Emergence: Out of Shadows: Why did Alex find Sher Vancouver? He had come out and was accepted by at least his mother, though still shunned by the community.
From being considered a disgrace and embarrassment to the community; from being intimidated and threatened by the community and from being a target of hate mail to being a respected speaker at the same Sikh temple which had first threatened and warned him, Alex Sangha has come a long way since 2008, when I first met him.
Fifteen years later and as Pride month of June is being celebrated around the world, I decided to meet up with him again to find out how his journey has been since he came out openly as gay. Though today he has become a well-respected member of the South Asian community, his journey has not been easy. It has been filled with acrimony, hostility, threats and intimidation. His mother has been his biggest supporter while for his dad, he is an embarrassment. “My father says that he loves me as his son but I don’t appreciate your lifestyle. He feels ashamed of me. According to him coming out is nothing to celebrate. It is embarrassing for the community. It brings shame to the family. Society telling him to be a gay brown guy like myself is not a good thing. ”
“I don’t expect my father to turn around and say I love your homosexuality. This is not going to happen. It is going to take him years to come to terms with it, as it is a direct challenge to his masculinity. For, he is my creator. He is my father,” he says in his award-winning film Emergence: Out of the Shadows.
Shunned by his community
Despite surmounting obstacles, Alex forged ahead and achieved remarkable milestones. “I wasn’t expecting it to have the kind of impact I did on the community. When I first started Sher Vancouver, it was a Sikh group and we were getting a lot of backlash. People told me – you are not a Sikh, you are a disgrace to the community, and you are embarrassing the community etc. A major Sikh temple, the Khalsa Diwan Society in Vancouver told me “There is no such thing as being gay and being Sikh”. I was getting hate mail from all over the world, even to the extent of threatening my life. I went to the Sikh temple and prayed so I get the support I need to continue my journey. I needed to be mentally strong. People like me in our community were at risk. There is significant taboo and discrimination if you are queer among South Asian people, especially in our community.”
Garnering courage from the support group
Why did Alex find Sher Vancouver? He had come out and was accepted by at least his mother, though still shunned by the community. A God-fearing person, he was looking for support and creating a safe space for queer South Asian diaspora and for their friends and families, not just for himself but others like him. Today, Sher Vancouver is a well-respected BC-based volunteer group, to help South Asians and others who identified as LGBTQ but are unable to come out and express themselves, resulting in many suicides. “There was this guy from Afghanistan who committed suicide and in his note, he said that he was straight but people called him faggot, queer, homo and was constantly being bullied at school. He was a victim of homophobia and jumped off the bridge. That is when Sher was founded with the aim of helping such people.”
A journey filled with struggles
Alex says his journey started with his own self and his personal struggles with accepting himself. He has traversed an arduous path, conquering countless challenges along the way since he founded the Sher Vancouver in 2008, with the aim of helping others like him. Those who want to come out, those shunned and disowned by their own families once they let their skeletons out of their closet, are the ones who need help, support or love before they take their own lives.
As a youngster, Alex had learnt to internalize his feelings. Today at 51 years, he says “I didn’t want to be gay. I wanted to be straight like anyone else. My journey has come full circle; we include all South Asian queer people and it is not just an organization just for Sikhs.”
How times change
Not too long ago, the same Khalsa Diwan Society in Vancouver, which had once condemned Alex, invited the group, to march in the Vaiskahi parade held every year in the city. Their outreach coordinator had reached out to the group, asking them to be part of the parade. “Unfortunately, later the outreach coordinator received a lot of backlash from the temple but it was too late by then. So we went and marched. What I realized then is that the South Asian community now has a lot of respect for me. At least they are not publicly making our life more difficult. They are more tolerating. That is what has changed for now. The same temple which had told me that there is no such thing as a gay Sikh, reached out to me to give talks to the youth in the community to combat diseases like HIV and AIDS, depression, anxiety and other mental health-related issues.”
An escape for many
Canada receives many students from India, who may choose this country, not only for higher studies but also as an avenue to escape, especially if they belong to the queer group. Once here, it is easy to come out without any backlash from their families. However, the problem arises when these students face pressure from their families back home to sponsor them and bring them to Canada. Says Alex, “Many 19-year-olds are afraid of rejection if they come out. They are already confused about their identities, they don’t know how will they fit into the gay world if they come out and how will their families treat them. For them, it is the fear of being rejected. Being honest is not easy. But for LGBTQ people, Canada is heaven. There are not too many countries in the world that gives rights to these people. I am not saying there is no homophobia or hatred in these countries, but at least the law is on our side.”
