[TW: rape, sexual violence, homophobia, transphobia]
Being assigned female at birth, my entire life was decided for me the moment I took my first breath. I can’t dress “easy” or “suggestive” ways. I’m assumed to be cisgender and heterosexual. I have to get a good degree and do well in school to attract a good and successful husband by my mid-twenties. Then I get to pump out babies, take care of them, and cook and clean until I die. I only matter inasmuch as I can be sold off to the best man and produce the best children. Male children, ideally. If my husband beats me, it’s my fault for not being a good enough wife.
I first tried to diverge from this path when I came out as a lesbian at 14, sending my parents into an earth-shattering rage. They beat me, threatened to kick me out, and made me apologize profusely for shaming them and the family name. Eventually, my mom sat me down and made me repeat after her: “I am not gay. I am confused and mentally ill. I am not gay.”
I kept trying to come out over the years, but it never got better. No matter how the language they cloaked it in changed, their message was always the same.
“Gays can get married in private, but don’t be seen with them or talk to them,” they always said. “Definitely don’t interact with transvestites. You don’t want to get involved in any of that, and you don’t want people to think you’re like that. That’s for those people, the lesser people.” It took me several years to figure out they cared more about how it would look to have raised a gay child than about anything I was actually saying to them.
When I was drugged and raped at 18, it had to be a family secret kept under lock and key that I was no longer a virgin. I was not and am not allowed to tell anyone (though that hasn’t stopped me on the anonymous internet). My parents started keeping me on an even tighter leash, not letting me stay over at male cousins’ houses or drive on my own. When I asked why, my mom broke down into tears, saying she “just couldn’t trust me anymore”. Being a lesbian and being a survivor marked me as “wrong,” a mistake in the eyes of my parents and society. Though I reached out for support and understanding, I instead came face-to-face with the brunt of hetero-patriarchy, which crush my identity and experiences underfoot in favor of the status quo. It wasn’t long after this, when I was 19, that they began to drop hints about marriage.
Being South Asian, I grew up familiar with the concept of arranged marriages and the fact that I could reasonably face one. My parents will insist that their marriage wasn’t arranged–they want to appear “progressive” and “modern” in the public eye, even if they don’t act that way–but they were introduced by their parents, “dated” long distance for a few months, then got married when they were both 27. The extended family gossiped viciously about my mom for being too old and a bad wife (didn’t cook, had a job, didn’t clean), the latter an offense so terrible that it justified my paternal grandfather frequently slapping my mom. My dad’s age, career, and cooking prowess didn’t matter of course, and my maternal grandparents never had reason to lay their hands on him.
While South Asians have a name for this practice, childhood and other coerced marriages happen across the globe, including in America. Many LGBT people also go through conversion therapy, forced marriages, and other abuse when they come out. The history of “beards,” LGBT men and women marrying each other to appear straight and cisgender and to escape public scrutiny, is long and complicated. The same institutions that harm LGBT people also work to oppress women, and they work twice as hard to oppress LGBT women.
I am fortunate in many ways. My family is financially stable enough that money isn’t a very coercive factor; rural and economically disadvantaged families who practice arranged marriage often sell their daughters off to businessmen, doctors, and engineers out of desperate necessity. I also have enough of a shadow of a choice that I’m going to marry my best friend and date on the side instead of being forced into a lifetime of heterosexual monogamy with a stranger. I’m lucky enough to get an education and go to college, something that many women are barred from in the name of youthful marriage. While in college I’m free to love who I want away from the prying eyes of my family.
That being said, the experience of arranged marriage is unbelievably painful regardless of privilege. I love my beard-friend dearly, but every time I say “my boyfriend” I feel my lesbian heart twist in my chest. I often stay up late thinking about the future in an effort to desensitize myself to it. Soon I’ll graduate from college, get married, and go back into the closet forever. I talk to very few people about it because it feels so bleak and hopeless.
When I explain my this to American friends, they usually say, “That can’t be legal. You just have to say no.”
From self-described feminists this is laughable. Have they forgotten how multi-faceted consent is? How coercion lives in every encounter between women and men, between women and their whole society? It doesn’t matter if my “consent” is given under duress, threat of violence, or sociopolitical and cultural coercion. Even if my immediate family openly supported me, my extended family would ostracize us, and my immigrant family relies heavily on them for social, financial, and emotional connection and support.
I’ve been given enough vague advice about “organizations”, “rights” and “calling people” for a lifetime. At this point, I can only smile politely when well-meaning people say, “why don’t you just walk away from your family and rebuild your life elsewhere?” as though that’s as easy as a snap of the fingers. The reality is that I’m staring down the barrel of an arranged marriage in the next 5 years or so, and there is little I can do about it. I can’t even publicly organize or do any kind of social activism for fear of being outed to my (extended and/or immediate) family.
However, other brave people are out on the front lines every day campaigning to end forced marriages, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny, and the world is better with each passing day. If my children are LGBT or experience sexual violence I’ll fight tooth and nail to support them, family and society be damned. I am confident that one day arranged marriage will be a thing of the past. Perhaps one day all that’ll be left of it is articles like this, and me and my narrative will become forgotten history. For now all I can do is write and pray for a better future, one that looks upon me and future generations with kinder eyes.