Anuradha Bhagwati had a lot to get off her chest.
A Marine Corp veteran, Bhagwati found herself as an advocate, working on behalf of women and LGBTQ+ veterans through the fall of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” through hearings on sexual assault and rape in the military, and through a long-sustained period of war.
“I kind of felt like I was carrying around a lot of weight for many years,” Bhagwati, whose memoir Unbecoming, came out this spring, told Out. “Some of that is just being an activist and just feeling like everything is so heavy all the time. I burned out like so many people do, doing trauma activism, working with and for people who have been so hurt by systems that refuse to acknowledge that they hurt anyone.”
In addition to the pain of others she was carrying around, Bhagwati, a bisexual woman of color, says she was carrying around a lot of her own pain. She was assaulted as a New York City teenager and dealt with pervasive harassment through her youth. “I think it was just a part of my childhood, it was a part of the adolescence of so many young women I knew,” she said. “And I don’t remember having a conversation about any of it with anyone.”
After earning a degree at Yale and then beginning graduate school at Columbia, Bhagwati shocked her family by leaving school to join the military instead. There, she experienced both incredible empowerment in learning her strength, as well as low points in being the target of harassment. Years later, as she began working with veterans as a yoga instructor and meditation guide to help them process their PTSD and trauma seen on the battlefield, Bhagwati said she understood she needed to process her own trauma after a painful realization.
“I was very scared of my own community which is mostly male, mostly white, mostly straight. And it troubled me,” she said. “I had so much love for this community and so much fear. So I took a step back from the activism, which was the best thing I’d ever did. I decided to write and take care of myself.”
From that writing eventually came Unbecoming, which chronicles Bhagwati’s early life, her South Asian family’s history, her experiences with becoming a Marine, and then an advocate for a more inclusive military, as well as a recounting of the harassment and pain she endured throughout. Part of her memoir is her journey to become an activist and advocate through the Service Women’s Action Network, which advocates for military survivors of sexual harassment and assault. Her work with SWAN and fighting for change to the Marines’ culture to become more welcoming of women and people of color has been striking to me, about Bhagwati’s work in the space, which she accurately describes as being predominantly run by “straight, white, blonde women.”
“All of these powerful folks were white, were straight, were cis women, were from a very privileged elite class, and I was one of very few people who did not look like that,” she said. “Brown and black and queer women — we need to tell our stories.” And in telling those stories — her stories — Bhagwati unflinchingly takes to task the military, politicians, media, and other figures who perpetuate the narratives that keep women, especially those from marginalized communities, from serving freely and openly as themselves.