Crown The Brown: Alyy Patel and Praanee Chandrasegaram
Crown The Brown Pride: We celebrate Valentines Day with Praanee and Alyy: Desi, Gender-fluid and in love. February is the month of love and we should celebrate the love around us. At Crown The Brown, we had the privilege of meeting two beautiful souls, whose love warmed our hearts. Alyy Patel and Praanee Chandrasegaram certainly took the internet by storm with their beautiful love story. Two individuals, different backgrounds and two hearts becoming one! We couldn’t wait to hear more about their love and more! Here is what they shared with us!
Tell us a bit more about yourselves individually. How would you describe yourself to others?
I’m a second-generation queer Gujarati gender-fluid womxn based in Toronto/Halton Region. Currently Ottawa. I graduated from the University of Toronto in 2018 with a B.A. in Sociology & Sexual Diversity Studies. I’m currently finishing up my Master’s in Sociology. I’ve been heavily involved in LGBTQ+ activism for over 7 years now. My efforts have focused on community building and empowering racialized queer youth.
These interests have spilled over into my academic work as a graduate student, which focuses on queer South Asian womxn’s experiences in Western LGBTQ+ communities. I’m really passionate about community organizing, research, and generating visibility for queer South Asian womxn. A combination of this has led me to found the Queer South Asian Womxn’s Network (@QSAWnetwork). In my spare time, I love exploring places (e.g. monuments, museums, art galleries, etc.) and annoying Praanee.
Additionally, for anyone that has not had the pleasure of meeting the most wonderful human on this planet (i.e. Praanee), she has the biggest heart and always brightens every room she enters. She is truly the human form of the sparkle emoji, and she always smells good.
I’m a second-generation queer Tamil gender-fluid womxn based in Markham. I’ve been involved in LGBTQ+ activism through working with various queer organizations during my undergrad. Presently in York Region, as well as nationally with the Queer South Asian Womxn’s Network.
I graduated from the University of Waterloo in June of 2019 with a Bachelors in Psychology and I am currently in an Addictions and Mental Health graduate certificate program at Durham College. In my spare time, I love making playlists on Spotify, going to concerts, checking out art galleries and talking to people!
For anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of meeting Alyy. She is one of the most driven, hardworking people that I’ve ever met (actually, she could probably use a break, DM us cute spots for a gaycation). She has continuously been seeking and seizing every opportunity she can get to create visibility for the queer South Asian community. Alyy has been one of the sweetest souls, always cheering on everyone she loves.
How did you two love birds meet and how long have you been together? We love a good love story!
I saw Alyy at Pride Toronto’s 2018 Dyke March wearing a shirt that said ‘not all lesbians are white.’ I pointed it out to my friends because I was very happily surprised by the representation of queer South Asian womxn. However, we didn’t get a chance to speak that year. Fast forward to Pride Toronto 2019, I saw Alyy on a mutual friend’s Instagram story and I asked them for an introduction, and explained that I had seen Alyy the year prior. Alyy & I connected shortly after and here we are now — almost at a year!
You are both from very different traditional backgrounds, one being Tamil and the other Gujarati. How has your traditional backgrounds influenced your sexual identity?
I grew up in a fairly traditional–but not super conservative–Gujarati household, as the youngest of two daughters. From a young age, marriage was framed as the most important life event. Which made me envision myself being married someday. It was made clear that I could marry whoever I wanted insofar as he was a nice Hindu boy. However, this made it extremely difficult for me to disentangle heterosexuality from the marriage institution.
Additionally, a lack of language to describe queerness or lesbianism in Gujarati or Hindi made it nearly impossible to conceptualize non-heterosexual sexuality within South Asian contexts. The only available words were in English, which I learned in grade 5.
When a classmate called me a ‘lesbian’ but did not share what it meant with me. I remember coming home and asking my parents what it meant, and they told me it was a “bad word” and to “never use it.”
A combination of the heterosexual marriage institution and colonial erasure of queerness from the linguistic fabrics of South Asian culture made it impossible to consider the possibility of me being queer. Importantly, this resulted in multiple cycles of queer realization followed by self-denial before I was finally able to fully conceptualize sexuality.
