New York has given me that Refuge
In this film, refugee South Asian LGBTQ+ activist Barbara Khan talks about her migration from Pakistan and her life in New York as a trans woman.
Do you still have contact to your family at home? Have you been back ever?
It’s a very interesting question. I spoke to my dad… he passed away with COVID in 2021 in Pakistan. I have only spoken to him once in the 27 years that I’ve been here. This was the conversation, I clearly remember. He said: Barbara, how are you? I said: I’m good. He said: Did you finish your education? Do you understand that you have to make money and buy a house? I hope your health is fine, here talk to your mom. And that was the whole conversation. This is before I started my transition from male to female.
As soon as I started the transition (my cousin, who got me the job, he used to work with me, he still actually works in the same pharmacy) he kind of outed me to my father, to my stepmother and to my sisters – I have three younger sisters – which I think at this point in my life was kind of… I felt betrayed, I felt angry, I felt upset. But at this point I felt like: Thank God, he did that. I didn’t have to go through the whole process of, you know, coming out and stuff. I kept in touch with my stepmother, my 3 sisters – I’m very, very close to them. There was a time from maybe 2001 till maybe 2014 when I went through the initial stages from 2001 of transitioning when I kind of stopped talking to them. Also, there was a point in 2007 or 2008 when my youngest sister was getting married and to see the pictures – wedding is a big issue in Pakistan and India – to see the pictures of her getting married, I joined Facebook, and I wanted not to become her Facebook- friend particularly but wanted to become my middle sister’s Facebook- friend so I could see the pictures through her profile. I love her to death, she’s my sister. And I guess this was her way off saying that she did love me, but the fact that the family could not have dealt with me transitioning. She wrote me a really cute, sweet note…She said: B, (she started calling me B. because I changed my name from Barber to Barbara) I love you so much and I care so much for you and I cannot be your friend on Facebook because our younger sister is getting married and if the family, her in-laws get a whiff of the news that our only brother or son is transitioning they might cancel the wedding.
I kind of felt that she was right. But I couldn’t help myself and I cried all night. And at that point, I felt like: OK, you know what? I can’t go back. To answer your question, I’ve never been back to Pakistan. I do have a big family. All my life here I had this dream, which I would say is a nightmare, that I go back to Pakistan to give my father or family a surprise. So there were two scenarios: 1) That I go in, (and he was a heart patient, my father) and he dies with a stroke; or 2) he comes out with a gun, you know, that big loaded gun which goes like this and he shoots me and I’m dead. And the third nightmare, which always is kind of like a recurring dream, is that I go back and what he does is that he burns my American passport and forcibly gets me married to a woman. So, this was the solution to someone who comes out in a country like Pakistan, or even in India, I would say in a conservative family. And knowing that you know there’s nothing wrong with the male child physically, but what they don’t understand is that you have to mentally be able to say that you are either a cis-gender person or you are queer. They don’t understand. To them there has to be something wrong with you physically, for you to transition or become a female transwoman. Or if you are a female, to become a male, transmale, there has to be something physically going on. These recurring dreams are always haunting me. So, I never went back.
So, there’s no feeling of homesickness or do you feel homesick?
I never felt homesick. The trauma of the childhood, not having a mother, not having someone to go to and be able to tell them what was going on in my heart and my brain. I felt like throughout my life, even as I came here, I felt like I am alone, and I have to grow into myself where I can stand and say: I’m going to be fine. I know I’m in a new country. I know it’s exciting, but it’s kind of nerve wracking at the same time. But all I have to do is to do it on my own. And I guess that the whole pressure of being on my own, just having my friends, kind of triggered me to attempt a suicide. Thank God I am still here, otherwise I would not have experienced, would not have seen the kind of support, that kind of acceptance transwomen, transmen, queer folks are getting now. If you would have told me in 2005: Barbara, you know what, there will be a time in 15-17 years where there will be women like Laverne Cox or Janet Mock, Dominique Jacks and they would be in a show portraying strong, crazy, beautiful transwomen. I would have said: Are you crazy? But it’s a journey.
This is connected, I guess, to the question of identity. But we could also talk about New York City as your home, right? So, there’s no reason to be homesick for a country that never was your home, right?
Exactly. I basically felt safe. In 1997, I found this tiny little studio for $600 and I felt like a grown person. I bought my first futon for $75 and that was the only piece of furniture in that one room-apartment I had, and I was ecstatic. I felt like I have made it. I felt like: This is mine and nobody can take this away from me. I still get goosebumps. It was hard. It was hard for 21–22-year-old person who has just gotten an asylum from a country, who was still scared that. What if my father sends somebody here to maybe kidnap me and bring me back or my cousin could have done the same thing? I can tell myself that everything’s going to be OK. When you put this fear in a kid’s heart, it’s really hard…I’ve been through therapy all my life and I felt like even though you’re working towards the goal of being mentally stable, that fear you can’t take out. You can’t.
Is your mother tongue something that you could sustain? Do you speak your mother tongue often or did you leave that behind?
Oh, yes. I speak Urdu, which is from Pakistan. I don’t know if you know this, that even though I’m from Pakistan, my own mom was from India, she migrated to Pakistan, met my father. I don’t know because of that or because of the fact that, Indian movies were a huge influence on Pakistani kids especially my generation – I’ve been born in 1975 – I basically grew up watching Indian movies and those Bollywood romances. Because my parents divorced and I didn’t have my mother I always thought, I’m going to go to America and find myself a white man, get married, adopt two kids, adopt two dogs, and live happily ever after. My friends laughed. And the funniest part is, now I majorly date men of color. So, they make fun of me, like: Barbara, you never achieved your dreams of coming to America and finding your knight in shining armor, who’s supposed to be Caucasian.
Barbara Khan was born in Pakistan. She came to New York City on a tourist visa in the 1990s and filed for asylum on the basis of her sexual orientation. She is South Asian LGBTQ+ activist and came to consciousness as a trans in New York since her flight to the United States.
Interview conducted by the We Refugees Archive team with Barbara Khan in the spring of 2022. The interview was edited for length and clarity.