Remember the scene from Bend it Like Beckham—the 2002 hit about a girl coming-of-age in a traditional Punjabi family in the UK—when Jess’ sister’s almost in-laws thought they saw her kissing Jules and they called off the wedding? “Why couldn’t you like boys like the rest of us,” the sister asked Jess—short for Jasminder Singh—and the mother said, “Look at her bringing shame on the family.”
Well, Jess did like boys, it was just a misunderstanding, and later the wedding did happen. But the family’s reaction was right out of a handbook, because being gay is still related to shame in most South Asian families.
Many South Asian families in the West still find it difficult to even talk about sex, and would rather have us believe babies are born from holding hands, let alone discuss sexuality outside of a traditional heterosexual relationship. So when Toronto-born YouTube celebrity Lilly Singh came out as bisexual on Twitter, it was nothing less than a historic moment for the South Asian LGBTQI community, given her massive popularity.
Singh’s videos, through her own unique Canadian-Indian perspective, were among the first to bridge the gap between being “brown” and being Canadian, breaking a lot of stereotypes about being Indian along the way. In some of her videos, she’s touched on the difficulty of having a conversation sexual in nature with Indian parents, whom she plays herself—dressing up as the quintessential Indian mom and dad to play Paramjeet and Manjeet. Lilly’s real parents—who are in some of her videos reacting to her sexy Instagram pictures while she’s visibly nervous about their response—migrated to Toronto from Punjab, a state in north India.
Hazel Ann Hunter, a yoga teacher and an immigration officer, came out eight years ago as a lesbian to her parents, who also emigrated from India to Canada for a better life and opportunities. “It was hell and traumatising telling my parents,” Hunter told VICE. It was around this time she actually found Singh’s videos and even though they weren’t anything to do with being gay, they were about self-love—exactly what Hunter needed at the time.
“There was no representation at that time and I was looking to resonate with someone like me. I loved that Lilly was so open and vulnerable in her videos. She just has this unique ability to connect with people,” Hunter said.
Singh’s comic take on the idiosyncrasies unique to South Asians through videos like “Indian parents explain where babies come from” and “Telling my parents about my boyfriend” made her instantly relatable around the world. Eventually as the Scarborough comic’s popularity soared, she even collaborated with mega-popular Bollywood stars like Madhuri Dixit and Priyanka Chopra. “I used to watch Priyanka Chopra in movies, now we having girl’s night and popping booties,” Singh, dressed as her YouTube mom, raps in one of her videos.
On Sunday, while I was preparing myself for bed and mindlessly scrolling through Twitter, Lilly Singh’s tweet with rainbow coloured hearts, left me stumped. Proud, but absolutely stumped. Superwoman, Singh’s alias, called her bisexuality a superpower.
Like Singh, I’m Indian and I know that conversations about sexuality are as rare as unicorns, the YouTube star’s favorite animal. When I saw her tweet, my first thought was, “how did she even tell her parents?” I imagined her sitting her parents down and stuttering and stumbling to get the words out. And that’s usually what a lot of LGBTQI South Asians also discuss among themselves—how to come out when they’re unsure whether their parents even know what being gay means.
Jag Nagra, a 34-year-old Canadian with Punjabi heritage, came out to her parents 10 years ago.
“I spent a lot of years figuring out whether I’d ever be able to come out and live openly,” she told VICE. Now she has a wife and a daughter. The Vancouver illustrator describes her coming out as an “impactful experience”, a conversation which finished with her mother giving her the tightest hug of her life.
Being gay is almost a taboo in the subcontinent—lack of education, awareness, and the fact that no South Asian public figure, at least no one with Singh’s profile, has acknowledged their sexuality. Nagra recalled her friend’s coming out to his mother, who thought he wanted a sex change when he told her he was gay.
Even Bollywood, which produces hundreds of movies watched by millions around the world, until as recently as this year has never openly included homosexuality as a part of its main storyline, but rather only depicted it facetiously through movies like Dostana, starring Chopra.
So in the middle of such tightly packed silence, when a world popular role model like Lilly Singh comes forward, she’s almost forcing people to have a much needed conversation. In claiming her bisexuality, Singh is educating older South Asian generations and spreading awareness about other sexualities.
A recent high school graduate in India, who identifies herself as queer and gay, has been following Singh’s videos since 2013. Janet* hasn’t come out to her traditional Tamil family yet because she’s not “ready to test their love.” She says she may come out to them after she’s financially independent in order to cope with unknown consequences. But she definitely feels empowered after Singh’s public embrace of her sexuality, and calls it a “game changer” for the South Asian LGBTQI community, which has never before had a role model that fully represents them.
“If and when I come out, I’ll be able to show my parents that… being gay doesn’t stop me from having it all—I can be successful and have a full life,” the 18-year-old told VICE.
Nagra, too, thinks Singh’s public acceptance of her bisexuality is “huge” for the community because it will help give confidence to people trying to come out to their families and they can show her as an example of someone living a completely normal and successful life. “If someone like Lilly Singh had come out a decade ago, it would have totally changed things for me. I didn’t know any other Indian Punjabi gay person then,” she said.
Two decades ago, Canadian-Indian Director, Deepa Mehta’s movie, Fire, about two women falling in love, was met by violence and vandalism in India. But things are definitely improving for the LGBTQI community through yearly gay pride marches across the country and the fact that a recently released movie, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Lagha, about a lesbian coming out to her family, starring a popular Bollywood face, was met with zero protests.
Last year, the Indian Supreme Court struck down a colonial era law criminalising gay sex, a historic moment for gay rights in the largest South Asian country. And now, by coming out, a relatable world celebrity like Lilly Singh, a.k.a, Superwoman, has created history in her own way by punching through a wall for the community, stirring conversation, and giving confidence to LGBTQI South Asians around the world.
Since coming out, Hunter says her parents have had a 180 degree turn about her sexuality. She showed Singh’s tweet to her mom, also a Superwoman fan, a few days ago. “Her too, my mom both asked and said, surprised. It was like a realisation for her that this really is a common thing in our community too. What Lilly has done is profound.”
Follow Shreya Kalra on Twitter.