For instance, I knew I was queer in the fifth grade. Then acted on my queer desires in the ninth grade. But ended things as soon as it became labeled by others as ‘lesbian’ because my only understanding of it in Gujarati contexts was ‘bad’ at that point. This made me feel like I wasn’t “sanskaari” (i.e. upholding good values), so I repressed my queerness until about the twelfth grade. After I was exposed to queer culture through Western LGBTQ+ media. There was a lot of internal contestation of whether–and how–my queer and South Asian identities can co-exist, because of the aforementioned factors. However, within the past few years, I’ve become increasingly in learning about pre-colonial South Asian sexuality. It has been the most helpful for understanding my intersectional queer Gujarati identity.
Any identities beyond being heterosexual and cisgender are rarely talked about in the Tamil community. I feel like the lack of open discussions about the LGBTQ+ community amongst Tamils perpetuates negative views. The general erasure of the queer and trans community. I’ve always felt uncomfortable when my family would discuss dating and marriage. Because of the automatic assumption that every woman would end up with a man and every man would end up with a woman.
I distinctly remember a conversation my mom and sister were having when I was 7 about arranged marriages versus love marriages. I felt repulsed at the idea of either because I thought marriage meant I would have to be with a man since that’s all I grew up hearing. Also, I went to an elementary school with a large Tamil population and my experiences of heterosexuality being the norm was very similar.
I had crushes on girls when every girl seemed to be crushing on a boy and vice versa. Homophobic slurs and phrases were also used so commonly and with such ease that I knew there was risk associated with being overtly queer. I never felt comfortable enough to explicitly express my queerness knowing that my truth didn’t align with traditional views of the norm that I was exposed to (i.e. heterosexuality).
It wasn’t until my final years of undergrad that I began to feel like my South Asian roots and queer identity could co-exist. Zain, a mutual friend of Alyy and I, started a group on campus for racialized queer and trans students with the goal of building and nurturing a more resilient community. Meeting like-minded racialized queer and trans folks had a huge impact on my growth and acceptance of my intersecting identities.
What are some of the difficulties you both have faced individually as queer Desi females?
Being heavily indoctrinated with femininity while growing up produced an insurmountable challenge to understand my gender fluidity and queer sexuality. My Desi body makes me look so straight and cisgender female that I felt like an imposter in gay contexts, and this was reinforced by attitudes in the LGBTQ+ & Desi community. Specifically, the predominant image of gay women is a white butch, and any perceived deviation from this results in a perpetuation of microaggressions and in-validations towards my queer sexuality.
In the Queer realm, queer folks that I don’t even know frequently make comments discrediting my sexuality, such as “you’re not fully gay” because I don’t look like a stereotype, or “have you dated/slept with a woman?”
As if I just came out and my queerness isn’t valid until I perform it with someone. Also, my queerness as a Desi woman is policed and criticized significantly more than that of my white counterparts. This often results in being revoked of my gay status for performing fluid sexuality. Or merely existing as a Brown body in queer contexts (despite my fairly open identification as gay/lesbian). Whereas white queerness is way less frequently questioned or invalidated.
This is even worse is from non-Desi intimate partners (particularly those who are privileged enough to be accepted by their families) that–after so long into the relationship–would STILL make unsubstantiated accusations of my “intent to leave them for a man.” It feels like constantly defending my queerness as valid is a requirement of being gay in a Desi female-presenting body, and it is absolutely exhausting. Additionally, my queer Desi body is so feminized—and thus, subordinated—by white queers; for example, I’ve been told:
“I want you to be my 1950s housewife”.
The fact that these remarks are ongoing makes it difficult to feel a sense of belonging within the LGBTQ+ community.
In the Desi realm, I typically need to hide my queerness to both (extended) family and strangers. When people do know, they often think my gayness is either a result of assimilation to white culture, a phase, or I “just haven’t met the right guy yet”. It’s a double exclusion and rejection of the other identity—from BOTH strangers and those close to us—within BOTH communities, and this is so stressful, exhausting, invalidating, and infuriating. However, I have recently found that immersing myself in as much queer Desi community as possible has been the best coping mechanism to deal with the aforementioned difficulties.
My gender presentation is fairly masculine leaning, so my queerness is not generally challenged by other womxn. However, I often find that Desi men (around my age) find it incredibly difficult to conceptualize me as queer. For instance, in undergrad I was at a bar (yes, it was Phil’s) and a Desi male refused to believe that I’m gay, continued hitting on me even after I expressed that I wasn’t interested, and proceeded to follow me out insisting that I wasn’t gay all the way up until I left the bar. This can be easily conceptualized as the male ego being hurt. I’ve also received similar reactions of excessive shock about my queerness from select male relatives.
