September Issue 2012
Queer and South Asian in Canada
On a hot, sunny afternoon near Yonge and Bloor streets, large numbers of young Canadians constituting members of the multi-racial community that make up the country’s population and tourists have been lining up for hours on the sidewalks waiting for the Gay Pride Parade to start. The crowd is three rows deep and late-comers have to stand on steps and peer over people’s heads to get a view.
A float comes into view; muscular men in bright colours pose, preen and gyrate to loud music. It is all very flamboyant and fun. The people clustered behind the barricades, men and women, young, old and older, are enthralled. It’s a party on wheels and people watching dance along. On another float, men who could pass for beautiful women dance sinuously. In its 32nd year, Toronto’s annual gay parade has clearly arrived, rivalling those held in other major cities and attracting thousands, including international visitors.
Between floats, other smaller groups walking down the street carrying banners are less camp, more earnest. Towards the latter part of the parade a number of people from the South Asian contingent march past. At the rear, an Ismaili group, a lively, young bunch of men and women in matching tops dancing along with the music. Then the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees (IRQR), a cheerful group of young Iranian men, go by. One previous year, a Muslim group comprising families — parents and their offspring — had also marched, holding signs to say they supported their gay children.
“It was exciting to see groups marching that did not do so previously,” says Shahzad Hai, an outreach coordinator at the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention (ASAAP), an agency serving the South Asian gay community. “The parade is about showing pride. People are different and there are many ways of expressing who you are. This is about celebrating one’s sexuality, but being gay in the South Asian context has to be presented in an acceptable way,” he says. Understandably then, the nudity and exhibitionism in the parade does not endear it to the South Asian community, at large.
“Homosexuality is still largely underground in the South Asian community. Often the attitude is that you cannot be Pakistani or Indian and gay. In the South Asian psyche being gay is not part of the culture. They think that in Canada because you hang out with white people who are gay, you are perceived as gay. Homosexuality is not widely accepted in the South Asian community. So it’s a real challenge to come out. Understandably then, a lot of South Asian gay people still remain in the closet. But some men do distance themselves from their communities for a while, hoping their parents will accept their status eventually. However, not all do. Some gay kids are kicked out of their homes. And if they are not out, there is pressure on them to get married. So often they lead a double life,” says Hai.
Ram Raajh, also with ASAAP, whose family is from Sri Lanka, says that much progress has been made in the gay cause, but mostly in the mainstream. “With South Asians it is still considered a negative. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual is seen as a ‘white thing’ that our people are not accepting of. They say ‘this is not real, this is not an actual experience, so what are you doing being gay?’ So it is often hidden here too, as in the South Asian countries. And it is not just families that cannot accept it, often friends don’t either. Asian families are so interconnected that one is scared to talk even to friends from the community lest one’s family finds out. Some have to hide their sexual orientation for fear of being disowned. I grew up with straight people; then I met people who shared the same struggle and found it easy to connect with them. And when I began to feel safe with my secret, then I started sharing it with straight friends. If the community becomes more accepting of us, it will be easier to open up,” says Ram. And, he says, South Asians are not the only communities that would rather deny than accept members of their flocks being homosexual. “Other communities have the same responses, not just South Asian,” he says.
At the parade, one animated young Iranian man sporting an IRQR sticker on his chest, eyes shining with enthusiasm, says that it is the first time he has been in the gay parade. He had recently arrived in Canada, but it was also only the second year that the IRQR had participated in the parade. Arsham Parsi is the impassioned executive director of the IRQR, and has many facts about the cause he espouses. He tells me that the IRQR works for human rights for Iranian LGBT — lesbians, gays, bisexuals and the transgendered — in general and in particular for those who escape countries where they are prosecuted for their orientations, the refugees and other urgent cases. The group has been lobbying with international governments, in Canada, UK and the Netherlands for help.
Says Parsi, “We are now helping Afghans also, because they speak Farsi. Those who escape Afghanistan go to Iran, but they are not safe there either, so we help them go to Turkey. The punishment for homosexuality in Iran can be execution, hanging or stoning. There are no statistics because homosexuality is hidden. For example, if you are arrested because of homosexuality, it is publicised as drinking alcohol in public. The majority of those identified as queer are awarded a hundred lashes, but if they complain they may be executed. Changing one’s sex is also illegal in Iran, so if the transgendered are raped, they cannot go to court. There are so many legal, social, and cultural issues that homosexuals and others of their ilk are particularly vulnerable in that country. Not surprisingly, many consider suicide. It is hard to live with discrimination and harassment from family members, in schools, and in public places.”
