South Asian tour highlights queer Berkeley history

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday November 8, 2023
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Berkeley Indian American couple and community historians Anirvan Chatterjee, left, and Barnali Ghosh, creators and tour guides of the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour, hold up a copy of the India Currents 1992 article featuring Ali "Tinku" Ishtiaq and Scott Anderson's "wedding" discussing the early days of Trikone, the South Asian LGBTQ organization, and South Asian queer activism. Photo: Heather Cassell<br>
Berkeley Indian American couple and community historians Anirvan Chatterjee, left, and Barnali Ghosh, creators and tour guides of the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour, hold up a copy of the India Currents 1992 article featuring Ali "Tinku" Ishtiaq and Scott Anderson's "wedding" discussing the early days of Trikone, the South Asian LGBTQ organization, and South Asian queer activism. Photo: Heather Cassell

South Asians have called Berkeley home for more than a century, and a walking tour is helping bring stories of LGBTQs to light. The story of South Asians' relationship with the liberal East Bay city is rich and complex, but until 11 years ago, their stories — including LGBTQ South Asian Berkeleyans — were unseen, packed away in family lore, newspaper archives or photo albums.

Recently, the Bay Area Reporter joined 16 other participants on the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour for an eye-opening experience. The group learned about Indians' contributions to the city and some of the darker parts of the city's history and relationship with South Asians.

Tour creators Anirvan Chatterjee and Barnali Ghosh, an Indian American couple who are community historians, guided the group to several sites on the nearly three-hour interactive walking tour's new route in downtown Berkeley September 24. As the participants strolled through city streets and the UC Berkeley campus, they learned about the South Asian community, the challenges South Asians faced settling in the city, the freedom found by a gay Bangladeshi man to live openly, how the university inspired a key Indian activist in the fight for India's independence, and much more.

South Asia encompasses Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the British Indian Ocean Territory.

The two-mile route changed due to the Pacific Center for Human Growth's recent move to 2130 Center Street. The center's new location is conveniently located between the downtown Berkeley BART station and one of the entrances to UC Berkeley.

The Pacific Center is the oldest LGBTQ mental health and community center in the Bay Area and the third oldest in the country. It was forced to move because the Telegraph Avenue building it resided in for 50 years was sold in July 2022, as the B.A.R. previously reported.

The tour area also happens to be the epicenter of the first South Asian settlers, with 170 people calling Berkeley home in the 1920s, said Chatterjee and Ghosh, who used time during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020 to research and map the residents and businesses. The couple, who launched the tour in 2012, resumed it in 2021.

The tour is 11 years old. The couple did more research and plotted where South Asian households and businesses were in Berkeley in the 1920s during the COVID lockdown. They started the tour back up again in 2021.

Tinku's story

The Pacific Center is the first stop on the tour, where Chatterjee and Ghosh share the story of Ali "Tinku" Ishtiaq and the early days of Trikone ( It's the oldest LGBTQ South Asian organization in the world, founded in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1986.

Ghosh, an immigrant and landscape architect from Bangalore, India, said the tour always started at the LGBTQ center with Ishtiaq's story as a gay Indian activist. She told the B.A.R. in an interview after the tour that the decision to begin with Ishtiaq's story was a combination of "logistics and intention on our part."

"It worked beautifully," she said. "The story is kind of like a welcome into being an organizer and seeing what a person can do in a lifetime."

Ghosh explained that some of the stories on the tour are tragic and "involve incredible sacrifice," but Ishtiaq's story — although he has experienced some challenges in his life and as a gay activist — is a positive one. Ishtiaq was able to find the balance he strove for as a community organizer with a successful career and personal life with his family and friends.

"We need happy stories. We wanted to start with a happy story of organizing," Ghosh said. "I think then it allows people to be more open to listening to the other stories."

"Queer South Asians have been in Northern California since at least the 1910s," Chatterjee added. He said the 2012 book, "Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality and the Law in the North American West" by Nayan Shaw, was a major source of information for the couple, along with personal interviews with living subjects, like Ishtiaq, for their tour.

Ishtiaq, an immigrant from Bangladesh, came to work in Silicon Valley in the 1980s. In 1986, a flier he saw while he was entering the Pacific Center caught his eye.

