“I felt like a bit of a freak. I was the only brown mom showing up at these things.”
Aruna Rao’s search for support as the parent of a LGBTQIA+ child crossed state lines. The New Jersey mom found herself in New York City as she tried to connect with other parents of queer kids.
Rao’s need for deeper cultural understanding wasn’t being met, and there wasn’t a space just for South Asian parents and families. So, she figured she would start one by creating Desi Rainbow Parents & Allies.
“If you are someone who is an ally–an open and active ally of the LGBTQ community –you’re usually not doing it in desi spaces,” she said. “So that was the gap I was attempting to fill–the sense of cultural connection and being able to express your emotions to people who understand you and know where you’re coming from.”
Rao started by organizing a support group in her New Jersey living room in 2017. As a few families started showing up, the group grew by word of mouth and Rao realized she needed a bigger space. She streamed a monthly video conference call on Facebook to reach more families–and soon, people joined from across the U.S. and from other countries, including Canada and India.
“Wow, this was a need,” she said. “It was much bigger than I thought it was.”
Eventually, what Rao calls a “one-woman-show” grew, becoming more challenging to run. After 18 years as a mental health professional, she left her job to devote herself to Desi Rainbow.
“What I see with desi people and families is that there are various degrees of stepping in and stepping out,” she said. “You come out to a few people, you come out to certain circles, and then, you step back into the closet for many things. Sometimes it’s an open secret. Families don’t address it. This is what really needs to be addressed in mainstream resources–understanding the level of distress and grief that families are undergoing and the fact that they have nowhere to turn to. Your religious community doesn’t understand. Your cultural community doesn’t understand. Where do you turn?”
As Rao explored a formal structure for Desi Rainbow and adapted to networking during COVID-19, she started to notice more needs. Intergenerational “chai-and-chat” meetings that were meant to be casual, drop-in encounters turned into deeper, more meaningful spaces.
“People were bringing very heavy issues,” she said. “They were there to cry.”
She also realized the need to have separate support groups for parents. Some were further along with acceptance, and others were just starting out. Peer-to-peer counseling helped the groups grow during the early months of the pandemic, and the conversations started covering more complex issues like religious resistance in South Asian communities to LGBTQ individuals.
With a large network of guest speakers from different faith practices, Rao started hosting weekly conversations to help answer questions. These meetings took off, drawing viewers from Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangladesh and other parts of Asia, averaging around 60 to 70 people every week.
“A casual adventure turned out to be much larger than anticipated,” she said. Despite the limitations of the pandemic, Desi Rainbow moved forward with hosting several inclusive holiday gatherings, as well as focus groups with various faith communities.
“What people keep pointing out is this opportunity to be in community with 20-year-olds, 30-year-olds, or kids that perhaps you would have never encountered–and see those kids feel so happy, because you’re acknowledging them just as they are,” Rao said. “It’s a real give-and-take that happens across generations. What we get from the queer and trans community is that our eyes are opened to another way of being that we have never really thought about before. It questions a lot of our own assumptions, so this is a real learning opportunity for us.”
Rao said the organization wants to make further inroads in places of worship to encourage acceptance of LGBTQ+ people of faith.
“Too many LGBTQ+ people leave their faith communities, either due to condemnation of LGBTQ+ identities or shaming, silencing, and shunning,” Rao said. “The idea is to try and develop safe spaces in our religious communities, where you walk into a place where there’s congregations and ceremonies being conducted, and you walk in as your authentic self. That’s what we want for our community.”
Desi Rainbow is creating a culturally-competent curriculum that will be shared with faith leaders and their communities. Rao said the goal is to roll it out by the end of the year.
“We’re not asking for radical shifts in thinking,” she said. “We’re not asking you to change your theology or religious beliefs. We are asking you to create a community space where nobody is judged for who they are.”
An exclusive standing-room-only crowd, dressed in dazzling colors and shimmer, packed SONA — an upscale South Asian restaurant in Manhattan — in February to celebrate queer love and allyship in the desi community.
