Meet Ajay. He’s Punjabi. He plays soccer. He respects his elders. And he’s interested in men.
It’s one of six posters created by Our City of Colours designed to increase LGBT visibility within cultural and ethnic communities throughout Metro Vancouver.
Alex Sangha, a clinical counsellor and founder of Sher Vancouver ( a social and support group for South Asian LGBT people, and their friends, families, and allies), praises the poster as a positive step towards dealing with homophobia and discrimination.
“One thing I like about these Our City of Colours posters is that…they’re trying to make people see we’re just like everyone else,” he says. “We’re no different from anyone else. And we have a right to be treated fairly and equally and with respect.”
He points out that because Ajay isn’t wearing a turban, doesn’t have a beard, and isn’t in traditional costume, this image may moderate any controversy the image will have, compared to one of two men in turbans kissing, for example.
Darren Ho, who created the project, says that like the Persian poster, only one model was used due to challenges in finding two models.
Sangha, who is Punjabi, points out how the posters helps to encompass the different facets of a person’s identity, particularly if they are queer and of an ethnic minority group.
“They’re kind of caught in two worlds. They’re caught in the world of their culture plus they may be gay, plus they’re Canadian. It’s like they’re intersecting between different cultures. So the important thing about Our City of Cultures is it recognizes this intersection, it recognizes that people have many different identities, and that they don’t have to give up any part of their identity to feel welcome, to feel included.”
Inclusivity and building bridges is what Sher Vancouver is all about.
In fact, Sher Vancouver began as a Sikh group in 2008, expanded to a Punjabi group, and eventually grew to include all South Asians. Now, Sher Vancouver is even open to people of any sexuality, religion, and background so that friends, families, and allies can join. “We decided to do that because we had a lot of people in interracial relationships, and a lot of family members wanted to get involved and call us for support.”
The group still has a Punjabi division, with about 90 members. But it’s not the only South Asian queer group. There’s also Trikone Vancouver, run by Fatima Jaffer, which is solely for people who are queer and South Asian. “A lot of women feel more comfortable going to Trikone because it’s run by a woman, a lesbian,” Sangha explains, pointing out that the two groups complement each other by reaching different parts of the population.
There’s also Salaam Vancouver. Although it isn't a South Asian–specific group, it’s a queer organization for Muslim Canadians, which includes people of South Asian, Middle Eastern, and African descent. (Namaste, for queer Hindus, is now defunct.)
While local media have given much coverage to South Asian individuals involved in gay bashings over the past few years, Sangha points out that there is a large queer presence in the community that sometimes doesn’t get as much coverage.
“Sher has managed to get non-profit status through an affiliated agency, PICS [Progressive Intercultural Community Services]. This is a South Asian settlement agency. If our community is so homophobic, how could that have happened? How many other communities in Vancouver have two groups like Trikone and Sher providing services?”
Since April 2009, he has also run the Dosti project, in which at least one South Asian person presents school workshops about coming out. (Dosti means friendship in several South Asian languages.)
“When I do presentations out in schools, and a lot of the schools in Surrey have South Asian kids, they’re much more accepting and much more tolerant of sexual diversity and gender diversity,” he says. He has also witnessed much change in the community. “I find a lot of people sometimes when I’m doing interviews on the radio, South Asian radio or South Asian press or whatever, people would call in and they would say homosexuality is an illness, it’s a disease, it’s wrong, it’s unnatural…. Other people who are call in are saying, ‘No, people should be treated fairly. It’s not their choice to be gay. This is how God has created them.’ So there’s a change that is happening. I’m seeing more and more voices in support of the South Asian gay community.”
Making queer people more visible in specific communities can help to simply establish that queer people exist in these communities.
Sangha remembers an email he once received from a reporter trying to find a gay Sikh to interview in San Francisco. “He said that he went to the local temples and everything and asked them if he could interview a gay Sikh and he said there’s no gay Sikhs,” Sangha recalls with a hearty laugh. “I said, ‘Well, San Francisco is the biggest gay town in the world. I said, God, if you can’t find a gay Sikh there…’ .”
Our City of Colours is still looking for volunteers to help put up the posters. Anyone who is interested can contact them through information on their Facebook page.