After noticing a lack of adequate sex health information on the queer Indo Caribbean and South Asian communities, three men along with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine have launched their own sexual health survey.
Musaub Khan started the South Asian and Indo Caribbean Queer Sexhealth Instrument (SAIQSI) survey under the guidance of Dr. Viraj Patel, whose research focuses on LGBTQ+ health. While juggling his responsibilities as a primary care resident, Khan quickly realized the survey would require additional hands and minds on board.
Debjyoti Datta and Nikhil Chopra joined the team shortly after. Datta previously worked as a physician in India with the trans community. In the Bronx, he currently works as a clinical researcher at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and serves as the data manager for the study. Chopra is the study’s research coordinator, handling everything from social media to outreach.
In a report from 2020, SIECUS listed nine states that cover sex education but are discriminatory toward the LGBTQ+ community in their teachings. Those states are Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma and Texas.
According to the group behind SAIQSI, the rare study will provide critical insight into the factors affecting LGBTQ+ Indo Caribbeans and South Asians. The recorded responses from the adults living in the United States and Canada will also serve to better construct outreach and sexual health services for a community that often foregoes this treatment due to stigmas.
Khan, Datta, Chopra and I connected on Zoom for an hour-long interview. The following is a snippet of our dialogue:
What have you found that prompted this study?
“I was just curious because as a queer South Asian Muslim reconciling various and contradictory identities, my own relationship to my sexual health and my health, I was very interested in knowing how my own journey was so dear to my heart to be able to reconcile my own queerness, but then also navigate personal ideas about HIV testing or engaging in sexual behaviors. I wanted to know how other South Asians and other queer people who were like me also navigated those things, especially with their identities and health.
The other aspect was that when we think about HIV and when we think about STI or sexual health testing, there’s a lot of data on other racial minorities and other ethnic minorities, like Black and Latino populations, but not actually anything is done on South Asians. And so I think that was the gap from the research standpoint. This is something that we should understand because there are a lot of South Asians and Indo Caribbean folks in the U.S. and Canada. There’s diverse cultural backgrounds, diverse age groups, diverse sexual and gender identities. Very few people have looked at what their sexual health is like, what their mental health is like, what their relationship to substance use is like and how all that plays in with religion and culture and different aspects of their identities. I felt like this was something important to at least do on a personal level.” – Musaub Khan
What was the thought process behind including Indo Caribbeans in this study?
“It’s very well known that South Asian discourses often exclude Indo Caribbean folks, even though there’s shared histories and shared cultures. I think one of the important things about SAIQSI, we’re already working with marginalized communities and people who are invisibilized and we didn’t want the study to invisibilize anyone that was related to the South Asian background and that included Indo Caribbean folks. So even when you look at the survey, for example, one of the first questions is, what is your nationality, background or the region of the world that you can trace your roots from? And that includes the specific, like Indian, Pakistani, Guyanese, Trinidadian, Jamaican and it goes down a list.” – Musaub Khan
“That ‘SAI’ first part of the study title, it’s kind of crucial, I think, to the whole study is having that ‘I’ in there and naming people and giving that representation.” – Nikhil Chopra
Where do you see this study going? And how’s it going to help folks in the future?
“I think once the study stops, it really becomes about supporting people. And then, further down the line, understanding how to change public health interventions and how to get public health interventions targeted to people and specific communities.
The goal of SAIQSI is to have governments take notice, to have cities take notice of this, to roll out projects that are relevant and culturally sensitive in areas that are full of South Asians and Indo Caribbeans who happen to be queer. So, the more traction, the better, because we want politicians to take notice of this data and do something about it at the end of the day.” – Nikhil Chopra
To learn more about SAIQSI visit their website here.
“Confessions to a Moonless Sky” is a meditation on the new moon and guilt. I wrote it when I was living in Dallas and was driving back from a dusk prayer. The new moon terrified me on that drive. I was diseased by the knowledge that my partner, at the time, had seen the worst parts of me. There’s immense shame in this piece—it seized my self-image. If the moon could become brand new, then I could start over.
I often ponder on the moon’s reflective nature and pairs of eyes. I’m hyper-fixated on how I am seen by others. Unfortunately, the brilliance of seeing your reflection in another person leads to negativity. After all, those who are too keen on their own reflection are the same people who suffer from it. It is possible to use shame to fuel one’s retribution and personal growth, without becoming consumed by it.
We can look to Shah Rukh Khan succumbing to alcoholism in his own sorrow and then later imbibing his sadness in Chandramukhi. “Confessions to a Moonless Sky” is a lesson for us: Don’t be Shah Rukh Khan in Devdas, instead embody pre-incarnation Shah Rukh Khan in Om Shanti Om!
Sometimes when the moon abandons the sky, I wonder if I drove her away.
If she comes back, will she be the same? How I wish she would come back new, truly new! That way she’d have no memory of the sin I’ve confessed to her. You noxious insect. Sin-loving, ego-imbibing pest. You are no monster, for at least a monster has ideology, it sins with purpose. You sin just to chase ignominy.
But the moon won’t say that, she never does. She’ll just leave the sky and return days later, slowly. And I’ll wonder if she’s new, perhaps she won’t remember my past confessions. What does it matter? Were the moon replaced with one from a different god, I’d drive her away, too.
“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.
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.