The event, ‘Pyar is Pyar’ (which translates to “Love is Love”), recognized the landmark bipartisan legislation that President Biden signed into law in December: the Respect for Marriage Act. The event raised $168,000 to support Desi Rainbow Parents & Allies, an international nonprofit that provides peer support and resources to LGBTQ+ South Asians and their families.
Maneesh Goyal, founder and partner of SONA, organized the event with Shamina Singh, the founder and president of Mastercard’s Center for Inclusive Growth. Both Goyal and Singh are openly queer South Asian leaders and thanked the crowd that evening for their support of other LGBTQ+ desis.
Opal Vadhan and Gautam Raghavan from the Biden/Harris Administration read a letter from President Biden to commemorate the event.
“Jill and I — and Kamala and Doug — hope you have a wonderful night celebrating our nation at our best,” Biden wrote. “May we all carry forth that American promise of freedom together. May we also know that love is love — and pyar is pyar.”
“The work that you do to become visible and powerful, to form narratives, to change minds, and to make people feel something about a cause for equality — that is incredibly important,” Raghavan added, before introducing Vaibhav Jain and Parag Mehta, a same-sex Indian couple that got married in 2019 in Texas.
“They denied us because we are a same-sex couple,” said Jain, who grew up in New Delhi. “This is a violation of the Indian constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex; so we filed suit.”
“Parag and I are hopeful for a positive verdict. If our case wins, it would bring marriage equality to nearly 1.4 billion people across India,” he continued. “Just to put that in perspective, the total number of people today who live in a country with marriage equality is about 1.4 billion. That means our cases together could double the global population of places who live in a place with marriage equality.”
“We need a mechanism to help build allies in our community and to help provide the support that LGBTQ people need,” Mehta added, encouraging people to donate to Desi Rainbow.
Rayman Kaur Mathoda, Desi Rainbow’s board chair, challenged allies to put their dollars behind their vocal support. Her family announced a $50,000 donation to the organization’s ongoing work.
Founded and led by Aruna Rao, a straight cisgender mother of a transgender adult, the nonprofit has served more than 2,000 LGBTQ+ South Asians and their families since 2020. The goal is to serve 10,000 in three years; a million in the next 10 years.
Mathoda, a wife and mother of four, recalled how painful the lack of family and community support can be.
“For most of us who come out in the desi community…coming out is still a negative experience,” she said. “It is not a moment of pride. It is a moment of shame.”
Mathoda thanked all allies in particular for making the road easier for queer South Asians. To find the love and acceptance they want and need.
“Take what you want//Take everything” reflects on a time with my partner and our cat, Layla. It’s a retelling of the chaotic night I adopted her. I didn’t know why Layla hid from me. When I chased her around, it scared her more. “Take what you want//Take everything” juxtaposes our first night, filled with misunderstanding, with the rest of the time we spent together. My fond memories call back to the loving moments Layla and I shared.
Such memories defined us; they reverberated in my partnership. I wonder if my partner, like Layla, only remembers her fear of me, over our shared moments of love. The title, a Kanye West lyric, is an acknowledgment that their happiness together–without me–destroyed my sense of self. When I see their photos, I wonder if I can see myself reflected in their eyes. I wonder if they still keep kind moments of our time together.
I remember when she would look at me from behind a laundry basket.
A small simple cat with green owl eyes. She was afraid of her new home and its owner. Shit, I remember the night I got her, she hid under my bed, in the middle just out of my reach for maybe 6 hours, watching me. She didn’t eat anything the entire day. When the night fell I was afraid she’d starve or come out and attack me. I was just scared. I didn’t have a childhood pet, I’m not white, I didn’t know what to do. I picked up the whole bed and yelled that she needed to move. I chased her into the closet with a vacuum cleaner. When she ran in, I called my lover and yelled to her that she wasn’t helping enough, she needed to be there to help me. That was our first day together, me and that cat. No one will ever have that memory but me and maybe her.
