Welcome to the fifth issue of Lychee, an advice column for South Asian Americans. We answer questions that range from the salacious to the serious, gathered from conversation with friends, academics, and industry experts. Got a question you want to see answered? Ask below.
This week, a reader wrote in feeling anxious about a new crush she’s developed within an old friend group. She’s dated friends before, but there’s a problem — everyone think she’s straight. Wonderful writer Sarah Mathews (who, among many, many other things is the author of one of my favorite pieces of writing on immigration) answered the question.
I still hang out with the people I graduated from college with, and there’s a new girl that works with one of my friends who they’ve been hanging out with. She’s really cool and she’s a lesbian. Let’s call her Hana. I think Hana is the first non-straight woman friend we’ve had in our group. I think I’m starting to have a crush on her, during covid I’ve been video chatting with my friends, and sometimes we chat one on one and we just have so much to talk about.
But the problem is that this group doesn’t know I’m bisexual, they’re used to me dating men, and my ex-boyfriend is one of their close friends. I’ve never even dated a woman so I don’t know if I am but I want to try. It’s actually even harder being brown because nobody thinks I can be this way and most of my friends are pretty straightedge, like most of them are couples and married. I feel like they’d treat me different if they saw this side of me. It’s weird, especially because Hana is white and I feel like that makes things ok, but I’m not supposed to be this way because I’m a brown girl? I can’t even name a bisexual brown person lol. Lilly Singh?
So I guess my question is, do I just kill the crush? I don’t even know if I like this girl and maybe the hassle of coming out will be too much. I know the obvious advice would be to go for it and be romantic but I’m trying to think of this in a way where I can keep my friends of almost 8 years now but also see if it’s worth testing the waters. Or if I should keep it hidden and try dating someone outside of the group and see if I like them enough to introduce them.
Bisexual and conflicted
Dear sweet bisexual and conflicted,
I am giving you, in this order, a very warm and loving astral hug, and a little bit of an aunty eye-slide and head shake. We contain multitudes; I’m allowed this.
We’ll start with some specifics and then go general. Specifics: it seems to me that you are conflating your crush on Hana with the degree to which you feel ready to publicly claim an identity, an identity that you are not entirely secure in because of your brownness, because of your self-perceived romantic inexperience, and because you fear the people in your life will see you differently. This is an impossible amount of pressure and projection to put on one human. Let’s be fair to Ms. Hana, a nice and very cool person and your friend.
Here’s one possible path forward. You keep talking to Hana, feel out the vibes, and at some point you tell her authentically and honestly that you have a crush on her. See how she reacts, and if it seems positive, ask if she’d be willing to go on a date. Before you have this conversation, I strongly advise you take some time to learn about queer and bi history (your history!) and identity (your identity) (lots of resources linked below).
To whatever degree possible with COVID, I also recommend checking out some queer —or queer South Asian—affinity groups near where you live. As my former girlfriend and current good friend once told me, “Most straight people have privilege, most gay people have community, most bi people have neither.”
Back to the matter at hand. Ms. Hana might say she totally digs you or she might confess she’s flattered but thinks of you as a friend. Your identity is independent of whatever you two negotiate or don’t negotiate in the romance lane. If she’s into you and you’re into her, go on a few dates, and when you’re both ready, then comes the next step: talking to your friends about your identity and the fact that you’re seeing Hana. Remember: two separate things. You don’t want life to feel even more gadbad than it does for most of us in 2020, so it’s key you try to unbraid these in your mind.
But wait, another option! You keep Hana out of it for now, you do the aforementioned personal work, you download Lex or Tinder or Her or whatever, and talk to some cuties. During one of these COVID video chats (yay for staying connected and avoiding isolation), you tell one of your friends that you have a date you’re excited about. Drop in the surprise pronoun somewhere in there, confirm that yes, you’re bisexual and you’ve known for a while, and take it (meaning the rest of your life) from there.
I believe that we as South Asians need to, in every aspect of our lives, work on being free, particularly of the stultifying shadows cast by Log Kya Kehenge. I don’t know your friends, but I’m willing to bet real money that the majority of them would not give a meaningful damn and that you are actually projecting your own fears and discomfort onto them. No one can actually give you the opposite of that discomfort. Friends can support us, romantic partners can cherish and validate us, but the bone-deep acceptance of who we are, of our specific capacities around love and want, that is ours alone to find.
