5 min

Balwant Singh Gill: the aftermath

A victory for South Asian queers

Fatima Jaffer

I grew up thinking only white people could be lesbian or gay, and I felt damn lucky to have my culture. Were I to come out, I feared I’d have to give it up and be lost forever.

Then I moved to Vancouver in my late 20s, met my first out South Asian lesbian, and came out. I didn’t lose my culture, I gained another. LGBT community.

I’m tempted to add, “And I haven’t looked back since.” But I have and do. I look back to how the invisibility of queers of colour had kept me in my closet and how suicidal I had felt.

I remember the pain and fear of coming out to family, friends and community. I also remember being told, “You’re in the wrong place, dear. This is a queer bar,” at a gay bar on Davie I’d stop at for a drink.

I’ve been back to my hometown. Amazingly, it seems I grew up in a place, nicknamed in tourist literature, “Africa’s gay capital.” Why had I not seen it then?

I’ve learned homosexuality, especially lesbianism, in South Asian cultures dates back centuries and centuries. Archeological research proves it.

Incidentally, it also proved the first culture to practice mouth-on-mouth kissing in what’s now called India. Ironic that Bollywood movies hide kissing couples behind trees and flowers because to show full-on, mouth-on-mouth kissing is considered “Western” and “un-Indian.”

The more I uncover, the more I realize much of the history I’ve known is lies we’re told. To help uncover the lies, to make it more possible for South Asian LGBTs to come out without losing our cultures, a lesbian, a gay man and transgendered F2M founded a group in 2005 for South Asian queers called Trikone Vancouver. Now 100-members strong, we’ve been working at raising our visibility, both in straight South Asian societies and within the LGBT one.

In 25 years of activism in Vancouver, and three years of Trikone’s existence, I haven’t seen the fruits of those labours quite the way as I have in the aftermath of homophobic remarks by a South Asian that were published in the Vancouver Sun Dec 15th.

Read as a whole, the Sun’s story is familiar immigrant-bashing. It begins with Balwant Singh Gill saying he hates homosexuality. This leader of temples goes on to suggest most Sikhs feel the same way, and that homosexuality is counter to Sikhism, the dominant religion of Punjab. Homosexuality is not mentioned in sacred texts so how can it be outlawed?

The immigrant-bashing tone of the article isn’t new. Nor were the blatant sentiments against homosexuality. Not for those of us who’ve been challenging comments and attitudes like this in the South Asian community for years.

Another dimension sadly not new was that, by couching Gill’s obviously hurtful homophobic comments in an attack on Vancouver’s immigrant populations, it put those of us who belong to both immigrant and LGBT communities in a tough spot.

I believe it also put LGBTs, who recognized the racist trap, in a bind. For many of us the question was how to condemn Gill’s homophobia without playing into the racism surrounding the story? How to foil the attempt to pit minority groups against each other?

Because so many in the LGBT community did not shy away from addressing the complexities, we turned it all around. Condemnation by prominent LGBT community members was swift. Better still, for the most part, it was thoughtful.

Many took pains to ensure their anger could not be construed as directed against the entire Punjabi community but at the man who’d uttered the homophobic comments themselves. And anyone who stood with him. But no one did.

There were, of course, voices in the LGBT community that didn’t reflect that level of consideration, that portrayed the entire community as culpable. But they were in the minority as never before.

What’s also noteworthy is that the South Asian broadcast media came on board. It flew in the face of everything The Sun had told us in their article about what the South Asian community is.

The media tracked down Trikoners for interviews on key radio stations, including the hugely popular All-India Radio. I came out on Punjabi News in a 10-minute story, which also featured former NPA city councillor Alan Herbert.

Broadcast media being the most popular in our community, the coverage carried the story into the living rooms of almost every South Asian household in the Lower Mainland. It blew the door off the closet for South Asian queers!

Imagine watching TV and finding out you’re not the only one? Hearing parents on call-in radio vow to stick by their children if they came out as gay? There were lots of hateful calls too, but homosexuality in the South Asian community has been outed and there’s no going back.

As a South Asian lesbian, as a member of Trikone, that to me is the real achievement.

The blitz of publicity, the unequivocal condemnation of Gill by LGBTs of all races and political leanings, the unrelenting coverage by progressive South Asian media, forced Gill, within a couple of days, to back down.

He apologized publicly on CBC, followed by apologies on all major South Asian broadcast stations. In an unprecedented and progressive twist made possible, I believe, by the thoughtful way the issue was addressed for the most part by LGBT spokespeople, Punjabi News accused Gill of insincerity and called on the community to stand up to the homophobes within it.

Our victory was complete.

Gill’s apology may have been hollow, just as Stephen Harper’s Conservative apologies often are. And Gill may still harbour homophobic beliefs. But he’ll think twice about using his standing to spew them.

The world feels a little safer today. And it’s kudos to an LGBT community that came together, despite The Sun’s attempts at divisiveness.

The story could end here but, as most of us know, there’s a price to pay for speaking out and my story would be incomplete without mentioning consequences.

The last time I’d spoken out on Punjabi News, it had been on the issue of same-sex marriage. I’d received phone calls from strangers telling me off, and rebukes about betraying my “culture” from people at the grocery and video stores I frequent in South Asian neighbourhoods.

On an unavoidable errand, shortly after the Punjabi News story aired, I reluctantly ventured into some of these stores, expecting the worst. I was thanked. I was asked questions about being a lesbian. I was not called names. I was not an outsider. It’s almost anti-climatic, but I’m not complaining.

As for phone calls from strangers, one stands out. It came from a stranger, a white gay man I knew of. A gay rights activist in the ’80s and early ’90s, he’d retreated from public life for over a decade. He said he’d felt compelled to look up my phone number, to call to tell me that he is concerned I may not feel supported by the LGBT community. He wanted me to know that “things have changed” — that in all his circles “no one’s painting all South Asians with the same brush. We get it. We really do!”

I think about that call when I’m accused, by a few LGBTs, of going soft on Gill for his homophobic comment because I also dared lambaste The Vancouver Sun for its anti-immigrant story slant.

I no longer think saying LGBT community implies we are of one mind. A community is a community when it encompasses the many communities within it. What happened in December tells me we’ve come a long way towards being one for Trikoners.