A Discussion with Sivagami Subbaraman, Director of the LGBTQ Resource Center
With: Sivagami Subbaraman
April 22, 2014
Background: Sivagami (Shiva) Subbaraman became the first director for the LGBTQ Resource Center at Georgetown University in 2008. Since then she and her colleagues have worked to establish a range of programs and educational initiatives on campus. She has also helped develop policies and protocols that make the campus inclusive. The center works with students, faculty, staff, and alumni; and a significant part of the work has been to re-engage Hoya alums. On April 22, 2014 Shiva had a discussion with Katherine Marshall and Crystal Corman as part of a project exploring the nexus of women, religion, and the family. Through a long conversation, Shiva spoke about a variety of issues including race and LGBTQ identity, gender conformity on a Catholic campus, definitions of family across culture and for LGBTQ persons, marriage as an institution in the United States, and a lack of role models for LGBT students of color. She also brought her own experiences as a Hindu working within a Catholic institution.
Please tell us about your current work, and also how gender and family play a role.
I’m the first director for the LGBT center at Georgetown University. It’s the first fully institutionally funded center and I started here in fall of 2008. It was interesting because I’m not Catholic. I’m Hindu, but I went to Catholic schools all my life in India. I’ve had 23 years of formal Catholic education, because Catholic missionary schools were very popular in India for my generation in particular. I actually attended high school, as well as college, at a Catholic institution run by the Franciscan missionaries of Mary. They were all Irish Catholic. I think this allows me to have a deep understanding of the culture here, which is important for doing my work.
How did you come to Georgetown for this job?
Before this position, I was at the University of Maryland, at College Park. I had always been at a public institution, but I’m from India and you can’t take the religious DNA out of me right? I think that one of the things that troubled me in this country was that I didn’t know how to bring the religious and spiritual lives of people into the conversations. Regardless of where you are on the spectrum, it’s a big piece of who you are. We are not providing our students with critical thinking skills around this part of their identity. That really bothered me as an educator because I think, “Here I am giving them critical thinking skills around sexuality, gender, race, and every aspect except religion.” When I saw this job opening I was really fascinated because it was not only historic, but it would provide an opportunity for us to think critically around this intersection, about what it means to be gay but also around faith.
What drew me to Georgetown was also the interfaith piece, because it was not just Catholic. I knew that we had an imam, a rabbi. Speaking from my own life, Hinduism as a religion doesn’t have any particular prescription against being gay, but certainly the culture in India is rabidly anti-gay in many ways. At the same time, there are ways we can negotiate there because theologically there is no prohibition. So it gives us some wiggle room space.
What is it like working on LGBT issues at a Catholic university?
Doing LGBT work at a Catholic institution is difficult and politically sensitive; it can be a lightning rod. It is dancing through the minefields. A lot of my work in the center, therefore, is around how to help the students navigate self and build community, and also explore those connections. Also their sense of self at home so family becomes the most important piece of LGBT work for one reason; I think people often don’t realize that unlike any other underrepresented student group or populations, this is the only group where parents are the first people to discriminate against you. If you’re black, if you’re Latina, your parents actually help guide you and tell you how to survive in a world that might be hostile. But here, the family itself can be a hostile space. Because parents are often the first discriminators, there’s a way in which LGBT people have to find both family and community, and form that family and community in very different ways. Obviously religion is a big piece of it. Religious spaces, which often offer a home, family, or community to other underrepresented groups, do not offer that for us either. For most of us the church, the temple, the mosque are also places of discrimination or isolation. This complicates—for this community—where you find family and where you find community.
As a community, we have changed the discourse that looks at LGBTQ people as non-religious, somehow outside the realm of mainstream Hoya life. That we can't be religious and LGBTQ at the same time. I am proud of the fact that GU has provided a space for our students to not feel isolated and alone—that they can be loved and have a spiritual or religious path.
Can you offer some examples of how students you work with deal with issues of gender and family? What role does religion play?
The way we have helped navigate religious tensions is often by making the distinction between theological position and pastoral care. A lot of the work has been done under the rubric of pastoral care because my role is not to challenge religious teachings. My role as an educator is simply to provide that space where students can have their needs met and be fully actualized in who they are.
One of the things I try to focus on very thoughtfully is the intersection of race, religion, and identity. You can’t really say “race, gender” and generalize in that way because so many of students’ identities and their struggles are dependent on the intersections of their identities and their families.
