Creating awareness around gender, sexuality and coming out issues among the South Asian community is not easy. But Alex Sangha and Jag Nagra have done just that, despite the oft conservative nature of South Asian families, particularly around LGBTQ+ rights.
“There is a lot of pressure in the gay South Asian community, whether you are Sikh, Hindu, or Muslim, to get married and have children,” says Alex Sangha, a registered clinical social worker in Vancouver, Canada. “Living in intergenerational families with our parents and grandparents, we must fit into the family structure. How is a gay man going to bring a boyfriend home and have him accepted by the family?”
As Sangha describes it, “Many gay brown men are closeted and living double lives. They are forced into arranged marriages and having casual sexual affairs with men on the side. This puts their wives at risk of HIV and other STDs.
Homophobia and discrimination and remaining in the closet is, therefore, more than a social and cultural issue; it is also a health care issue. It is healthier and safer emotionally and psychologically and better for our community members to be who they are and live their life as God has created them.Sangha remarks
Sangha, who found himself “isolated, alienated, lonely and depressed and suicidal” before he came out, founded Sher Vancouver in April 2008 and has worked relentlessly since against bullying, racism, homophobia, and transphobia with coming out stories from a South Asian perspective. His Out and Proud project profiled amazing queer South Asians from around the world, including Canada, US, UK, and India.
“It was not easy for me to come out,” he said. “I had internalized homophobia, which means I did not like myself for being gay. I also had some internalized racism, which meant I did not like myself for being brown. This is because, growing up, I was bullied and called Hindu, Paki, and Punjab and later labeled gay, faggot, and queer by my high school peers. I started to hate myself and my identity. It’s really a horrible feeling to feel this way.”
In 2017, Sangha led the Sher Vancouver contingent in the Vancouver Vaisakhi Parade, creating history as the first LGBTQ South Asian organization to ever march in the parade.
Visual artist Jag Nagra, thought she was facing his own battles alone – until something happened.
“I came across an article about Alex Sangha in 2008. It was the first time I had even heard about any other queer South Asians,” Nagra said. “I had been struggling internally for quite some time, I was closeted from my close friends and family. That article in the newspaper couldn’t have come at a more fitting time. I threw myself into every event, every gathering that Sher put on. I immersed myself into the group because for the first time in my life, I felt seen and validated.”
Communing with other queer South Asians shattered many barriers for Nagra.
“Meeting other queer South Asians was incredibly helpful in me accepting myself and allowing me to come out to my family,” she said. “I could show them that there were others out there like me who were thriving. It made things easier and made me feel less alone. To see the community growing, to see the younger generation coming out in ways that we didn’t feel comfortable doing so is incredible. We still have a long way to go, but together, we’re going there.”
Nagra, who lives with her wife and two children, believes normalizing being queer is the best way forward, and visibility is key to that change of perception.
“As blessed as I feel to be living openly, I know many queer South Asians can’t do so yet,” she said. “Societal and family pressures still very much have a huge bearing on whether people feel safe or not to come out of the closet. Our society still largely thinks in binary terms. Marriage between men and women is still very much ‘the goal’ for many parents when they think of their children.”
“My main goal through my queer activism is just to be a living example of someone who is ‘out’ and being a voice for those who cannot speak up. Representation is so important, and I make art that often shows intersections of identity. I want to challenge what people think about gender roles.”Nagra said
Sangha and Nagra were recently featured in the award-winning feature documentary “Emergence-Out of The Shadows”, the story of three South Asians revealing their sexuality to their conservative parents.
Sangha, who also produced “Emergence,” shared that the impetus to tell this story came from Kayden, an international student studying in Vancouver whose family cut off all ties and left him with no food, shelter or money when they found out about his sexuality.
“I wanted to produce this film because I did not want any other kids to be disowned because of their sexuality.” Sangha said. “I wanted to educate and create awareness around gender, sexuality, and coming out issues and send a message that we must all love one another and keep our community safe.”
He adds: “My mother struggled to come to terms with my sexuality as well but she never once judged me or rejected me. She turned to her Sikh faith for guidance and support, and she found her answer. She believed being gay is part of God’s creation and part of God’s plan for me and my life journey.”