It took until I posted those photos with Alyy for one of my male cousins I’ve discussed being queer around to really internalize it and then repeatedly question “yo Praanee is lesbian? Her dukes k? (Do her parents know?)”. The challenge here is that my queerness is not considered credible in the eyes of Desi men if I’m not coupled and in some cases STILL isn’t credible even if I am coupled. This is our generation of Desi diaspora and it is extremely challenging for these problematic narratives to carry on.
As a couple, what are some of the stereotypes or remarks you often come across as a queer couple?
We most often get mistaken for sisters or friends, because womxn-presenting queer South Asian couples are not taken as seriously as gay men or heterosexual couples. We’ve also been asked ‘who’s the man in the relationship,’ which is an extremely frustrating product of rigid gender roles in Western and post-colonial South Asian culture. We try to kindly educate those who make such remarks when it is safe to do so.
How have your vast backgrounds influenced your lives as a couple? What differences and similarities have you encountered within each other coming from different backgrounds?
We’re both second-generation, queer, Desi, gender-fluid womxn that grew up in different regions surrounding Toronto. We share an alike narrative. We both had a strong sense of Desi identity growing up, repressed our queerness at a young age due to an inability to conceptualize it at the axis of queer invisibility in South Asian culture, as well as South Asian invisibility in queer culture, which led both of us to feel like the only queer Brown person ever.
The pressure to assimilate, as well as the shame for our Desi identities, intensified upon entering mainstream LGBTQ+ spaces.
We felt unable to share personal narratives with others without vigorously defending our culture as prior context. This became extremely exhausting. However, meeting someone who shares the same intersections made us feel less alienated as queer South Asian womxn. We instantly felt a sense of comfort and belongingness upon meeting each other, as sharing our respective lived experiences allowed us both to feel valid in our queer & South Asian identities.
Being queer, female and South Asian, there are surely many barriers and old fashioned mind-sets that play a role in the community.
Tell us more about your support structures and the pressure regarding family and being queer in an Indian household.
My sister has been my biggest support structure. I’m not sure that she entirely understands the intricacies of queerness, but she quietly observes, never invalidates, and never provides unsolicited commentary about my choice to risk my chances of being so out in my personal life while our parents are not accepting at home. I am so grateful for the fact that she is so supportive, and always stands up for me as needed, especially given that she’s a fairly quiet and reserved person. It means the world to have sibling support, especially given that my parents will never be accepting of my queerness.
On that note, I endure a great deal of familial pressure regarding my queerness, and a lot of it comes from the typical Desi mindset of “what will people think?” I absolutely understand where this mindset–and their broader fear of ostracization from the extended family–comes from; however, it is rather frustrating to be on the receiving end of this.
Specifically, it puts me in the position of balancing my desire to do work in the queer community, which makes outness inevitable, and still ensuring that my parents don’t find out about my queerness.
There has been a lot of pressure to maintain this ‘sanskaari’ image. Which essentially means that I must not become the subject of gossip within the extended family (apparently, being queer constitutes gossip). Hence, my parents initially opposed to my volunteerism within queer organizations. As well as my research interests in this realm. However, I have managed to censor out the queer parts and limit the information I share about my work. To just focusing on South Asian women, which alleviated a considerable amount of pressure over time.
Additionally, my position is sort of unique, in that, a considerable proportion of my extended cousins are supportive of my queerness. Some have explicitly expressed this. Others have provided support in the form of not telling aunties about my super gay Instagram content. In contrast, my parents’ generation of aunties and uncles are definitely not ever going to be supportive of my queerness, which means that my parents will never accept it either.
I came out to my sister in grade 12 and she was my rock throughout the entire time I was navigating how to outwardly express my queerness. Having someone in my life that I felt safe to finally be my most authentic self with strengthened my confidence and gave me the courage openly identify as queer from the start of undergrad onwards.
I slowly started to come out to my cousins and the ones I’m closest to have been exceptionally loving and caring. They’ve helped me navigate what to do if certain family members don’t respond well to me being gay. As well as continuously cheered me on. Expressed so much excitement for when I decide to get married. Both my parents are aware of my queer identity, however, it took some time for them to accept my queerness. My dad’s initial response was,
“We sent you to Waterloo and this is what you do?”
Whereas, my mom’s response was a bit more comforting. It has grown to be a greater source of comfort within the past 2 years since telling them. When I had initially come out to my mom, she needed some time to process what I’d told her. We’ve gotten to the point of being able to openly talk about my queerness and the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. My dad has come to acknowledge my queer identity. But engaging in dialogues about the subject isn’t as easy with him as it is with my mom.
