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Toronto: The perfect home for LGBT community

Why South Asian LGBTs find Toronto a haven

brunch Updated: Jan 06, 2018 22:59 IST
Pradip Rodrigues
Pradip Rodrigues
Hindustan Times
In 2016, Rishi Agarwal, who was born and raised in Canada, became the first South Asian to marry his partner in a Hindu ceremony

Toronto was recently ranked third best city for the LGBT community by Nestpick, a company that provides furnished apartments around the world. The city is a magnet for persecuted or closeted gays from all over the world, and in recent years the number of gays from countries like India and Pakistan has increased.

While many Indian origin LGBTs who’ve been born and raised in Canada are more likely to come out of the closet, newer immigrants and international students lead double lives.

So, although the LGBT community enjoys rights and freedoms that are unthinkable in many parts of the world, many of Indian origin could well be living in a social setting rooted in India, as Rishi Agarwal, who was born and raised in Canada, knows only too well. In 2016, he became the first South Asian to marry his partner in a Hindu ceremony.

“Many South Asian gays are culturally interdependent with their families and the Indian community, which makes it very hard for gays to come out for fear of ostracism,” he says.

His parents Vijay and Sushma Agarwal recalled just how difficult it was when Rishi came out. “He asked us to either accept him as he was or disown him. We accepted him as he was; my wife feared the social implications, I did not,” Vijay said. Over the weeks, the Agarwals slowly started to break the news to small groups of friends, most of whom were supportive. The biggest surprise was discovering four other gay children in their social circle!

The situation is more or less the same in Vancouver, British Columbia. Alex Sangha, an activist, social worker and founder of Sher Vancouver, a social, cultural and support group for LGBT South Asians and friends, recalls the prevailing attitude of the South Asian community in 2008 when he started his activism: that there was no such thing as gay Sikh, period.

Alex Sangha is the founder of Sher Vancouver, a social, cultural and support group for LGBT South Asians

“I have come across so many suicidal, depressed and isolated gays. Recently, we helped a student from India who was thrown out of his uncle’s house after they discovered he was gay; his parents in India disowned him. We have now helped him start a new life for himself,” said Alex.

Family pride

Social ostracism is a real fear for a large majority of South Asians. Often, parents fearful of losing their friends and social circles sacrifice their children instead. This, according to Alex, is resulting in the sad situation of many gays being forced into marriage by their families.

“Married gay men often end up cheating on their wives and putting them at risk for HIV. It is a major social, health and cultural problem that has to be addressed,” he said.

Many gays in the South Asian community may rightly believe that changing attitudes toward the LGBT is more likely in India than it is in the Indian community in Canada. “The problem is that the South Asians in Canada are stuck in India; they want to preserve the culture and are more stubborn,” says Haran Vijaynathan, executive director of Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention, a not-for-profit organisation that provides HIV/AIDS information, sexual health and support services for South Asian communities in Toronto.

“Many continue to stay in the closet as they fear losing their families, others are often subjected to violence or are forced into arranged marriages. Gays are often made to feel guilty about ruining the family name, especially if he is the only male child,” he adds.

A recent gay immigrant from Mumbai whose family is oblivious to the fact he is gay, moved to Toronto once his family started to pressure him to marry. Living an openly gay life in complete anonymity in Toronto is blissful. “I’ve met many international gay students who’ve come here to live a more open gay lifestyle. I’ve encountered married Indian gay men who live in the suburbs with their families but work and socialise in the gay community here where they go by aliases or never reveal a lot about themselves,” he said.

Colour me vibgyor

Being accepted socially in the largely white-dominated LGBT community is also a challenge for South Asians, although that seems to be more of an issue for newer immigrants since better integrated South Asian gays are more at ease in the company of a more diverse set of gay people. For many brown immigrants, there is subtle racism at play. “It has more to do with colour than race,” says another Indian gay immigrant who has lived in Toronto for 15 years. He has noticed that it is easier for a lighter-skinned Indian to date a white.

Vivek Shraya, a member of the trans community, lives and works in Toronto where few would ever bat an eyelid seeing her in women’s clothes

Furthermore, South Asian LGBTs have mostly been invisible till very recently. Last year, for the first time, the Khalsa Diwan Society invited Sher Vancouver to have a float in the Khalsa Parade despite opposition. “As a result of our visibility, we had so many who came forward to support us,” says Alex. Last August Sher Vancouver joined the Vancouver Pride Parade with its Pride of Bollywood float where Canadian defence minister Harjit Sajjan briefly danced with South Asian LGBTs. The much needed show of support that brought with it national and international visibility.

Teach your parents well

But it is clear that LGBT South Asians face a herculean task when it comes to educating and encouraging parents of gay children to accept them. This is something Vijay and Sushma Agarwal who formed Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays chapter (PFAG) in Mississauga in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) in 2016 have seen.

“We have been disappointed with the response. Many parents of gay children prefer living in denial and we hear horror stories of the reaction of parents when their children come out of the closet. Parents of one girl who came out lamented that South Asian children have been brainwashed by Canadian society. And these are educated parents!” says Sushma Agarwal.

This is one reason many South Asian gay men and women move to cities like Toronto. Vivek Shraya, a member of the trans community, lives in Toronto where few would ever bat an eyelid seeing her in women’s clothes. He would never dream of being openly trans in Mississauga or Brampton which have large South Asian populations. “I would not feel comfortable,” he says.

Many South Asian gay men and women move to cities like Toronto as here they enjoy the privilege of being protected by the law

Even in Toronto there are areas where Vivek did not feel comfortable holding his boyfriend’s hand in public. “I was on the sidewalk when a man rolled down his window and spat, ‘tranny’ and threw something at me.” Vivek says it is harder to be brown and trans.

Part of the reason is the perception that people of colour simply can’t be LGBT, and while that is changing, life for brown trans people like Vivek is ‘precarious’. “Gay people are still uncomfortable around transgender people and we experience hostility from gay men,” he says.

Most South Asian LGBTs in Toronto aren’t comfortable to admit their sexual orientation even if they are out of the closet. One such law professional would not go out of his way to let his clients know he’s gay. “Where I am at present economically allows me to live a life shielded from discrimination,” he said.

The number of gay students from India has notably increased. They enjoy the privilege of living in a country where they are protected by the law. This is often the only reason they’ve immigrated to Canada, a place increasingly seen as one of the few refuges in a world that views them with naked hostility.

The author began his career as a journalist with a magazine in 1988. He currently lives in Toronto where he edits Can-India, a weekly publication catering to the South Asian diaspora and writes autobiographies for seniors.

From HT Brunch, January 7, 2018

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First Published: Jan 06, 2018 22:59 IST