If you tell your friends, one at a time, in a chill and matter of fact and confident way, any combination of these: that you are bisexual, that you have known this for a long time and appreciate their support, that you’ve been on three great dates with Hana, that you are going on your first date with a cute femme and are excited and nervous about it—whatever it is, if they’re good friends, they’ll show up for you. If they’re not good friends, then find yourself some good friends. Your ex-boyfriend may get in his feelings about it, as exes of all genders sometimes do when their former partners move on. But he’ll live. So should you.
Because we do live in a generally biphobic culture, one or two of your friends might say annoying or insensitive things, featuring the phrases, “just a phase”, or “how can you be sure,” or “which one do you like more”? The thing is, if you do the internal work of self-acceptance and finding queer community, you’ll feel emboldened, conversation by conversation, to set boundaries, to correct people of foolish and dangerous thinking, and quite simply, let your own visible love and regard for yourself guide other people’s treatment of you.
I don’t mean to make light of any of what you are navigating. What we’re talking about requires real courage—courage I know lives in you. The fact is that self-acceptance and self-love are for many of us years in the making. The fact is we live in a queerphobic and biphobic world. This is part of the reason why bisexual people of every gender face above-average rates of cancer, intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and mental illness. The fact is, despite brown people doing gay shit since the days of the Ajanta and Ellora temples, the mores and representations of queerness in America are often centered around whiteness. Coming out very publicly, marriage equality, and estate rights are not the heart of every queer’s politics. I am not telling you that coming out to your family is essential, or even coming out to these friends—though you will likely feel better and happier once you do.
What I am telling you is that I hope you claim yourself. What I am telling you is that you are allowed the freedom of your desire. What I am telling you is that keeping yourself from that freedom because of what you fear other people will think will, in the long run, warp the very core of who you are.
I knew I was not straight when I was very young and that knowledge filled me with fear. I grew up in a place where to be gay was criminalized, a place without real language for what I was. I saw myself reflected nowhere other than the revulsion of others.
I thought I was gay and it felt like a death sentence. Later, I realized that I found many genders beautiful. When I was still very young, I began to act on this realization, try to see if it held true outside of theory.
There's a line from Frank Bidart's poem "Queer" that goes "The door through which you were shoved out / into the light / was self-loathing and terror."
That was true for me. But I also went into the light because of love, because I loved and was loved by people who made it worthwhile to find names for myself that fit, names that included them.
What I am telling you is that I've wasted a great deal of time with self-loathing and terror. With secrecy and longing and worrying where I belonged and generally dancing on the edges of knives and words. It took me a long time to stand up for myself, to find myself lovable. I hope you waste less time than I did. I hope you know that you are so far from alone, that you are part of a lineage and a community magnificent beyond words. I hope you understand, that you matter very much, that this is part of who you are and also not all that you are. In short, I hope you, publicly or not, claim yourself, because you are worthy, and because other people may see you and choose to claim themselves too. Living loud in your freedom frees other people. I can’t tell you that it will all always be chill and easy; I can tell you that queerness, with its attendant love and abundance and possibility, has been my life’s richest gift. We are waiting to welcome you. Come into the light.
Readings that helped me:
Bi+: A Bisexual Revolution is a pretty cool and galvanizing read.
Bisexual activist and movement matriarch Robyn Ochs has a wealth of resources on her website
The film Fire by Deepa Mehta was key to my own self-acceptance.
So was learning over the years that some of my absolute personal heroes were bisexual: Frida Kahlo, Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, Freddie Mercury, Brenda Howard, Marsha P. Johnson, David Bowie, Marlene Dietrich, and Grace Jones. These are people who’ve changed, who’ve made, the world. Who would not want, I thought, to be in this club.
Contemporary bi+ South Asians visible in the public eye: Vikram Seth, Anjali Chakra, Fariha Roisin, Shonali Bose, Jameela Jamil, Lilly Singh, Mira Jacob, Raveena Aurora, Vivek Shraya, and Tanais.