By Vaneet Mehta | @Nintendomad888


'Sharam ni aundi?'. This is Punjabi and roughly translates to “Don't you have any shame?”. It’s a phrase I heard a lot growing up, and it’s something most South Asian people can relate to. The South Asian community has a lot of structures and ideologies in place; how to act, behave and talk, how to dress, family dynamics and more.

The South Asian community is very tightly knit and social standing within this community is of the utmost importance. There is this constant fear that one wrong move could tarnish their family's image, so following these ideologies to the letter is extremely necessary and certain topics become taboo. A culture of shame is created in order to enforce these behaviours within the community.

One such taboo is conversations around health. Health is not a topic that often comes up in conversation. Physical health is discussed minimally, such as a mention of diabetes, but there often aren't conversations around diet or exercise. Mental health tends to be ignored. Talk of depression or anxiety is silenced as they aren't seen as real issues. However, the biggest taboo is sex, which is not brought up in South Asian households at all.

Due to these taboos, sexual health is never on the agenda. I recall growing up and watching TV shows or films with scenes of parents having “the talk” with their kid, discussing “the birds and the bees”. This is not a conversation I had with my parents. What little information I got about sexual health was through school and online, and it was the bare minimum if that.

This is likely due to the assumption that we aren’t having sex. Hook-up culture isn’t seen as something we would partake in. While never said outright, there is this expectation that we are saving ourselves for marriage. I have been privy to conversations my South Asian friends have had with their parents, where the assumption is made that they are virgins, despite the fact that they are in long-term relationships. Sex is almost seen as something sinful, regardless of sexuality.

However, the situation worsens when it comes to LGBTQ+ South Asian people. With the structures and ideologies in South Asian culture comes strict gender roles, with deep roots in toxic masculinity. Men are expected to be strong and unemotional, to provide for the family. Gay men are seen as the opposite of this; emotional and weak. They are seen as feminine, which is not a trait the South Asian community values in a man. This idea fuels homophobia within the community.

Sexuality is not discussed because it is seen as irrelevant, as you are expected to be straight. You are expected to settle down with someone of the opposite sex, have children and carry on the bloodline. However, this image falls apart if you’re LGBTQ+. LGBTQ+ South Asian people often fear that if they were to come out, they would bring shame and disappointment to their family and be shunned from the community. In order to avoid this, many hide their sexuality, even going as far as to get into a sham marriage. Others may come out to a few select people, but never tell their family members.

Many avoid entering LGBTQ+ spaces for fear that someone will see them doing so, and thus out themselves. They’ll play with people discreetly, which can be seen on apps like Grindr, where the number of picture-less, faceless and discreet profiles spike massively in areas which have a high population of South Asian people, such as Southall. And they will avoid accessing LGBTQ+ resources, information and services for all the same reasons.

This causes South Asian LGBTQ+ men to avoid getting tested for HIV and STIs. There’s this concern that someone may see them entering or leaving the clinic, or they may even know a doctor working there. Just the fact that they are getting tested is likely to spark gossip within the community and tensions between family members, wondering why they visited the clinic. But for LGBTQ+ South Asian men, there is an added fear that the reasons why they needed to get tested will somehow come out from this, that the information won’t necessarily stay confidential. Therefore, South Asian LGBQ+ men don’t access sexual health information and resources, they don’t visit clinics and they don’t get tested.

The full extent of the problem this is causing is largely unknown, as the statistics are thin on the ground. What little we do know, however, paints a bleak picture. South Asian LGBTQ+ men are often being diagnosed with late stage HIV. At this stage, the body’s immune system has been severely damaged, opening them up to opportunistic infections such as pneumonia, which can prove fatal if left untreated.

This is why interventions, such as the Me. Him. Us. campaign by GMFA, are so incredibly important. South Asian representation in media as a whole is sorely lacking, with the only real representation coming from Bollywood. In the western world, we are rarely seen on billboards, in adverts, in movies or TV. When looking at LGBTQ+ media, this situation worsens as we are practically non-existent. South Asian LGBTQ+ representation is never seen.

The opposite of shame is pride, a word LGBTQ+ people know well, but one which South Asian LGBTQ+ people are often unable to express about their sexuality. This is why a campaign like Me. Him. Us. is so necessary. Having a campaign centred around South Asian gay and bisexual men being visible, proud and fully embracing who they are, is a powerful image. It can help those still in the closet remove the shackles of shame that are holding them back, knowing that they won’t be alone when they come out.

Having this imagery also convey the importance of getting tested adds another layer to this. It removes the taboo of discussing sexual health in the community, by showing South Asian gay and bisexual men being vocal about testing with their community. It shows testing as an act not just for yourself or your partner, but for your community. This can help empower people, encourage them to access resources and take ownership of their sexual health. It shows that there is a network of support available to them that they can access. And with this campaign, we hope we can help curb this crisis amongst South Asian gay and bisexual men and make them realise that there is no shame in being proud.

  


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