I grew up a 90s kid in the Inland Empire’s tight-knit Korean-Christian immigrant community. Being biracial meant that my cultural norms were kimchi, McDonald’s, 8-hour church days, and learning to skate in the park. As a closeted trans girl in a fundamentalist home, I’d escape the routine shouts and abuse my cop dad would dish out by crossing the street to Peri Singh’s house. The Singhs were Sikh, and became the family I hoped and dreamed and prayed to wake up in someday.
While Disney’s Aladdin embedded fantastical images of Mughal-era Agra in my developing mind, Peri’s house was a firsthand encounter with the authentic. I fell in love with Indian food, with Guru Gobind Singh, and with Peri’s mom. Peri’s mom was strong, put up with no bullshit (she once kicked my mom out of her house for mentioning the concept of hell), and was incredibly femme. Part of Sikh tradition involves not cutting your hair, which is why men and boys tend to wear dastaars and rumāls, while women and girls often let their long hair fall to their feet. I’d rush to Peri’s after school partly to play Ninja Turtles on his Nintendo, but mostly to stare at his mom’s body-length ponytail. At home, when my dad wasn’t around, I’d wear my mom’s clothes, put lotion on my face for makeup, and draped a t-shirt on my head, swishing my long “hair” in delight until I inevitably got yelled at.
Peri and I had become friends in the first grade. A bully insisted on calling him a girl for “wearing a bun”, so I drew on my taekwondo training (thanks to my tiger mom) with a flying sidekick straight to the stomach. And so a friendship was born. We walked to his house after school for the first time, talked about how Jesus and the Guru must be friends, and snacked on papad and chutney, beginning for me a lifelong love affair with all things Indian.
So when the opportunity to travel to Northern India came nearly three decades later, I jumped on it. Never mind the knowledge that my travel buddy would soon become my ex, never mind that I just came out as trans and wouldn’t have time to update my documents by the trip date. India was finally calling. So I went — not to do yoga, not to get high on bhang, not to gawk at the poor, but to connect somehow, in some way, with my first chosen family.
Travelling with my soon-to-be ex-wife to a country that just recently decriminalized being gay admittedly made me nervous, but then I found out that India had introduced legislation under the Rights of Transgender Persons Bill that would formally outlaw discriminiation and enforce penalties for hate speech. To counteract my deluded fantasies that all of India would be just like Peri’s house, friends and family would feed me daily horror stories of debilitating sickness and rape culture, which worked all too well to scare me back into the closet for the trip. Having started hormones only three months before our departure date, I made a deal with myself. This would be the last time in my life that I’d ever present as male; it would help protect me, keep my ex safe from harassment by association, and ensure that I would have no problems at the airport.
So I packed my bags with my most androgynous clothes, left my makeup at home, and pushed myself back into the closet. Of course it didn’t work. I was still on a layover in Seoul when my dysphoria grew so strong that I begged my ex to borrow her makeup and put on the most femme shirt I had, convinced that if anything bad happened, at least it’d happen to me and not to some shell of a self. So when we arrived in Delhi past midnight, I was comfortable in clothes that felt more like me. I was swallowing my thumping heart at the security checkpoint when the guard examining my old passport held me up for a few eternal minutes before waving me through with a smirk and eyeroll. Ok, I can do snark, I thought.
What was it like for me as an western trans lesbian tourist in India? Not all that different from daily life in Trump’s America. Like life in the US, race and class directly play into how trans women are treated. As a result, my experience in India was different from that of the Indian trans and hijra population whose struggle for social acceptance and rights is as culturally-specific as my own.
I had my first and only encounter with another trans person that I was aware of on our first day in Delhi. We were on the way to eating at a hotel restaurant circumferenced with electric fences and scowling armed guards, taking pictures of elephants in the streets, when a woman with hair almost as long as Mrs. Singh’s knocked on my car window. We smiled at each other for a minute before the light changed, leaving her in the streets for our 12-course lunch. “Hijra”, said our taxi driver. “Like me?” I replied. He thought for a second, looked at me in the rearview mirror and said “Not quite the same”. I learned later that she was offering blessings for money, that this is how many hijras sustain themselves. I’ll always regret not knowing this sooner, not rolling down the window to offer this trans sister some tangible solidarity. But the moment felt and still feels like the most holy blessing, like a silent and mutual affirmation. The kind of shared affection I only experienced two other times on our trip: when our tour guide in Jaipur spotted my Saraswati tattoo and geeked out with me over Shaivite theology, and when our driver bought us roadside guava on the way to introducing us to his family.
