The Sikh response to homophobia in India and beyond

A few weeks ago, the Indian Supreme Court re-criminalized sexual acts between consenting adults of the same sex. The Supreme Court overturned a 2009 decision by the Delhi High Court to strike down section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which came directly from a British colonial law from 1861. Section 377, which was just reinstated, states:

377. Unnatural offenses — Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.

As Prerna Lal states about the recent ruling, “the Indian Supreme Court has re-criminalized gay sex in India, rendering almost 20 percent of the global LGBT population illegal.” As a result, LGBT Indians and their allies in India and around the world have taken to the streets, signed petitions, and engaged in creative actions through social media, showing their outrage about this backwards decision.

But what has the Sikh response been? I have previously written about the homophobia rampant in our community and how ironic it is, given our Gurus’ deep commitment to equality and social justice. In the days after the ruling on 377, I wondered if any Sikh activists committed to LGBT equality would come out of the woodwork. I also wondered about the Sikh response to the ruling in India and if any Sikh institutions publicly supported or lobbied for this ruling. Embarrassingly, Sikh institutions have publicly campaigned against LGBT equality in the past, including supporting the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in the US a few years back.

Enter Kanwar Saini, aka Sikh Knowledge, a young, openly gay hip hop artist in Toronto. In protest of 377 and as a part of a social media campaign, Saini posted a photograph of him kissing another man on Facebook, which went somewhat viral and led to a lot of discussion and debate about Sikhi and gay rights. Facebook removed the photo from his page for 16 hours, quite possibly due to a whole lot of homophobic Sikhs reporting the picture to Facebook as offensive.

Saini recently appeared on CTV discussing the incident and his response.

I am always amazed by Kanwar Saini’s courage in the midst of so much hateful backlash from within our community. As simple of an act as it was, the photo he posted made a large number of Sikhs very uncomfortable. This discomfort is important to reflect upon and question. So much can be learned from this discomfort if we sit with it, think about it, meditate upon it, consider how it relates to the values our Gurus stood for, and at times, lost their lives for. I hope and expect that the photo did lead to this reflection for many. Unfortunately, it also illuminated the persistent anti-gay hysteria that still runs quite deep in our Punjabi Sikh communities.

The issue here has nothing to do with someone’s very subjective viewpoint on what is and isn’t natural. That is a useless discussion that should have ended hundreds of years ago, or at least with the end of British rule of India. The issue here is about freedom. The Indian state is once again standing in the way of freedom. As Sikhs, there is really no grey area when it comes to fighting for freedom, for standing with the oppressed.  As I’ve said before, oppression is oppression. The Khalsa was created to obliterate it.

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8 Responses to “The Sikh response to homophobia in India and beyond”

  1. hello singh says:

    We have to understand that many of us Sikhs growing up in western countries have traditional, conservative and old school parents who grew up in Punjab. Who knows what life was like back in those days and who knows what sorts of beliefs the parents had. Maybe our generation can bring change to the Sikh community. Within the Sikh community guys and girls aren't even openly allowed to date. If a Sikh guy or girl has a boyfriend/girlfriend they have to date behind their parents back. Can our community accept homosexuality if they do not even allow guys and girls to date each other? Another question, Sikh parents are against dating and don't want their sons and daughters to intermingle with the opposite sex yet they are against homosexuality? One would think Sikh parents would support homosexuality since they raise their children to believe talking or associating with the opposite sex is wrong.

  2. Creation says:

    "As I’ve said before, oppression is oppression. The Khalsa was created to obliterate it."

    Ok, the first few times you write this, its fine to do so without any exposition. But apparently you are rock solidly convinced this statement of yours is a truism that we all understand exactly as you.

    You really owe it to the people you are trying to reach to really explain what you mean and how you come to the conclusions you do.

    It might be nice to include gurubani references, historical references, definitions of oppression, a lot of detail.

    Otherwise you are just propagandizing and possibly appropriating.

    Also, what is the real value of a tautology like "oppression is oppression."

