Monday, July 14, 2014

Remarks by KhushDC Co-Founders at 20th Anniversary Gala

Remarks by KhushDC Co-Founders at 20th Anniversary Gala
Josephine Butler Parks Center
Washington, D.C.
July 12, 2014

Remarks by Atul Garg

Welcome everyone to KhushDC’s 20th anniversary celebration and thank you for both your presence and your donations to help make this evening possible.

Over the last few weeks, as I looked at early KhushDC photos and newsletters and the details for this Gala started to come together, I increasingly felt myself reflecting on the last 20 years.  And, what stuck with me most is just how dramatically a single life decision can change the course of our lives.

Twenty years ago, I made what seemed then to be a not-so-life-changing last-minute decision: to catch the train up to New York to join the South Asian Lesbian & Gay Association (SALGA) as they marched in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.  It wasn’t my first time at a Pride parade, and it wasn’t my first time meeting another gay South Asian person.  But, it was the first time I was experiencing being in such a massive crowd of South Asian LGBTQ people who were so joyfully and publicly celebrating both their South Asian and LGBTQ identities.  By the end of that weekend, I knew that what I experienced in New York, I wanted to experience in DC.

Two gay DC South Asian lives -- and countless others -- changed for the better that day.  Yassir Islam and I returned to DC and -- just a few weeks later in August -- organized our first meeting, which was attended by about 10 people.  Never before had either of us been in the company of such a large gathering of South Asian LGBTQ people in DC.  If you’ve passed by Heritage India Restaurant on P Street, that top floor space once housed Luna Books; that’s where we had our first meeting.  It’s where we chose the name Khush, which literally means “happy” but, in a broader context, means “gay”.  Other South Asian LGBTQ groups also began to crop up across the country.  It was truly an exciting time to be South Asian and gay!

My favorite memory of that first year is of our very first Pakora Party, which was held at a member’s home in Dupont Circle.  It was winter, and there was almost a foot of snow on the ground.  But, still, a contingent of SALGA members braved the weather and drove down from New York in a rented van.  And, after their arrival, a SALGA member and I trekked up in their rented van to visit “Gaithersburg Aunty”, from whom we’d ordered loads of pakoras and samosas for our party.  Everyone cheered when we walked in with the pakoras and samosas, and our first Pakora Party was off to a great start!

Life then -- as well as now -- has always been about joyfully and publicly celebrating our LGBTQ and South Asian identities so that none of us ever has to make a choice between the two.  That resolve has sustained KhushDC over the last 20 years, and I’m so proud to be part of an organization that continues to evolve and support the DC South Asian LGBTQ community and our families, friends, and allies -- gay and straight, South Asian and non-South Asian.

Right now, I’m in Palo Alto, California -- the place I moved to right after college and where I came out.  It’s been a good place to reflect on my own coming out journey.  I hope that -- in addition to having an incredibly fun night tonight -- you’ll also take some time over the next few days to reflect on two things that I’ve also been reflecting on.

First, I hope that you’ll remind yourself of -- and congratulate yourself for -- the incredible amount of courage you showed by coming out, however long ago that was, to yourself and to your families.  I see within myself how that same courage has showed up in so many other parts of my life and, in those times, I feel especially grateful for the experience of coming out and for being gay.

And, second, I hope that you’ll remember all the people who’ve supported you on your coming out journey as a South Asian LGBTQ person.  My family and I didn’t always agree on the timetable of my being out to extended family and friends, but their love for me never wavered.  And, I’m truly grateful that 20 years later, I continue to joyfully and publicly celebrate being South Asian and gay.

I could never have imagined that KhushDC would one day be celebrating its 20th anniversary.  But, I’m so glad that it is.  Happy 20th Anniversary, KhushDC!  I can’t wait to see how the next generation of Khush leaders are going to wow all of us at its next Gala celebration!