Students of all family backgrounds can struggle with a sense of legacy: who is going to carry your name forward? Therefore you must have children and all the accompanying heteronormative stuff. For many of us, although this is changing, we can’t imagine ourselves being parents and being gay. That is not an option for many of us. But this is changing now because families are very important to many of us as a structure.
You mentioned that some in the LGBT community find or make their own “families” or community. Can you expand on this?
I have very mixed feelings about those alternative churches, but I think why these alternative churches and family structures are helpful and useful is because in the end we all want to belong to where we come from. I can say these are my chosen family. That is the most common term: “chosen family.” I think that is such a term of privilege. Who has the privilege to give up their biological families? It takes a certain amount of mobility and privilege to do that. We all live where we live, we are all born into families that we are born into. At the end, we all do want acceptance, love, and belonging in those groups we most identify with. A lot of times the chosen families come at the expense of erasing some parts of me.
I think that struggle continues even today for our students. They don’t want to worship in a church that is not where they grew up. They want to worship in the church where they grew up. They want to go to the temple that they believe in. They want to go to the mosque and be “out” in the mosque.
Within family structures, in the end, none of us, not even if you’re a perfectly heterosexual person, have perfect relationships within our families. At the end of the day when you get married or have children or finish your Ph.D., or any of those rites of passage, you want your family there. It allows you to celebrate all of you. We are all fragmented people, I believe. The problem is that other people do not have to choose; I always say the lives of heterosexuals are all about “and’s” not “or’s.” As a woman married to a man, I can be a feminist and married, be outspoken about my political work, and and and, even though I was living outside the box. The minute I came out I had to start choosing. I could be this or that. This or that. I could be a Brahmin, or … No longer could I be the grandmother. The minute I came out I could no longer be the grandma. He couldn’t see me as the grandmother, my brother couldn’t see me as a sister. I think that for gay people life is about “or’s” not “and’s.” There is no way to thread those fragmented pieces together, I feel.
Families don’t always help an LGBT person thread the fragmented pieces together. It plays out in different ways. For example, all 18 to 22 year-olds are somewhat alienated from their families because that’s just how it is. But say you are a woman who has a boyfriend and you’re breaking up, no matter what, you can find comfort in your family and talk to them about how to negotiate that relationship at a fundamental level. You can’t do that if you’re a gay person or in a relationship because that relationship is simply not visible or recognized or even seen as a legitimate source of grief. You could be married to someone for 30 years—as a gay person—and when that person dies or if that person is ill, nobody values that as grief process. For so many families, it’s like that relationship doesn’t exist.
What is your personal story related to these issues?
A lot of my identity is “irrelevant” in the United States. In the United States you identify me as South Asian—I have no idea what that means. That is just a census nomenclature; it has erased everything that is important to me. If you ask me how I identify, I would say as Hindu, Tamilian because my language is Tamil, and I’m Brahmin, the top of the heap in the caste system. I identify as Tamilian-Brahmin, that’s really my DNA, but that is completely irrelevant and completely erased in the US context. So what that does is it prevents the United States from seeing many of the other things that I bring into the conversation, including a certain amount of privilege. You can’t grow up Brahman, especially as I did in the south of India right after independence, and not carry that history. That’s the context where I got my education. I came from a family of very highly educated women who were educated all the way back to the 1850s; I didn’t become a feminist in the United States. My folks were very involved in freedom of movement and social movements. We were very critical of Hinduism and its treatment of women. That’s where the voice comes from and the confidence comes from. Yet when I got here, it was like “You are a person of color and you have to take your place in the great totem pole and hierarchy.” It prevents us from seeing our own privilege and how it might play out. It prevents the LGBT community from acknowledging the true diversities within us. They make it monochromatic—“LGBT”—whatever that might mean. That’s a struggle with our students because the LGBT identities, the way they’re constructed, doesn’t allow for a plurality of identities or a roundness or wholeness of a person. We are so busy slotting people into categories.
