You would be forgiven for thinking that being born and raised in the UK would make it somewhat easier for a turbaned man (Sardar) to be openly queer. And you would be forgiven for thinking that the Indian diaspora in the UK is more open to and accepting of LGBTIQ+ people. We’re supposed to integrate, right? Well I certainly wish it had been true when I was growing up!
In fear of losing their identity, or seeing it diluted, 1st and 2nd generation diaspora Punjabis have held on tight to their culture and traditions. So much so, that it becomes suffocating. It leaves you feeling that you only have one choice: conform or be ridiculed. Please don’t get me wrong, Punjabi culture is amazingly beautiful: our traditions, our music, our community solidarity and spirit, our food; I could go on. But it also has a regressive and ugly side, rooted in patriarchy, misogyny and toxic masculinity. Like a disease, our culture’s obsession with manliness can easily spread to every corner of your soul and identity, and kill your authentic self.
I was born to a 1st generation working class Indian Sikh migrant family, in the early 80s. I was always the weird eccentric child in my family, and still am! I love theatre, dance, music, fashion, the arts; I was never into football, rugby or cricket like the other boys. Instead, I waited for my parents to be out to practice dance moves in front of the living room mirror and snuck off to dance classes without telling them. As a child, people outside my community would confuse me for a girl, because of my feminine mannerisms or because I was not, in their view, a typical boy. Within my own community, I would often hear that I should have been born a girl, inferring that girls are inferior, and because I behaved like one I was inferior too. I would swallow this up and internalize it, to the extent that it became ingrained in me. To stop the bullying, I “manned” up by behaving like a real boy and this performed masculinity became my shield.
I grew up at a time when homophobia was rife both in the British and Punjabi communities: in fact, the word gay in Punjabi was hardly ever heard, because, like many things that were thought to be shameful, it was never discussed. I was about 13 when I became aware that I was attracted to men. When I realized these feelings had a name, I didn’t want to be gay. The worst thing for me, really, was that I continued to deny myself, even though I knew I was gay. I kept on telling myself I couldn’t be, nor was I allowed to be. And when I did make attempts to explore my sexuality, I constantly looked over my shoulder in fear of getting caught or someone finding out.
Yet, my first experience of discrimination wasn’t because of my sexuality, but because of my race, ethnicity and faith. These parts of me are visible: I can’t hide them like I can my sexuality. I remember as a child being told to “go back to where you belong” or “Paki go home!” I recall one incident in particular: one day when I was returning home from playing in the park, someone pulled off my turban: I felt so violated and ashamed, as if it were my fault for being Indian, of colour, for being a Sikh boy with a turban.
Growing up, I always wanted to be white, straight, blonde haired and blue eyed. The opposite of everything I was. I did not want to be a long haired turban wearing Sikh. I celebrated Christmas and Easter, spoke in a certain way, listened to British Pop music, and had white friends. Fellow members of my community branded me “a coconut” or a “bounty chocolate bar” – brown on the outside and white inside. It was a constant internal identity battle, between who I really was and who I was told to be. This feeling of shame of who and what I was was amplified by feeling guilty for being ashamed. After all, my community tells us that we should be proud of our identity and of who we are. I really didn’t fit in anywhere, too brown or Indian for my white friends, and not brown or Indian enough for my friends of colour.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though! It does get better.
I moved away from home and finally gave myself the freedom to explore my sexuality. Armed to the brim with toxic masculinity: misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic and repressing my emotions, I stepped out into the queer community! I thought I had come into my own: I had accepted being gay and was out amongst close friends. However, I was still struggling with deep levels of internalized homophobia. I would cloak my sexuality by dialling up my masculinity; I would pride myself on passing as straight; and I would avoid befriending very feminine men. Deep down inside, I still wasn’t OK with being gay.
The thing is, being an Indian man of colour wearing a turban, I faced, and still do, a lot or racism and stereotypes within the gay community. I would be asked questions like: ‘What’s under your turban?’ My turban and long hair, and the colour of my skin, would attract opposite reactions: either hypersexualised, or considered not attractive at all. I was living in the middle of these two parallel universes, constantly pushed from one to the other. There is a sort of a standard of what gay men should look like and you need to fit in: I don’t. In addition, I would also get asked questions like “Can Sikhs be gay?” or “Are you allowed to be gay?” As if I needed permission and a signed consent form from my local Gurudwara (Sikh Temple) to be whom I really am. All of me seemed to be questioned and policed: my right to be gay but also my faith.
I was my own worse enemy too. Policing myself and my internalised homophobia impacted my relationships. It wasn’t until I plucked up the courage to see a psychologist and face my demons that things started to get better. For a long time, I had refused to even consider seeking help, because I kept on telling myself “real Punjabi Sikh men don’t do that” and “real Punjabi Sikh men sort their own problems out!” But seeking help was the beginning of the making of me: my psychologist helped me unpick and unlearn all that hate and homophobia I had internalised.
This key chapter in my life helped me take the next daring step and I started to work and advocate for LGBTI+ rights. The great thing about it is that it has helped me with my own journey, by teaching me about the various parts of my identity and surprisingly bringing me closer to Sikhism. You will often hear LGBTI+ people talk about sexuality and gender identity being on a spectrum, and that they are fluid and living. Taking this conceptual framework and applying it to other aspects of who I am, my faith, my race, my ethnicity, helped me realise that, like my sexuality and gender identity, they too are living and not fixed in one place in time, and that I don’t have to be either brown or white, Indian or British. This reminded me of what Sikhism has taught me, that Waheguru (God) lives and vibrates within all of us, including me. And that vibration includes those parts of my identity, my sexuality, my race, my ethnicity, my faith, my gender: they expand and contract.
As we celebrate the 550th Gurpurab (Anniversary) of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, let us remember what he said, “Nanak, what is truly great, is to know Yourself.” For me, it really IS great to know myself, but it is even greater to accept who I am, in all my dimensions.