Virtual Communities are Critical Lifelines for Transgender Sikhs
October 18, 2022
(The Revealer) — On May 16, 2020, I sat alone at a desk in my tiny Brooklyn apartment waiting to join an online gathering for trans and queer Sikhs.
For a fleeting moment, I saw my face appear big on the laptop screen in front of me, displaying a Zoom video preview, and then, nothing. Suddenly, my face was tiny in a sea of colorful rectangles, and the room filled with the sound of voices and digital pings cutting through an ambient electronic music playlist. I was in attendance at the first-ever Queer Sikh Virtual Meet-Up. More rectangles appeared and smiling faces revealed themselves from behind screen names flanked by pronouns of all sorts. Before I knew it, I was sharing space with over 100 people. Gurleen Kaur, who organized this and a series of virtual meet-ups, reports that 120 queer and trans Sikhs attended the first event, with more than 350 joining the email list she created. Having expected only 40 people to respond to her initial invitation, Kaur found herself speaking before a group that spanned every corner of the globe and represented a plethora of queer identities and experiences.
As Kaur clicked through her slideshow at the start of the event, I sat back in my chair in absolute awe. My cheeks hurt from smiling as I watched the chat box flare with conversation.
“Hi from Singapore!”
“It’s midnight here in India.”
“Add me on Instagram everyone!”
Electric excitement traveled from my smile to my fingertips as I typed an introduction of my own into the chat box and hit send. After beginning the long process of coming out as transgender and nonbinary in 2019, followed by the sudden, painful isolation spurred by the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, I knew I had found my sangat, my spiritual community, and I was finally stepping into it.
I was one of dozens of queer Sikhs at the meet-up finally leaning into the fullness of our humanity and our Sikh identity in the face of relentless harassment, assault, and spiritual negligence from within and outside of the Sikh community. The Queer Sikh Virtual Meet-Up wasn’t simply a social event; it was a unique invitation into authentic love and spiritual safety. Socially conservative Sikh communities have not been especially welcoming to trans and queer Sikhs, but the growth of virtual spaces like this during the pandemic suggests that marginalized Sikhs are evolving the definition of “sangat” to affirm our inclusion in the broader Sikh community.
“Virtual-First” Gives Room for Queer Sikh Connection
“In March, at the start of the pandemic, I felt like I really needed community. I reached out to other folks I knew who are queer and Sikh, and we assembled a team [to plan the gathering],” Gurleen Kaur, head organizer of the Queer Sikh Network, told me. “Maybe it’s how I cope with trauma. I have to make meaning from it and organize. That’s how I heal.”
Kaur, who describes herself as an “occasionally masc-leaning Sikh woman,” was not the first to identify an ongoing need among queer and trans Sikhs for safe and nurturing sangat. For the past several years, the volunteer-led group Sarbat in the United Kingdom has facilitated queer and trans sangat online and in-person. The interest in such offerings has grown substantially, especially since the start of the pandemic. In response, Sarbat launched their “Gup-Shup (Chit-Chat)” series in 2020, featuring queer and trans speakers from across the world, including India, the United States, and New Zealand. By the end of 2020, Sarbat began listing their virtual event details in multiple time zones and organized events outside of the U.K. to account for their growing international audience.
Kaur named Sarbat and Fateh.info, another queer-affirming Sikh platform that later became the Queer Sikh Network, as early thought-partners for her own queer Sikh community project. The appetite for queer sangat was obvious given the international response to Sarbat’s programming, and Kaur wanted to experiment with what is possible for queer sangats online. Soon after the first round of Queer Sikh Virtual Meet-Ups, Kaur turned her attention from organizing social gatherings to building the Queer Sikh Network, a social media project aimed at uncovering Sikh sources and stories that uplift queer and trans people.
In July 2021, I attended one of the first meetings for the Queer Sikh Network, where we discussed the most pressing issues facing trans and queer Sikhs. As a seminarian, I was thrilled to join a virtual gathering of like-minded Sikhs who were hungry to dig deep into our tradition for answers. We all knew that the liberative spirit of the Sikh tradition included us, but we needed hard evidence.
During that meeting, we discussed the most painful parts of our experiences as queer and trans Sikhs: how the Akal Takht, the highest governing authority in our community, barred same-sex marriage; how separate seating for men and women in American gurdwaras, Sikh houses of worship, set a dangerous precedent for nonbinary Sikhs; and how established Sikh codes of conduct, like the Rehat Maryada, alienated transgender Sikhs in need of support as they transition.
The people discussing these issues were queer and trans Sikhs I had followed on Twitter and Instagram for some time with hopes of building a queer Sikh social network of my own. Among these familiar voices was that of prabhdeep singh kehal, Ph.D., a nonbinary Sikh writer and sociologist.