I think a large part of any negativity associated with my parents’ reactions was related to what my other relatives would think if they found out. I’m so grateful to have the parents that I have. I know they care about me deeply regardless of who I date. But the weight of maintaining a certain image to other family members is a huge challenge in in my family as well as many other South Asian families.
We admire the love you two have and the manner in which you celebrate that love on your platforms! We are sure that your journey has inspired many. What has the online support been like?
We honestly did not expect as much of a positive response as we got. We’re both extremely happy that the post resonated with so many queer South Asian folks! It warmed our hearts to see so many queer South Asian folks reaching about finally seeing queer South Asian relationships represented. Sharing their own stories with us as well.
We made a deliberate effort to reach the South Asian sub-communities we both come from.
I had no idea how many other queer Tamils were out there. Although I felt a tremendous amount of pride seeing the Tamil community respond with open arms.
It was particularly challenging to locate the queer Gujarati diaspora. Although I have been able to reach a diverse South Asian community through this post, as well as previous posts. It remains unclear where the online community of queer Gujarati womxn is.
How do you both use your online platforms to encourage awareness and inspire others in the community?
We use our online platforms (primarily Instagram) to generate visibility and enhance a sense of belongingness amongst queer South Asians. Social media provides an accessible avenue to reach queer Desis. As many of us may be unable to attend physical spaces.
What advice do you both have for other young girls out there trying to find their identity. Working towards liberating themselves from the old traditional way of life?
The only liberation needed is from post-colonial South Asian sexuality. Get in touch with the ‘old traditional way of life’ — it was super queer! Britain’s sexual civilizing mission erased queerness from our sacred scriptures and histories. It’s ingrained in the foundation of our culture. I may just be extremely bitter about the British Empire destroying the fabrics of our culture. I personally felt a sense of liberation and validation after reading about the existence and salience of queerness in South Asia.
In addition to my brief history lecture, the two of us have put together this brief list of advice:
Negotiating Queer & South Asian Identities.
Your queer + Desi identities can peacefully co-exist, White LGBTQ+ media is not the be-all-end-all of all representation. Social media platforms like YouTube and Instagram are great ways to see the stories of other racialized queer and/or trans folks.
Your sexuality is valid regardless of whether or not you announce it to everyone, a few people, or nobody. If it is not safe for you to come out, then don’t. It does not make your sexuality any less valid. Anyone that tells you otherwise is wrong. You can use it as an educational moment for them if you’re comfortable doing so! You don’t have to come out by openly labeling your sexuality in order to attend queer events, engage in queer relationships, etc. (provided you feel safe and comfortable to do these things in secrecy, if need be).
If identity labels and categories feel too rigid, just reject them! It doesn’t make your sexuality as a womxn-loving-womxn any less valid. We’re really trying to drive home the point that you don’t need to follow dominant Western-normative queer norms. We understand the pressure to conform to these norms, especially if you’re figuring out your sexuality at a young age. However, we also want you to know that there is not one singular way to be queer, gay, bi, lesbian, etc. You can express your sexuality however you’d like. We are part of a growing queer South Asian diasporic community that is here to love + support you!
We will be totally real with you. There is a chance that you may experience racial microaggressions in White-normative queer spaces. We sincerely hope that you do not endure any such comments or attitudes. But also understand how important it is to know that your queer expression is totally valid. Regardless of how others interpret it. This article explains more about South Asian-specific forms of racism experienced by diasporic queer Desi womxn.
Online Communities & Spaces of Belongingness.
Feeling isolated and lonely as a queer Desi womxn is so real and so challenging to cope with. We didn’t have very many online or physical spaces specific to queer South Asians while growing up. But we know they exist now! Even if you aren’t active in these spaces, being part of them and observing can significantly enhance feelings of belongingness. There are a handful of Facebook communities. Search keywords related to queer + Desi, queer + South Asian, etc. to find them). As well as community groups that organize physical spaces (i.e. meet-ups). We’re also trying to generate spaces of belongingness for queer Desi womxn for this exact reason. Check us out on Instagram/Facebook: @QSAWnetwork!
Alyy and Praanee
Two beautiful souls! This couple truly knows how to leave an everlasting impression. Their continuous love has been admired by many and we love the work they are doing to provide awareness regarding the LGBTQ community and broader South Asian diaspora. This is surely a couple with a purpose.
CROWN THE BROWN