When their son asked for a big fat Hindu gay wedding, Vijay and Sushma Agarwal had to face up to their community’s fear and silence.
Vijay Agarwal was turned down by seven Hindu priests in the GTA before he finally found one who agreed to perform his son Rishi’s wedding.
“They initially said yes and as soon as they found out that it was a gay wedding, they turned away,” Vijay remembers.
Rishi and his partner, Daniel Langdon, were eventually married at an Oakville golf course in 2011, in the only Hindu same-sex wedding they had ever been to.
But it’s because of attitudes like those of the priests that Vijay and his wife Sushma have decided to launch a new Peel chapter of PFLAG (an organization for parents, families, friends & allies of the LGBTQ community). It’s open to everyone but especially targeted at the South Asian community in Brampton and Mississauga, where LGBTQ kids sometimes face closed minds.
It’s something Vijay and Sushma Agarwal say they could have used 12 years ago, when Rishi sat them down in the family room of their Oakville home to tell them he was gay.
“We both were stunned,” said Vijay, who first came to Canada to do a master’s degree in 1970 and was joined five years later by Sushma in an arranged marriage.
“There is a cultural kind of a stigma,” added the 68-year-old retired engineer.
The couple blames their own “ignorance” for their silent, shocked reaction to their son’s announcement, but they soon sprang into action.
The pair is now fully supportive of their son and hope sharing their story and starting the PFLAG chapter can help other South Asian parents.
“This is strictly our baggage, what we bring from India,” said 61-year-old Sushma, who has also written a book on her experience.
“The problem is education and awareness, and that’s the reason we thought of starting this.”
Growing up in India, the Agarwals said, had no exposure to LGBTQ people and didn’t think that they knew any in their Canadian community.
But once Rishi came out, they realized five of their friends’ sons were also gay.
“Nobody would talk about it. They just keep hush, hush, hush,” Sushma remembers. “Our community is very hidden in these issues.”
The new chapter will hold face-to-face support group meetings at a Mississauga yoga studio, and the Agarwals are also offering a direct phone line to their home if people want to talk anonymously.
Anne Creighton, president of Toronto PFLAG, said such support is vital.
“In any community, no matter how progressive it is, there are always some parents who are alarmed when their kids tell them that they’re LGBTQ,” she said.
“The most important place to have allies in your life is in your house.”
Like many South Asian parents, the Agarwals started dreaming of Rishi’s wedding, in full Bollywood splendor, when he was a child.
With the full support of their families, the young couple, who love cooking and travelling and often drop by the Agarwals’ home for dal and card games, were able to have that.
The grooms performed the standard rituals, including circling a sacred fire four times and exchanging flower garlands, but skipped a few with very specific gender roles they weren’t comfortable with.
“In order to run a lot of those ceremonies, you really need everyone, the community’s involvement, otherwise it doesn’t really work,” said Rishi.
“Unfortunately, others have not had that support in their lives and they’ve just not been able to have the full” wedding.
Rishi, who said Hinduism helped him get through tough moments when he was bullied and still in the closet, said there was a moment at the wedding, after the speeches, when it all hit him.
“All of a sudden I just started bawling. I just completely broke down,” he said.
“I never thought in my wildest dreams that I could have the wedding that I wanted with the person I loved and with all my family and my friends.”
How Rishi and Daniel’s wedding unfolded: