Intersectional Identity

I am: an Indian-American, an immigrant, an Engineer, an actor, an improviser, a musician, an athlete, a coffee enthusiast, a plant daddy, a dog dad, a podcast co-host, and a cis-gender gay man. For the longest time I thought that my identity could be broken down to what I was doing at the time. I aligned myself with life’s ebbs and flows and compartmentalized my identity. For example- I was a student at school, an actor/singer after school in musicals, an Indian-American at home, a musician when I played piano, and a coffee enthusiast when I spent hours at cafes while “studying” with friends. I assigned a piece of my identity to every faction of my life and gave each portion its own time to shine. That seemed to work great for me until one day when I was watching High School Musical with a few girlfriends of mine. There he was- Troy Bolton. He was sensitive, an athlete, a singer, and a dancer who had abs that were sculpted by the Gods. How could anyone not fall in love with him? He was perfect. If I had the chance, I’d push Gabriella off stage in a heartbeat to sing with him at a ski lodge. In that moment, I realized that I liked him in a way that I had never liked a guy before. Consequently, I decided I needed to make time for one more thing in my life …being gay.

For the first year of high school, I would secretly set aside time to take my clunky laptop to my room and innocently look up the words “How to tell if you’re gay.” After going down that rabbit hole, I familiarized myself more and more with gay culture. I saw men who were so brave and authentically themselves all while looking hot as hell. They were all white, slim in figure, and happy. At the time, I was none of those things. South Asian people weren’t supposed to be glamorous or gay. Those things just weren’t present in our culture and upbringing. In fact, those things would be an embarrassment. I had never seen a man and a woman kiss in real life, let alone two men.

My heart sunk as I began to dissect every aspect of being Indian-American. I determined I’d likely never be able to be openly gay because I’d be disappointing my parents and my culture. Having a gay son was not a part of their American dream. As all the other Indian men in my life had done, their plan for me was to become a doctor, get married to a woman, and have kids. The end. No deviations. So even though I decided to be out at school, and even though I had fortunately never been bullied for being gay, I would go to bed every night convincing myself that I could never be like the hot, effortlessly authentic white gay men I saw. I went to bed telling myself that my dream of having a husband and being a father would never come true.

Years later in university, I found that I had less time to compartmentalize my identity, so components of my identity started to merge. I still had not known of any South Asian gay men I could relate to, and not for lack of trying. I joined every dating app there was, trying to find someone I could relate to. One day, someone on a dating app told me that I was a “smelly Indian” and that I could “never be attractive with soil-colored skin.” This white man had never met me and dismissed me as a whole person in two messages. It was like all of my insecurities manifested as a person.

This one interaction was followed by multiple similar occurrences in-person, and consequently caused me to spiral in slow motion. For years, I convinced myself that I could never be attractive because of the color of my skin. That my white, queer friends had it so much easier than I did because the conventional idea of attractiveness is white. I found my hope for belonging in the queer community beginning to fade, and this ultimately led me to faking my happiness because anything was better than my ugly “soil-colored” self. I felt not gay enough for the gays and not Indian enough for the Indians. I found myself lying to fit into either group, and consequently lost a lot of people I care about. Eventually, if it wasn’t my race that made me unattractive, it was my body. And if it wasn’t my body, it was my personality. This destructive thought process went on for 4 years.

A friend saw me struggling and encouraged me to join an improvisational theatre in Atlanta. That was when things started to look up. I met all kinds of people in my community, and was introduced to the concept of an “intersectional identity” from a queer, black woman of color. I had never heard the term before, but when she explained it, for the first time in my life I exclaimed “THAT’S LITERALLY ME!” Over time, I recognized that compartmentalization of my identity hurts me more than it helps me. Turning on my acting/improvisation skills does not turn off my skin color, nor does it change my career and personality traits. It heightens them.

My intersectional identity empowers me. I’m now able to show people that no matter what characteristics comprise their identity- that being in the room is important, and that any room is better when them in it. I have to believe that being myself gives others permission to be themselves. I inadvertently became the person I was looking for. And though I don’t have a husband or kids yet, I am happy because I accept my whole self while recognizing that someday, my man will too. PS- I’m here for you. You are enough as you are and so, so beautiful. -Kushal

Insta: @kushalrshankar