    Please try to go beyond the sloganeering. Explain your thinking to us in a way that A) expects that people who don't agree with you at the outset will still pay attention with an open mind and B) that people who don't agree with you might be doing so even though they are not "pro-oppression."

    Please respect the intellect, rationality and moral aspirations of your readers.

    You also are missing a chance to bring some history or knowledge to us of the different ways sexuality can and has been considered historically and even in the present among Sikhs.

    On the ground there are many, many nuanced ways Sikhs already think about sexuality. It feels like again this site is taking the lead of other predominantly western, developed ways of engaging with social change. The picture of two men kissing is very similar to any number of pictures we have seen over the last few years around LGBT activism. Its different really only because one of the men this time has a turban.

    Please tread your readers as people who are not just receptacles of your vision to bring mainstream left activism to the "sikh community". Where is the critical engagement? It feels like this site is ideologically a familiarly western, developed left tendency trying to expose the "sikh community" to this way of thinking and style of engagement, with just a few nods to "sikh history" or somesuch every now and then.

    The way you just simply right, "the khalsa was created to smash oppression" is just exactly in line with this. An entire article going one way, and then literally one line added in the end to make it about "sikhi".

  3. Karam Singh says:

    There is no reference whatsoever in the Siri Guru Granth Sahib to homosexuality. Guru ji simply did not consider it to be a problem. Lust is considered a problem but that applies to heterosexuals as well. This is a problem with indian culture in general. A lot of Sikhs pay more attention to Indian Culture when they should be paying attention to what Gurbani tells us.

  4. Some Kaur says:

    If this were a picture of a Sikh man kissing a woman, there would be a strong reaction as well. Most Sikhs aren't comfortable seeing public exchanges of body fluids, believing some things should be kept private, regardless of the genders involved.

  5. Gurpreet Singh says:

    Does Mr. Kanwar Saini represent all people in the religion? Some people would not be comfortable with an image of anyone kissing in any way. And on top of that he is kissing someone from which religion? For me this does not have to do with homophobia directly, and I would not want to reveal my particular orientation either. There are certain Panthic issues which the Panth has not had discussions about yet, and that is completely fine. For example, who are we to give a Sikh perspective on the Gun Control issue, abortion, homosexuality, if we have not done research, and provided a perspective yet? Just my 2 cents

  6. […] musically and otherwise, thanks to you. Looking forward to an exciting 2014. You can check out my first writing of the year about the Sikh response to India’s criminalization of homosexuality right here and the first […]

  7. sant sipahi says:

    Creation really got it right above when they asked "where is the critical engagement?" Brooklynwalla says "The issue here is about freedom". That's exactly what we need a *critical* discussion about. What exactly is "freedom"?

    For instance, would everyone agree that the "right" to walk around in public nearly naked is "freedom" and the need to wear clothing is "oppression"? Many women would say the opposite; that "freedom" consists in not being objectified as sexual instrument, not in being required to put their sexuality on display at all times and in all places. What is the origin exactly of the formula that less clothing = more freedom? That's something that requires critical discussion. It's not as simple as it might seem.

    Sikhi actually has a lot to add to a serious critical discussion about this issue. Sikhi doesn't give us commandments or prohibitions, but rather encourages us to understand the nature of desire. As Karam Singh said above, desire is not exclusive to homosexuals, bisexuals, or heterosexuals; everyone experiences it. The question that Sikhi addresses is what to do about desire, not which expression of desire is appropriate.

    Brooklynwalla writes "So much can be learned from this discomfort if we sit with it, think about it, meditate upon it, consider how it relates to the values our Gurus stood for, and at times, lost their lives for". I would poses the question back; is what the Gurus stood for the right to upload a picture of oneself on the internet in a desirous position, or the right to be free from the "oppressive" grip of desire?

  8. Creation says:

    You deleted the comment where I said that my concern was a picture of two men kissing, and that it is wrong to punish people for following their heartfelt desire.

    If you are going to be deleting comments, please let people know, so they can choose whether or not to post at all.

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