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Sikh leader’s anti-gay remarks ignite furore

Controversy highlights divisions in the queer community

FEELING PIGEONHOLED. 'To paint everybody within that religion or within a community with the same brush is very dangerous and very shortsighted,' says Fatima Jaffer. Credit: Photo courtesy of Fatima Jaffer

Homophobic remarks attributed to Sikh leader Balwant Singh Gill in The Vancouver Sun have unleashed a firestorm within the queer community, spotlighting divisions between those who say homophobia is the primary issue and others more focused on what they consider the racist response to Gill’s comments.

The Sun’s Dec 15 story, “Canada’s Changing Moral Landscape,” quotes Gill as saying: “I hate homosexuality. Most Sikhs believe homosexuality is unnatural and you can’t produce kids through it. And, secondarily, no major religion allows it.”

The article, which refers to Gill as “the spokesperson for 39 Sikh temples in BC” examines the question of whether new immigrants are “changing the face of what’s considered right and wrong” in Canada.

In an email circulated on the same day the Sun article ran, queer activist Jamie Lee Hamilton says Gill’s comments are “truly offensive and must be rejected.” She calls for him to step down as a Sikh temple spokesperson.

She also urges every Sikh temple associated with Gill to offer “an apology to Vancouver’s well respected GLBT community.” Hamilton further calls on the Vancouver Police Department and RCMP to investigate Gill for “directing hate toward the gay community.”

In the uproar following publication of his remarks, Gill issued an apology on CBC’s The Early Edition Dec 17.

A day later, gay activist Kevin Dale McKeown described Gill’s original comments as “a wake-up call to the queer community to recognize that other marginalized minorities are not automatically our friends and allies.”

McKeown goes on to say, “if that minority holds devoutly and literally to just about any religious creed, be it Sikhism, Islam, Christianity or Judaism, the odds are that they are not only not our friends, but are in fact a very real threat to our own rights and freedoms.”

Trikone Vancouver’s Fatima Jaffer, who calls Gill’s comments “completely reprehensible,” says she understands that a lot of people in the queer community have been “hurt by religion” but feels statements like McKeown’s are not helpful.

“To paint everybody within that religion or within a community with the same brush is very dangerous and very shortsighted because we too are a minority community as gays and lesbians,” says Jaffer.

“It’s very scary when somebody from a minority then advocates this kind of across-the-board generalization of another minority community,” Jaffer contends. “We shouldn’t be playing into reactionary kind of politics. I think that if there was something that was learnt from being a minority it’s to have compassion.”

Jaffer and others like Salaam Vancouver spokesperson Imtiaz Popat are quick to point out that the South Asian media have also taken Gill to task for his statements. Popat says he’s very encouraged by the support.

“There have been editorials condemning his words on Channel M Punjabi News, Radio India and on [the] Bulland Awaaz programme on Co-op Radio. We’ve never had this kind of support from the South Asian media,” he notes.

“The work we’ve done with them has moved us forward in a huge way,” Popat continues. “We now have solid support in the South Asian media to fight homophobia in the community.”

McKeown says it’s not enough. He wants a formal apology from Gill “on behalf of himself and the groups he purports to represent.”

He also wants an “acknowledgement that the Sikh community has work to do to eradicate the homophobic intolerance that is part of their cultural construct.”

Homophobia in the Sikh community has “negatively impacted the larger queer community and the gay, lesbian and transgendered members of the South Asian community,” McKeown claims. He wants “a commitment to work with queer South Asians and the wider GLBT community towards the elimination of such homophobia wherever it is found.”

For his part, Popat feels that not only homophobia but racism has been a major factor shaping both the fiery debate in the wake of Gill’s comments and the Sun story in which they appeared.

Popat questions the framing of the Sun story. Among the concerns raised in the article is whether immigrants are “the main reason British Columbians are losing their reputation as morally easy-going and freedom-loving.” The story also states that foreign-born residents are “much more inclined than longtime residents to be strict moralists.”

Sun managing editor Kirk LaPointe won’t discuss Popat’s concerns with Xtra West but says he would be happy to discuss them with Popat directly.

LaPointe says the Sun was doing its public duty and acting in its readers’ interests by publishing the story. “We thought it was of public interest when someone expresses things to have the public understand that.”

“I don’t hate anybody,” says Balwant Singh Gill in an interview with Xtra West. “I already spoke on CBC radio on the 17th of December, the early morning show, and I apologized if anyone got hurt because of those comments. I do apologize if anybody [was] offended by my comments, but my comments [weren’t] like that,” says Gill.

Popat also expressed concern about the timing of a queer community forum called to discuss Gill’s statements. First scheduled for Dec 20 — the same day of Eid-ul-Adha, a major festival in the Muslim calendar — the forum was postponed to Dec 21 so as not to conflict with the religious day.

Hamilton says she organized the forum (held as Xtra West went to press) to bring together GLBT community leaders to develop a strategic action plan in response to Gill’s anti-gay remarks.