Juptej Singh: Correcting The Deteriorating State Of Online Sikh Discourse - From Provocations to Queerphobia

It is difficult to try to meet people where they are, come to conversations with a nuanced perspective and open mind, and genuinely understand new ideas.

Juptej Singh
May 10, 2021 | 10 min. read

A tweet was made recently that proposes Guru Sahib was a gender bender as well as queer. 

I believe this statement, while maybe defensible, is reductive and purposefully inflammatory. The tweet itself, as well as the point it is making, deserves a greater analysis, which I will be providing, but it also exposes the current state of Sikh Twitter and social media discourse which deserves discussion.

Addressing The Circumstances

The tweet was made specifically to provoke a massive response.

I find it a bit difficult to assess how valid the provocation is. On the one hand, being provocative is almost essential to the revolutionary nature of Sikh discourse. We are meant to be provocative people, inspiring ideas and thought and free expression. However, I am not a fan of using the Guru as a pawn/gotcha or handling such a matter without grace or forethought. 

Provocation for provocation’s sake is not valuable. 

My issue has always been with the deterioration of dialogue within the online Sikh community, and I must hold true to those standards. Instead of chastising people for holding different beliefs, we should criticize those that handle delicate situations with carelessness and vitriol.

This tweet and the ‘conversation’ it brought about did much more harm than good; of the over 170 quote tweets, probably half were filled with derogatory statements towards queer people. Considering that these were the types of people the original statement was meant to provoke and agitate, I cannot pretend as if the original poster shares none of the blame as others were likely harmed by seeing the hate directed towards the LGBTQ+ community. Again, the validity of these claims is something we are going to address later on, but in and of itself, haphazard provocation, to me, is unacceptable. 

That being said, scrutiny should also be put on the (at the time of writing this) 174 quote tweets that dogpiled on this largely with queerphobic and hateful rhetoric - calling them alphabet people, misgendering them, and saying we should kill them. All this hate speech is indefensible. 

To those who viewed this as beadbi for the sole reason that Guru Sahib was placed in proximity to queerness, I ask only this: why is that proximity viewed inherently as a negative and something worthy of condemning, especially when the Guru makes no such condemnation? 

I somewhat understand that to people to whom this conversation is foreign, it may seem almost like trolling, but the question of gender identity within Sikhi is something that many have discussed. The person who made the tweet, being nonbinary, would clearly be interested in such a conversation. Is this truly something that is deserving of such an extensive and almost coordinated effort to berate, or can we perhaps deal with these conversations with a little bit more understanding and nuance?

My only goal in doing any of this is to address, criticize, and elevate the level of conversation that currently exists in the online Sikh space. 

This is a space I wish to occupy because I truly believe it is a massive opportunity and a massive resource that we are not taking full advantage of. It is easy to get a thousand followers by picking the most milquetoast opinion about hookah or interfaith Anand Karaj, shame anyone that dissents, and shut your brain off. It is also easy to expect that everyone either has the same social values as you or is aware of the same, often quite nuanced, conversations as you, shaming those who are unfamiliar with the broader discussion. It is difficult to try to meet people where they are, come to conversations with a nuanced perspective and open mind, and genuinely understand new ideas. 

This is not something that I usually advocate in my politics, but again, we have a unique opportunity with online Sikh communities and it would be a devastating shame to see it wasted. 

Other online religious communities have utilized the internet to create robust cultures of academia, discourse, and art. Never before have we been able to collaborate on such a large scale. I find it very disheartening that instead of using the internet as a means for furthering our understanding of Sikhi, we waste away the days for likes and retweets. These conversations are current and relevant in real Sikh spaces for real Sikhs. We must approach these topics with the understanding that none of us know all there is to know, and love should be the primary thing in our minds. 

Definitions

Gender-bender- Someone who pushes the boundaries of the gender binary with their gender identity, often by interchangeably assuming the perceived roles and identifiers of multiple genders.

Queer- The University of Nebraska Omaha defines Queer as “A term for people of marginalized gender identities and sexual orientations who are not cisgender and/or heterosexual.” This term means different things to different people, but this will be the working definition for the purposes of this article. 

I also believe I should address any personal biases. I would consider myself more socially progressive than most and sympathetic towards these ideas. I have had panels and streams where I talk about trans issues, LGBTQ+  inclusion, and general social justice. Despite this, I am going to try to come at this from an objective angle. I hope that these pre-existing biases do not find their way into my writing in a manner that is unnecessary. I, of course, welcome any and all criticism.

Gender Identity Within Sikhi

It is neither productive nor adequate to simply say the Gurus were queer. While this may be true in a technical understanding of the word, there is more to unpack in a Gurmat understanding of gender identity. 

Firstly, in bani, Waheguru is explicitly stated as fulfilling multiple, traditionally, gendered roles. For one of many examples of this, Guru Arjan Dev Jee says in Raag Gauri: 

ਭਾਈ ਪੂਤੁ ਪਿਤਾ ਪ੍ਰਭੁ ਮਾਤਾ ॥੩॥

Prabh (Waheguru) is my brother, my son, my father, and my mother.

Also, in Raag Maajh, they state: 

ਤੂੰ ਮੇਰਾ ਪਿਤਾ ਤੂੰਹੈ ਮੇਰਾ ਮਾਤਾ॥

You are my father, and You are my mother. 