"Are you South Asian and gay?" the flyer asked. It briefly explained the desire to build a network of gay South Asians. The flyer had a phone number to call with a name.

Chatterjee held up a rendition of the flyer as Ghosh told the story. Ishtiaq called the number and spoke with Arvind Kumar. They set up a time to meet with Ashok Jethanandani in the South Bay. The men hit it off as they all were gay South Asian activists and worked in technology. The three men founded Trikone.

Ishtiaq, 65, who took the tour about six years ago, told the B.A.R. that it didn't matter to him where his story was told on the tour, that was up to Chatterjee and Ghosh. What mattered to him, a gay Bangladeshi man, was that gay people are not "invisible" in the South Asian experience and that people are aware that South Asia encompasses more than Indians.

Reflecting, he said, "At that time, it was very important to identify as a gay South Asian because we were very much not a hidden minority but invisible." Visibility in the face of oppression against "gay people around the world, and particularly South Asia," was important to him.

Kumar and Jethanandani later became partners. Kumar started the now-defunct Trikone magazine (1986 to 2014) as a part of Trikone. The magazine covered LGBTQ South Asian issues and was circulated around the world in concealed packages. He also co-founded India Currents, a monthly nonprofit magazine about California Indian culture.

Ishtiaq married his now former partner, Scott Anderson, in Berkeley in 1992 long before same-sex marriage was legal. At the time, these weddings were often called commitment ceremonies. Kumar covered the ceremony in India Currents. The story was picked up by a Bengali newspaper that outed Ishtiaq in his homeland. Ishtiaq received threatening and homophobic messages. Instead of reacting with fear, the Bangladeshi turned the incident into a teachable moment.

Ishtiaq has been married for 15 years to a different man, Khosru Hooda, he told the B.A.R.

Ghosh said the couple focused on Ishtiaq's wedding to Anderson because "it transformed Tinku's life because he was exposed to the larger community.

"It's not necessarily a story about gay marriage. It's a story about something in his life that completely changed his relationship to his homeland," she said.

Ghosh also recognized the importance of same-sex marriage. While not LGBTQ themselves, Chatterjee and Ghosh switched their wedding plans from marrying at Alameda County's Clerk-Recorder's Office after learning then-mayor Gavin Newsom, who is now governor, ordered the county clerk's office to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004. The couple with their parents headed to San Francisco City Hall where they were married. Newsom's action became known as the "Winter of Love."

Chatterjee texted the B.A.R. that they changed their plans because, "We knew it was a city that would stand up for our friends and community."

"It was just very festive," Ghosh said, describing hearts scattered everywhere at City Hall and around the city. "That was really special."

Chatterjee was born in Canada. He moved to the San Francisco Bay Area with his family in the 1980s and became a U.S. citizen in the 1990s. Ghosh came to the U.S. for work in 1999. Their marriage allowed Ghosh to become a U.S. citizen. She is aware that her privilege of marrying Chatterjee was not afforded to same-sex couples in the U.S. until 2015, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality in the Obergefell v. Hodges case. (California saw same-sex marriage legalized in 2013 after the U.S. Supreme Court let stand lower courts' determination that Proposition 8, the state's same-sex marriage ban, was unconstitutional.)

India's Supreme Court recently declined to legalize same-sex marriage in the country October 16, the B.A.R. reported. Nepal and Taiwan are the only two countries in Asia that have legalized same-sex marriage.

Marriage is an important aspect of Ishtiaq's life, but his story demonstrates many facets of an activist and person's life, Ghosh told the B.A.R. Ishtiaq not only fought for LGBTQ and South Asian rights, he was also involved in other progressive movements, such as Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism, or QUIT, fighting for Palestinian human rights, and doing activism work in Nicaragua for a period, the couple told tour participants. He also returned to Bangladesh to care for his aging parents. During his years back home, he built a successful technology consulting company that he sold when he returned to Berkeley.

"Meeting Tinku showed me that sometimes it's possible to have economic stability, to be doing critical justice work, to be a caregiver, and to find love," said Chatterjee, who is a data scientist at UCSF. "Maybe not all simultaneously, but sometimes it's actually possible to do all of the above over the course of a single lifetime."