I was married to a man for 25 years, most of my adult life. People always ask me: "Did you not know?" I said, “Yes I knew who I was.” He knew who I was, but I didn’t choose to walk in that world. For me it was choosing to walk in that gay world. That was complicated by my race, religion, and who I was. As an immigrant in 1983 I went to the National Women’s Studies Association Conference and I distinctly remember that moment. In 1983 there was not much openness in this country but here they were having a lesbian caucus. I went to this lesbian caucus; they were meeting in the basement. I found all white women with short, cropped hair. They were all in blue jeans and flannel shirts and Birkenstocks, with unshaved underarms … I ran away. I said, “If that’s a lesbian, that’s not who I am.” I could not see myself in these clothes. Even today, there are not that many women who wear traditional Indian clothes and who are walking about as a lesbian. There just isn’t. If you’re a lesbian, you had to be in the mold. There was no way for me to bring who I was into that group. My chosen family, they would be family to me if I erased parts of myself. Instead I said, "That is not my experience. Your ‘coming out story’ is yours but it is not mine." They didn’t want to hear it. They wanted everybody to have it. And this was all part of the context in the United States at that time.
Do you sense things are changing for LGBT persons in society, in families?
I think it is starting to change. I think the problem for our students is they cannot see many visible role models of that change. Today, most of the visible community is gay white man. You don’t see very many openly LGBT persons from other groups. For our students it often becomes very difficult to imagine that they could actually be part and parcel of a family in a whole way; that if they had a partner, they could find a way to integrate all of themselves into that.
What are students thinking in terms of marriage for LGBT persons, especially since it is legal in DC? And for your own personal story, what are your ideas about marriage?
I have mixed feelings about marriage as an institution, even when I was married to a man. I personally believe that in this country the institution of marriage carries a certain kind of citizenship burden that I don’t think it carries in India. Rights of citizens are associated with the institution of marriage. To contrast the two cultures, in India I may be treated poorly as a wife but I still retain certain rights as a citizen, such as the right to health care or how I file taxes. But in the United States so many rights are associated with a single institution: marriage. What if I’m single and I choose to be single? Why should I be punished? In the United States, it seems your social life has to be organized around marriage status; you become a political entity of a sort only when you’re married. To me it’s so patriarchal! I come from India, a patriarchal culture, but I find more freedom there in a peculiar way. Although I am keenly aware that is also due to my privilege there as an upper caste, educated woman. I would say that even Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama seem to have to depend on a husband for certain rights in the United States, in a way that I don’t think Indira Gandhi did!
Let me use the example of being sick and in the hospital. In India if I’m single, my brother can still make decisions for me. But in the United States, I have to go through all these hoops, because I don’t have what this country considers a “significant other.” I have real fundamental concerns that in this country so much of life—political, social, cultural life—seems to depend on this institution called “marriage.” Recently when I became a United States citizen I was shocked that while filling out the form, I marked “single” but since I had been married and divorced, I must mark “divorced.” I asked, “Why? I’m single now!” They said, “No, once married, married. Once divorced, divorced.” This is really troubling to me.
There is no talk of role models of single, happy people. It seems there is no way to be a happy single person in this country! The reality that 50 percent or more are divorced, 50 percent or more are single, but our students see fewer happy single people than they see anything else modeled for them. The students are all in the mind-set that you have to grow up, and growing up means you have to be in a relationship, a relationship recognized in a certain way (formal marriage). That’s very United States. Even in Europe, less weight is given to the institution of marriage and less rights accrued from that institution.
How do students talk about committed relationships, either as “partners” or “married”?
Students don’t use the term “partner.” They talk about “husband and wife.” If you’re gay, then they say “husband-husband” or “wife-wife.” The topic riles me up like nothing else! It’s very conventional thinking. I won’t even say it’s conservative. It’s conventional: this is the prescribed path. Now as a gay person, I can follow that prescribed path. Now you can have a wife and 1.5 children and two dogs and a cat, and a house in the suburbs.
Do students feel that they can get married through their religious tradition?
Students do not feel that they can marry within their religious tradition, barring perhaps a few of the more open religious ones. I think this is a huge loss—because it is something we all have a right to aspire to as individuals: to be recognized individually, and as a couple by the religious traditions in which we grow up. The emotional and psychological damage around this is deep. Many have set up alternate or alternative traditions; but in the end, if that is truly not what you want, it does not fulfill.
Beyond marriage between two individuals, how do you think about or define “family,” especially comparing India and the United States?
The idea of family is tribal, I think. In India it is still very much based on blood connections. The notion of kinship can extend very far. On the other hand you can’t have the notion of a chosen family exist in India; everything is blood. My issue is with the institution of marriage and here the extreme focus on the “couple” as a unit of measure. It’s this coupledom that drives me crazy. Everything comes down to that. I think that’s why the divorce rate is so high. It puts such an unfair burden on that unit.