Remarks by Yassir Islam

Let me take you back in time to June, 1994 when this story began. If I were being literal about this, the first thing I would ask you to do would be to take out all your smart phones and throw them away.  Because in 1994 there were no smart phones. The Internet was in its infancy. There was no email, no Facebook, no Google. We read print newspapers and magazines. We posted notes on community bulletin boards in gay -friendly venues and we sent faxes.  In 1994, there were no same sex civil unions allowed anywhere in the United States, let alone gay marriage. In fact, only two years after KhushDC was founded, President Clinton would sign the infamous defense of marriage act into law. In 1994, there were hardly any south Asian queer* people to be seen out, even at the bars and clubs of Washington D.C. In 1994, we were invisible, and silenced. 
Against this backdrop, I made my way up to New York in the summer of 1994 for the 25th anniversary celebration of Stonewall. SALGA, New York’s South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association, had organized a contingent to march in an international parade to the UN. I have no recollection of how I found out about this event, how I even got to New York and where I stayed. But, nevertheless, on the morning of June 26 I found myself at the street corner where the south Asian contingent would assemble for the parade. It was at this corner where I first met Atul Garg.
Atul was the first gay south Asian from Washington DC I had encountered and I had lived in Washington for four years. Atul was of Indian heritage, born and raised in the United States. I was then an Indian citizen, born and raised in Africa. We had a lot in common.  At the parade we all carried signs from the different South Asian countries and the crowd cheered us on shouting “welcome to the United States."  "Um, we live here..." was our response. But the crowd cannot be blamed entirely, for this was the price we paid for invisibility. But all that was about to change. In the days that followed SALGA organized the first south Asian queer Utsav, or celebration. 
 As Atul said, it was a life-changing to be part of such a large gathering where you felt that you belonged. I remember, vaguely, sitting together in a classroom and feeling the energy as groups of people one by one, declared that they would go back to their communities and start their own south Asian groups. Atul and I, by then had already decided that we wanted to take a little bit of that euphoria and energy back with us. When our turn came, we raised our hands. Yes, we would start a group in Washington D.C And so in that crucible, the idea for KhushDC was born. No longer, would we be invisible or silent.
Once KhushDC got going word of it spread far and wide. We got letters from many countries sent to our mailbox. The senders, many of them thousands of miles away, were simply relieved and grateful to learn of the group and to know that they were not alone.
Closer to home, Chen Wen, Edwin Lau, and Deny Lau asked to attend a KhushDC meeting.  At dinner that night, they told us that they liked what KhushDC was doing wanted to start an Asian and Pacific Islander queer group. That, my friends, is how the group that you all know as AQUA, API Queers United for Action got started. In fact, Chen, and several of the AQUA board members are here tonight! Deny recalled in a conversation we had last night:
"The key thing that connected KhushDC and AQUA was our desire to build the community and our mutual generosity for each other to succeed. We did not think about turf, or furthering our own individual politics. We were in it for ALL OF US. We had the same motto that we would be stronger by being inclusive of one another.  It was a very special period of my life and for the birth of the modern DC API Queer community."
The connection with AQUA and indeed APQIS, the API Queer Sisters, is part of our collective DNA. I hope we can continue to build on that connection. We are part of the API queer community and it is indeed a beautiful thing.  
Eventually Atul and I, who had shepherded KhushDC thought its early years needed to let it go. Like any other community group, KhushDC had its ups and downs over the years, even under our watch.  At one point, the group pretty much ceased to exist except on paper. But a new young crop of South Asian queer folks came to the rescue and revived it. That is a story for another time, but today, KhushDC is as vibrant as it has ever been.
What has assured the group's longevity? One theme seems to run through it consistently. In the early days we had then pakora parties, then chat n'chai, chutney Saturdays, and now politics n'paan. Do you see a pattern here? Food, it seems, is central to all KhushDC activities!
But on a more serious note, over the past few weeks, I have thought long and hard about what KhushDC has come to mean to me, with the passing of time. I believe that at its essence, KhushDC is about giving us voice and visibility. I'm talking, in particular, about the individual journey.  That journey starts with a small inner voice we've all heard, proclaiming to us that we are different, even deviant. Many of us try to suppress or ignore it but eventually it finds its way to the surface and breaks through. KhushDC provides a space to give that voice a full and rich expression that neither the larger queer community nor our South Asian communities alone can provide.  As Atul said so eloquently in his remarks, KhushDC allows us  to celebrate both our queer and South Asian identities so that none of us,  should ever have to make a choice between the two, ever.  KhushDC take us in its arms and tell us that we are complete, just as we are.  KhushDC empowers us to use our newfound voice and visibility to connect with one another and build communities. KhushDC brings us home. 

Perhaps this is best illustrated by an email that Atul and I received just last week that we would like to share with you:  
"I want to thank you for starting KhushDC, because it changed my life.  Here's how. I came out in 2002 but, quite unexpectedly, I still felt completely lonely and adrift.  My south Asian world had nothing queer in it whatsoever, and my queer friends in the US weren't South Asian.  Then one day, my best friend's mom pointed me to an ad for a South Asian organization she'd found in the Blade.  I was too intimidated to write, but was spurred to act when she told me she would do it if I didn't! So I wrote in. Two KhushDC members emailed me back, invited me to their home and introduced me to many wonderful people.  I will truly never forget what it felt like to walk into their house and see about 15 queer South Asians.  It started giving me the desperately needed self-confidence to seek out other such spaces outside of DC.  I was moving to San Francisco then, and folks from KhushDC connected me with Trikone, the LGBT group in San Francisco.  I eventually joined the Trikone board, and all of that together, has FUNDAMENTALLY changed the trajectory of my life for the better.  I can't tell you how much of a difference it has made. I hope more people have thanked you, and your partners in other cities, because KhushDC and our other organizations are still changing people's lives all the time." 
Atul and I can think of no greater reward than to receive an email like this. On that balmy New York day when we first met, we could never ever have imagined that 20 years later we would find ourselves here tonight--with you--to celebrate this wonderful community.  What we did was to plant a seed. It has taken all of you, and many more who are not here tonight, or have left us, to nurture and grow this amazing community over the past two decades.
KhushDC changes people's lives. It changed ours. We are humbled and we are proud to be part of KhushDC.
* The term ‘queer’ is used here to connote non-heterosexual sexual orientations and gender identities.