On our second day in Delhi, we woke up early to beat the crowds at Jama Masjid. Our tour guide was brilliant, kind, and insisted that I join the female security line and wear the same modesty robe required of all women. This kindness was extended in each city by everyone we encountered, with very few exceptions. I grew so confident that by the third day, I purchased the same kind of Punjabi kurtas I remembered being worn at the Singh house and took to putting on a little makeup. People began asking to take pictures with me and everywhere I went I was met with a mix of smiles and stares.
While class bought me a greater measure of safety and respect, I soon learned that being a lesbian could very well be more dangerous than being trans in India. Despite having the same last name, my ex and I were presented with the same response upon check in at any hotel, in any city. “Separate beds?” It was always a rhetorical question. When asked about my trans identity by a young Indian man at the Red Fort, the conversation went sour once he found out I was a lesbian. “Oh yeah?” he smirked, aggressively sticking his tongue between the V in his index and middle fingers. I pulled away from him just as he reached out to grab my arm. Before the situation could escalate, our tour guide came to the rescue, slapping his hand away with a quiet shout of “Please don’t touch!” By the end of the trip, it would become my mantra.
I learned that my ability to enjoy the rest of the tour would entirely depend on my capacity to assert myself with my head high. On the long rural route from Agra to Ranthambore, we pulled into a rest stop. When I came out of the women’s room, a bathroom attendant laughed, shaking his head with a bemused “Ladies only.” Flying sidekicks no longer an option, I laughed in his face, “oh I know.” I proudly marched out of the shop where I waited until our driver was ready to trek the next four hours of sporadically paved road.
On our final day, after an amazing journey through just a sliver of Rajasthan, we found ourselves split up in gendered lines at the Udaipur airport. While I had to use the male line due to the information on my outdated passport, I felt confident enough in my safety that I wore makeup and femme clothes, thinking that here, my class and tourist status would once again protect me. I was woken up by the snickering male guards ahead and felt myself shrinking in the presence of so many eyes. By the time I got to the security checkpoint, my heart hurt from pounding and I could barely breathe. The guard took my passport, laughed, and called some friends over. One of them asked why I didn’t use the women’s line and I just smiled, hoping it would defuse the situation. They had me stand on a stool as one brought his metal detector wand forcibly to my crotch, brushing the back of his hand against me in front of what felt like the entire airport. “Please don’t touch,” I mumbled, barely audible even to myself. Realizing his molestation session was holding up the line, he jabbed his wand so hard into my groin it made me yelp, which somehow amused him. I stepped off the stool and rushed to my ex as I heard the guards busting up behind me. Hilarious.
By the time I got to my ex at the end of the women’s security line, I was a sobbing mess. My heart wouldn’t come to a resting point and I felt as if I couldn’t catch my breath. When we landed in Mumbai to make the connecting flight back to L.A., I actually thought I was dying. I rushed to the airport medical center, thinking I was having an asthma attack only to find that the suffocating sensation I couldn’t get rid of was a series of panic attacks. I purchased an inhaler just in case and hunched over compulsively depressing the canister as if enough clicks could erase the past few hours. Then, a small group of Chinese students introduced themselves while I worked to feel my breath again. They explained that they go to the school I got fired from for coming out and told me how happy they were that I could “finally be my true self”. I smiled, failing at holding back tears as I thanked them, making my way to the male security line for the very last time. As I reached the checkpoint, feeling the panic attacks starting to crest again, a male guard walked over and asked that I “please use the ladies line Madam”. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to seeing divinity in a human being, my own private darshan.
In the span of a few hours, in two different Indian airports I experienced a spectrum of responses to my gay trans self that would serve as a microcosm of not only my trip, but of my entire queer experience. There are no guarantees, so I’m learning to be my own safe space.
We never did make it to Punjab, the heart of India’s Sikh community and the birthplace of the family I aspired to. With the days of travel it takes just to get from L.A. to Delhi, I’m not sure if I’ll ever make it there. But I’m still left with this yearning for something familiar. The papad I ordered at every meal never quite tasted right, I later learned that the masala from Punjab is different from what I routinely got in Rajasthan. The people didn’t quite look like the Sighs, which of course is because the area I was in was predominantly Hindu. And while I got to have a glimpse of an amazing region of India, it wasn’t truly enough. I guess what I was really searching for was Peri’s house, a chosen family, a place to call my own. Ostracized from my birth parents and Korean culture, India didn’t give me a replacement family and I’m still learning to claim my Korean heritage with pride. But through this experience I’ve seen how strong and resilient I can be, and I’m learning to become my own traveling home. Like transition, it’s something I’ll be learning all my life, something best taught out of my element, surrounded by the unfamiliar, where everything, including myself seems full of unlimited potential.🗺️
Edited by rachel.