9/11 Reflections

Visibility and Memory: Reflections on 9/11 from South Asian and LGBT Perspectives

Photo Credit: Perry de Guzman

By: Ben de Guzman, NQAPIA Co-Director for Programs

As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, we are already seeing an outpouring of retrospectives and analyses of that fateful day and the impact it has had on the U.S. and the world in the years since. The trauma of terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon and the wreckage of an averted attack in Shanksville, PA changed forever how we see ourselves as a nation and how we interact not only with each other, but with the world and our global neighbors around us. As we remember the events of 10 years ago, communities who are found at the margins bring our own perspectives to bear not only on those events, but how we even remember them to begin with, and how we in turn, are remembered.

South Asians and other Asian Americans who are often “Missing In History” as noted by activist Helen Zia, were a central figure in the discussion, but not always for the best ways. Even as Japanese Americans and their legacy of internment showed the United States what it meant to stand in solidarity with Muslim Americans and Arab Americans who were monolithically implicated en masse for the actions of a radical fringe, South Asian Americans and Sikhs in particular, bore the inadvertent brunt of a wounded nation looking for someone to hold accountable, simply because they “looked like terrorists.” By dint of the color of their skin and the trappings of their religion, they were thrust very visibly into a spotlight that more often than not, felt like crosshairs.

For lesbian/ gay/ bisexual/ transgender (LGBT) communities who struggle with the invisibility of the closet, uncommon courage was found in what seemed like common sources. Former UC Berkeley rugby player Mark Bingham might never have been famous for being gay, but became part of the 9/11 narrative when he helped avert what could have been another terrorist attack on United Flight 93. For him and for other LGBT victims of the airplanes and in the attack sites, the LGBT community brought their stories forward as part of our joint communion with our straight brothers and sisters.

But what of those who are both? For South Asian Americans and other Asian American who are LGBT, our unique story is forged in the intersection between visibility and invisibility, and as we look back, between history and memory. Svati Shah, a graduate student at the time of the 9/11 attacks remembers very clearly the ways in which South Asian LGBT activists and leaders took care of their families and communities in New York City in the shadow of the attacks. Phone calls and frantic searches to find each other and our families were not too different than those of everyone else in the city at the time. We suffered, and we served. We were part of unconscionable body counts, and we were first responders who answered the call.

But as “9/11” took on a life of its own and became not just a date on a calendar, but a meme that took on a complex set of meanings and political realities, what had become unity in the face of adversity threatened to become scapegoating in the name of security. Discussions that had previously focused on the bravery and selflessness of first responders and good Samaritans now focused on who was to blame and even perhaps the best of intentions on how to keep us safe became overly simplified into dichotomies that favored security over liberty.

South Asian LGBT activists joined their straight brothers and sisters to respond to the onslaught of restrictive and punitive policies leveled against our communities, who were already grieving along with the rest of the country. A set of immigration laws and policies already predisposed to stack the deck against immigrants and non-citizens mixed with foreign policy marked by tense and rapidly shifting relationships and hostilities to feed into the post-9/11 climate of rising apprehension and fear and created a perfect storm against South Asian, Sikh, Muslim and Arab communities, as well as other Asian Americans and immigrants.

In the response to the immediate threats to the civil rights and wellbeing of South Asian and immigrant communities, LGBT involvement became a common occurrence, but also an unremarked one. Svati Shah remembers that LGBT South Asians joined the work to oppose things like post 9/11 backlash, detentions and inhumane enforcement of immigration laws, and blanket policies of special registration for Muslims and South Asians that brought back reverberations of Japanese American internment. They did so not out of an intentional need to make those movements inclusive of LGBT perspectives, but out of an urgency for survival of the community. She remembers it not so much as finding a “queer angle,” but responding to a “triage angle” where the immediate needs of the community did not ask whom you slept with. Many of them were out of the closet to one degree or another, and as they engaged the work to ensure liberty was valued as much as security, their LGBT lives were not so much part of the policy discussion, but as part of the diverse patchwork that helped build coalitions. LGBT activists who had historically engaged South Asian, immigrant and LGBT social justice movements, sprung into action yet again regardless of their “visibility.”

The LGBT organizations and organizers also leapt into action. However, the leadership of these activists, predominantly white and U.S. citizen, had the benefit of distance from immediate suspicion of being “one of the terrorists” Shameful comments from Christian fundamentalists such as Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell may have resorted to a “blame the gays” for God’s abandoning America to cause 9/11, but did not accuse us of flying the planes directly. Free from more direct assaults on individual liberties and freedoms, their activism focused on LGBT identity as a key organizing principle to prioritize direct service and advocacy. In an environment where same sex couples and LGBT family relationships were at best deprioritized, and at worst, not recognized at all, mainline LGBT activism after 9/11 fought to ensure that everyone who suffered directly from the terrorist attacks was able to access the support and resources needed regardless of sexuality, gender or gender identity.

One of the quotes that was often invoked in the days after 9/11 was a line from one of W.H. Auden’s poems, “We must love one another or die.” For a nation reeling from tragedy, it provided some degree of comfort and urged us to reach out to one another in our time of need. In the same way that W.H. Auden’s own gayness was immaterial to the power of his words to remind us of the redeeming power of love, South Asian LGBT activists fight against the threats against our common humanity when the need arises, even as we must unapologetically fight for our own right to find and keep love.

For more information about activities in commemoration of 9/11, visit: www.saalt.org/pages/An-America-for-All-of-Us.html

The National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA) is a federation of Asian American, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander (AAPI) lesbian/ gay/ bisexual/ transgender (LGBT) organizations and is a project of the Tides Center. For more information, e-mail nqapia@gmail.com or visit http://www.nqapia.org

This is written in memory of and in solidarity with activists of all kinds who have worked tirelessly for our democratic values of freedom and liberty as well as security for the last 10 years. We remember, we celebrate, and we love because of your vigilance and service.

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