Trans Sikh Visibility on Twitter
I first became acquainted with kehal’s advocacy after scrolling past a since-deleted Tweet in 2019, in which they celebrated their trans identity through fashion. kehal was the first trans Sikh I ever encountered, well before I publicly came out as trans and nonbinary. We had a series of brief interactions on Twitter between 2019 and 2021 before connecting through the first Queer Sikh Network meeting. Without actively seeking to do so, kehal became the first Sikh to affirm for me that the Sikh tradition and trans identities are not at odds, that being a visible trans Sikh is possible, and that we were not the only trans Sikhs working to build a community.
kehal, who has had a Twitter account since 2009, learned early on that social media could be a powerful community-building tool, not only for queer Sikhs, but for everyone. Not long after creating their account, kehal found themself engaging on Twitter as an ethical obligation in response to rising tensions around anti-Blackness and LGBTQ+ rights: “The [scholarly] work that I focus on is anti-Black racism in the U.S. and colonialism. I can’t actually say that my work addresses those things if, in practice, I don’t do something as basic as share a tweet. There aren’t a whole lot of us Sikhs saying anything [about this] there are more of us online.”
Through kehal’s Twitter activity – retweeting friends and colleagues whose views resonated with kehal’s – I came to know of dozens of queer and trans Sikhs. Across North America and the world, queer and trans Sikhs were sharing their experiences of marginalization through stories, art, and scholarship. Some recorded music and published poetry about the rejection they faced as trans people, while others celebrated cultural dances through drag performance. It quickly became apparent that the compassionate community of queer Sikh solidarity I sought had already been coalescing.
As a huge online sangat of queer Sikh artists, scholars, and activists began to form before my eyes, I noticed the most visible and vocal of these Sikhs identify as transgender and speak powerfully about the transphobic hate they experience in Sikh spaces both online and offline. In January 2021, two nonbinary Sikhs, Manu Kaur and manmit, co-authored a series of articles titled, “When Will Caste-Oppressed and Queer and Trans Folks Find Liberation in Sikh Spaces?” for Kaur Life magazine, an online publication catered primarily to Sikh women. The series outlined the pain that queer, trans, and caste-oppressed Sikhs face in the community, like forcible removal from worship spaces, physical violence at the hands of family members and community leaders, caste-based and homophobic harassment, and relentless verbal abuse on social media.
Despite Twitter serving as fertile ground to nurture queer and trans sangats, I spoke with trans Sikhs who described the anti-trans harassment they encounter on social media, most frequently from other Sikhs. sahiba, a trans nonbinary Sikh, spoke to me about a time they were doxxed for their public remarks about the Sikh tradition, saying, “On a panel with the Jakara Movement [a community organization serving California’s Sikh populations] for Pride Month last year, I had said, ‘Fuck the Rehat Maryada [the Sikh code of conduct].’ Someone took that seven-second clip and posted it to Twitter. I was doxxed…and my address was out there,” sahiba told me. I recalled the incident immediately. After speaking honestly about their experiences of alienation in what was meant to be a safe space, sahiba was blackmailed and harassed by transphobes and homophobes on Twitter. Shortly after, a stranger publicly tweeted sahiba’s address, endangering them and their family.
sahiba expressed an ongoing hesitation to re-engage Sikh Twitter for fear that the harassment would escalate. “I took a break [from social media] at that time. I was living two separate lives, and I was scared that someone would come up to my family and ask, ‘What is your child doing?’ I was really scared that, if it came to my family, I would die.”
The Greatest Threat to Trans Sangat is Other Sikhs
The life-threatening hate speech that sahiba and others encounter from transphobic Sikhs does not exist exclusively in the vacuum of social media. According to Dr. Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, chair of the department of Religion at Colby College and author of The Birth of the Khalsa: A Feminist Re-Memory of Sikh Identity, the violence we experience online simply serves as an extension of the centuries-old patriarchal norms that permeate Sikh communities.
In our conversation, Dr. Singh told me that the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, which Sikhs consider our primary sacred text and living Eternal Guru, is not a clear, prescriptive text. As a result, we Sikhs are left to interpret the poetic verses therein ourselves. “But who has been doing the hermeneutics?” Dr. Singh asked me pointedly at the start of our discussion. “The males. The patriarchs.”
The Sikh Gurus “tried to create a window of opportunity through which women [and others] could achieve liberty, equality and sorority,” says Singh in her book, Sikhism: An Introduction. “[But] The Gurus’ words have never been understood,” Singh told me. The ten Sikh Gurus established a community and tradition grounded in revolution against oppressive norms. But queer, trans, and female-identified Sikhs continue to suffer from ancient patriarchal standards in Sikh spaces, largely peddled by cisgender men who feel their long-standing power is threatened by the growing popularity and visibility of feminism, queerness, and transness.
“[The Sikh tradition] is all love, and that love can be for anybody,” said Singh. “But the way the Gurus’ words are distorted, that love becomes fear.”
It’s the spirit of openness and the recognition of our innate humanity that Singh says will pave the way for the inclusion of queer and trans Sikhs. While the Sri Guru Granth Sahib and other sources in the Sikh tradition don’t speak explicitly to trans identities, “the Gurus provide us with space to change [and] the notion of temporality,” Singh said. “We have to put our own sensibilities into [contextual] understanding,” respecting the strong foundation of inclusion and collective liberation within our tradition to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse global Sikh community.
