Seeing the “Light” By Alex Sangha, Founder of Sher Vancouver

I’m gay and I’m a person of colour, from a South Asian community. I am a Punjabi Sikh male.  I belong to a cultural community where most people do not accept homosexuality. But over the years I’ve found ways to overcome my challenges and focus on my strengths.

Photo of Alex Sangha at 19

I’m gay and I’m a person of colour, from a South Asian community. I am a Punjabi Sikh male.  I belong to a cultural community where most people do not accept homosexuality. But over the years I’ve found ways to overcome my challenges and focus on my strengths.

I was a closeted young man. I was very sad about being gay—was suicidal throughout my teens. I felt like a sick person for having sexual thoughts about men. I didn’t want to be different and was afraid of being rejected by my family—there’s a lot of pressure in the South Asian community to get married and have children.

When I was 13 I secretly found my way to a counsellor, hoping to become straight. His approach was to support me in whatever I decided, and he did walk me through the process of coming out as part of exploring my options.

When I was 18, I had a brief but positive relationship with a man. I knew then that I couldn’t change my sexuality. But I wanted to escape to another country, where very few people knew me, to live a gay life. So in 1991, at 19, I went to live with my grandfather in Gravesend, Kent, England, to attend college.

I felt lonely and missed my family in Canada. Within a few months of arriving in Kent, my emotions started going up and down. I hated myself for being gay.  I had “internalized homophobia.”

A cousin who lived nearby visited and was shocked by my appearance. I was not taking care of myself.  He took me to his house and tried to get me to eat and sleep. I couldn’t eat or drink much, but I did lie down, cover myself with a blanket and fall into a deep sleep on his bed.

All of a sudden I remember feeling a type of strange energy coming from deep within me. Then it felt like it was leaving me. The top part of my body lifted up, the blanket fell off my face and I saw this light right in front of me. It’s hard to describe it, but it was magnificent.

Then I got scared, so covered myself again with the blanket. And when I took another peek, the light was gone.

I think the Creator was trying to send me a message in my dream.

I didn’t know what to make of the light and struggled until into my 30s to understand what it was. I wasn’t a spiritual person at the time it happened. I’d say I was open to the idea of a Creator but didn’t think about it much.

But somehow, through seeing the light, I had a sense of the Creator wanting me to pursue work in the helping professions.

I returned to Canada and decided to study social work.

When I was in England, I did go to the hospital for help after seeing the light. There they thought I just needed food and sleep.

In this period, my mother asked me if I was gay. I lied and said I was bisexual.

Later, when I was at the University of British Columbia, I volunteered with a student LGBTQ+ organization.  I wanted to make gay friends, and I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. We did presentations to the campus community on homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of discrimination. We also organized a fun-filled “coming out” week when LGBTQ+ students could feel good about themselves and come out of the closet if they wished to.  I was later elected Co-Chair of this queer campus organization.

I have since completed two master’s degrees.  An MSc in Public Administration and Public Policy from the Department of Government at the London School of Economics where I received a partial entrance scholarship and a Master of Social Work from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

In addition, I managed to obtain my clinical social work designation and I have my own counselling practice currently where I help many South Asian LGBTQ+ people in crisis or distress.  I also worked as a team leader, clinician, social worker, youth counsellor, and instructor.

I am most proud, however, of being the Founder of Sher Vancouver which is a growing and dynamic non-profit organization for LGBTQ+ South Asians and their friends and families.

Sher Vancouver produced a short documentary film, My Name Was January, about our late social coordinator, January Marie Lapuz, who was tragically murdered in September 2012.  The film also touches on other transgender women of colour issues.  The film has won 14 awards and garnered 63 official selections at film festivals around the world.  It has screened in 11 countries and entered the Canadian Screen Awards for Best Short Documentary in 2020.

As Founder of Sher Vancouver, I received the Meritorious Service Medal from Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette, Governor General of Canada.  I almost cried at the ceremony.  I could not believe that after such a long struggle coming to terms with my sexuality and being excluded and marginalized for much of my life, I was actually being recognized for my efforts in the LGBTQ+ community at the highest level.

Support of family and friends is very important when you’re a young gay kid trying to come out.  Their support can help reduce stress, depression, and suicidal ideation.  My mother has always been supportive. My father, who I felt anger at for abandoning me when I was younger, is now in my life. He doesn’t agree with my gay activism. But I’m grateful that my father supports me the best he can.

The other healing thing I have is my light experience. I’m now convinced that seeing the light was a spiritual experience. It took a long time for me to accept that because in North American society we’re not socialized to acknowledge spirituality. The western world is based on science and facts.

I believe it was spiritual energy that everyone has within them; that the Creator is within everyone and is everywhere.

All that really matters is what I believe to be honest, and how it has impacted my life.

When I think about the light, it feels like the Creator telling me it’s okay to be gay. It brings me peace and makes me feel like I am not alone in this journey of life.