7th May 2018   •   profile
Sikh, turbaned and queer: Prabhdeep is fighting for acceptance and love

by Barfi Culture Team | @barfi_culture.
Image: Twitter / Prabh Kehal
A few Fridays ago, I spotted a tweet by Prabh Kehal about presenting their PHD dissertation proposal at university.

Along with it, they posted some pictures celebrating their queerness, which went viral and brought out a wave of appreciation. This was a new world to me.

We rarely see representation of LGBTQ+ people in the media, let alone turbaned ones. And in the desi community such voices are almost completely off the radar. Naturally I had a few questions to ask.

Prabh sees their gender identity as fluid and non-conforming: using neither 'he / she' to describe themselves. The sisters use 'they' or 'their' to refer to their sibling. (I'm doing the same here).

I also wanted to profile Prabhdeep because LGBTQ+ people still face stigma and harassment. We criticise others for bigotry but rarely challenge our own assumptions.

Prabh is a doctoral student in sociology at Brown University in Rhode Island, focusing on racial theory, racism, higher education, and organizational theory in research.

I reached out to them with a few questions about their experiences. The responses have been edited down for brevity.

How long have you identified as queer?

Prabh: "I've always been queer, though it wasn't until about fourth grade when I realized that this was "a thing", both in society and within my Punjabi Sikh community."

"When I was a kid, sexuality wasn't a topic that was openly talked about in either the Punjabi Sikh diaspora or in traditional elementary school education. As a result, I wasn't always aware of what the "norm" was and I definitely wasn't aware that I was not conforming to it."

Do you self-identify as Sikh? Does that cause you problems?

"I do identify as Sikh. Given the current political climate, there definitely is an added stress and worry for being visibly marked as an other -- both given my brownness and my wearing a dastaar."

"Though, as I've gotten more open and public about my queerness over the past decade, I've seen and experienced the issues people have with queer people.

"I've had people take my pictures and try to use them to shame my family and me back into the closet. While this isn't limited to the Punjabi and/or Sikh community, because hating queer people is an equal opportunity sport, I have had instances where people with large online followings on Instagram have voiced their disapproval of me being a 'queer Sikh'."

"The comments usually circle around me bringing shame to Sikhs and me 'not being a man'. To my knowledge these people are Punjabi, though I do not know if they are Sikh."


"However, each time I've had people rally around me in support, primarily Sikh women and my sisters. That's been the amazing boon: seeing the growing support and active acceptance in my generation for the queer community. Even if active acceptance and support isn't something I get to experience as I grow up, I'm seeing the seeds for the next generation."

Prabh's sisters are certainly very supportive of their brother.

How did your mum and dad react when you told them?

"My parents were quite wonderful given that they definitely didn't understand what it meant when their kid comes out to them. Like I said, sexuality, let alone queerness, is not an open topic within the community writ large."

"I always tell people that my parents' generation didn't really have a paradigm to make sense of what they were being told, so my parents redoubled their love towards me because they said no matter what, that wouldn't change."

"They are very devout Sikhs, and at the end of the day, to them, it doesn't take advanced education to recognize anyone's humanity, you know?"

"I think my parents' biggest concern has always been how the world and other people will treat me, because they're seen how much hate is out there for the queer community and for Sikhs. As they've learned more and seen how people support me -- within and outside the community -- I think it's helped them understand things better."

"Most support I've had has come from women"

We asked Prabhdeep if they wanted to add something. They wanted to stress two things:

"Queer Sikhs, and/or Queer Punjabi people (who may not identify as Sikhs), are simply trying to live freely, without being subject to the judgement, harassment, and hate that pervades our community and society; we want safety for ourselves and others who are subject to the same types of hate."

"I know people within the community are very vehement about trying to "hide" queer Sikhs, as if we don't exist. So all that to say, whether we hide or live freely, seems like our existence is the thing that folks have a problem with."

Secondly, Prabh wants to credit women for creating the space for queer, non-binary, and trans people.

"The overwhelming support I've gotten has consistently been from Sikh women and other queer and trans people. I say this because it shows you who is throwing the hate at me and who is gatekeeping my existence as a queer Sikh."

"Simply that from my experience, it has been without a doubt straight Punjabi and / or Sikh men placing targets on my back and straight Sikh women coming to my defense."

You can follow Prabhdeep's work on Twitter or their website.

If you're looking for more information or support from LGBTQ+ Sikhs, try Sarbat Sikhs.
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