2nd of April 2020 Welcome to #SarbatSocials during COVID-19

Sarbat commenced a series of #SarbatSocial and Shraddha reflects in the article below.

A few days after the PM announced a country-wide lockdown in the UK, we at Sarbat looked for alternative solutions to continue providing a platform for Sikh LGBT+ individuals and our allies to meet and come together. We know that members of the LGBT+ community are at a higher risk of feeling lonely and isolated even at the best of times, and this may be particularly difficult for those Sikh LGBT+ individuals living with their families that may not be aware or accepting of their sexual orientation or gender identity, with no access to the usual safe spaces. So we at Sarbat set up an account on Zoom, a video conferencing platform that has seen a boost in users since the Coronavirus outbreak. Although it isn’t quite the same as meeting face-to-face, we felt that the online format could allow us to continue serving a social platform for our members from all over the UK and potentially reach people who perhaps previously could not attend our local UK-based events. 

I hosted our very first online #SarbatSocial meeting on Thursday, 2nd April. I took all the precautions to safeguard the meeting, such as enabling a waiting room (to monitor who joins the meeting) and disabling screen-share (so no-one could blast us with inappropriate content). However, these measures had a loop-hole, as we soon realised. Our keenness to increase our social reach and be as accessible as possible meant that we had shared the meeting link through all our social media channels. After the meeting started with a few familiar faces, I started seeing about 50 people join in the Zoom waiting room, most with unfamiliar names. Being in favour of inclusivity, excited at the possibility of new members and keen to provide access, I started letting them in one at a time… But this, in turn, led to a nasty surprise. Many of those joining were actually “bots” – fake profiles programmed to invade open meetings and blast loud, inflammatory, racist, or homophobic slurs. It was a horrible few minutes of frozen terror and every attempt to get rid of the bots seemed to backfire: I tried muting them – they unmuted themselves….removing them one at a time – only to find so many of them that it didn’t help… Finally, we decided to end the current meeting and start a new one – this time password-protected and prudently shared. Phew. 😅

So we restarted successfully, about fifteen minutes later, with #SarbatSocal – Take 2. I was proud, happy and honestly mostly relieved that the rest of the meeting went as planned with no hiccups. It was a lesson learnt the hard way and luckily those joining were understanding and kind enough to bear with me as the host trying desperately to get our meeting back on track. Which we did in the end. (yay!)

This first-ever online #SarbatSocial reaffirmed to me the importance of Sarbat in my life – it is so important to me to connect with this precious group of individuals, especially in this time of such disconnection. To connect with a group of people who I may not know well but who nonetheless feel so familiar – I ‘get’ the Punjabi banter, their woes about “the aunties and uncles” in our lives, and we all resonate when talking about parents who are simultaneously overloving and overbearing. Amongst all of this, the meetings serve to acknowledge the often unspoken truth that coming out is a hard, hard process; and in sharing our stories we hope to learn from each other’s experiences and find ways to make the process easier, less painful, less challenging. So when one of the participants shared the terrific news that their partner was pregnant and expecting a child in a few months, it left me (and I expect others too) feeling such a wonderful, warm glow, knowing that one of “us” is starting a family!! And even more so because our meeting enabled me to join in their moment of celebration and triumph – even from afar.

So for those who participated in our first trial meeting – thank you for not being daunted by the early zoombombing incident*. In fact, I am so pleased you shared my enthusiasm for #SarbatSocial meetings to happen on a regular basis and we even have a few more volunteers to host them in the future (check out our schedule here, updating live as we go!). Bots aside, it was a success, and I look forward to the next one (though needless to say, all future meetings will be password-protected!)

*PS: please see these guidelines for volunteers hosting online meetings that aim to clarify and standardise the precautionary measures used to protect our meetings from such attacks in the future. We also wrote a set of guidelines for participants joining our meetings, which we hope will reassure all new and old attendees that we have their best interests at heart.  

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