In this episode, Risha discusses the LGBTQIA experience in the bible belt with Sheena Grewal of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
All of this and more in this episode of Risha Talks.
LGBTQIA+. A lot of you probably don’t even know what that means. Today, we are going to discuss what it’s like to be gay right here in Tulsa.
Today, we are going to discuss the topic that so many people seemingly have a problem with, especially here in the Bible Belt.
Being gay. Queer. Whatever you want to call it. And I have with me Sheena Grewal, who’s going to talk about this topic with me. How are you, Sheena?
I’m doing great today. How are you?
I am great. So, gay people.
Mhm. That’s me.
So why do you think people have a problem with gay people?
I think it’s just a basic kind of lack of understanding. It seems foreign to them. Whereas human connection is probably something that we should all just get, as people. But I think, the way society has progressed, it just seems like something different. I mean, there are differences. But there are so many similarities, as well.
Right. Because I don’t really think it’s anybody’s business, first and foremost. But people make a whole deal, a whole problem, out of who it is that people love. I know so many people that have lost their families, they’ve lost friends, siblings, whatever, simply because of who they choose to love. Now, I feel like I’ve really been blessed in that area. I identify as bisexual. And my family has been amazing. They love me.
What types of experiences have you had?
I mean, I’ll say it wasn’t easy at first. My parents were first-generation immigrants. I was born here. They were born in India. And I think, when you add that layer onto the fact that they moved to Oklahoma, you know, I came out when I was about 20.
It wasn’t easy. And I think a lot of people maybe would take that opportunity to walk away. What I did was I leaned into it. And it’s been a great process of growing together in which I’ve now become familiar to them. And I think that this process will kind of be mirrored in a lot of how society reacts, too.
I think that’s so true in that, people that love you, they begin to see that this is just my daughter, my son. Who cares who they love? And they begin to protect you, as well. But I get stuck on the labels. Bisexual gay, lesbian, transgender, intersex, asexual, pansexual. Seriously. Queer. I can’t keep up. But why does it even matter? Like, I’m just Risha. So I don’t even see why it matters.
I think it’s really important for people that traditionally haven’t had spaces to identify themselves in society. I just identify as gay. A lot of people would call me a lesbian. But I don’t know. I’m more comfortable…
What’s the difference?
I don’t know. I think that, when I was growing up, gay was more readily identifiable to me. It was just like, “OK, I get that.” But I think, for a lot of people, having that sense of ownership of their identity and that space– even within the gay community, because the gay community as varied-is as diverse as society at large– I think that that’s kind of an important thing.
And I think when people talk about like, “oh, the letters are going to be the alphabet.” Who cares? If someone finds a home in an identification, I think that’s great.
I would agree with you. But it really, really seems to trip people up. Because I think if we would think about people, as humans first and not this label that we affix to them, I really think it would make it easier for people to transition into who they are.
Yes. I think so. I think we can also do that in tandem. I can be Sheena and I can be gay. At the same time.
Society doesn’t let you be Sheena and gay.
I think I’m hopeful. I think we can do it.
You kind of brought up intersectionality a little bit. You talked about being Indian. You talked about being gay. And I get what you said about your parents. But can you dive a little deeper into that? Because that really becomes more difficult for people being Black and being in a different community– it begins to add layers onto how it is that people do and how they treat you. So can you dig a little deeper?
I think it’s layers and intersections. If we really want to talk about being Indian, we have to talk about how we were colonized. So Indian culture is not even just Indian culture in and of itself. It’s British culture on top of Indian culture affecting values. And then you have that whole system. And then, with a lot of immigrants, you know, my parents came here.
We didn’t have any family here when they got here. We still have their very few family members here. So you have these really tight-knit family units. And those family units carry whatever came with us as immigrants. And a lot of that is about survival and about assimilation. And I think when I came out, that was one of the biggest worries is, we wanted you to assimilate. Is this going to keep that from happening?
And so, you look at all those intersections and the fact that they trained in D.C. When they moved to the States, they were in New York for a bit. They just hit the pavement. They didn’t have jobs. They found jobs somehow in D.C., so they trained there. And then their best friends moved to Oklahoma, so they came here, as well. My dad came down. My mom was pregnant. And we looked at a practice in Sand Springs, and he was like, I love it. So my dad’s from a farming community.
My mom got here and she didn’t talk to him for a couple months. But so they kind of came from a conservative society into another conservative society. And I think their biggest burden was to take care of us, because that’s all we had.
