Testimony of AK – 31 year old woman originally from Birmingham
11th February 2009
I come from a liberal Sikh family background, from an educated family, and was brought up in the West Midlands. My dad emigrated to the UK in 1960s, and my mum in the 1970s. Both my parents encouraged me to be my own person. Religion was personally important for them, and although both myself and my brother grew our hair, we were given the freedom to choose whether to make religion part of our lives. The Sikh influence on my youth was a positive one.
I was raised in a small suburb of Wolverhampton and I had some Sikh friends whilst I was growing up, but I felt acutely a difference between them and myself. My Sikh friends and I came from a similar environment, in that we were brought up in a predominantly working class town. The difference appeared to stem from the fact that my parents were educated and embraced the British way of life more, whilst their parents were quite dogmatic about religion, not as educated as my parents, and were more fearful of British society. It’s difficult to describe what influence my environment had on my upbringing, and in fact books and films probably influenced me more than my immediate environment.
I first realised I was a lesbian when I was 14 or 15. I felt I had feelings towards girls, but I couldn’t articulate them, and I definitely didn’t feel like I could tell any of my friends, Sikh and non-Sikh alike. The only things that I could take refuge in were books, and the books I found most solace in tended to be written by gay white male authors. I remember becoming quite obsessed with EM Forster and his book ‘Maurice’, but I’m not too sure how much help he could be to a Brummie Sikh girl! I was incredibly isolated, and I didn’t know what to do.
I found it particularly problematic talking to my Sikh friends about my sexuality as they were so heavily invested in the idea of marriage, and I couldn’t see marriage as an option for me. I remember the subject of homosexuality coming up on the telly, and my dad commenting ‘That doesn’t exist in India’, and I felt that there was a cloak of invisibility. I felt that Sikhism didn’t address the issue in any way, that there were no references to being gay within Sikhism.
When I first went out to gay venues in Birmingham, I felt that I stood out in the crowd, but then again, being a brown girl in a room full of white people, it’s not surprising to feel that way. Any person in an ethnic minority feels that. I remember seeing only one other Asian girl on the gay scene during those years, and I found it incredible that I was not the only brown girl with long hair who was gay. I was also an Indie kid, which also made me stand out, so the uniformity of the gay scene was quite depressing.
I’m out to all of my friends and my brothers, but I’m not out to my mum and dad or to my extended family. In recent years, I’ve noticed that my parents have become increasingly conservative, and it would be difficult to tell them. My relationship with my family is incredibly important to me, and I do feel that coming out to them would affect that relationship. So I’ve made a firm decision not to. Perhaps I would feel differently if I was in a long term relationship But I don’t subscribe to the view that you should come out, and if those you love don’t accept it, you’re better off without. I do wish it could be easy and unremarkable to tell them, but it’s not, and I’ve come to terms with that.
I would describe myself as an atheist at present, but I am very respectful of my Sikh upbringing and I don’t see it as problematic in describing myself as an atheist from a Sikh background. There are certain aspects of Sikhism that I still find attractive, such as the fact that the religion was set up in the background of peace and understanding. I see my Sikh heritage as something to be proud of, even if I don’t subscribe thoroughly to the tenets of the religion. I respect the aspect of the Sikh heritage which is about being an outsider, and trying to find an alterative way of existing to the mainstream. Being a child of immigrants, it’s not possible in my view to feel completely British (whatever that is – everyone creates a different version of it), but then again I wouldn’t describe myself as totally Indian or Sikh either. I feel as though I have been caught between cultures, but I also feel that I have absorbed all of them – that they’re all inextricably linked and are all part of me.
I’m quite comfortable about my identity now. I used to be quite tortured about it, being a Sikh Indian living in Britain, and I felt that they were mutually exclusive as identities. When I was 18, I asked my mum “Where am I from? Where do I belong?”, and my mum’s reply was “Home is where the heart is”, so this is home for me. I can have my Sikh identity, I can have my gay identity, I can have my British identity and my Brummie identity. I’ve realised that it’s possible to have all of those identities and that there doesn’t have to be a tension between them. I feel that they are all part of me and that they can co-exist.
My hopes for British society are that it becomes more progressive in its attitudes towards race, religion and sexuality. In terms of the Sikh community, I hope that it becomes more open to the idea of diversity and difference, and that it accepts it is possible for somebody who is gay to be a good Sikh. Gay Sikhs are totally invisible within the community. I remember a gay British Asian festival which took place a few years ago – one of the national newspapers covered the festival and asked various religious leaders in the UK what they thought of it. The self-appointed leader of the Sikh community said that he was disgusted by the festival and that there was no such thing as a gay Sikh. His assertion was depressing – there was no attempt to engage with or recognise gay Sikhs – just a blanket denial. Hopefully a greater visibility for gay Sikhs will show that we do exist and that we cannot be ignored or dismissed in such a way – that we too are ‘one’; under one God.
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 ‘Brummie’ is a colloquial term, referring to somebody who comes from Birmingham.