Queer and Trans South Asians are an incredibly vibrant set of communities often underrepresented within the landscape of South Asian communities. There is a rich history of community organizing by Queer and Trans South Asians, with Desh Pardesh (a radical cultural festival held in Toronto in the 1990s) as one clear example of this social justice work. From a historical and contemporary perspective, Queer and Trans South Asians have experienced marginalization from both South Asian communities (homophobia/transphobia) and Queer and Trans communities (racism) - in response, these communities have engaged in political activism, demonstrated resiliency, and taken care of each other through community building.
Queer is a relatively new term. In the past, community members and groups have used language such as
*Gay *Lesbian *Bisexual *Butch *Femme
*Dyke *Fairy *Questioning *Sexual Minority
In addition, there are many culturally appropriate terms such as
*Kothi *Hijra *Panthi *Giriya *Bairupi(ya)
A brief history of some South Asian Queer organizing in Canada
1984: Zami, the first Canadian group for Black and West Indian gays and lesbians founded (Toronto)
1987: Khush : South Asian Gay Men of Toronto founded by a group including Nelson Carvalho, Karim Ladak, Deep Khosla and Chris Paul
1988: Khush and Gay Asians Toronto organize “Unity Among Asians” a conference for Asian lesbians and gay men in North America
1989: “Salaam Toronto!” conference led to launching of Desh Pardesh (ran from 1990 to 2000)
1990: Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention founded
1991: Salaam (Queer Muslims in Canada) founded by El-Farouk Khaki in Toronto
1992: Calgary’s of Colour founded
1992: Atish Network formed in Vancouver
1993: Khush hosted ‘Discovery ‘93’ first international South Asian Gay Men’s conference
1993: South Asian Lesbian magazine Sami Yoni debuts in Toronto
1995: Queer Issue of Rungh: A South Asian Quarterly of Culture, Comment & Criticism
1998: FunkAsia starts, at the now-defunct Red Spot
2001: Chillin’ In Your Brown Skin Collective established (Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention, Council of Agencies Serving South Asians, South Asian Women’s Centre, and South Asian Legal Clinic), who have done social justice engagement at Masala! Mehndi! Masti! festival in Toronto
2001: Dosti Group launches in Toronto
2005: Mirchi group begins for queer women, hosted at the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention
2005: Trikone Vancouver begins
2008: Sher Vancouver formed in Vancouver - a “social, cultural and support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered South Asians, and their friends, families and allies.”
2011: brown //out , new South Asian program at Pride Toronto, begins
Trans South Asian Communities
One of the best-known trans activists in Canada (Rupert Raj) is of mixed South Asian heritage. Rupert has been engaged in activism for several decades through peer education, advocacy, workshops, video projects (including Rupert Remembers from 1999), and his current role as a Mental Health Counsellor in LGBT Services at the Sherbourne Health Centre.
Within the South Asian subcontinent, there is a deep history of Trans communities and Trans organizing through hijra communities - this continues in contemporary movements, with resistances including advocating for identification documents that reflect a “third gender” and challenging transphobia of the state (such as Railway authorities in India).
In Canada, research efforts indicate an underrepresentation of Trans individuals, communities, stories and resistance within both South Asian contexts and mainstream Queer and Trans contexts. This gap speaks volumes.
Resistance and Resilience
Queer and Trans South Asians have resisted homophobia, transphobia and racism. Community members have been fighting against racism within broader Queer and Trans communities which results in explicit anti-South Asian sentiment (for example, through dating website), as well as structural erasure of the complexities of intersectional identities.
Case in point: In 2005, community members as well as the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention critiqued the AIDS Committee of Toronto’s (ACT’s) Fashion Care theme “Bollywood Cowboy” for the disrespectful use of religious imagery, for not consulting with South Asian communities and for relying on exoticization and stereotypes.
Selected Queer and Trans Publications:
Khush Kahayal: the Newsletter of Khush South Asian Gay Men of Toronto was published beginning in 1989 (issues from 1989 to 1997 are archived and found at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, in Toronto).
Chhota Khayal: the Monthly Calendar of Khush, Toronto (1994).
Sami Yoni: a Journal for Lesbians of South Asian Descent was published in Toronto from 1993-1994. Archives are found at CLGA
Sharon Fernandez, “More than Just an Arts Festival: Communities, Resistance, and the Story of Desh Pardesh” Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol. 31, No. 1 (2006). (Online)
Tom Warner, Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada, University of Toronto Press (2002).
Friday Night Productions. Re-writing the Script: A Love Letter to Our Families. 2001. (Film)
Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention. Brown Like Me. 2009. (Film) (Online)
We are using the term “queer” as an umbrella term to refer to sexuality identities including gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, questioning, Women who have Sex with Women, and Men who have Sex with Men.
We are using the term “trans” as an umbrella term to refer to gender identities including transsexual, transgender, genderqueer, etc.
The Desi Queer Datebook (no author, no date), retrieved from