And so you look at all those layers of it, and then kind of breaking out of that system and breaking out of that mold, that’s coming out in so many different ways. And I think a lot of people don’t understand that it’s not just like, hey, I’m gay. It’s hey, I’m gay within this system, this system, this system. And that society, family, culture, history. All that stuff.
Exactly. And you continue to be oppressed with each of those marginalized things that you have to deal with. So what was the most difficult part for you, of coming out?
I think it was exactly as you said. I think I thought I was just Sheena. And then, all of a sudden, I wasn’t Sheena anymore. And that was, at least with family, extended family, friends, what people were going to think. And I was like, I’m just the same person. I’m just sleeping with someone that you thought I wasn’t going to be sleeping with. And that’s none of your business.
Exactly. And why do people care? I think that’s the thing that irritates and frustrates me the most, is that when you think about someone being gay, or you think about someone being in a same-sex relationship, the first thing that people go to is what is happening personally in your bedroom. What does that have to do with anybody?
I don’t think any parents want to know what– and that kids want to know anything about their parents. Can we just leave that–
Leave that alone. I think knowing that someone has found the person that will treat them right, be respectful, love them, is all anybody should want for someone that they care about.
Absolutely. I think that part of the issue with that it comes down to attachment issues in the community. Because our primary attachments are to our parents, and then those attachment bonds break, and we take those into our relationships. I think if we had more support from our communities, from our immediate families and things like that, it would be reflected in healthier attachments in the community, as well.
I love that. How is it that you found to really be who you are and not care what anybody thought, whether is was your parents, friends, whoever?
That’s a big question. I took a long time. And I’m very comfortable with who I am, but I don’t know if that’s ever going to be a finished process. I think that that’s something that we constantly have to re-evaluate and grow into. I think a lot about who I am in terms of value systems.
And sometimes, you participate in things that aren’t part of your value systems, whether or not it’s professionally, kind of in activism, through relationships and stuff. I think it’s really important to consistently be going through and re-evaluating and making sure that you’re actually being true to your whole self.
I mean, being gay, like, “hey, I’m gay.” I’m really comfortable saying that. But I’ve been at the front of-chairs and things and in front of organizations and things like that that I really did have to be comfortable stepping out there.
And do you feel safe in every space, saying that?
No. I mean, it’s not that I won’t say it. It’s– do I intrinsically feel safe? No. I’ll still say it, though.
Right. Because it’s important to be who you are, no matter what anybody thinks about it. So how do we help those coming up behind us? I mean, it’s seeming they have it easier because people seem more open. But we all know that they really are not. It’s probably still the same level. I just think it’s more covert, in a lot of ways. But there are– because I see kids, schools now, even have clubs for LGBT kids that would have never existed when I was in school.
I went to Catholic school and graduated in 2002. Being gay wasn’t part of what we did.
Exactly. So what advice would you have for maybe a kid that’s seeing this and saying, oh my gosh, I don’t know what to do.
I think, number one, we’re seen. I think that’s an important thing to note, that we’re sitting here on a local television station in Tulsa, Oklahoma, discussing this. I think that’s really important. That would have never happened when I was young. I think number two is, I don’t think it’s necessarily always easier.
Maybe it’s easier to have the language and the community they come out to, but I think kids can take a lot with social media and how their lives are developing, their maturation, is part of social media. And they’re probably getting pushback in ways that even I didn’t get, whereas we could come out towards small circles, they’re coming out to an entire school. So if you need to take some time for yourself, just do that.
I think that there’s, in some ways, we understand being part of the community as coming out. But then, you can also maintain space for privacy and maintain space for your own self care in that. Look for people in the community that you identify with. The gay community, as I said, the queer community, is very diverse.
So really look for the people that make you feel safe. I think that’s a really important thing. And luckily, that is something that places online that maybe aren’t your friends group, Snapchat– be really safe where you’re going– but there are lots of community spaces where you can find like people. Only recently have I began to reach out to queer South Asians online. And that’s something that, when I think about, have I really come into my identity?
I think that’s something that I haven’t done yet, because I was one of the only Indians I knew growing up. And statistically, there aren’t that many queer South Asians. So finding that. And there’s little things like the language our parents use. Their behaviors and things like that, and how they’ve reacted to us.
