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The LGBTQIA+ Community Through The South Asian Lens ft. Ishruq aka Aestarland

For our Special Edition June 2021 Cover we are talking about the LQBTQ+ community in honor of Pride Month with Ishruq also commonly known as Aestarland through his social media handles. Through this conversation we are dividing deep into understanding the LGBTQ+ community, the scenario and acceptance in context to the culture of Bangladesh and learning more about Ishruq's personal journey in coming out of the closet to embrace his authentic self as a South Asian Queer.

When we asked him about how he personally identifies himself Ishruq mentioned "I personally identify as gender non-conforming which falls under the non-binary umbrella and I’m alright with any pronouns i.e., he/him, she/her, them/them. My relationship with gender is very fluid. I wholeheartedly believe gender is a social construct. I also think any form of femininity, which is much more present in me than ever, has a very divine and powerful architecture, robust enough to dismantle the very prevalent yet damaging world of fragile masculinity and takes an initiative to redefine masculinity itself."

Growing up in a rather quiet residential area in Dhaka, Ishruq spent most of my time here, from finishing school and doing a diploma on Fine Arts to now pursuing editorial modelling, occasionally making conceptual art for exhibitions, doing drag, styling, amongst a myriad of other passion projects that has anything to do with expressing himself through the lens of art in fashion. He says "I’ve always been keen on the world of high fashion and pop culture since it served a form of escapism for me throughout my adolescence. A lot of my art and fashion is what I like to believe; social commentary without the need of verbalising it."

It’s not everyday that you witness a queer brown person with blonde hair in some extravagant attire juxtaposing flamboyantly through the streets of Dhaka.

For people who don't know much about the community, we asked Ishruq to give us a first hand explanation on the LGBTQ movement and what the community actually stands for. He said "The LGBTQ+ community is synonymous to the movement itself which strides for pride, a celebration of individuality, acceptance without prejudice or judgement and a rigorous, undaunted form of activism for queer people from all walks of life.

In 2021, after decades of oppression and marginalization, ultimately where we stand is a path of radical compassion and intersectionality for queer people all over the world. As for defining people within the community, gender expression and sexuality are unassociated. Many queer people, including myself, would identify their sexuality and/or gender identity on a spectrum."

It’s important to acknowledge this since sexuality and gender identity comes in many beautiful, diverse forms in their own spaces.

We asked him about his personal journey of identifying himself and coming out of the closet to which he stated "I believe my journey with self-discovery has been life-long, just like anyone else. There are still things I’m learning about myself, I’m young. I grew up playing with dollhouses. Looking back now, my understanding of my identity and fluidity came into my realisation when I was around 12 to be precise.

I always felt the societal enforcement and the ultimatum of carrying out gender roles around me. There was always a burdening expectation whirling around me trying to mold me into these compartmentalised gender norms.

However, it was not perturbing enough to fracture my understanding of myself and work with self-acceptance. It always came to me rather naturally, without much thought given to it. I never had a preconceived notion regarding queer identities which is rather easier to learn than unlearn if you’re growing up in a place like this.

It’s almost like in order to persevere, you kind of begin to navigate the world around you from within a bubble. A persona veneered within a persona. It’s self-protective. I believe it’s also what set me up to be where I am now, and helped me develop a thick skin."

We asked him about the initial response from the community, his friends and peers around when came out of the closet and how they respond to it currently and he described "It is exhilarating now.

I wear many hats and I’m always thrilled to show what crayon I’m choosing from the coloring box, what outfits I’m wearing, because it’s conspicuous and it coincides with my ever-evolving identity and trajectory. But the hats I wear now are certainly mismatched to the ones I wore once to protect myself when I knew that the world around me wouldn’t have been as accepting and as celebratory as it is today. I began expressing myself when I felt secure in my own skin and navigated grounds on how to trust compassionate people around me. That is why I believe a sense of a loving commune is a primal imperative for anyone who wants to be themselves.