It was during Ramadan, my first year fasting.
Our problems had already begun by then. Enough so that I decided to fast and show retribution. I’d try to change into a more patient and understanding self. Like the Prophet (SAW) I guess. To become someone that my lover could feel safe around. Somehow, getting a cat felt like it fit into that picture. I’d be a cat dad, you know, gentle. We’d raise her. I’d fast and become New Again. Maybe I’d wrap an inked tasbih around myself and show I’m a man of God.
I don’t know how a cat remembers fear any more than I know how a lover does.
I know her body stored it. My cat’s must have stored it too. That first night, I wish I could tell her that I was afraid too. It doesn’t make sense that I was afraid really — I’m bigger, more threatening. We don’t speak the same language anyway, so how could I ever tell her? She learned to trust me though, in her own way. Her small bean paws would press on my chest in the mornings. She’d meow to berate me for locking her out some nights, or when I was away from home too long.
She lives with my lover now. They share photos with me, they’re happy together.
I saw my lover once, it was on 55th and 7th, Broadway shined blue performance lights over us. She wore a red sacral dress. She said her mental health has never been better. I think she was trying to tell me that she’s doing well, because she knows I care for her. I don’t think she was trying to say she’s happier without me. We don’t speak the same language. I actually think they are happier with just each other. And I loved them both, so it hurts. Sometimes, not all the time. And it doesn’t always hurt that bad. Other times it does get pretty bad, though. I probably owe it to myself to say that.
I look back at the photos, the ones of our life together, and the ones of their new life.
Two green owl eyes, and two brown moonlit eyes. I look for myself in them.
January 18, 2023January 18, 2023 5min readBy Arun S.
From receiving his MBA from Harvard business school to being the CEO of Asia’s largest music festival brand Sunburn, Karan Singh combined his interests to push his passion for music! Singh received his bachelor’s degree in management from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He worked as an investment banker for three years at Ambit Corporate Finance before working at Sunburn which is a part of his family’s business. Sunburn started providing the music festival experience starting in the year 2007. The first festival was in Candolim, Goa. The music festival brand has put on over 5,000 events over the past 15 years. In 2022 The Sunburn Festival will be in it’s 16th year. Continue reading to learn more about Karan Singh’s journey with the Sunburn music festival!
What does the Sunburn brand offer and what made you have the festival in Goa as opposed to other parts of India?
We believe that Sunburn offers a really unique experience and is a melting pot of diverse people & cultures from not only across India but around the world. Goa is the ideal setting for this as there is something magical about Goa in the winter-time and truly enables us to tap into that global audience.
Safety at live events has always been a concern among concert goers. Considering recent, events more individuals have asked brands and artists to do more to ensure audience safety. What are you doing to ensure safety for live concerts?
Safety is a huge priority for us. We work with the best-in-class security agencies as well as closely with the police and requisite authorities. For anyone in the crowd a Sunburn safety officer will always be close by and easily visible. We also run an awareness drive on both social media and on ground.
What was the first Sunburn Festival like and what did you learn from this experience?
The first ever Sunburn Festival was in December 2007, and I had actually attended it as a fan, not part of the crew. However, it was absolutely eye-opening as the first proper music festival on Indian shores and opened up our minds to a world of possibilities.
As Sunburn houses so many electronic dance musicians who have been your favorites throughout the years?
It is difficult to pick from the list however the favorites for Sunburn, in no order and because of the amount of love they have shown Indian audiences, are Martin Garrix, DJ Snake, Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike, Hardwell and Armin van Buuren.
Do you plan to expand the festival to add other genres into the mix as well as more activities?
We have already expanded into different formats like Arena, Campus, Club, Reload and things like merchandize & academy. In terms of genres, we have been dabbling with genres like rap, hip-hop and pop, however our focus remains on electronic dance music.
What can someone expect from the festival as first-time goers?