In these lines, Guru Arjan Sahib seemingly strips away our strict sense of gender identity and explains how Waheguru is much more simple and complex than our binary. Waheguru is Ek. Oneness. The simple conclusion following this is that the concept of gender does not apply to Waheguru. What need does a formless supreme being have to adhere to rules dictated by a mere man-made social construction? We also see that the 10 human forms of the Guru are referred to as the physical manifestations of the divine.

See here, in Bhai Gurdas Jee’s Vaaran: 

ਇਕ ਬਾਬਾ  ਅਕਾਲ  ਰੂਪ  ਦੂਜਾ  ਰਬਾਬੀ  ਮਰਦਾਨਾ॥

First, the Baba (respected male figure, referring here to Guru Nanak), who was the physical image of the immortal, and Mardana, the rubab player. 

Bhai Gurdas Jee insinuates and we generally understand that Guru Nanak, and consequently the other 11 Gurus, inhabit the same qualities and essence of Waheguru. It would then stand to reason that if Waheguru exists without gender, the Gurus would too. In fact, we see the Gurus take on different gendered identities in various shabads.

Guru Arjan Dev Jee says:

ਕਰਮਹੀਣ ਧਨ ਕਰੈ ਬੇਨੰਤੀ ਕਦਿ ਨਾਨਕ ਆਵੈ ਵਾਰੀ॥

The unfortunate soul-bride makes this prayer: O Nanak, when will my turn come?

and Guru Nanak Sahib in Raag Tukhari says:

ਪਿਰ ਘਰ ਨਹੀ ਆਵੈ ਮਰੀਐ ਹਾਵੈ ਦਾਮਨਿ ਚਮਕਿ ਡਰਾਏ॥

My Beloved has not come home, and I am dying of the sorrow of separation. The lightning flashes, and I am scared.

ਸੇਜ ਇਕੇਲੀ ਖਰੀ ਦੁਹੇਲੀ ਮਰਣੁ ਭਇਆ ਦੁਖੁ ਮਾਏ॥

My bed is lonely, and I am suffering in agony. I am dying in pain, O my mother!

The fascinating thing about the second line is how well it captures the all-encompassing nature of Waheguru. At once, Waheguru is referred to as both the beloved husband and the nurturing mother.

It is similarly interesting how both the male and the female images on which Waheguru has been projected are those that command some form of power. The husband, who is making his dear and helpless wife wait at home, is the same as the mother that the woman turns to in her time of need. The thirst of separation can only be quenched by the presence of both roles that Maharaj inhabits here. Both the feminine and the masculine divine.

The fact that Akal Purakh, and by extension, Guru Sahib themselves, are shown to have such a complete and complex relationship with both the feminine and the masculine is really something quite beautiful and worthy of further analysis. 

Conclusion

It is possible that due to the nature of the tweet, as well as the discussion being one that is not in the mainstream consciousness, it was seen as something purely meant for disrespect. Yet I once again ask why an association with queer identity is immediately negative. These conversations are necessary for us to have as a collective. Real people are being impacted by both the internal struggles of their identity and the external struggles of being castigated for participating in that identity. 

It is no surprise then, that they have been relegated to more niche, hyper-policed spaces. They have not been shown that they can turn to Sikh spaces for that same comfort and safety, so they have created their own, surrounded by those who, like them, are desperately in search of a community that will accept them and claw to some form of familiarity and comfort within their Sikhi. 

While some may scoff at the idea of safe spaces, I would suggest that Sikh spaces should be exactly that. 

Safety, stability, and acceptance are things we offer universally. This is undeniable. There are those who laugh at the “cancel culture mentality” of the left. Yet I look at this tweet, with 170+ quote tweets and 50+ replies, most of which are not making a real argument and wonder what to call it but cancel culture. 

I ask simply that we bring more compassion and more understanding into the conversations we seek to have. 

All this being said, I do still believe the initial tweet was highly reductive. It is not enough to understand that gender fluidity may exist within Bani, therefore within the Guru. We must look at the conditions in which this took place to come across with a more complete understanding. 

Guru Sahib was not just gender-bending, they were gender-transcendent. 

Gender, at the time, was harsher than even caste distinctions. Women were treated as property in the most literal sense of the word. Despite this, Guru Sahib openly assumes the role of the female and bestows that role onto the sangat around them and every person who sings their shabads to this day. 

I would also like to point out that the form in which the Guru presents themselves to us today is not human, so gender would not even be an applicable concept. 

We spend so much time arguing back and forth over what Guru was, we do not stop to think about what Guru is. Would the current conceptions of masculinity/femininity also be attached to Guru Granth Sahib Jee or the broader body of the Khalsa Panth? If not, why would they apply to the 10 human incarnations of the Guru, seeing as they are the same Jot (life-force)? The idea of gender has changed wildly throughout different times and different cultures. Do we account for this when we ascribe gendered labels upon the Gurus? Do we even believe that they, in all their revolutionary glory, would still be subservient to the social construction?

This is why I believe to simply say Guru Sahib was genderqueer is missing the point. They were far beyond the grasp of gender. 

If there is one thing I hope I have shown, it is a willingness to engage with opposing ideas. If you had a disagreement with something I said, want me to expand on something further, or general feedback, I highly implore you to reach out. 

Bhul Chuk Maaf - please forgive me for any mistakes I may have made.

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Juptej Singh is a student, currently studying Theatre Arts and Political Science. He’s also a podcaster and twitch streamer who covers politics and philosophy. You can find all of his links here.


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