The IRQR has helped 580 cases over the years, both men and women, five cases a month on the average. It relies on donations to fund its work. Parsi explains how his oganisation helps save and change lives. “Life in Canada is difficult at first. Those who flee have experienced terrible things, and then when they come here, they have to learn the language, how to live in an alien environment, and discover what their basic rights are. Here they have freedom. Now the first cases to have come have just become Canadian citizens and they are happier.”
That is certainly understandable given the strides the gay movement has made in Canada towards ending discrimination towards the community, and the number of rights it has managed to garner, including the right to marry and adopt children. It is thus far easier now to lead an open and full life as a member of the gay community in many spheres, and even elected politicians have come out of the closet in this country.
This new freedom notwithstanding, the South Asian gay community still has a long way to go. “In the mainstream, much has been accomplished, there is pride and that is a good thing, but there is still discrimination,” says Raajh. “There are so many stereotypes of gay men. But the community is very diverse. Gay men are usually considered very feminine, weaker. For many homophobes, being GLB — gay, lesbian, bisexual — is a joke.” The ASAAP serves women too, and lesbians, Raajh says, face similar stereotyping.
Raajh conducts workshops for straight and gay people, men and women, in which he tries to show how negative terms affect people. “When you draw a connection between straight people and gay ones, about how they have shared experiences, and feel similar emotions, sometimes things click. Then homosexuality is not a joke any longer,” he says.
“There is no typical gay lifestyle,” Hai emphasises. “Everyone’s situation is different; not everyone is the same. There are so many different faces and everyone does not appear gay. Gays are not always dressed like women. Men who appear straight are often gay and vice versa.”
This universality of people — gay and straight alike — also applies in the realm of religion. People who discover they are gay do not stop being religious, whether they are Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews or of any other faith. But Hai says, they are often not allowed to practice their faith as they could before they came out. This saddens them. They may be forbidden from coming to their places of worship or from bringing their partners along. “Homosexuality is admittedly considered wrong by most religions, but some men have reconciled themselves with being gay and being Muslim or being gay and being Hindu — even if they end up having a strange relationship with religion,” says Hai.
Amina, a young Muslim woman of Pakistani descent who came out as a lesbian, was estranged from her family for a while, which she says was heartbreaking for her. She was also sad at not being able to practice her faith in the community as she had been brought up to do. Since finding a mosque that accepts her, she is once more able to practice her religion openly.
As for racism within and towards the gay community, Hai says that there are incidents when racial slurs are cast, but there are no extreme situations, possibly because there is not much visibility for South Asian gay people. “In this society when people think ‘gay’ they imagine only white people. So it is difficult for others to fit in. The issues are multilayered. As a South Asian, as a minority, it is a struggle to claim space, and it is important to create that space in events a few times a year,” says Raajh, adding that in India in the past few years, events have been held to help gay and lesbian people find safe spaces.
According to the South Asian mindset, there is a reason why one is gay. People feel some experience made you that way, or because you are hanging out with white people. But that is not true. “One is born that way,” says Hai. “Growing up you try not to be like that. Why would you choose to be different?” asks the young man whose family hails from Pakistan and India. He discloses that when he told his father about his sexual orientation, his father asked if he was sure. He responded that he was certain because he had tried hard not to be homosexual. “It is tough being Pakistani and coming out. That’s how it is — but this is who I am. One is not less of a person if he/she is gay. We don’t want to be seen as different. We want to be accepted and loved as anyone else,” Hai says simply.
The parade turns and reaches the end where the floats stop to let dancers jump off, where gaudily dressed groups scatter and walk up Church Street, mingle and pose for photos with onlookers, gays and heterosexuals.
The South Asian groups are high-fiving with their friends, and they look elated but exhausted as the high of the march begins to dissipate. For some, the public display may have been a one-off act of defiance, and they are likely to step back into the shadows. But there are others.
A young, well-built, South Asian man carries a sleeping infant in a sling on his chest. There is no mother in sight, but there is another man walking beside them, with a white baby blanket tucked into his belt. This baby has two dads. Clearly some South Asians have already taken their cause to another level.
This article was originally published in the September issue under the headline “Pride Without Prejudice.”