Many Hindustani gays struggle to reconcile their antics with the culture they grew up in. “We haven’t learned to talk about our feelings.”
An indispensable topic in the media: the rights of the gay, bisexual, transgender, transgender, bisexual and non-binary/sex-enthusiastic Dutch, collectively known as “queers”. But the difficult struggles of Hindustani gays still go unnoticed by the general public. This is despite the fact that the Hindustani community, which consists of Dutch Surinames with an Indian background and multiple religions, is very large – there are over 160,000 Suriname Dutch Hindustans – and actively participates in Dutch society.
“I felt like I wasn’t allowed to talk openly about my homosexuality,” says Kai Bhawanibhiek, 31, from Amsterdam. He works as a consultant on diversity and inclusion policy at the University Medical Center in Utrecht. Bhuanibhik is also a board member of Hindustani & Queer, an institution that aims to give a face to the Hindustani queer community. During his childhood in Suriname, he noticed that he was more interested in boys.
When I was eight or nine years old, I began to realize that I found boys more interesting than girls. I loved getting dressed up and working on mom’s makeup and clothes. My parents and the environment tried to guide me in my behavior, that I should act like a boy. As a child I did not realize that my behavior did not fit in with our society, until I was confronted with it by my older nephews, nephews and classmates for example. Oh, I’m doing things not so well? These types of ideas help; I became more aware of it.
‘My parents and the environment tried to make me act like a boy’
In Suriname there were already bars where gay men and lesbians could meet. However, in his environment, at school and in his family, gays and lesbians were often spoken offensively, says Bhawanibek. “Not in a bad way, but as something external and not something you want.”
He grew up in a tight-knit Hindu community. During his adolescence he was in two worlds. We have learned that you are considered an outcast if you have a different sexual orientation. You should do what your parents want. If you deviate from that, you’re not doing well. That’s why I kept calm. I kept my worlds separate: on the one hand, I was a neat student with good grades, and on the other hand, I secretly dated guys from the age of fourteen. I wanted to be loved. And that was only possible if everyone thought I was straight.
Taboo and the culture of silence
For 41-year-old Trishanka Smaal from Amsterdam, the feeling that you are living in two worlds is very obvious. I was born as a boy and in adulthood I took the step to transition into a female body. She says that during her childhood she already had the idea that she did not fit into the boy’s body.
When I was four years old I looked at my sister in the shower and thought: We’re the same, right? But when I looked at her body, I realized that I am not like my sister. I didn’t understand how different we were physically; I really felt like a girl.
We have not learned to talk about our feelings, because honor is very important in Hindustani culture. The things that seemed fun to me–baking cookies, making yourself pretty, doing your hair–were not expected of me. Boys have to take care of the family and go hunting in adulthood.
She had a difficult and difficult childhood in Suriname, where she was sexually abused at a young age in a boarding school and subjected to abuse. She was also bullied at school by her classmates in Suriname, because she was said to be too feminine.
‘Because I only experienced violence until I was fifteen, I was never able to develop my own identity. It was an unknown LGBTIQA+ sight, which was seen as a taboo. In the past, people were killed in Suriname when people in the area discovered they had a different sexual orientation.
I wanted to jump off the balcony
When she moved to the Netherlands when she was 15 and started living alone for a few years, Smaal first decided to go out as a gay man. The transgender phenomenon was still relatively unknown in Dutch society at the time. After her grandmother’s death, she went through an identity crisis.
That was a fatal blow. I didn’t want to live at that time. I wanted to jump off the balcony, but I couldn’t open the door. Then I went to watch TV and watched The Oprah Winfrey Show about an Indian boy who wants to be a girl. I introduced myself to it. Oprah said, “There are people like you. You’re not sick. You have a right to be here. For the first time I heard the word ‘transgender.’ It changed my life.”
After scheduling my hospital transition, her transition took about seventeen years.
Get out of the closet
For Varisha Padlow (23), a culture of silence about homosexuality is a well-known problem. “In the Surinamese and Hindustani culture, people don’t always dare open up about their sexual orientation,” Badloe explains. The fact that so little is known is in part because the Hindustani queer community is small. But also because there is little space in the Dutch community of Hindustani queer. In the media, we mainly see white people. It is also often assumed that being an outsider is a taboo in non-Western cultures – this is not always the case, but this also ensures that gay people are forgotten within these cultures.