Apart from a state-of-the-art production & line-up, one can expect a special experience, meeting interesting people from all over the world, and embarking on a creative journey of the theme for the year.
How does the festival help local musicians from Goa as well as the surrounding areas in India?
This year we had set up for the first time a special stage and village in the festival only for Goa which gave a platform to local Goan artists. But beyond that a huge focus for us has always been to showcase domestic home-grown talent and indeed 60-70% of the line-up each year is locally sourced.
What was the experience like this year in 2022 and how is it different from previous years?
The biggest difference was that this was the first time the festival was back to its full scale since the pandemic hit after 3 long years. It was a fantastic release for everyone there. Our theme was “the future is now” and this was reflected across the festival experience and particularly in the main stage design – termed “Cyberpunk City” which received rave reviews from all.
What was it like having the legends Black Coffee and Afrojack this year as well as the DJ duo Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike?
Afrojack and DVLM are both Sunburn & India veterans, it was amazing having them back crushing the main stage after very long. Black Coffee for us was something very new and exciting, to have a special artist and a unique sound like that close the main stage on day 2. However it was very well-received and took our experience to the next level.
As you have had the artist Avicii back in December 2011 how do you feel he revolutionized Electronic Dance Music?
Avicii is one of my all-time favorite artists and his show in December 2011 was actually my first one working on Sunburn so will always be extra special. There is no doubt that he revolutionized EDM by taking massive risks and introducing an entirely new sound which a lot of others then followed, but no one as well as he did.
How does it feel to be in charge of one of Asia’s biggest Electronic Dance Music Festivals?
It feels great, we have a very young but ambitious and hard-working team and our primary focus is to continue delivering the best possible experiences for our fans, artists and partners. India is such a vibrant and exciting market that I cannot help but be pumped about what the future holds.
Do you feel Electronic Dance Music is a misunderstood genre?
More so in a country like India possibly yes, where people who are not exposed to these experiences sometimes have preconceived notions about EDM festivals and the like. Oftentimes those people are also in a decision-making capacity and can directly affect the industry. However, things are certainly improving as the industry overall gets bigger and gets more acceptance.
What does music mean to you, Karan Singh?
Music provides a sound-track to life, it is something which is always there!
How do you choose to react when you receive negative comments about the Sunburn Festival?
Well, you have to be able to differentiate between those which are just trolling and those which are constructive or fair criticism. The latter is very important as it helps us to look at ourselves and continually improve, we are still a long way from where we eventually want to be.
Lastly, what do you hope individuals take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?
I hope it allows us at Sunburn to reach a wider audience of the desi community around the world and hopefully get some more people to fly down to Goa for Sunburn Festival 2023 which I can promise you all will be the best one yet!
Dimitri Vegas Like Mike
We have had a long connection with India. The first time we played here was more than a decade ago. Going from clubs to being a regular feature at one of Asia’s biggest electronic music festivals which is now an institution in itself. It’s been an exciting evolution to see how Sunburn has grown over the years. The fans at Sunburn are some of the most insane and every show is a special one. We’ve always had an incredible experience at Sunburn.
Honestly, the energy I feel when I am in India is one of the most amazing things. I would say the culture and energy is what keeps me coming back! India is like a second home to me, just like Sunburn. I feel so comfortable and welcomed here. I’m always excited about coming to India and playing at Sunburn, experiencing new cities, meeting more of the people, hearing more of the music, and seeing more of the country that has influenced me so much.
Sunburn has helped dance music artists world over to tour India and connect with their Indian fans and I’m always excited about performing at the festival.
I’ve a long history with the Sunburn team. They are a great team to work with and they also give the fans amazing experiences. As an artist, I want to be a part of providing fans with lifelong memories and so we all share the same vision.
Sunburn is one of the pioneers of the dance music festival scene in India and has been instrumental in creating a truly world class platform that supports the dance music industry and all of its stakeholders. I’m always excited about touring India with Sunburn.