By Viplav Subramanian
The Indian subcontinent—known for its diversity and versatility of identities, cultures, and people—celebrated the presence of Queerness in a unique and empowering fashion in the past. In this regard, its residents were turning the wheels of history against the colonial project.
From descriptions of trans identities, drag culture, and nonbinary folk in popular Indian mythologies like Ramayana and Mahabharata, to the understanding of homosexuality in Kama Sutra, India has historically been accepting and welcoming of Queer identities. Rejuvenating this spirit of inclusion and celebration, it is vital to combat ongoing trans hate and Queer erasure in the North American context.
Conducting revolutionary activism, various individuals, artists, and organizations are labouring toward the upliftment of Queer communities in Canada. One such not-for-profit organization, Sher Vancouver, has been committed toward network-building, social services and well-being of South Asian Queers and allies.
As a volunteer at Sher, I have witnessed the immense work put toward the betterment of this particularly marginalized community. The organization does this through social programming, provision of mental-health services, practicums, elaborate outreach programing, and collaboration with many others in Vancouver and Surrey.
Commemorating its efforts toward safeguarding and elevating the lives of Queer South Asians, Sher celebrated its 15th Anniversary through the Desi-Q gala held on July 8.
The event was a beacon of hope. It showcased many Queer South Asian artists and performers demonstrating their appreciation. The gala also recognized those conducting labour on behalf of the organization, and much more. With more than 15 official sponsors and around 600 individuals attending the event, Desi-Q was a success in promoting the diversity of Queer South Asian culture.
Sher Vancouver founder Alex Sangha expresses that Sher creates an inclusive haven where individuals can thrive and find solace in the support and camaraderie of like-minded souls.
“Sher stands as an exceptional and unique organization in Canada, offering a rare and unparalleled dual purpose as both an arts, cultural, and social-service registered charity for Queer South Asians and allies,” states Sangha. “We possess a distinctiveness that sets us apart. By bringing individuals within our community together, we ensure that no one ever feels alone.”
Joshna Hirani, the community manager, says Desi-Q was “an evening that celebrated both culture and identity, beautifully highlighting the importance of representation and visibility for all individuals within the diverse South Asian LGBTQIA+ community and beyond.” Hirani hopes that events like these normalize all types of relationships, regardless of gender or sexuality, fostering a more inclusive society.
In highlighting the efforts of Sher Vancouver members, Desi-Q moved beyond the celebration of Queerness to promoting and appreciating the labour of those who help sustain systems of regeneration and upliftment. This came through an executive and volunteer recognition section.
Karn Singh Sahota, the outreach manager, was delighted to see the spectacle of Desi-Q. As well, Sahota was delighted by the provision of a platform to recognize efforts that many conduct in promoting a safe and inclusive culture of Queerness.
“We at Sher Vancouver have made the utmost effort to cultivate a community that can come command space and be seen in an increasingly hostile time for the Queer community at large,” he says. “Sher Vancouver hopes to continue serving the community with more programming and expanding the organization’s reach far beyond Metro Vancouver.”
Desi Futurism on display
The event reflected the concept of Desi Futurism. According to Chatham University professor Ryan A. D’Souza, Desi Futurism is “a critical perspective that interrupts whitewashed imaginations of a technologized future with the experiences of the past-present to write desi versions of the past, present, and future”.
Sher held space to reclaim art and performance in South Asian culture through a Queer lens. From decorations to drag, Desi-Q preserved the beauty and wonders of Queerness in South Asian dance, song, and art.
Ritesh Matlani, whose work was featured at Desi-Q, is a South Asian Queer flower artist. They use the medium of floral design to create an experience for their community that has otherwise not been provided to them in conventional narratives.
“I’ve grown up watching films and weddings where flowers and beauty surrounded heteronormative identities,” Matlani says. “Creating a lush garden in which all our Queer identities could thrive, feeling loved and precious, meant a lot to me. I am doing for others, what I wish someone would have done for me. And Sher Vancouver is the perfect platform for our ambitions and dreams to meet, and allow South Asian Queer art to heal the community.”
In fact, to engage in active collaboration with other marginalized folks, Matlani has sourced all their flowers from Lower Mainland farms run by women who are advocates and supporters of the 2SLGBTQ+ community.
Many spectacles and elements of Desi Futurism were witnessed at Desi-Q through elaborate and majestic drag performances. Nimrat, a South Asian drag queen, exclaims that such platforms regenerate spaces of appreciation and celebration of Queerness that were historically present in Indian culture.
“Showcasing such performances provides the splendour of Indian culture while also encompassing powerfully non-normative gender and sexual expressionisms,” says Nimrat.
Bad Shah and Glow Motive feel at home
Engaging with display the vibrant diversity of this community, Desi-Q also featured Canada’s only South Asian Drag King, Bad Shah, who felt a sense of coming home to their roots at the event.
“In many ways, the celebration reminded me of a big Indian wedding, where everyone was like family,” says Bad Shah. “The warmth and love in the air were palpable, creating an unforgettable sense of community and acceptance. I left with my heart full of joy, gratitude, and a renewed sense of purpose as a Bollywood drag king, ready to continue breaking barriers and celebrating my unique identity.”
Other artists included Glow Motive, who presented two soulful self-composed songs. Anjalica Solomon, one of the lead singers, mentions tht “often, as artists in so-called Vancouver, our band Glow Motive ends up performing for white audiences, so it feels special when an event is oriented towards a crowd that looks like us and wants to share in our capacity for Queer joy.”
A sense of unity and collective solidarity make Solomon feel deeply at home, which is not always a feeling that Queer folks from South Asian backgrounds have been privileged with.
Why does it matter?
“The Desi-Q Cultural Gala shines as a vital celebration in these challenging times marked by increased hostility toward gender and sexual minorities,” states Sher Vancouver founder Alex Sangha. “Desi-Q radiates the unwavering support for diversity, inclusion, and equality, emphasizing that our community stands firmly behind every individual, embracing their unique differences.”
In a society where love and inclusion are desperately needed, it’s alarming to see growing trans and Queer hatred, discrimination, and oppression. Sher Vancouver and the work it conducts are vital to the preservation and appreciation of identities and culture, otherwise erased and marginalized in Western conventional society. Desi-Q represented a leading example of such activism and celebration of authentic South Asian Queerness.
Viplav Subramanian is an international graduate student at UBC with a passion for social justice and telling untold stories. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.