Personal Testimony

Being Gay and Sikh in the UK – Testimony of RK (female, 44, Yorkshire)

Testimony of RK – 45 year old woman originally from Bradford
18th June 2009

I was born and brought up in Bradford. I moved to London to come out as a lesbian. I’m the youngest of nine children, seven of whom survived, and I come from a strong Jatt family. I’m a Yorkshire lass[1] of Punjabi stock, so I’ve got double the akkarh[2] than most.

Sikhism had a major cultural impact on me, rather than a purely religious one. I went to a Methodist Sunday school as well as the gurdwara weekend school, so I had a very open idea of what being a Sikh meant. I would take part in seva, and because my parents’ social life revolved around the gurdwara, there would be some weekends when I would arrive at the gurdwara on a Friday and return home on a Sunday due to akhand paaths[3] taking place.

When I was 4 years old, I was sitting in front of a fire with my mum. I was wearing a frock at the time, and I told my mum that I wanted to burn it as I didn’t like it anymore. My mum asked me why, and I said because I wanted to be a boy. My mum then asked me why I wanted to be a boy and I replied to her “I want to marry a girl”. Also, when I was 6 years old, I remember a girl in my school who I liked a lot and whom I told “I want to marry you”. So I guess I’ve known about my sexuality since I was very young.

I was born a lesbian, I never chose my sexuality. I consider myself lucky for coming from an Asian background as being gay is deemed to be special in India. Hermaphrodites attend births and marriages in India in order to bless them, and people consider them holy or lucky. So we’re blessed, we’re lucky as a group of people, in Asian society anyway.

Both religions, Methodist Christianity and Sikhism, gave me the strength I needed to come to terms with my sexuality because they are both about believing, about the idea of faith. My two Sunday school teachers, male teachers, at the Methodist Church were gay. When you have nothing on earth to validate you, nothing from the State to validate you, you turn to a distant God who you believe will recognise you and accept you.

Sikhism is more a way of life than perhaps the Christian concept of religion. I always had shabad or kirtan[4] on in the background in at home, and I still play it in the mornings to this day. Seva[5] was also an integral part of our family identity, helping out in the community and the gurdwara.

In the 1950s and 1960s, I was a brown girl growing up in a white country, and at that time Britain was racist. I drew my strength from my community, and my community was based in the gurdwara. Sikhism wasn’t just a religious affiliation for me. To a certain extent, it was part of my life as a whole. On my side of the street, all of the families were Punjabi, and on the other side, all of the houses were white. I had no concept of race until the age of 4, when I was making a snowman with my brothers and all of a sudden they told me to run. I’ll never forget that. When I was about 6 or so, a young Asian lass was killed at the bottom of my road by skinheads.

My childhood upbringing was a mixture of a delightful working-class immigrant community in the midst of harsh and brutal racism. Even the teachers at school would humiliate us by pulling us up to the front during assembly and say “These kids don’t know how to even hold a knife and fork”. Regardless of the racism, I felt very much at home in Yorkshire at the time and definitely enjoyed my childhood.

I came out when I was 14. I was boozing and sleeping around with men who I didn’t fancy prior to going away to India with my mum. Whilst I was staying at my mum’s village, I became besotted with a woman who was getting married very soon. It became so intolerable that I told my grandmother about my feelings for this woman, and her reaction was “What’s wrong with that?”. I had been lacking in that sort of validation of my identity whilst I was in Britain, and yet received it whilst living in a village in Punjab from my grandmother.

Yorkshire was not just racist, but also conservative and homophobic at the time, so I waited until I went to university before exploring my sexuality further. I was about 20 years old when I finally plucked up enough courage to go to a gay venue, but when I got there, I was in shock. All of the women were dressed so butch that it felt like I was on the set of Prisoner Cell Block H![6] I didn’t fit in, as I didn’t want to dress like a man and I didn’t want to be somebody’s ‘femme’ girlfriend. I didn’t want to be a token Asian gay person in the bar, and I didn’t fancy ‘goris’[7], so I didn’t return for some time afterwards.

However, I fell in love with a white girl at university, and as she went to gay venues frequently, I began to go along with her. I had rejected a lot of White culture by this point, and going to the gay bars made me realise that I could receive a lot of affirmation from individuals who didn’t come from the same background as me but with whom I shared my sexual orientation. That support did me a lot of good.

Over the years, I have taken my two long-term partners to India, to Punjab, to my ancestral village, and they were both made to feel at home with my extended family, who knew about my relationship with those women.

I was young and I was queer. I found out who I was, I came out, and I was embraced by my family. When my father died and my mother became ill, that was the first time that I experienced homophobia from my family. It was used to undermine my ability to care for my mother, and I found that deplorable. I became isolated, and I couldn’t relate to my local community or culture which is predominantly black.

I was born a Sikh, and I’ll die a Sikh. I am first Punjabi and secondly a woman, and all other labels follow those two strong identifiers. The concept of seva is very important to me, hence why I decided to look after my mother in her dying days. My mother had a stroke, and I cared for her on-and-off for 6 years, during which time I lost touch with many friends. My gay friends didn’t understand why I was making such a self-sacrifice, and that increased my sense of isolation. When my mother died, I became friends with a local Sikh gay man, and I felt that he could understand me and my life. He reaffirmed my belief in Sikhism.

I’m at home with my sexuality in the present day. I sleep with men as well as women, but I only ever fall in love with women. I keep away from the gay scene as I find lesbians very judgmental about my fluid sexuality. I’m moving on to my late 40s now, and I find little to entice me to the gay scene.

Sikhism isn’t a dead religion to me that is written in a book. It is about quiet contemplation, listening to shabads, thinking about seva, about not getting carried away about ‘my religion being the right religion’. I am a British Sikh Punjabi mid-flight dyke, and my religion is in everything that I do.

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[1] Slang for ‘girl’ in northern English dialects
[2] Stubbornness
[3] Non-stop 48 hours reading of the Sikh holy book, usually carried out in two hours shifts by readers, often held in a gurdwara to mark celebrations and anniversaries, such as birthdays.
[4] Sikh hymns
[5] Concept of voluntary work in the community
[6] Australian TV show from the 1980s, also known as ‘Prisoner’
[7] White women

5 replies on “Being Gay and Sikh in the UK – Testimony of RK (female, 44, Yorkshire)”

I really appreciate your testimony. You delved into the the different social, racial, sexual and class hierarchies that many immigrants face in Western countries. I am a 21 year old American female (still discovering my sexuality) and this has really helped me a lot. I’m happy for you in the sense that your grandmother and other people in Punjab were so supportive! I don’t think I could ever receive that kind of love, support and acceptance from my family. But still, I will continue to educate myself and others around me. I’m glad I came across this page. 🙂

Do you mind if I quote a few of your posts as long as I provide
credit and sources back to your blog? My website is in the exact same niche as yours and my users would definitely benefit from a lot of the information you present
here. Please let me know if this alright with you. Cheers!

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