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Diwali

‘We need to be celebrated’: Joy takes center stage at trans queer Diwali event

on November 6, 2022

Anjali Rimi is unapologetic about stepping into the light. And as the co-founder of Parivar Bay Area — a transgender-led, transgender-centering South Asian organization — she makes space for others to join her.

On Saturday evening, Parivar hosted a joyous and informative Diwali celebration at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. Rooted in India but widely celebrated in the diaspora around the world, Diwali symbolizes the victory of light over darkness.

Diwali’s significance was not lost on the audience of about 80, many who identified as LGBTQ and have experienced discrimination. Rimi said she has received death threats for her work leading Parivar. But it has not stopped her.

“Diwali is one festival, but we need to be in every festival. We need to be celebrated,” Rimi said to the crowd. “We are transgender people who’ve gone through a lot and we have legends in this room. And I really want to uplift each one of you.”

Diwali
Photos from Save India Trans All Lives (SITAL), Parivar’s COVID-19 relief program, and information about the Trans Survey were on every table. (Celeste Hamilton Dennis)

Parivar, which translates to “family” in Hindi, serves 700 people in the Bay Area with a little under half identifying as transgender. Arts advocacy has been integral to their work, and the organization has hosted over 100 events since its founding four years ago. Peppered throughout the evening were vibrant dance performances from queer and transgender South Asian artists that met with enthusiastic response.  

Rimi and her co-host, Devesh Radhakrishnan, a board member at Parivar, also encouraged everyone to vote as well as fill out the U.S. Trans Survey. A volunteer was on hand with digital notepads to help people complete the largest survey of transgender people, by transgender people, in the country. 

For Aishani Majumdar, attending Diwali makes her feel loved and safe. She emigrated from India almost a decade ago to transition and first saw Rimi talking about her journey at San Francisco Pride while wearing a sari. Until that point, she’d never seen queer and South Asian intersecting. 

“This is a home for me to marry my two identities,” Majumdar said. “I needed to celebrate.”

In India, hijras (or kinnar) are a third gender that include transgender and intersex people. Seen as bearers of luck and fertility in ancient Hindu texts, hijras were respected spiritual figures until British colonial rule criminalized anyone who didn’t confine to the gender binary. Now hijras occupy an ambivalent space in India. While they are invited to bless community celebrations, many are relegated to the literal and figurative margins.

We’ve never been able to get back the same equality, respect, justice and inclusion,” said Rimi, who identifies as hijra/kinnar. ”That’s what we’re fighting for.”

Diwali
The garba dance, a traditional Indian folk dance that celebrates the feminine divinity, at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. (Celeste Hamilton Dennis)

In Oakland, voices from India were brought into the space through videos. Parivar launched a COVID-19 relief effort during the pandemic that not only distributed food and health kits to the hijra community, but also helped with economic independence. To date, the organization has supported the launch of 22 businesses that sell everything from cakes and coffee to saris and other clothing. 

Varun Pattabhiraman grew up in India and didn’t have a lot of exposure to the transgender community. He came to the event to learn about different journeys other than his own queer experience.

“We only have these spaces when we create them ourselves,” he said. “At the very least, we need to show up.”

At the end, Rimi invited the performers on stage and encouraged the audience to join them. “Come be in the light,” somebody yelled. One-by-one people walked into the glow and some held hands.

“This is why we do the work,” Rimi said, “to make sure no one else has to go through what we go through.”

Diwali
Anjali Rimi (far left) with performers and community members at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. (Celeste Hamilton Dennis)

This story was updated to correct Devesh Radhakrishnan’s position.

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