Naushaba Patel shares her journey in this candid piece as a genderfluid Pakistani immigrant. She describes her life struggles regarding sexuality, cultural norms, and societal prejudices.
As a queer genderfluid Pakistani immigrant Muslim who has lived under the international poverty line and in places with drive-bys and gang violence, who graduated with a Masters from an Ivy League University, and has travelled to 20 countries, I think I can safely say that I am an outsider wherever I am. Here is my story.
We were supposed to fly to the United States from Karachi on September 12, 2001. Needless to say, our flights got delayed by a month and my anxiety at airports increased forever. At the age of 10, I didn’t understand why the entire plane in London was delayed for an hour so that every item in our bags could be checked. They even opened bags of chips my mom brought for me to snack on in the plane.
Fast forward 3 years, and I arrived one day at my middle school in Houston and witnessed gang signs spray painted all over my school. A fellow eighth grader had been murdered in a drive by in the neighborhood. In retrospect, I’m surprised by my own lack of fear during that period of my life. Once, when walking to our apartment, there was a guy with a gun pointed towards another person. But as soon as he saw us, he moved out of the way and waited for us to get upstairs safely. Perhaps I should have worried a bit more when one of my best friends was shot on Valentine’s Day. But she still came to school and got straight As. As immigrants, we didn’t talk about our immigration experiences, domestic violence, poverty, family hardships or legal issues. In the midst of all the chaos in our lives, we competed with each other for the best grades and acceptance to the best universities.
I am privileged enough that I graduated with a degree in Chemistry from Rice University. But perhaps it should have been a clue to me that I filled every free elective with humanities courses. But desi immigrants always become doctors or engineers. Even choosing to do natural sciences without the intention of going to medical school was deviant enough.
I almost didn’t make it through Rice. I took the bus one hour each way daily, didn’t have enough money to eat on campus and didn’t stay long enough on campus to make any friends. The poverty and family anxiety due to poverty made it impossibly difficult to perform at my optimum level. I dropped my double major and minor, and just got a BA in Chemistry. As an immigrant whose parents sacrificed everything to come to the US for the main purpose of my education, not excelling in classes took a huge toll on my sense of self. Even then, before graduating, I got employed by a bioscience lab at Rice to lead biomedical engineering research projects! I even got to work with NASA!
But something inside me told me that I needed to leave Houston. Up until then, so much of my life was determined my the need to prove that I was the perfect immigrant, perfect Muslim, perfect daughter, perfect student and perfect human. And I had no true sense of who I was as an individual. In an attempt to escape, I applied to two public health programs and got accepted into both! So in 2013, I flew to NYC with two suitcases to live in Manhattan and attend Columbia University. It changed my life! There, I discovered feminism. I stopped shaving and waxing and putting my body through so much torture. There, I dyed my hair mermaid purple and blue. There, I started dating and fighting against pressures for arranged marriage. There I kissed a girl under the moonlight, right after I walked her home. I initiated the kiss! I was so excited that I didn’t want to drink water for hours afterwards to savor her taste in my mouth. There, I started dressing in drag make-up and colorful outfits that fit my eccentric personality. I was the most colorful person on the NYC subway system!
But something happened as I started being more vocal about my sexuality and my life struggles. So many women kept sharing their stories of cultural pressures, of their hidden sexualities, of their arranged marriage pressures, of their rapes and sexual assaults. I started being the first person people seemed to call to get Plan B pills or share their stories. The stories broke me, I think. My depression became exacerbated by the cruelty in the world and the structural barriers that oppress even the most privileged women. I also started living multiple lives. I didn’t know how to continue being the skinny, straight, perfect, medical school going, arranged marriage, pre-pubescent mimicking shaven woman with thick long straight black hair. So after graduating with my masters, I did the very cliché thing and decided to backpack through Asia to “find myself” and make more sense of the world.
My global travels helped me understand global shared humanity and helped me truly see the resilience of humans. Yes, there are structural barriers and poverty and lack of access. But we humans also have immense power within us to fight and to write our lives, even, and especially in the midst of struggle. We find joy and love and dance and connection everywhere. My sociology and public health classes never taught me about the resilience of oppressed people, and in doing so, the classes hid from my awareness the power that resides within me even as I face the struggles of racism and classism and misogyny and homophobia and Islamophobia and xenophobia and fat phobia and mental health phobia.
So now, I am a queer women and trans rights activist, a thinker, a sexuality workshops facilitator, and a fashion designer. I challenge gender norms with hairy legs and hairy armpits, a bowtie collection, and beautiful east-meets-west colorful dresses. I’m a complex human. But I am also just a regular person in search of belonging, love and purpose.