To some extent I grew up in a non-nuclear family. I grew up in an extended joint family, where lots of my father’s brothers lived together; all of us cousins grew up together under the same roof. It was a very difference experience for me for what I think of as “family.” There were a lot of unmarried uncles and aunts who chose not to get married. I don’t know why actually; they’re all dead now. Sometimes I wondered if any of them were gay. We had quite a few persons in my family who never married, but they were still very much part of our family. They were connected to the family so they never felt alone. They were still given all the respect due to an elder.
My experience of family in the United States, and expectations from students is very different. Everyone here is expected to leave home at 18 years old, to go away and enter a different community. In India, young adults don’t do that. Most of us stay at home to go to college. I didn’t know what it was like to live among peers until I came to this country as a graduate student. For me, that journey into knowing or forming alternative communities is very peculiarly Western. It also happens in Europe. Even in England though, a lot of people stay at home and go to college. In the United States it’s such a rite of passage, that at 18 years old you go away.
With the recent economic crisis, many students move back in with their parents and family. But whenever I hear, “Oh, they had to move back home,” it’s considered the greatest disaster. It doesn’t even register as odd to me; where else would you go? Of course you’d go back and live with your family and your parents. It’s not the end of the world. But I think it’s a big challenge for the US way of thinking.
Can you explain how Hindus talk about family formation and also detachment as a spiritual practice?
The journey for Hindus is that all people, including women, move from unmarried to married, and then you leave everything and go away, and be detached in your old age. You follow the yogic path. That’s also for women, it’s not just for men. The idea of detaching yourself from family is as core as attaching yourself to family. For many in my family circles, once they’re 60 years old many of them will start relinquishing their responsibilities to the family and move away from family to live a very different religious life. They do live a very different life as a couple. They get involved in all the religious stuff, get involved in the volunteer stuff. In the old days they would be mendicants. They would leave home and be mendicants. I am not sure this is the path now; but there is still a lot of emphasis on relinquishing attachment and responsibilities.
That is what I think of when I think of myself. The other day some one asked me, “Are you dating?” I was like, “Why would I date? I’m quite happy. I’m going to be a mendicant.” Within a Catholic setting, this resonates for me. That’s why I love being here. When Father Gray wrote about being a pilgrim, I do see the pilgrim as part of all of our journeys, not just religious persons. Detachment is a very important value and virtue for Hindus.
Who are role models for LGBT students? Who do they really admire or connect with?
The issue of role models is difficult because there is so much invisibility in all of us. I can be the closest some students come to identify with culturally, to some extent, and that causes its own challenges. When I became the director, I was quite horrified to find out that I was the first woman of color and first South Asian to become the director of a LGBT center in this country. I didn’t feel proud about it, I felt horrified because this was 2008! This is barring none, not just at religious institutions.
I think on this campus, it has been our alumni that have really served as models for students. Bringing back these prestigious alumni, I tell them, “You are our ancestors and we need to know you. All we know is Bill Clinton, but you are my rightful ancestor. There is pride in knowing you.”
Last year I brought back Lorri Jean who sued Georgetown 25 years ago in a famous lawsuit that led to the recognition of an LGBT student group on campus. She is now CEO of the largest Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Los Angeles. I almost died when I found out that she was our alumna! We brought her back last year and we hosted with the Law Center a half-day symposium to talk about the social and legal legacies of that lawsuit. But we brought her back as a hero. It was tough; there was a lot of delicacy in bringing her back. She came and she told her story, and it was a horrifying story. It was a lawsuit that dragged on for 10 years, and she didn’t have very flattering things to say about the university then, but it was healing for her, and for the community. And I must say it was fantastically open and generous of our current president that he was okay with her coming back to tell this particular story.
A large part of this work has been healing, healing for the community, healing for Georgetown. Without that healing, you can’t go forward as a community. You can’t build community without that healing. But it was also healing for Lorri. She cried when she stepped into Healy Hall. Every alumnus that I have brought back has had emotional responses when they come back to campus.
How have you encountered issues of gender conformity or non-conformity at Georgetown?
When I first came to Georgetown I was shocked at how proper everyone was. I thought, “Oh my god, I don’t wear blazers to save my life.” For the first six months I wore Western clothes, and I was miserable. And then I decided, I’m just going to be who I am and wear my regular clothes. It was interesting, because I think my clothes have carried a far more powerful public and political statement on this campus than on any other campus I’ve worked. I’m visibly different because there are so few people on this campus who dress differently. The campus can be very monocultural in its “expression,” and this can be a challenge for many since there is a need to “fit in.”
