LGBT Sikhs took part in London pride 2015 under the banner of Sarbat, a social and support group for LGBT Sikhs in UK, and were cheered on by the crowd with hugs and claps. This was the third time that Sarbat was taking part in London Pride.
Sarbat is a self-funded UK based support group for LGBT Sikhs and started its journey in 2007. Sarbat, meaning all (of mankind), derives its name from the final line of the Ardas (the congregational Prayer of Supplication) where Sikhs pray for the happiness and goodwill of the whole of mankind. “LGBT Sikhs form part of that mankind for whom prayers are given on a daily basis, and we do not consider ourselves to be distinct from the Sikh faith solely because of our sexuality,” the group states. However they describe themselves as a “mixture of both practising and non-practising Sikhs” and mention that they “are not a wholly religious group but share common Sikh values.”
The Sikh community in the UK, with its south-Asian roots, still holds on to many South Asian biases and prejudices, and it becomes difficult for LGBT South Asians to come out or find support amongst the community. Add to this that there aren’t enough resources for the family members of the LGBT Sikh/Punjabi community in the UK and in India such as literature etc., making it difficult for them to deal with the issue. “LGBT issues are very complex and cultural background plays a significant role, it is very hard to change the Punjabi ‘Macho’ mind-set, but ultimately it’s about perseverance and visibility- Perseverance to challenge the rigid mind-set, and visibility to start the discussion in the community,” tells Pawan Singh, a member of Sarbat. He also points out how the “loog kya kaheinge” (what will the society say) fear among south Asians plays a major hindrance. “Most South Asian communities live under the ‘what the neighbours will say/ Samaj’ fear, so even where they sympathise with the gay community they rather not have this as their own problem.”
Sarbat has been working towards generating more resources for LGBT Sikhs, and on its website and through it pamphlets, it highlights how Sikhism and its principles aren’t opposed to homosexuality. The forums on its websites have multiple threads that discuss spirituality, Sikhism, sexuality, coming out etc. Its pamphlets too stress the fact that the Ten Gurus of the religion laid emphasis on equality. “Discriminating against people or groups, including the gay community, would be going against Sikh teachings. Any form of prejudice is not tolerated in Sikhism,” the pamphlet reads. They also point out that “there is nothing in the Holy Scriptures that states that marriage must be between a man and a woman.”
The work undertaken by the group in the past 8 years has led to greater awareness that challenges homophobia within the South-Asian community these days. Recently, when a senior member of the Sikh community challenged same sex marriage in the UK parliament, a MP responded by giving a reference of the group and challenged his opinion. Singh cites this example and stresses the important of similar groups, “Under the overarching South Asian quest for LGBT rights, it’s very important that there are groups that represent the demographic and culture diversity of south Asian community.”
Sarbat though doesn’t see itself as only a British group, as they say that Sikhs are in every part of the world. They are also looking forward to working with local groups in India and listen to their stories and challenges. They expressed their disappointment at the re-criminalization of homosexuality and the subsequent anti-gay stand taken by the Indian Government at the United Nations, where it sided with nations such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to oppose benefits for same-sex couples. “We want everyone to engage within their local communities and fight for the Sikh LGBT cause, we can’t do it all by ourselves. The time has come when there shouldn’t be any awkwardness or taboo attached to discussing LGBT issues in our communities,” tells Mr. Singh.
In the near future, they plan to address mental health issues faced by LGBT Sikhs and the lack of support to unsuspecting girls who get married to gay men. “Many of our members have suffered depression because of non-acceptance by their family or by living a false Bisexual identity. Also, there is no support for girls who get married to gay men and are trapped in love-less relationships,” he mentions.
It is a long struggle that the group has embarked upon, and they realise that religious institutions aren’t the best place to seek support for such a cause. But they haven’t lost hope. “Religious institutions are not going to help us and we have little hope from the Government in India –but if people in catholic Ireland can do it; then we can do it,” Pawan says.
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