Shedding light on Berkeley South Asians

More than a decade ago, Chatterjee, 46, and Ghosh, 49, discovered the deep-rooted connection between Berkeley and South Asians. The couple, who love the city they call home, decided to share their discoveries in a walking tour designed for locals to enjoy.

It was the perfect vehicle for them as proponents of walking and public transportation to combat climate change. As travelers, the couple have been on many walking tours in other cities, from which they took inspiration. As community organizers, the couple sought to engage people — especially younger generations — in advocating for various causes.

Chatterjee and Ghosh were particularly inspired by Rome's Stalker Collective tour, they said. The eight-hour tour through Rome was designed by Romans for locals to acquaint themselves with their city's hidden past. It took participants into areas of the ancient city most tourists never see.

"The way we organize the tour is about experiencing the place you live in a new way," said Ghosh, who has an interest in cities and design. She added that Chatterjee brings his interest in history, reading, and community theater.

Interactive tour

Guests on the tour appreciated the breadth of the movements covered and the spoken word and theatrical aspects of the tour, as well as the guests' participation.

"It allowed me to get to hear and understand the history in a different way," said Gabriela Santis, a 46-year-old lesbian, who joined a friend on the tour. "It really did a good job of representing so many movements."

Berkeley resident and labor leader Kathryn Lybarger, a 56-year-old queer woman who uses she/they pronouns, also went on the tour with a friend. She said it was "super fascinating to me." Lybarger is a candidate for the open District 7 state Senate seat and is in a crowded primary race.

"I've lived in Berkeley for 23 years. It's got all kinds of radical history," she said, but the story of South Asians in Berkeley, "I hadn't seen this particular one lifted up.

"It just reinforced that ordinary people make history, that we do amazing things," Lybarger continued. "We can really change things sometimes far beyond what we intended and certainly in ways that really matter to us personally, but to so many other people.

"It also really made me appreciate Berkeley even more," she added.

Ghosh agreed with the tour's guests. "It's such a great way to learn about the place you live in." she said.

For Chatterjee, it's also about introducing people to activists working for social change in the recent past and today.

There are many "incredible activists and organizers in our communities, but if you don't know them, you don't know them," he said. "I feel like a lot of the work of our tour is about helping introduce folks to the people in places that are already here or were always here."

Ghosh added that the couple's approach to the tour and the stories is to "hold the experiences of different aspects of our community together."

Taking the tour to SF

The couple is now planning a similar tour in San Francisco. They have been developing the San Francisco South Asian Radical History Walking Tour in the city's Mission district this past year. They plan to launch the tour on the Berkeley tour's website sometime late in 2023 or in 2024, they said.

"People generally aren't thinking so much of South Asian communities" when it comes to the Mission district, Chatterjee said. "I think, as with Berkeley, South Asian people have kind of been everywhere and across a lot of different neighborhoods.

"As we walk down Valencia Street, we're talking about over a century [of] South Asian history on those streets," he continued. "It's connected to the stories we tell in Berkeley but just kind of a different aspect."

One story the couple catches up with in San Francisco is Trikone from around 2000 to 2003, said Chatterjee. They turned to their friend and longtime Mission resident, Anushka Fernandopulle, a queer meditation expert, to tell the story of Trikone's transformation from an organization providing social support for queer South Asians to an activist organization combating homophobia and Asian and Middle Eastern hate crimes after 9/11.

The B.A.R. reached out to Fernandopulle for comment but did not receive a response by press time.

Ghosh added that they also talk about Yoni Ki Baat, the South Asian women's version of Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues," produced by South Asian Sisters, a women's group that includes some members from Women of Trikone, the women's arm of the organization. Some members helped organize the theatrical event.

"Anushka's just been incredible in terms of allowing us to use some of her story on this tour," said Chatterjee who said they are telling the story of queer culture and movement organizing through individuals' stories. "We've been really very lucky to have individuals be willing to let us talk about a larger story but through them."

The Berkeley tours are offered twice a month, but not on set weekends. Tickets are $20 per person. For updates and announcements, subscribe to the newsletter on the tour's website, or follow the tour on Facebook or Instagram. After operational costs, an estimated 90% of the tour's proceeds are donated to various local organizations.

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