British Columbia

New documentary aims to give hope to LGBTQ South Asians who are hesitant to come out

Emergence: Out of the Shadows directed by Vinay Kumar highlights the experiences and unique challenges faced by the LGBTQ South Asian community. The documentary will be publicly screened this fall on National Coming Out Day.

Producer Alex Sangha says coming out in a traditional South Asian family is weighted with particular worries

From left: Alex Sangha, producer and founder of Sher Vancouver, his mother Jaspal Sangha, and Jagandeep Nagra outside the Sanghas' home in Delta, B.C., on June 25. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

For Alex Sangha, growing up meant daydreaming of the neighbour's dollhouse, frolicking around in saris, choosing Barbie over trucks, and eventually preferring relationships with men over women. 

It meant knowing himself as the "only gay brown guy in the neighbourhood."

It also meant facing years of homophobia, failing to accept himself, and fearing rejection from his family. 

"I was so afraid of rejection. I didn't want to let down my mom. How is she going to understand this?" he said.

Now, the 49-year-old social worker and founder of Sher Vancouver, an LGBTQ support group, has transformed the coming out experiences of South Asian queer folks into an upcoming documentary.

Emergence: Out of the Shadows illustrates the distinct coming-out experiences of three South Asian characters from Metro Vancouver, including Sangha, who is also the film's producer.

It unpacks the complex nuances of coming out to traditional families who are also learning about what it means to be queer. 

Coming out in a South Asian family is weighted with worries of being disowned, of parents fearing their children won't be accepted in the community and missing out on marriage and grandchildren, and of social stigmas and discrimination gay people often face across the world, Sangha said. 

He hopes the film will help ease the process for many queer people and their families.

"There's not a lot of education and information in the community for South Asian families and parents," says Sangha, who lives in Delta, B.C. 

Alex and his mother Jaspal Kaur Sangha when he was five years old. (Alex Sangha)

While Sangha's mom accepts him, his father still struggles to understand him.

Jaspal Kaur Sangha raised her son as a single mother. When she found out about his sexuality in the early 1990s, she pulled out a dictionary. 

"I said, 'what is gay?' So I check in the dictionary and they say gay mean happy. I was very happy."

She says when she heard the term "homo" she thought it referred to homo milk, and she was often naive as to why Alex was distancing himself.

As Jaspal grew to better understand her son, she accepted him — despite knowing that her traditional hopes of marriage and having grandchildren might not be fulfilled. 

"He struggled more because he was feeling obliged inside to one of these days get married, have grandchildren and my mother will be happy. So I make him understand that that's not the only way. You have to be happy first," she said.

Alex Sangha alongside his mother at the Vancouver Pride Parade in 2017. (Alex Sangha )

For Sangha and his mother, this documentary is about starting new conversations for those who are struggling to come out, just like Sher Vancouver member Jagandeep Nagra did.

Nagra, who is also featured in the documentary, often found herself praying to come back as a boy in her next life so she could date the girls she had a crush on.

She kept her sexuality hidden until she learned about her own brother's secret. When she found out he was gay, Nagra could not bear it. 

"I had been struggling for so long and when I found he was gay I feel like my whole world just crumbled ... how are we going to have this conversation with my family?" she recalls thinking.

Jagandeep Nagra with her brother when they were kids. (Jagandeep Nagra)

Nagra and her brother came out to their parents on the same day. She sobbed hysterically until the words came out. 

To her surprise, she was met with the tightest hug. 

"They accepted me. They accepted the biggest secret I was keeping from them. Every conversation after that was easy," she said.

For Nagra, who lives in Pitt Meadows, B.C., the documentary is an opportunity for new conversations about acceptance for her three-year-old daughter and 10-month-old son. She also hopes to show that marriage and family are still possible for someone who is South Asian and queer.

WATCH | People who feature in Emergence: Out of the Shadows talk about their experiences of coming out:

Upcoming documentary breaks the silence on the South Asian LGBTQ community.

CBC News BC

1 month ago
2:55
Characters from Emergence: Out of the Shadows talk about their distinct coming-out experiences as members of the South Asian community in Metro-Vancouver. 2:55

While Sangha's mom and Nagra's parents accept their sexuality, it's not always the reality for many queer folks. 

But Sangha believes this documentary can be a pioneering resource for nurturing hope and understanding. 

"I want to give hope to the younger generation. I want to give hope to the parents. I want people to know that it does get better because, you know, I love myself now," he said.

The documentary will be publicly screened during National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11 at Kwantlen Polytechnic University this fall. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Baneet Braich

CBC Donaldson Scholar

Baneet Braich is a Joan Donaldson Scholar for CBC News. Connect with her at baneet.braich@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @Baneet_Braich

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