By Apphia K.
I’ve been an LGBTQ activist for more than 11 years; I started out in my hometown in India and for six of those years I was stalked, threatened, and harassed for the work I did. That pushed me to get out of India and seek asylum in the United States. That was five years ago. Over time, life has moved at an inescapable pace and I have slowly lost touch with almost all of my birth family. We text occasionally, when something exciting happens in our extended family—but otherwise we’re not really what I’d call a family anymore. With some, the distance got in the way; others intentionally moved away from me.
There are times when I catch myself thinking of my mother’s house. I think of the sound of the rain on the stone wall right outside my window, and of the wet scent of the earth. I remember the familiarity of the streets that I once belonged to, where I knew the children who played outside and the people who worked in the shops. I let myself remember what it felt like to live with my parents, my sister, my cousins, and my aunts and uncles. And then I remember that, once upon a time, I used to belong to my birth family.
My most important consideration when applying for asylum was that I would be giving up the possibility of going back to India. The idea of not being able to see my mother or my relatives scared me. How could I live without my family? I remember asking my mother what to do, and whether she would consider moving to the U.S. to live with me since I could add her to my application. She simply said that I should do what I wanted and that she didn’t want to get involved in what was happening with me. Applying as a solitary asylum seeker was possibly one of the loneliest moments I’ve ever felt.
Fast forward to three years later, I had to get out of New York. I had two choices—move to Boston or to San Francisco. When I asked Robyn Ochs (my bi mom) to help me decide, she said, “If you move here, you will already have support; if you move there, you won’t.” That night I decided to move to where I would be supported. Moving to Boston was the right decision, because here I have found people who are safe for me and I have developed intimate friendships with them.
The closest thing I can compare my current family to, the model that I’ve learned from, is the hijra community in India. Hijra communities have family structures and exist as safe havens, because hijras are often outcasts and are almost always ostracized from their birth families. My little family structure is my safe haven.
What makes our little family distinct is that we have learned to recognize how privilege and power dynamics can show up in our relationships. We understand that consent is vital to our safety and directly impacts our ability to thrive. We listen to each other, and help each other process and identify what our feelings are rooted in.
Our family consists of three of us—Nermeen, Ayana, and me. I choose not to call us “chosen” family because I believe that I was destined to find these humans and build a family together—that we were destined for each other, to be able to heal and grow together, as survivors, and as individuals.
Nermeen, our middle sibling, says that the relationships we have with each other are reflective of what it’s like in Egypt—where we can be comfortably affectionate with each other. She also says that it feels good to be able to have access to each other when we need or want to share space with someone safe, and that we can also ask for space from each other without worrying that the other will take offense. One thing she said that resonated with me was that we trust each other to show up for one another because we want to, without fear of being taken advantage of. We understand that the reason we feel safe enough to ask the other to show up for us, or even want to show up for each other is because we trust, love, and care for each other—our take on TLC.
Ayana, our youngest and wisest sibling, recognizes that each of us comes from siloed backgrounds and has managed to create a place into which we can come with our whole true selves, understanding that none of us are perfect but are trying our best. Our family has become the space within which we can make mistakes, work on learning and creating our boundaries, and figure out what we want and need in relationships. This is a space for us to learn what our growth points are, identify our strengths, and bring those strengths into our relationships so that we can learn from each other and teach each other. At the end of the day our experiences are so different from each other, and each of our lived experiences holds immense value.
Ayana says, and Nermeen and I concur, that our family is a space for us to grow and that should we exhibit harmful behavior, we trust each other to be affirming and receptive to being called in— even if we are not always in agreement. They say that there’s also the space within this family to call each other ‘out’ because our relationships do not exist to silence each other’s anger, but to see it and validate it. It is the one place that we enter simultaneously vulnerable and empowered to express our own insecurities with each other, and to see each other’s insecurities and areas of growth, even when we don’t or can’t ourselves.
The one thing on which we all vehemently agree is that with each other we have found the space to be able to talk about the loss of birth family, to relearn what it means to hold relationships where we’re not afraid of losing each other, and to trust that this is a mutually consensual relationship that we all equally and actively want.
Safe spaces aren’t guaranteed, but the one constant that I have been able to count on with my family is that we want to be safe for each other and intentionally do the work to create that space for ourselves.
Looking back, I see how far I’ve come from being my loneliest to having people I can call my own, and I am finally able to love freely, ferociously, and unconditionally without the fear of love and belonging not being reciprocated.
Author’s note: Asylum is the protection granted by a nation to a person fleeing their native country because it is no longer safe for them to continue living there.
This piece was written by Apphia K. with their siblings Nermeen & Ayana. A warrior, survivor, and the relentless voice in the room reminding it to be affirming and inclusive, Apphia aims to empower a generation for change.