Call Me By My Name: Queerness and Ownership

· Updated on June 20, 2018

“Hamza H-A-M-Z-A.”

Spelling my name the first time I say it comes naturally to me now. It’s a reflex born of countless exhausting interactions at restaurants and food trucks. When a customer service rep asks me my name I say it expecting the tense pause before they revert to a simple Sir. Introducing myself at parties is always a two step process and my inbox is full of emails addressed to “Hazma.”

I’ve never considered adopting a nickname that’s friendlier to American ears. For many in the queer community, choosing a new name for ourselves can feel like claiming power over our own identity. To me, abandoning the name I was given at birth would feel like a defeat in the quiet war I wage within myself against a fear I am not sure I can fully articulate. It is a fear of not recognizing the parts of me that are essential to myself, of giving them away and replacing them with something I or my friends or my family might not recognize. It is a fear of assimilation, of allowing a hostile culture to shape me into something more pliant, more willing to compromise, less stubborn and less self aware, just to feel like I belong. It is a fear of allowing myself to shrink into the space American culture has reserved for those of us with brown or black names. This fear has my mother’s voice and it tells me I have become “Americanized.”

I have always had trouble with names, both remembering them and giving them. For as long as I’ve written stories, I have never been satisfied with how I’ve named my characters. Western names feel like costumes, like I’m playing at understanding a white world. Desi names, however, feel like they cannot be given without an accompanying context, some sort of reason they are allowed to be brown wherever they are.

What are you doing here?

Do your parents approve?

Desi names never fully belong in English stories without context. That is one of the privileges of whiteness–the ability to be places and do things without explanation. So many of my characters go nameless and many of my stories unwritten because none of them feel like they are mine to tell in this language that does not belong to me.

This fear and displacement seeps into other parts of me. The first boy I dated made fun of my accent and I said nothing, too bewildered by my feelings and his attraction to me to say anything. Other accents get to be sexy. Mine gets to be mocked on The Simpsons. I now worry, after six years, that accent is disappearing, my hard consonants sanded down almost to soundlessness, my dAnces becoming dances.

I put South Asian on every one of my dating profiles, knowing full well some of the people I find attractive will use it to filter me out of their grids. I do this on purpose and I feel powerful. I cling to the undesirable parts of myself because I desire them. I refuse to let them be taken away by boys too stupid to understand how broken we are, the rebuilding we must do. I am suspicious of belonging too easily, in case I belong with them. I am scared of losing myself to something larger. It is hardest to tell the truth when it can be used to filter you out of existence.
So much of the immigrant journey is characterized by loss. We lose our homes, our friends and families, our languages and cultures piece by piece to the violence of war or time, depending on how we get here. We lose patience with our parents who cling to traditions that truly belong to them, deeply, buried in their bones. We make them watch with a wide-eyed frenzy as we allow our spirits to be weathered by storms that are completely foreign to them. We talk differently, love differently, pray differently or not at all. We become angry at the strangest things, find aggressions that to them are small. They watch us grapple with different problems and come to alien conclusions, wondering every day:

Did we make a mistake?

Should we not have sent them to school here?

Should we not have come here ourselves?

And then there are the parents who have come to terms with their choices and instead are baffled by their children’s ungratefulness–why are we not more appreciative of everything America has given us? Because we also mourn what we have lost, something some of us have never really known. These are the parts of ourselves that should have been ours that America has bullied us into renouncing or distracted us into forgetting. They are the parts of home that have suddenly become alien. The languages we knew fluently but have not spoken aloud in years.

I didn’t even grow up here but I don’t know who I would be or how I would describe myself without America or the west, without this language that is supposedly my second. Every day we are forced to make choices about the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the people we love, the friends we make, the language we speak, the media we consume that pull us in opposing directions–to either remembering or forgetting. To a place of dignity or of defeat.

Whatever generation of immigrant we are, we are all waging this war within ourselves, each foot on a different shore or in a different box, some of us standing on such busy intersections we do not have enough limbs to cover them. It can feel as if we are being transmuted backwards into something more common, less ourselves so we fit more easily in the rooms we find ourselves in. We feel forced to try and be more like the friends we need to make to survive, to feel less alone. I am not sure it works.