“We mainly see white gay people in the media”
Badloe is from Almere and teaches cultural anthropology and development sociology at the Free University of Amsterdam. She is herself a lesbian and is also a board member of Hindustani & Queer. She says she has known since puberty that she loves girls.
When I had a girlfriend in high school, I knew this was going to be hard for her. “I felt that I did not fit into a certain image: the image of a Hindu woman having an affair with a Hindu man.”
This conflict with Hindustani social norms and feelings made her think. The relationship with my girlfriend was good. But at home I did not dare to talk about the strangeness. Until I got out when I was 14. My parents were surprised and didn’t like it at all. I gave my family enough time to process it. I can’t blame them either. My progressive relatives thought it was brave that I got out and supported me.
Back in the closet
Gay Kai Bhawanibek also testified that the topic of homosexuality is difficult to discuss with Hindustani. Even among the younger generation. When he was active in a Hindustani student union during his student years, he noticed that homosexuality was frantically treated.
I was a member of the Hindu Students Forum Holland, where I was very active as a board member for many years. At the time, some of the board members knew I was gay, but I didn’t dare talk about it publicly. When the idea of organizing an event to discuss homosexuality among members and supporters came up, there was a lot of uproar among the board members. It is not explicitly stated that homosexuality is not acceptable, but it has been there all along. He made it plain to me that there was no room for a crow in the Assembly. Until then he was unspoken and I was at peace with him, a light form of separate worlds. But after the uproar, things really started to get worse. I finally resigned as a board member because I had the impression that my gay identity would not be accepted.
He also says he couldn’t talk about his sexuality with his friends and family. In Hindustani families we learn: “Manai Ka Puli? In other words: “What will other people say about you?” I have been taught since childhood that it is better to remain silent than to speak openly. So when I was about 21 years olde For the first time I dared tell my parents that I was gay, there was immediately concern about what those around us might think. Will they rule the family? My father was in denial for a long time at first. My sex life was seen as something I’d rather hide.
“When I visit my family in Suriname, I go to the closet a little”
In the end, his parents and the rest of his family in the Netherlands tacitly agreed to his homosexuality. It is even more sensitive in Suriname.
My parents do not dare to talk about their social environment in Suriname. There is still a question about when to marry. We have a great deal of social control, especially from the Hindustani community in Suriname. My parents have their world and their community to deal with. When I visit my family in Suriname, I go to the closet quite a bit. I’m at peace with that for now, says Bhawanibek.
Visiting family is also very sensitive for Trishanka Smaal. Before deciding to transition to a female body, I had not visited the Hindu side of my family. She also hated Hindus for a long time. But after my move I decided to take the step and visit them. I said to myself: You have to face your demons.A cousin came to me and told me to love myself. My family was very huggable; I was greeted with love.
Samal adds that it is important to realize that Indian and Hindu culture have had the concept of a third gender for centuries. The taboos surrounding homosexuality and transgender people have nothing to do with our religion and culture. But people have learned that these are taboos.”
However, being transgender is still a taboo among Hindustani. When I really wanted to celebrate Holi festival in A mandir (Hindu Temple, ed.) I was not welcome, as I am transgender. This was painful, because I finally wanted to experience Hindu culture, but I was still left out.
How can Hindustani queer be more acceptable in the future? Badloe explains: “It is important that we support each other more. During Indian History Month, organized by Hindustani & Queer and Sarnami House in June, we sought to collect and amplify Hindustani queer voices. But also in the Dutch media, a voice can finally be obtained Hindustani Queer Support and recognition must also come from outside.
Bhawanibek agrees. Being gay in Holland is a Western concept, a kind of white gay party. Making this picture complete and thus comprehensive is a major business. There is hardly any place now for gay people of color in influential places.
Support must also come from outside.
There are a lot of intersections involved in accepting queer Hindustani, Badloe says. We are both colorful and weird. There is a lot of racism in the world, but there is also a lot of homophobia. So, if you’re a freak of color, you’ll run into more stuff. I notice that this extra layer is often forgotten during discussions about homosexuality and homosexuality. This inclusivity is still missing in many LGBT groups. Because of this, you can feel completely lonely as if you were an anomaly.
Good press costs money. Members and donations enable our balanced coverage of binary culture, meaning and freedom. So support us if you think our work is important.
Tell me more!