That’s a whole new level of being seen. And I think it’s just that kind of process of continually finding your space and knowing you don’t have to jump. If you want to jump, jump. But if you don’t want to, you can take the steps you need to make sure you’re feeling good and safe within yourself.
I love that. There’s a lot of conversation in the LGBT community about the fact that it’s not very inclusive in and of itself. I mean, I’m black. You’re Indian. But in and of itself, especially here in Oklahoma, I know that there’s just been a lot of conversation about, how do we become more inclusive within that community?
Because there’s a lot of people, and a lot of people still don’t feel safe. And again, back to intersectionality, when you add in race– and race seems to be the biggest factor there– but when you add that in race–
And socioeconomics, too.
That’s true. Because it is a myth that the gay community is rich. Everybody is wealthy.
I mean, we grew up with Will and Grace and things like that, where it’s like, that was your model of being gay. And if you weren’t that type of gay, where you really fitting in?
Exactly. So how is it that those outlier groups do fit into the community? Do you have any thoughts about that?
I mean, I think that we need to realize that that paradigm and that stereotype doesn’t fit all of us. And that if you don’t fit into it, that’s OK. And you don’t necessarily always have to be dressed amazing, or be a great dancer, or have great taste and things like that. Just because you don’t have the signifiers doesn’t mean you’re any less part of the community. I think, especially with BIPOC, queer people, it’s tough, because you are dealing with–
Black and indigenous people of color.
Sorry. That that’s kind of a term used in activism. We like to use acronyms, obviously. Yeah. I mean, I think that the queer community is finally starting to understand the layers that queer people of color are facing. Because you can pass, as far as not being gay.
If I wanted to go into a group, especially now that I kind of get gendered, at least sometimes, but now that I have long hair and things like that, I could easily just not say anything about who I am. A lot of times, people don’t have that option. But there’s no way we’re going to pass for being a different color.
And I think that that’s something that the queer community, especially white gay people, are kind of starting to understand, in a way because of the cultural climate and the social climate we’re living in right now.
I think so, too. Because people have talked about it for years. But now, I think along with everything else, collectively, people are looking at all of these things and saying, how can we do better? The other thing you brought up was you said gender bending. And some of the myths associated with being gay, whether it’s wealth, whether it’s dressing nice, and all of those things. That was one of the reasons that I truly didn’t feel like I fit. I’m not big on rainbows and glitter.
You dress nice.
Well, see, that’s also that’s also what black folks like to do. So it had nothing to do with that. So it’s like there are a lot of myths that also make people not want to identify. Or, they’re not myths. I mean, there’s some truth to it. But because you don’t fit in, again, there’s that fitting piece. And because you don’t fit in, you don’t feel like you have a place. So I think we still have a lot of work to do.
Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think this is where young people maybe have the advantage that we didn’t have. They have a lot more models of how to be queer and who they can identify with. I mean, being gender-neutral. What does that mean? You don’t necessarily have to– you can have long hair and be feminine and still be gender-neutral.
And that’s your choice. And to be able to have people to look at to be like, yeah, I understand why they’re doing it. So I don’t feel strange or out of place when I identify that way. I mean, that’s something that I would have never considered when I was young.
It’s always, to me, and especially in this space, because there are a lot of letters. LGBTQ+?
IA. OK. IA+. But then it also seems like everything is a thing. Personally, I’m always trying to make sure that I get pronouns right when I’m talking to transgender people. And I find it difficult sometimes. And I realize, with younger people, that’s part of the way that they introduce themselves.
I think it’s a great model for anybody. Like “hey, my name’s Sheena. My pronouns are she and her.”
See, I had a problem with it. Because I’m like, why do I have to tell you my pronouns? Why can’t I just be Risha?
Because then, if their pronouns are different, then you create space for them to come into that conversation.
I get it now. I’m just saying, I think for some people, though– and I’ll say that a lot of people feel like, “OK. It’s just a lot. I can’t keep up with it. I’m going to offend them by saying the wrong thing.” And I think what’s missing in a lot of these conversations is grace.
And if we would allow people to be who they are without our judgment, they could live their lives and love who they want and not care what everybody else thought, and we wouldn’t have all of this stuff that we have to continuously to talk about.
I think that’s the end goal.
I hope you found this conversation useful today. A lot of people have gay people in their families, people that they love that maybe they didn’t understand. I hope that you understand them a little better. If you’re looking for resources, you can try Oklahomans for Equality, The Little Blue House, or Transpire. This is Risha Grant with 2 Works For You.