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Diwali Brings Together Boston’s South Asian LGBTs

by Antoinette Weil
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Saturday Nov 17, 2012
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November 13 marked the beginning of Diwali, the South Asian "Festival of Lights," which ushers in the Hindu New Year and holds other significance for Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs and Arya Samajists. At Governor Duval Patrick’s official ceremony at the State House, he had the honor of lighting the official Diwali Diya, the traditional oil lamp that signifies the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil and knowledge over ignorance.

Also celebrating Diwali is the Massachusetts Area South Asian Lambda Association, or MASALA, a Boston-based organization for Queer identifying South Asians. The group has been gaining popularity and helping LGBTQs of South Asian descent to feel comfortable with their identities and at home in their communities.

"We’re more mainstream now," said Anindya Sen, a member of MASALA’s Steering Committee, "but we still need that smaller space to share things that are common to us, things like eating and like Diwali."

Boston’s MASALA has been around for more than 20 years and remains one of the oldest LGBT South Asian organizations, serving individuals from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Tibet, Burma, Sri Lanka, Iran and Nepal, to name a few. The focus for this group is split between promoting awareness and acceptance through community outreach and providing a social space for people to get together and share in common identities and interests.

Sen moved to the U.S. from India in 2003 and said that while he was out to his friends, he wasn’t really out to the larger world or to his family.

"Meeting South Asian people who were LGBT really helped me to come out to my family and to fully come out to myself," said Sen. "A lot of people struggle with it, but it helps to know others of South Asian heritage who have come out."


MASALA Helps Keep Gay South Asians Connected

While Sen’s coming out may have been easier with the helpful knowledge that there were others who shared his seemingly disparate identities, not everyone is as lucky to have a positive experience with this.

"A lot of South Asian people aren’t connected with their families of origin because of their LGBTQ identities," said Hema Sarang-Sieminski, another of MASALA’s Steering Committee members. Sarang-Sieminski, who herself faced ostracism by family members who didn’t approve of her queer identity, vouched for the value of MASALA and organizations like it.

"Even though people may be connected to other LGBT organizations, when they come here it always feels like ’Wow, I feel so comfortable with this and my South Asian identity,’" she said. "There’s something really awesome about that."

Sarang-Sieminski and Sen help to organize one or two events each month to bring MASALA’s members together ranging from potluck dinners to movie nights to Pride events and mixers. It is important, they said, to keep the events and communications regular to keep their members interested and to maintain momentum.

To remain part of the larger, global South Asian LGBTQ community, MASALA stays connected with other South Asian Organizations in the U.S and around the world. One of the most exciting recent developments in this larger community was the coming together of South Asian LGBTQ organizations across the nation to form the Desi LGBTQ Helpline, or DeQH. This is the first-ever anonymous help line of its kind and will provide free culturally sensitive support, information and resources for those LGBT South Asians who need someone to talk to.

Ironically, it is often younger generations of South Asians, 18-19 year olds, who struggle the most with their sexual and cultural identities, said Sen. Many of their parents left their countries of origin in the ’60s or ’70s and have more traditional mindsets, making it harder to come out and be accepted.

"For these young people, their culture and sexual orientation can seem completely combative. The help line will be very important for these younger people who want someone of South Asian decent to listen to what they have to say," said Sen.

MASALA is currently working on getting involved with the groundbreaking help line, fundraising for DesiQ 2013, a conference on South Asian LGBT issues and keeping its base of members strong, happy and united.

There have been enormous strides in the way of acceptance of LGBT identities in South Asian cultures. But, said Sen, the social space that MASALA provides is one that is still very much necessary.

"There will always be people who need help and who need this type of space to be themselves and to feel comfortable with all of their identities," said Sen.


For upcoming events or more information visit www.bostonmasala.com

To contact the Desi LGBTQ Helpline, call 908- FOR-DEQH (908-367-3374), Thursdays and Sundays 8-10 p.m. EST



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