It’s been a busy month for Alex Sangha, founder of the South Asian queer organization Sher Vancouver. He’s celebrated 10 years of Sher Vancouver, won a StandOUT Award from Vancouver Pride for business leadership, and—most impressively—been awarded the Governor General’s Meritorious Service Medal.
“I don’t know what’s been going on. It’s been crazy,” Sangha laughed as he spoke to the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.
Sangha received the medal in honour of his social work in the LGBTQ community. He founded Sher Vancouver in 2008, orginally as an organization to help gay Sikhs in Surrey and North Delta.
“When I started Sher Vancouver, there was a backlash in the community. They said, ‘there’s no such thing as gay Sikhs,’ ” Sangha said. “People were messaging me on MSN and saying you’re not a true Sikh…. It was really sad and I felt my life was at risk.”
But with his mother’s support, Sangha decided to persevere. Early on, the group changed to include all queer South Asians, which allowed Sangha to get away from the religious tensions. However, he still had to deal with prejudice.
“There’s a lot of cultural pressures for people to get married and have children and basically live a heterosexual life in our community, and when you’re different you are discriminated against,” he said. “People who are Indian and South Asian, when they come here, a lot of them keep the same attitudes. So for a young gay kid trying to come out in a Sikh family, it’s that much more difficult.”
Sher Vancouver has faced these attitudes first-hand. One particular example sticks out: a 21-year-old student from India who was studying at Langara and staying with family in Surrey.
Sangha says the youth was disowned by his family in 2016 after they found out he was gay, and the man had nowhere else to go so he reached out to Sher Vancouver. Sangha and another member of Sher went to meet the student, who hadn’t eaten for a week.
“My friend turned to me and said, ‘what’s the point of Sher Vancouver if we cannot help a person like this?’ So right away, we took him into my home,” Sangha said.
Sher Vancouver led a fundraising campaign to cover the youth’s international tuition fees, and now, Sangha calls the young man his son. He doesn't publicize his son's name though, as the man is still waiting on his permanent residency.
“My mum said to me, ‘I never thought I’d be a grandmother through you, Alex, and now...we’re so happy to have your son in our life,' ” Sangha said.
When asked about his proudest moment from the last 10 years, Sangha immediately responded by talking about his son.
“Ever since my son has been in my life, I’ve been a different person,” he said. “Basically we pulled him from the waters as he was drowning. I’ve kind of felt like that was a moment of truth for me….That would be my proudest achievement, helping this person, because there’s nothing more meaningful in the world than to make a difference in someone else’s life.”
Sher’s 10th anniversary party, Desi-Q, was another highlight for Sangha. Over 270 people attended, including B.C. Heath Minister Adrian Dix.
Desi-Q also directly led to another of Sher Vancouver’s new initiatives, the Courage Fund, where No Fear Counselling donated $12,000-worth of free counselling for Sher Vancouver members in distress. The program was announced May 1, and Sangha confirmed at least two members had taken advantage of that offer so far.
And only a few weeks after that launch, Sangha won the Business Leader category of the StandOUT Awards.
“I never really thought of myself as a business person,” Sangha said. “I think I got [it] because I engaged with the business community to support causes related to LGBT rights and human rights…. I’ve always been doing that but I never actually realized you could win an award for that!”
That award came the same week that the Meritorious Service Award lapel pins arrived in the mail, along with a letter and an information booklet. He’s also allowed to use the letters MSM after his name, something Sangha found amusing.
“In the gay world, MSM stands for men who have sex with men,” he said. “Maybe I was meant to have this medal.”
The official ceremony hasn’t been scheduled yet, as it could happen any time within the next two years depending on when Julie Payette, the Governor General, is free.
Sangha dedicated the award to his mother, Jaspal Kaur Sangha.
“She’s a wonderful courageous mother who’s supported me right from the beginning. She was a single parent of three boys, she was an immigrant from Punjab, and she worked as a nurses' aide,” he said. “I’m so grateful.”