The 17 members of Sher and their allies are smiling as they get ready to walk in Vancouver’s Vaisakhi parade on April 15, 2017. Their participation in this year’s Sikh New Year celebration marks a historic moment. It’s the first time that organizers know of an LGBT South Asian group being invited to join the parade.
Tears well up in Kayden’s eyes as he embraces another Sher member. A college student in computer science in Vancouver, Kayden (whose real name Xtra agreed not to publish to protect his identity) was born Sikh in Punjab, India. He says his parents disowned him after he came out last fall. He was cut off financially and thrown out of the Surrey home where he was staying with relatives, and beaten by a cousin, he tells Xtra.
Kayden says he reached out for help but found none until, desperate, he emailed Alex Sangha, Sher’s founder, through the group’s website. Sher, an LGBT support group for South Asian people founded in 2008, helped Kayden find a temporary residence and started a crowdfunding page for his tuition.
The pain is still raw, but the invitation to participate in the Vaisakhi parade helps, Kayden says. “There are people who are accepting of who we are and how we feel. It’s just one step forward for me. I feel grateful and it’s definitely emotional.”
Sangha calls Sher’s open presence at Vaisakhi a first and says he’s not aware of LGBT South Asian groups participating in Sikh celebrations like this one elsewhere in the world.
Sangha was invited to bring Sher to this year’s Vaisakhi parade by the Khalsa Diwan Society, which operates the gurdwara on Ross Street, one of the largest Sikh temples in North America.
Pall Singh Beesla, outreach coordinator for the gurdwara, told the Georgia Straight in March that he reached out to Sher because love and compassion for all people is a key component of the Sikh faith.
“Our faith teaches us to fight against injustice, very boldly and courageously,” he told the Straight.
Xtra contacted Beesla after the parade to ask how it went, but he declined to comment further, replying only by email to say, “Vaisakhi is an inclusive event open to all.”
Sangha says Beesla’s invitation, though historic, required navigating public opinion cautiously.
Sangha opted for a subdued presence in this year’s parade. Tucked in discreetly between a marching band and a huge semi truck with a colourful flatbed float, the 17 Sher marchers wore black shirts with the group’s pink logo visible underneath their jackets. They carried no banner (Sangha says he wanted to bring it, but it was dirty).
“Even though there is nothing homophobic in the Sikh culture or the Sikh bible, the culture hasn’t caught up to that,” he says.
“Change is baby steps, if you’re yelling and screaming in their face a lot of people get their backs up,” he explains. “We didn’t want to alienate ourselves, or otherwise it never happens again. Different groups take different approaches, but we decided to do it this way.”
Sher marched only the Marine Drive portion of the six-hour parade route, from the temple at Ross Street to Main Street at 63rd Avenue (a 19-minute walk according to Google Maps), missing the vast majority of onlookers and tents on the more pedestrian-friendly Main Street where the festival was concentrated.
Along the way on Marine Drive, several community members approached Sangha to congratulate him, and some walked partway with the group. One event photographer noticeably stopped shooting when Sher walked by, then resumed once they passed. Otherwise, the group saw no aggression or open disapproval.
“There’s support for us in the Sikh temple but I don’t know if it’s 100 percent support,” Sangha says. “I’m not sure how we’re going to go forward, but this is one step.”
“There are many areas where we can work together to reduce suicidal ideation, depression, educate our community about HIV and STDs,” he suggests. “There are a lot of areas the Sikh temple can partner with us to promote the health and wellbeing of the community.”
Sangha says the media attention on Sher’s participation and the fact they were invited by an influential gurdwara has meaning for queer Sikhs, even in India where the Supreme Court in 2013 reversed an earlier ruling decriminalizing same-sex relations. The court said it was up to the government to decriminalize, not the courts, but the government has yet to act.
“If gay Sikhs can march in Vancouver, this gives hope to people in India. We can set an example and be role models,” he suggests.
But one Sikh queer activist, who asked to remain anonymous for safety concerns, says the anti-gay Indian government benefits from shows of acceptance by influential gurdwaras in countries like Canada.
“Our concern is that there is some pinkwashing going on,” the activist told Xtra, suggesting that both the gurdwara and the Indian government might benefit from progressive-seeming distractions.
But Jaspal Sangha, Alex’s mother, says she feels grateful to the gurdwara for being a leader in following the true tenets of Sikhism.
“Just one father is the supreme soul, God, and we are all the children, in humanity we are all brothers and sisters with many paths to the destination. This is the message from Guru and now, they practice on it,” she says.
For her, seeing her son feel equal to the rest of the congregation was a moment long overdue.
“I’m feeling so happy and comfortable and peaceful,” she says. “I was kind of worried about how people might react, but it took 25 years for me to go through that type of life with my son and finally we accept him like we do all the other congregation. It’s a very big personal achievement for me that they see my son and he is recognized.”