Simrat (an alias) shares his reflections on Sarbat and the need for online communities
Hello everyone and welcome to my article. My name is Simrat and I am a 19 year old boy, and here is my story.
I realised from the age of about 15 that I wasn’t straight, but I think at that time I was in a phase of denial, as many LGBT people are at some point. I used to tell myself that I’ll ‘just grow out of it’ or ‘if I go to the gurdwara I won’t feel this way’, but obviously nothing worked. For me, school was my distraction – I put my heart, mind and soul into studying and having fun at school that I actually put the fact that I had an attraction to men to the back of my mind. However, sometimes there would be moments of realisation that actually, I wasn’t going to lead the life my parents envisaged for me. I wasn’t going to have the big Punjabi wedding they have spoken about since I was a kid, and that was a difficult pill to swallow.
Coming from a Punjabi Sikh family, I think it’s not surprising to hear that generally my family weren’t the most supportive of the LGBT community. Family members would make comments about LGBT people, or if there was a LGBT couple on the TV, something would be said and it would make me feel so uncomfortable – and it was so obvious and there was no way of hiding it. I remember clearly one recent event, and it was my grandfather’s brithday, so the whole family gathered over at my grandparents’ house – my bhua, fuffar, cousins, chachi, chacha, bibi, baba and so on – you name it and they were there. My cousins and I were having a conversation, and we were actually talking about EastEnders. For those of you who don’t watch EastEnders, there is a new Sikh family in it, and the daughter of the family, Ash Kaur Panesar, is a lesbian. When I told my cousin that there was a Sikh in EastEnders, her response was ‘that’s great represenation for our community’ and I then went on to tell her that she was a lesbian. My cousin spat her drink out and proceeded to exlaim ‘she’s a lesbian?! A Sikh lesbian?!’ The level of uncomfort I felt was unreal, especially since this cousin of mine is the same age as me, and I guess my hopes of at least being accepted by my own generation in my family went out the window.
As I was growing older, and people at school would talk about liking someone of the opposite gender, I think people began to notice I didn’t really talk about girls like most boys did, and I don’t think it helped that I had a majority male friendship group either. At first, if I was ever asked who I liked I’d just come up with a random name of a popular female celebrity, just to fit in I guess, but deep down I knew this wasn’t me. I think the best way to describe how I was was that I was a fruit that wasn’t ripe: I wasn’t ready to accept who I was to myself, let alone anyone else.
If I skip forward to when I was 17, I remember clearly it was during the summer holidays of Year 12. I was talking to a good friend of mine over Snapchat one evening and he asked me who I liked, and also mentioned how I don’t talk about girls like other guys – I guess he was somewhat hinting I was gay. I remember my heart was racing to the point where I thought it would pop out of my chest and my palms were dripping with sweat. I was struggling to get my breath, and then I just said it: I am gay. In one way, it was a huge relief – I felt liberated and as if I was honest about who I really was, but on the other hand I felt a huge load of shame, and I’m not quite sure why. I think the reality of me sharing my biggest secret was quite overwhelming, and I remember waking up the next morning and being so shocked that I actually did that, to the point where I thought it was a dream! I was incredibly lucky that my friend was very accepting and never once made feel feel inferior to him – and to be honest he had always said it’s no problem if I was gay, but I used to deny it. The next day we met, and I felt a sense of awkwardness, but we soon broke down that barrier. It was great to share this I guess with someone else, and not fear being judged on my sexuality, not to mention finally telling someone how attractive I thought Zac Efron was.
Throughout my remaining year at school, I kept it quiet and didn’t make it public knowledge. My friend kept this confidential, and I respected that a lot. After leaving school, I decided to take a gap year and take the time to really find my inner peace and be truthful to myself. I got a job, applied for medical school and was enjoying life. But something was missing. I still wasn’t out to my family nor all my friends. I slowly slowly began coming out to friends, both from the LGBT community and not, and all have been incredibly accepting so far, but I haven’t come out to my family – I am simply not ready. I felt like there were so many organisations with support for the LGBT community, but it was like they just didn’t understand me nor my community – and I’d came across very very few LGBT south Asian people, let alone Punjabis. Then I came across Sarbat, and I was amazed. Wow. An organisaiton dedicated to helping LGBT people from a Sikh background, my community – is this for real? At first I disregarded it thinking it was an old organisation which nobody ran no longer – but then I returned to their website and social media pages and noticed how posts were being made quite regularly, and socials were regular too. I got excited by the prospect of going to a Sarbat social, however they were all the way in London and I live in the Midlands, and I didn’t fancy paying a £30 train ticket! Also, at that time I was still very afraid of coming out to the community, sounds ridiculous doesn’t it, since anyone part of Sarbat is LGBT themselves or an ally, so what was I afraid of? To be honest, I’m not quite sure, but the prospect of meeting other Punjabi LGBT people terrfied me for some reason – was I going to see someone I knew? Would they out me to my family?
On reflection, it sounds so silly. During lockdown, I was made aware of the online Zoom sessions for Sarbat socials. Great, I thought. I can use a nickname and not share my camera, and that way nobody will be able to identify me if I somehow came across someone I knew. And for the first social, that is exactly what I did. I was absolutely amazed at how many people were in the call, and actually quite overwhelmed with the fact that I am not alone in this at all – the Sarbat community is made up of all ages, cultures, experiences, countries etc, and I was so humbled to be able to be part of this fantastic community. I then actually began to change my schedule to fit in Sarbat socials, and slowly slowly began to share my camera and also contribute to the discussion, without being afraid of being judged. I am proud of who I am, and I embrace it. I’ve became closer to my community, my faith and my culture, knowing that actually, I do have a place. I embrace who I am, and the future excites me. Speaking to a range of Sarbat volunteers has helped me massively. Listening to their experiences of being Sikh and LGBT have allowed me to understand that I can and will be happy, and that there is nothing wrong with me whatsoever. Of course everyone has a unique experience, including me. I still have challenges that I face regularly, and sometimes thinking about the future does make me anxious, but it’s important to remember that you are not alone. If Sarbat has taught me one thing, it’s to love myself and the way I am. Being LGBT and Sikh is in no way a limitation.
Simrat Singh, 19.