on community building, are there any other words of strength or advice you would want to give to them to make this process easier? 

Aruna Rao: That’s something I think about all the time. The bulk of people who reach out to us are not parents, but young LGBT+ people. They are the ones who truly seek support. There are a couple of things I would like to tell them. 

First, it’s going to get better. I see the change happening in the young generation. Peers are much more likely to understand and accept now. That is a huge change because what that means is you don’t have to stay hidden in all aspects of your life. Potentially, your peers are going to support you. It means that with the coming generation, the change will come. Although I know people don’t want to wait a generation for change to come, it’s something to look forward to. 

Secondly, you’re perfect the way they are. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with your sexual orientation or your gender identity—it’s just as natural a part of you like the colour of your eyes or the way that your nose looks. It’s who you are, and there’s nothing wrong with it. 

The last thing I usually tell people who are struggling with family acceptance, is that it’s not your responsibility to change your family—even your parents or your siblings. You can’t do anything to make them change; they have to change. To take this burden actively upon yourself, to constantly be pushing and struggling, and trying to educate—is extremely stressful. I know people want to do it for family acceptance, but I just want to underline that it’s not your responsibility. So, just take that as it comes; take what you find as support, but don’t stall your life. I find some people who say, “My parents will get better, and then I will come out with my gender identity”. While it’s understandable that you need their support, my advice would be to live your life on your timeline, on your trajectory, and don’t let your lack of family acceptance stop you. If your parents come along for the ride, that’s wonderful, and that’s going to be transformative for you, but don’t wait for it. Live your life as you need to.  

To know more about Desi Rainbow Parents & Allies, visit: 

https://www.facebook.com/DesiRainbowParents/

https://twitter.com/desirainbow1

https://www.instagram.com/desirainbowparents/

 

Interviewed by Tulika Somani and Lavya Joshi for MTTN

Featured Image by Tirthik Saha for MTTN 

 

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