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Queer Indo-Canadians ready to make history

world Updated: Jul 03, 2016 10:12 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Hindustan Times

Actress Celina Jaitly at the Toronto Pride parade last year where she was an international grand marshal. (Courtesy: Pride Toronto)

This Sunday, Justin Trudeau will become the first sitting Canadian Prime Minister to march in a Gay Pride parade, in Toronto, the largest such gathering in the country.

That will be a milestone but the Indo-Canadian LGBTQ community will be creating a bit of history itself as it has grand marshals leading parades in two of the country’s largest cities – Toronto and Vancouver. In that sense, at least, this could be the year the community truly comes out.

Justin Trudeau at the Pride parade last year when he was leader of the Liberal Party. He will return this year to be the first sitting PM to march in the parade. (Courtesy: Pride Toronto)

With the shadow of the massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub by Omar Mateen, who claimed allegiance to the Islamic State, hanging over the Toronto Pride Parade, its organisers have interfaced with police and the Prime Minister’s Office over security measures. The parade will begin with a moment’s silence in memory of the victims of the June 12 attack. But the celebrations are unlikely to be muted.

Among the national grand marshals will be Toronto-based Vivek Shraya, who Pride described as an “acclaimed voice for Toronto’s trans community” and a “multimedia artist who expresses her experiences and views as a trans woman of colour through music, performance, literature and film. From albums and poetry to films and novels.”

In an interview, Shraya said, “Being asked to be grand marshal is a tremendous honour, especially because I haven't always felt welcome at Pride as a trans bisexual person of colour.”

On the West Coast, activist Alex Sangha will feature as a grand marshal at Pride Vancouver at the end of July. LAst year, Bollywood actor Celina Jaitly was an international grand marshal at Pride Toronto. But 2016 is the year where the Indo-Canadian community will be marching at the front.

Alex Sangha (right) who will be a grand marshal at the Pride parade in Vancouver this year. (Courtesy: Alex Sangha)

While there is accomplishment, the challenges are nowhere near being resolved. Sangha formed the support group Sher Vancouver in 2008 to deal, partly, with the crisis of youngsters being bullied and committing suicide. “A lot of the youth are afraid they will be rejected, neglected, abandoned; their families will be shamed,” Sangha said.

Read | Indo-Canadian activist Vivek Shraya pushes gender and creative boundaries

When he formed Sher, the president of a gurdwara in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey asserted there was no such thing as a gay Sikh. That state of denial largely persists. Just before last year’s general election in Canada, a clutch of Indo-Canadian candidates nominated by national parties were outed for their homophobic statements in the past.

“It’s something the older generation doesn’t really accept yet, specifically when it comes to marriage,” said Sachil Patel, production manager at Pride Toronto. 

This is despite gay activism having a history in Canada, with the pioneering South Asian group Khush being formed in 1987. Two years later, the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention was created and emerged as an important centre for sexual health promotion and counselling.

Ramraajh Sharvendiran, men’s sexual health coordinator, said, “There’s already a deficit of examples of same-sex relations. It’s represented in the mainstream media more frequently, but is still very limited in representation of South Asian folk, and that also feeds into narrative within the community.” That narrative is largely one of the absence of a LGBTQ population within the Indo-Canadian community.

Visitors to Bend It Like Bombay, a celebration held on the sidelines of Toront’s Pride parade last year. (Courtesy: Pride Toronto)

“I think it’s a cultural taboo, but that’s slowly changing,” Sangha said, pointing out that the same Sikh temple that denied the existence of gays reached out to him in 2014 with a request to “work together” on sexual health matters.

Pride Toronto’s Patel concurred, “The new generation is going to bring it forward. We’re progressing very well but a lot more work needs to be done.” Among the positive developments was the formation of a community support group in a Toronto suburb earlier this year for parents with gay children.

As those like Shraya and Sangha fly the rainbow flag for the community this summer, that will be part of the process of upping visibility for this minority within a minority. But that march still has much ground to cover.