I remember the moment that it dawned on me. That moment, in my empty, tiny and unremarkable apartment in what people called the “rough end” of town. I had been estranged from family, school friends and all that felt familiar. I was lying in bed, curled up. Trying so hard to muster past the stinging sensation that forced forward feelings of isolation, loneliness, and unworthiness. An innocent night out in the Toronto gay village ushered me back into this place.
It was a place I had run from. A place where Sikhs didn’t have to worry as much about donning turbans or what people thought. Back then, everyone joked that Brampton was the new “west Punjab.” It was a second home to so many Punjabi families. It was a safer space for Sikhs to come together to laugh, love, and flourish. But this was also a place where queer identities were “non-existent” and met with threats of dishonour and violence.
I remember those days. The days I never wanted to leave my room or face the world.
On the Toronto gay scene, different feelings are stirred up by mean-spirited interactions intended to exclude. The ugliness I saw in the gay nightlife, I also saw online. My dating apps were littered with messages from men who felt the need to call me expletives or explain that only white guys were their thing. A few trolls took it even further. They kept creating new accounts after being blocked because this was fun for them. Wasn’t there anyone who wanted to just chat, flirt or grab a coffee? Admittedly, these feelings weren’t only about the online messages.
That pivotal night had started alright. Laughing and hanging out at a friend’s. They eventually convinced me to go out. I never went out. And they never really understood why.
They couldn’t see how much things had actually changed after I decided to grow out my hair. Turbans weren’t so welcome here. The turban, a symbol of undying love and a commitment to challenge tyranny in a worldview held by 27 million people worldwide. A symbol that I had to unlearn and a meaning I had to unearth on my own. A meaning and history that wasn’t sold in textbooks or a part of the world’s common narrative. Centuries of people who intentionally tied turbans in the name of justice, in the face of tyrants and as symbols of love and valour. Our stories. Significant, necessary stories. They have been intentionally forgotten. Our symbols, histories, and struggles were all but lost on the Toronto gay community where queerness was a perfect neat box. Here six packs, trimmed hair, light skin, and bubble butts are symbols of what’s most celebrated.
Back at the club, we stood in line. The mood had changed. I noticed some glares and whispers. Those familiar feelings started to seep in. I put on a smile. It’s not me; it’s just the bar-hopping mentality, of course. They’re probably staring at everyone, a friend had told me once. I’m repeating it in my head over and over again. I don’t mention it to my friends. I don’t want to ruin the vibe.
We’re in now. But what’s worse than noticing the whispers and side glares? The moment when all the whispers and side glares subside. Death by a thousand cuts they call it. Everyone seems to be working hard to avoid eye contact, jackets and purses move quickly onto empty bar stools, friends’ circles get tighter. You’d think the bartender would opt out of this behavior, at least for the tips. But no, not even the bartender spares me.
There is someone who decides to interact with me that night. I can tell she’s had one too many as she stumbles closer to me.
She reeks of vodka, slurring words under her breath and fumbling with a sash that reads “Bride-to-Be.” Her friends stare from afar and her presence makes me uncomfortable. “Hey Osama, if you are so f***ing religious what are you doing here anyway?” she yells. Her friends giggle in the corner—pushing one another forward to go collect her. My friends say, brush it off, and I realize it’s my time to call it a night.
I had no one else to blame but myself of course. I had been the one so focused on setting out to forge new friendships that would celebrate me. I had been the one looking to find chosen family and safer spaces. Yet, I knew I still deserved the peace I longed for.
It was in that moment, at the end of a long night, I realized why these feelings were so different. They reminded me of a quote I’d read in a letter. Vaishno Das Bagai—a businessman who fled India for the U.S but committed suicide after learning about the Supreme Court decision in US. vs Thind—wrote, “What will become of me….obstacles this way, blockades that way and the bridges burnt behind,” This shook me to my core.
Obstacles this way, blockades that way and bridges burnt behind.
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