Alex’s award-winning film Emergence: Out of the Shadows, follows one such young man who was disowned by his family after he came out. He was sent to Canada as an international student and never went back. “I helped this young man, who was part of my film Emergence: Out of the Shadows. He was from Ludhiana, Punjab. He was disowned by his entire family. When he came here, he contacted many organizations but Sher Vancouver was the only organization, which reached out to him. These things are still happening in our community and show the importance of organizations like Sher Vancouver.”
According to his Wikipedia page, Sangha’s debut feature documentary, Emergence: Out of the Shadows, was an official selection at Out on Film in Atlanta, ImageNation in Montreal, and Reelworld in Toronto. The film was the closing night film at both the South Asian Film Festival of Montreal and the Vancouver International South Asian Film Festival where it picked up Best Documentary. Emergence: Out of the Shadows also had a double festival premiere at the KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival and the Mumbai International Film Festival during the same week, where it was in competition at both film festivals for Best Documentary. The film also had an in-person and online screening at the 46th annual Frameline: San Francisco International LGBTQ+ Film Festival which is “the longest-running, largest and most widely recognized LGBTQ+ film exhibition event in the world.” The film is available on Youtube.
It is unfortunate but true that for South Asian families, getting married is the next chapter in life, which many families impose on their children. Many are forced into marriages, which further pushes gay or lesbian people to the wall as they are being crushed between their own feelings and trying to keep the façade of a family person. Says Alex, “This is, therefore, not only a cultural issue but also a health issue due to the spreading of diseases like AIDS or HIV.”
As a Sikh, one has to be true to oneself, believes Alex. “We are all God’s creation. So if God has created me as a gay person, then I should be proud of that. Who has the right to judge God’s creation? If God created gay and lesbian people, He does not want them to suffer. We are equally God’s creation. In Sikhism, when two people come together, it is not a man or a woman coming together but two souls coming together. And those souls are genderless. As we know, your physical body turns to ashes when you die, but your soul lives on. Your spirit and soul are reincarnated. In Hinduism, they say Namaste when people greet each other with folded hands. Namaste means a divine light in me connects with the same divine spirit in you. That is what it means but people tend to forget that nature is diverse.”
Sangha is a counsellor, a social worker, a filmmaker, the head of a charity and much more. He provides free counselling to confused youth and became the first Sikh to become the Grand Marshal of the Vancouver Pride Parade in 2018. In 2010, he successfully lobbied the City of Delta in BC, on behalf of Sher Vancouver to install rainbow park benches in the city to support diversity and inclusivity. In 2020, Sher Vancouver released Queersome Desi Resources which is a specially curated comprehensive list of Queer South Asian Resources from around the world. The same year Alex was the proud winner of the Inspiring Social Worker of the Year Award and in 2021, Sher Vancouver LGBTQ Friends Society became a registered charity. And the list of his achievements goes on.
Acceptance of the homosexual community, in India, is finally gaining momentum after the draconian Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalized same-sex relationships, was repealed. It should not be forgotten that homosexuality was always acceptable in India and not a punishable offence. It was only after the British came to India, that homosexuality was criminalized in 1862 and the draconian Section 377 was introduced. Some famous temples like Khajuraho in central India depict many sculptures that represent sexuality. The temple was built by a ruler of the Rajput Chandela Dynasty during the 10th century. Other temples, in South India too, depict such images.
While there may be quite a few resources for LGBTQ people in Canada, South Asians, may not be comfortable and feel invisible, especially if they are immigrants, when they approach common resources. The lack of feelings of belonging can further isolate the youngsters looking for acceptance and respect, after emerging from their closets. Even the families and parents of these people need support to fight the stigma and internalized homophobia and transphobia, still prevalent in the South Asian community, whether in India or out of it. Coming out is not easy for LGBTQ fear losing their family while the families fear losing their communities. The gays and lesbians of the South Asian community are no more invisible. They are normal people like any of us and deserve all respect and opportunities and should not be discriminated against on the basis of gender or sexual orientation. Live and let live applies to all.