By: Shubham Ghosh
He is known to be one of the most prominent Sikh voices in Britain. But there is also another story which makes Jasvir Singh’s story unique. He is a gay — a fact which he decided to keep private till now as it created problems for him in his own community. But Singh has now decided that he will speak openly about his sexuality.
Singh, who is the founding chair of City Sikhs which provides a voice for progressive Sikhs in the UK, is well aware of the fact that it will be challenging and a lot of people will be upset with him but yet he has remained firm.
“I know that speaking about this is going to be highly controversial,” he told the BBC.
“I’m sure there will be lots of people out there who will be upset, annoyed, even angry at me. But I’ve got nothing to hide and I know that I have got Waheguru [God] with me, as I have had Waheguru with me all the way.”
Singh, who got married to his husband Nick last summer, is a family barrister and a regular contributor to Radio 4’s ‘Thought For The Day’. He has also been honoured with a CBE as a recognition of his work bringing together faith communities and advocating for groups that are vulnerable.
But while these make up his identity in the public, Singh’s private life has remained a subject of speculation which has even led to death threats, but the man now wants to take the problem head on.
Singh said while he received threats to his life from some elements of the British Sikh community, he was also called an infidel on a television station. Besides, people called him up and threatened to expose him.
He said that he has not tried to conceal his sexual orientation but it is also something about which he has not spoken openly. It was after a video from his marriage started circulating on social media that Singh thought the time has come to open up.
But it is not only his own story that Singh wanted to focus on. Besides telling it on his own terms, he also wanted to help other gay Sikhs experiencing similar challenges.
“Just as my Sikhism is part of me, so is my sexuality. So is my turban. So is my identity. I can’t divorce any one thing from the rest of me. That is who I am,” he told the BBC.
Singh, an honorary member of Edward Cadbury Centre, said the Sikh religion in which he grew up within the family had a strong focus on a central principle of equality and that he never saw his faith to be at odds with his sexual orientation.
Pointing to a pivotal moment when he was only 16, Singh said he had gone to a pilgrimage in India with his father where they trekked three or four days to a place called Hemkund Sahib — an idyllic gurdwara in the Himalayas.
“After the arduous journey, I paid my respects but the one thing I prayed for was to be straight. I just wanted to be able to live a life where I did not embarrass people, and where my family would not be ashamed of me,” he told the news outlet.
He said since his sexual orientation did not transform after the holy trip, he was convinced that it was the path that Waheguru had decided for him and gained more confidence.
The Guru Granth Sahib, the core religious text of Sikhs, does not refer to homosexuality, but mentions about husbands and wives. It speaks of a divine spirit that is all pervading and seeing it in all, irrespective of race, class or gender. This particular aspect has seen Sikhs with various opinions to cite the scripture to justify their own stand on homosexuality.
But for Singh, the challenge to his sexuality from his own community has been immense. He was given a strong message that he could not live out his faith the way he wanted.
“My husband is white, British, and was not born into a Sikh family. But he understands my Sikhi (Sikhism) and he has respected and embraced that part of my life. We have said we want to have a family and want to bring our children up Sikh,” Singh told the BBC.
“We spoke about the kind of wedding we wanted in great detail, but sadly there was no way of getting married in a gurdwara, even though in my interpretation of the Anand Karaj (the Sikh marriage ceremony), there is no reason for this,” he added.
In mid-2000s, the Sikh religious leadership of the Akal Takht at the Golden Temple in Amritsar in India’s Punjab restated that same-sex marriage was unacceptable.
“From a faith perspective the position remains rock solid. The Anand Karaj ceremony is only for heterosexual couples,” Gurmel Singh, secretary-general of the Supreme Sikh Council in the UK, a representative body of British Sikhs and Sikh places of worship, was quoted as saying by the BBC.
While the council official said that he knows and respects Singh as a Sikh advocate, but the fundamental doctrines of the faith will not change so that he could marry a man in a gurdwara.
But Singh was deeply touched by an incident in a gurdwara in the UK where he and Nick had gone before their civil marriage. According to him, it was nothing but a gesture of acceptance from a Sikh religious figure.
“We went to offer blessings and had taken in a rumalla, a cloth used to cover the scriptures. The granthi, the custodian of the scriptures, saw us come in together and said he would say the ardas [prayers] for us,” he said.
The granthi asked them if there was anything particular they wanted him to pray for and when they said their well-being, he asked them whether they were absolutely sure that there was nothing else that they wanted him to pray for.
“It was then I realised he had noticed that we both had mehndi [henna] on our hands which is often done in the run-up to getting married. He said the ardas and it was not just for our well-being, it was for the coming together of our two families. It was so powerful for me and for the two of us,” Singh was quoted as saying.
Singh and Nick visited gurdwaras in Punjab and in other parts of India during their honeymoon trip.
Singh feels that since the overwhelming majority of Sikhs originated in Punjab, edicts made by the faith’s religious leaders have been influenced by the Punjabi culture over scripture to a great extent. The Sikh bodies in the UK though deny that.
“Sadly I know gay Sikhs who have given up their faith, or who feel their only option was to cut their hair, and to become less faithful, or just focus on their inner faith rather than spend time at the gurdwara,” Singh added.
Though the man himself leads a progressive Sikh organisation in the UK, there are many in the country who do not consider him a true practising Sikh.
“My faith has been a constant in my life through good times and bad. I’m not going to waver from my faith but I’m also not going to be ashamed of my sexuality,” Singh told the BBC.
Singh hopes that by speaking out on his sexuality, he will encourage others to feel proud of who they are.
He said the Sikh society in the UK is moving towards more acceptance, he is expecting to upset people for speaking up, but at the same time, he is also hoping to get the backing of some.