It’s interesting how people decode my clothing (kurta/salwar). For some people it’s traditional. They think I’m very conservative, because they associate it with “traditional clothing.” So I’m not cool or hip or sexy. Or liberal. That is also a construction from within the gay community and sometimes from the mainstream community. Often this clothing is seen as unprofessional; a sign of not being adjusted in Western culture. Some students think, “How could she be the director of the LBGT center?” For a long time students thought, and many students still think, I am straight and an ally. They don’t decode me as gay at all if they don’t know me. For some people, the belief was they had hired me because I am conservative.
If gender performance is difficult on campus, how do people grapple with sexuality and identity?
At the very micro level, the simple things, like the clothes you wear, the haircut you have, if there is no variation and openness, it gets more complicated. On one hand we have made great progress and transformation in acceptance. But many feel it is only a particular type: students feel that “the average gay white man” dominates in this new openness—a particular look. And many trans* and gender non-conforming students continue to struggle to open up more spaces for themselves; and that is still work in progress. So we work very hard with a multiplicity of students, but it takes an enormous amount of effort and working with many student groups. As an example, we did the first program with the Berkley Center last year on "Faith, Diversity, and Sexual Orientation." Doing these programs has been enormously helpful to say that LGBT issues are more than just an identity. Part of the problem with LGBT life is that most people only care about who you sleep with, discounting its intellectual discourse, knowledge production, etc. It is not seen as any of those things; the academic institution does not see or give space for depth or legitimacy around these aspects. LGBT is only seen as about being who you are in a simplistic way.
For many people, being gay is about behavior, not identity. It is literally about who you have sex with. That’s where the ideas that it is “choice” and “preference” come from. People hear my story and think that for a while I was happily married and now I’m gay, therefore it appears as a shifting, fashionable thing. But the truth is that the mystery of sexual identity is such that most people do have shifting desires, and can have a shifting sense of who they want or who they are attracted to. But we live in a world that tells you that you have to choose. A lot of that is dependent on marriage as an institution and how it is set up. But it’s not as if all heterosexual people have this vanilla marriage. They’re all doing interesting, crazy things in their marriages! But they are not walking in the world in a particular way. Who knows, if we had the freedom to walk where we want, where would we walk?
Can you talk about your experience working with allies for LGBT on campus?
Working with allies has been interesting; and our endowment came from an ally. In this case, when asked why the donor gave money, some asked if it was because he had a gay son. And he said, “Yes, I have one gay son, but I have straight children. Nobody ever asks about them.“ I think that’s a great answer, especially because that family has given other money to a whole bunch of other things on campus. No asked them, “Did you give because you are Catholic? Did you give to basketball because you are an athlete? And yet when they gave to the LGBT center, the first question was, “Did you give because you have a gay son?” And no, he said, “It’s because I believe in the work.” Getting that endowment from an ally has sent a huge message across campus, to say that everyone needs to take ownership around this issue.
I’ve worked very hard with a lot of allies, including faculty, staff, and administration. Now, we have two student workers in the center who are allies—which is amazing, and a fabulous message to send our student community. The center currently also has a full time staff member who is a heterosexual ally, and has helped model what active allyship can and should look like.
How is the climate regarding your work on campus?
I’ve not had too much open opposition, because the university leadership is very strong, and has been very supportive of the need for the center and its work. There were a lot of real power players who said this is the right thing for this campus to do. The fact that the president of the university, provost, many of the deans and vice presidents, and many, many faculty and staff, as well as Jesuits and others from campus ministries come to all of our events sends a huge message to this campus. Senior religious people in Campus Ministry have helped me talk to families through difficult circumstances and bring closure and acceptance. And that has been powerful.
Do you think the LGBT Center on campus has made a difference for other faith-based universities?
All Jesuit schools and many Catholic universities have LGBT-specific student groups. Some of the more conservative faith based institutions do not have recognized student support. Some schools, like Notre Dame, Marquette, Loyola Marymount—have started to establish full time staff presence, and/or a differently configured center to meet the needs of their campus. A two staff center with LGBTQ as a title remains something unique so far to GU. But I am hopeful that with shifting social and cultural attitudes, that the day will not be far off when most universities will provide a range of education, programs, and support for all of our communities. I do believe, however, that this may not always take the form of a single, stand alone center. It will be adapted to the local needs, and that will be a strength.