Out of the Celluloid Closet

In 2001, this queer South Asian documentary broke the mold

Coming out can be challenging even in the softest circumstances. For queer South Asian folks, telling family members that you’re part of the LGBTQ+ community can be a long, painful process.

“The fear of ‘log kya kahenge?’ (what will people say?) forces [queer South Asians] to remain in the closet as being the family member of someone who is queer or trans for the rest of their lives,” explained one correspondent for a Quartz article about overcoming queer stigma and shame in South Asian communities. Poet Alyy Patel similarly expressed her issues with being told to “just come out” to parents and elders by those who are ignorant of the inter-community dynamics that make the process much more complicated.

In a recent opinion piece, Patel explained that queer South Asians are caught between the conflicting expectations of their families and the broader queer community. “There are expectations from the 2SLGBTQIA+ community to come out and leave behind any family members who do not accept their sexuality,” she writes, “[but] this set of expectations fails to consider the culturally unique consequences and barriers that impede the ability of queer South Asians to do so.”

For many, cutting off intolerant family members simply isn’t an option. But neither is staying in the closet. That’s a painful crossroads to find yourself at, and in 2001, one Canadian documentary went straight to the heart of the issue.

Rewriting the Script: A Love Letter to Our Families was a true group effort. The Canadian documentary premiered in Toronto’s Innis Town Hall in October of 2001, and featured in-depth conversations between South Asian lesbians, gay men, and trans folks and their families about the sticky subject of coming out. Created by the Toronto collective Friday Night Productions, aka Desi Queer Video Collective, the short documentary featured legendary trans activist Rupert Raj, along with other anonymous interviewees, discussing their relationships with their families. From supportive family members to mothers disheartened by the inability of their children to get married to parents who were quick to pathologize their childrens’ queerness, we see a wide range of reactions and complicated responses from community elders. But that pain and complexity is part of the point: the creators of Rewriting the Script wanted to challenge the idea that being queer and out means that family relationships have to come to an abrupt end.

“This video is a gesture of love and appreciation for our families of origin,” the creators explained. “A gesture that attempts to create an opening within our communities in which our families may continue, the often silent, struggle against homophobia. This video is dedicated to shattering those silences that keep us apart and to inspiring strength and courage that bring us together.”

Over 20 years later, the documentary still hits hard. Loving queer kids of hesitant parents try their best to have an open conversation about their own queerness, and are sometimes rebuffed, but sometimes manage to reach a moment of quiet, empathetic understanding. “I don’t necessarily have to follow those same [heterosexual] models to be happy,” one woman tells her mother. A married couple talk about how it’s common to hide behind a “curtain of silence” when a child is gay or even divorced. But, like many of the parents interviewed, they’re willing to break that silence for their children. In South Asian culture, another man explains, “children don’t get married to each other. Families get married to each other, and the link continues. Here, our biggest disappointment is that the link gets broken.”

When these parents start opening up, something interesting becomes clear: it’s not queerness itself that they have a problem with. It’s the fact that queer people aren’t allowed to participate—at least at this time in Canadian history—in the rituals and customs that are so meaningful to their elders.

Since this short subject came out, other filmmakers have made works explaining the uniquely complex position of queer South Asians raised in the west who come from more traditionally-minded families. Vinay Giridhar’s 2021 documentary Emergence: Out of the Shadows follows another generation of queer Canadians of South Asian descent grappling with similar problems. But progress, as we know, happens slowly. The important thing is to keep talking about it.

In Rewriting the Script, community coordinator Baldev Mutta says the words that so many families need to hear.

“If we really are religiously minded, if we really valued life,” he says, “we would value the diversity of the lifestyles that exists amongst human beings.”

Hopefully, with more honest conversations inspired by films like these, we’ll get there.

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