I always say that I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing without my wonderful friends, collaborators, peers and the most creative visionary souls around me, because that is where my home is. I reckon it would be easier to give in since I analysed that there was never a niche for what I was doing, thus there was little understanding of who I am. Exhausted from trying to fit in, I realised when I gave up and just went for it, I wasn’t only doing it for myself. Interacting with people who told me their stories and found a safe space in what I’m doing made me acknowledge the importance of it.

There was an instance when I was outside of a mall and a mother with her child approached me and candidly asked me about my Instagram. She insisted that I should continue to keep going because it’s amazing. There are times when people go, “I showed my mom your pictures and she loves it!”. I believe these interactions between a parent and a child opens up a bigger conversation in some households which are of great importance. At the end of the day, I’m extremely grateful to even know that I impacted one person in a positive way."

Deriving from his own experience, we asked him to share his viewpoint about how much does Bangladesh as country stand in recognizing or understanding the LGBTQ community, to which he replied "Bangladesh has a very long walk to walk towards veracious inclusivity. Socially, I believe perpetual gatekeeping of unfiltered, progressive voices has allowed oppression and marginalisation and further confined the community into staying unsung and in the ‘grey’ at best. Inviting conversations towards advancement for queer people is almost always made redundant. Stigmatisation and stereotypes exist parallelly in a strongly held bastion of obsolete morals and traditions.

Frankly, it can be quite frightening and terrorising at times, personally. Hatred runs deep in many channels of veins of the population here. I’ve had many uncomfortable situations by being public due to such demoralisation. But I believe I’m fortunate enough that I’m amongst a rather progressive generation. Sure I've faced many attempts of being harassed in public and almost always being stared at for the way I dress. But I believe our perception has somewhat changed in the past couple of years that has allowed many open-minded safe spaces to exist.

I feel like we’ve made substantial progress in terms of legislations and laws passed for our fellow trans folks, specifically the Hijra community and their rights to workplaces. Although we still have a long way to go, it is unequivocally a step in the right direction. It is our job to keep the conversations happening from unshackling the stigmatisation all the way to real legislative changes and claim our seat at the table."

We asked him to share a message to the people who find it hard to identify themselves or come out of the closet because of societal shame and he replied "I know how hard it can be to feel like the odd one out when you’re not. I understand why it’s easier to stray away from that conversation with your loved ones in fear of rejection. And sometimes, you’re also not quite sure of yourself either. Self-actualisation in terms of your identity is a very prolonged, exhausting journey. One thing I wish I was told is that there are people who are gonna be supportive of you. And that you should only do it on your terms, because it is only a freeing and cathartic experience from there. Even if you don’t, there’ll always be people embracing you for who you are. I’ve had many discussions with young queer folks and it’s truly a shared joy to even have someone who accepts and celebrates you."

We asked him about his thoughts on the toxic bullying culture, how much it could affect a person and he has personally ever been in a situation where he were bullied. He said "I think bullying takes away a part of you that cannot be retrieved. It can overpoweringly taint you with life-long trauma. I think queer kids specifically are more prone to it. In school campuses it’s unfortunately very much in existence abundantly to see kids getting bullied for their mannerisms, the way they speak and mocked for their appearance to every single granular detail. It unwaveringly takes a toll on you. Which can lead to numerous mental health issues including anxiety, depression, trauma, depersonalisation, body dysphoria or dysmorphia and so on. Having available resources to seek immediate help or counselling in later life is also only accessible to the privileged.

Growing up quiet bemused me for being silent, but no longer. It’s more than vital to speak up when you witness harassment and bullying. It’s important to create a union through social activism especially in campuses, since it is the very instrument to empower and uplift each other and take a stand against bullying.

Addressing it to authoritative supervisors is also important when available. Ultimately, it’s essential to acknowledge that bullying defines none of us. We’re never just a label even when we’re made believe we’re nothing more than that."

We asked him how people who identify as heterosexuals can support, stand up for or be allies to the community and he replied by saying "True allyship exists when you’re not only present to celebrate pride but you’re willing to participate in our protests and riots. Supporting the community through activism should proselytize with proper analysis and studying the root of an issue and spoken in true verbatim of a marginalised queer person. It’s also important to acknowledge your position of privilege as a cisgender heterosexual individual in order to be allies for causes with intersectionality."