And I am afraid my mother is right. Is there a part of the world or of me that doesn’t have an understanding of sexuality shaped by a history of colonialism, empire and American culture? I had no access to a positive understanding of myself that came purely from the culture I was born in, no history to tell me what I was or why I liked the things I liked. Western terms like gay and queer filled the void. And America is greedy. It claims the values of freedom, democracy, justice and progress for itself and then ties them to an empire that bombs so many countries so frequently few people can tell when it is at war, who with and how its enemies differ from its allies.

Those values–along with words like gay, queer, trans, feminist–become tainted, weaponized, American. I am in the privileged position–and I say that unironically–of trying to become a citizen of a country that is actively and without consequence bombing my fellow citizens and other people who look like me, and that frequently uses images of persecuted sexual minorities and women to justify it.

It is terrifying to consider the intersecting histories and patterns of consumption that have created what I think of as my identity–to see the effects of colonialism living in me and to still believe I belong to myself.

What does decolonizing my mind even mean if the only language I can fully think in, or express and understand myself in is English?

What does it mean when the closest place to a home I have found is on colonized land?

This land and these words do not belong to me. I do not belong to them or this culture that produced them. I do not even belong to the culture that raised me without giving me a real home within it, so how can I claim it in turn?

To keep existing in such a world can feel like walking forward on a bed of broken glass. It is so easy to think of history like it’s quicksand as if it threatens to swallow us whole if we allow ourselves to dwell in it. But it is the only thing we have to stand on, the reason we are allowed to exist. Any history that could have completely belonged to me has been erased, forgotten or hidden, any culture that could have claimed me is silent and hides in dark rooms behind locked doors. It is a curious exercise being in a room full of queer muslims and to learn we have all independently looked through the same histories, perhaps found the same books, discovered the same scant evidence of people like us in the places we’re from. All so we can some day say to our mothers “We deserve to exist and have you claim us. See? There’s precedent.”

We keep searching for our context. An explanation for our presence in the room. A culture we can belong to that we have not had to adopt or create in some Frankensteinian fashion.

This is who we are supposed to be. This is what was taken from us. And without it, this is who we must be.

This sense of rupture is not new to queer people. So many of our stories–immigrant, queer–involve a breaking apart, a reduction to rubble. But what have we gained by leaving so many things behind? What is left that is truly ours?

We work hard to construct safer and more loving worlds around ourselves. We create the things we wish we’d had as children, dare to live our lives in unexpected ways. We escape. We find each other.
So much of the queer experience is about not knowing where you belong or what you’re supposed to be, and the wonder and sheer terror of imagining a future for yourself. Something radically full of love. We are told again and again that nothing belongs to us–not our cultures, nor our homes. But these things don’t necessarily belong to anyone else either. We are not powerless on the outside. We can change things, even as we cannot help being changed ourselves.

So what does belong to me? I am still not entirely sure. I am not comfortable claiming the brave, audacious history of queer rebellion in this country when I have willingly abandoned the community I could have had or helped build in Pakistan. Going back home would feel courageous, so staying here must be cowardice. I have run away and saved myself.

So have I earned a right to say that queer rioting in bathhouses, at Stonewall and during the AIDS crisis is my history? In the present, do I belong in gay bars downing drinks I only learned to drink here? Do I have a place in clubs full of chiseled white bodies? Do I belong on a dance floor, remembering ways my hips have never moved? Do I see myself fully belonging in this world queer people here have painstakingly constructed?

There are pieces of me everywhere. But I am slowly stitching them together into something I recognize as my own. I am learning to recognize the parts of myself I will not yield. I am building a sense of the dignity I deserve, my right to exist, to occupy space without questioning or being questioned.

I am learning to imagine a future for myself, where my mother calls me queer, or a different word, and accepts it. Where she understands that the word comes from me, that I haven’t been taken over or become lost, but have simply become myself. Where I can be in any room and have my name spoken without surprise or pause, without being autocorrected out of this language. Wherever I go, whatever I do, because it is mine, I want to be called by no name other than my own.

Besides, I like my name. My sister gave it to me.

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