LGBT Diwali: Gay Hindus Seek Inclusive Festivities

"I think these holidays becomes an opportunity for people to make a stand for double inclusion -- for people to affirm simultaneously their South Asian Identity and insist on their recognition for LGBTQ."
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Last Diwali season, Rohan Sheth traded in a candlelit house and rangoli, a traditional Hindu decoration, for eating Indian food at Manhattan's Copper Chimney with his sister.

"I went out and bought a rangoli kit the very next day so this wouldn't happen again," he said, laughing.

Sheth, 23, and other members of the South Asian gay and lesbian community, are finding that despite the prominence of Hindu organizations in New York City, their options for celebrating religious and cultural holidays seem limited. And Diwali, one of the most important and widely celebrated Hindu holidays, is no exception.

Judith Stacey, a NYU sociology professor who has researched queer theory and ethnography, said that many non-white, non-Christian members of the lesbian and gay community struggle to maintain both their cultural and sexual identity simultaneously.

"I think these holidays becomes an opportunity for people to make a stand for double inclusion -- for people to affirm simultaneously their South Asian Identity and insist on their recognition for LGBTQ," said Stacey, who is also the author of "Unhitched," a book about family values across the country.

This year Sheth, a Bollywood dance teacher at Chelsea's Dhoonya Dance and Drum Company, said he will be sure to put up a "fabulous Bollywood video" on his Facebook status, but was still looking for a space to decorate and pray for the festival, which falls on Oct. 26, as recently as last weekend.

He is a member of the South Asian Lesbian & Gay Association of New York City (SALGA-NYC), and led their dance team in March, and said that the organization probably doesn't host religious holidays in an effort to remain inclusive.

"I definitely know I'm looking for that culture, but I don't know if that is reciprocated in the larger Indian community," said Moitri Ghosh, an advertising production manager from Kolkata.

Ghosh, also a member of SALGA-NYC echoes a number of email responses I received from the community that said they weren't celebrating Diwali, or were still trying to figure out how to get their friends together to mimic the traditions they grew up practicing.

Twenty-five-year-old Ghosh said being a South Asian lesbian woman is a minority trifecta that has made it difficult to find a community, and a relationship, in the city.

When she came out to her parents the first time during her undergraduate time at Smith College, they refused to accept her identity: "There isn't even a word for gay in India," she said. Eventually, they became more receptive of her and her long-term girlfriend at the time, and her family is now open about her love life and sexual orientation.

With the support of her parents and SALGA-NYC, Ghosh said she wants to maintain both aspects of her identity, which would mean feeling comfortable at Indian weddings, dance events and festivals -- including Diwali, which she currently has no plans to celebrate this year. But she isn't sure that the Indian community as a whole has taken steps to include the gay community.

"I can't hide it any more than I can hide my brown skin," she said of her sexual orientation.

When it comes to religion, Ghosh said Hinduism doesn't support or reject the idea of homosexuality.

Sheth, who describes himself as religious, said he, and his mother, find peace with his sexual orientation in the context of Hinduism. He says the god Shiva embodies a balance of male and female energy, even if he is physically depicted as a male.

"I found that the idea of a soul in Hinduism is not gendered," he said.

While Diwali plans might be less defined, Ghosh and Sheth see potential for the inclusion of gay and lesbian South Asians in the great Indian community. They attended Garba in the City, a dance event for the Hindu holiday Navratri that was held at Chelsea Piers on Oct. 15. The Garba event, with over 350 attendees, invited SALGA-NYC to host a table at the event.

Ghosh predicts that the younger emerging Indian community, like those who were involved in organizing the event, in New York will continue to be more aware of including the gay and lesbian community in cultural programming.

"They have a lot of work to do," Stacey said of ethnic LGBTQ groups. "The work is to change the traditions to accommodate on both sides."

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