We asked him about the importance of education in bringing inclusivity. (Academic or non academic education, self study, etc) to which he stated

"Positive discussions related to LGBTQ+ topics in education could play an immense role in opening up an affirmative and favourable space for LGBTQ+ people everywhere."

"I think for it to exist in a school-based program level there must also be available resources regarding sex education. Due to large opposition mainly from heteronormative bodies it is not a subject heavily touched upon. I think we’re at a time where a lot of the resources are at our disposal with media and information available online, so it really is up to us to take the initiative to learn, teach and familiarize ourselves to these topics more, break down harmful stereotypes and raise awareness."

Often times we see people being inclusive and supportive with friends or distant associates who are from the LGBTQ community but become quite hypocrite and non supportive when it comes to someone in their own family or closed circles. We asked him about his thoughts on why such situations take place and how it could be dealt with. He answered "I think we’re at an age where everyone should be woke on social issues, which is of great importance. I think the LGBTQ+ community is more widely tolerated than ever. However, there still remains a huge chunk of people who tend to have a falsified morally inclusive countenance, where they tend to put a front of being accepting of queer people but it only comes off as a performative social responsibility front.

Ally ship of this nature is especially dangerous when they’re “okay” with other people being queer but crosses a distinct line if it happens to be someone they’re acquainted or related to. I’ve observed this at many instances where a parent goes that they’re accepting of other queer people but they could never accept it if their children happened to be queer. I think what’s essential is to present them with an introspective perspective that observes queer people co-exists everywhere and you’ve to accept it.

The queer friends or distant associates that you’re supportive of might only be thriving through a support system in one way or another. Depriving your loved ones from that support is also counterproductive because it only broadens a void of lack of comprehension for yourself."

More often than not conservatives in Bangladesh associate people from the LGBTQ community as someone with a defect, illness or mental issue that needs to be treated or cured not recognizing it as something that is normal. We asked Ishruq how he thinks we could spread awareness in breaking the social taboo and get people to not be homophobic to which he said "I think a narrow outlook on such issues can be dehumanising when you lack distinct conversance.

Educating and having conversations debunking these harmful stereotypes is fundamental for change.

I think if you can enlighten even one person, it can bring a multitude of people together to fight for our rights. A lot of this ignorance is buried in a lack of apprehension which amplifies the refusal to learn and further construct dangerous stereotypes. That’s why I think it should also come from a place of love since it is the mechanism to eradicate hate that originates from a place where there’s no sweat to dismiss something you don’t understand."

We asked him about how much the internet and social media play a role in bring inclusivity or spreading negativity and hate and he mentioned "Social media has played a monumental role in terms of educating being inclusive towards queer folks. I believe this manifold of safe spaces in the not only online, but also in the physical world would be somewhat obtuse if it wasn’t for the internet to create a landslide of changes in people’s minds in the past 5 years. While as powerful as that may be, it is only an instrument at your service that can also be weaponized to breed hate. I think everything is much more amplified than ever. While it can be a divisive and toxic place even for queer folks. I think what’s paramount and worth focusing on is the brighter side in order to continue building a safe space for all and practicing acts of kindness online."

He further added "From what I’ve learned from years of being public and navigating the atmosphere of the real world and cyberspace through my lens is that there’s no amount of detest and revolt that can stand superior to the tremendous support and kindness I’ve received. Like I’ve said before; what creates a vehemence for people to spread hate is because they’re afraid of something they cannot put a label on because it isn’t registered in their vocabulary.

It’s easy to sulk in that dark, empty space because you might be unsure of yourself too but at one point I can imagine it can get self-destructive."

We ended the conversation by asking him about how he sees the future of the LGBTQ community in this country and in the worldwide to which he summarized "There’s a very ‘underground’ collective boiling with passion at this moment. I believe there’ll be a revolutionary, transgressive and a radical act of compassion and acceptance and a movement that’ll take place in our lifetimes and we’ll be here for that spirited and rebellious change when it takes place."

"Let more and more queer voices occupy every spaces."
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