The Sikh Tradition is Queer
Despite a constant barrage of transphobic hate in the very spaces that trans Sikhs seek to build sangat, many trans Sikhs agree with Singh’s assessment of the inclusive nature of the tradition. When I asked trans Sikhs if and how they see transness affirmed in the Sikh tradition, all responded with evidence directly from Sikh spiritual sources. Together, we started piecing together the beginnings of a trans Sikh liberation theology.
sahiba asserted, “Throughout Gurbani [Sikh sacred texts], Guru Sahib [the Divine] is not married to a specific gender. Guru Sahib is always shifting. The project of Sikhi, as far as I can tell, is focused on the abolition of gender. We don’t need these boxes…they’re holding us back.”
manpreet singh, a trans masculine spoken word poet, illustrator, and author of Singh is Queer, cited the janamsakhi (story) of Guru Nanak meeting a genderfluid Sufi Sheikh as a significant source of trans affirmation. In the account, Guru Nanak finds Sheikh Saraf, a male-bodied person, dressed as a bride and asks why the sheikh is wearing traditionally feminine clothing. Sheikh Saraf responds saying they are waiting to find their beloved. Rather than reprimanding Sheikh Saraf for challenging gender norms, Guru Nanak joins the Sheikh in song and discussion on spirituality and love for the Divine.
Armaan Singh, a comedian, rapper, and self-described “Trans-Singh,” also cited Guru Nanak as his inspiration for trans affirmation — and human affirmation — during our interview. He showcases this view in his latest single, “Queer Sikhs,” in which Armaan raps, “Transphobia has no place, if you give love a taste. Guru Nanak said it, in fact: We’re anti-hate, anti-caste.”
Theological evidence such as this inspires artists like Armaan to continue posting trans-affirming Sikh content on their social media channels despite backlash. Armaan says, “[The response to my art has been] hit or miss. If you go to TikTok, it’s all negative and trolls. I think I have a more conscious audience on Instagram because I’ve built it over the last five or six years. There are more people [on Instagram] who know what I’m saying.”
It’s the sense of being seen, heard, and understood that brings trans Sikhs back to social media day after day. For manpreet, sharing excerpts of his poems on Instagram and networking with queer and trans Sikhs in the comments on his posts is a life-affirming activity, especially in light of the alienation they experienced in predominantly white queer digital spaces. manpreet reports that, “If I had exposed myself to Brown and Black trans people first instead of white trans people [on Tumblr], I don’t think I would have ever gotten top surgery. There are seven billion people in the world, which means there are seven billion genders. Everyone performs their gender differently.”
Beyond Digital Inclusion
Despite the physical, spiritual, and emotional dangers of being trans, Sikh, and online all at once, trans Sikhs continue to find strong value in the internet as a sangat-building tool. Digital access is an invitation to affirmation that remains largely absent in physical Sikh spaces, like gurdwaras. But the dangers of virtual sangat-building, like harassment and doxxing, reflect a much larger problem of systemic exclusion in Sikh worship spaces.
At Kartarpur, Guru Nanak established the institution of sangat, modeling what a compassionate, inclusive community can and should look like in the face of oppression. To honor Guru Nanak’s vision, trans Sikhs assert that serious changes must be made to make gurdwaras and other physical spaces accessible to queer and trans worshippers.
“Since stepping into my transness, the fear of going to the gurdwara starts with, ‘Where do I sit?’” explained sahiba, describing a time they attended services at a local gurdwara while wearing traditionally feminine attire. “I was wearing a chunni [a head scarf] and had my nails painted. After Ardaas [a prayer performed at the start or end of a service], I immediately left. I felt so unsafe because I was also sitting on the side that’s designated for ‘women.’”
“I would feel safe [in a gurdwara] when a group of queer folks and I can…sit anywhere we want,” said Armaan, exploring a similar tension. “I say that because I present as masculine, and I can sit on the masculine side, but even still, my community is not there. We shouldn’t be gendering religion, especially in a Sikh space. Sikhi is about an inclusive and genderless Guru.”
A nascent movement for queer inclusion in physical Sikh spaces is continuing to grow, with community organizations like Sher Vancouver hosting Queer Kirtan for local members and organizers like Gurleen Kaur now thinking beyond the virtual potential of the Queer Sikh Network.
“Community is the center of our [Sikh] teachings,” manpreet reflected at the end of our interview, his eyes glistening as tears formed. “If we centered community in our lives every day, there would be no homophobia … Because [we’re] doing this work, ten to twenty years from now, young Sikhs will be okay.”
As we thanked each other for our time and our presence, manpreet shed a tear, a drop of amrit, or sacred water, blessing the liberative task that he, I, and countless others have taken up in the spirit of our Gurus. manpreet left the Zoom meeting, and I was left staring at myself on the screen, just as I had done before that first fateful Queer Sikh Virtual Meet-Up. But as my pixelated face looked back at me, I was comforted knowing that behind those pixels was a virtual sangat ready to hold me, love me, and affirm me like never before.
Harmeet Kaur Kamboj (they/them/theirs) is an interfaith educator, performing artist, public scholar, and zine-maker. Their writing is featured in the Religion News Service, Sojourners, and Interfaith America Magazine.
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