Living in the conservative midwest, I’m no stranger to bigotry. I’ve been fired from jobs I’ve loved, driven from the dorms I called home, and had my life threatened just because I’m queer. Preparing to take on abuse all of the time is exhausting. It’s usually the first instinct of any person to distance themselves as much as possible from those things which make them vulnerable. I’ve had to do it constantly.
Despite that, I’ve tried not to disconnect from the struggles of fellow minorities. Recently I’ve been captivated by the plight of Sikhs. Because their religion requires they wear turbans and leave all facial hair untrimmed, Sikhs are frequently confused with Muslims and, as a result, many face Islamaphobic bigotry and violence.
Jagmeet Singh, a Sikh man running for Canadian Prime Minister, made the news when a woman stormed onstage during a “Jagmeet and Greet” after mistaking him for Muslim. Singh took the ensuing verbal assault with a neighborly smile. He told the woman that he was glad to have her there, that he loved and supported her, and asked his audience to tell her how much they loved and supported her, too. The passionate chants from the audience went on until the woman left on her own. There’s a lot I love about Singh’s approach, but what I want to focus on is that, of all the things he did to diffuse the situation, the one thing he didn’t do was clarify he wasn’t a Muslim.
To me, that was profound.
When Singh didn’t discern himself as a Sikh instead of a Muslim, it hit me how often I do see that kind of defensive differentiation. Shortly after his meeting went viral online, he released a statement explaining why he didn’t simply say he wasn’t a Muslim, stating:
“While I’m proud of who I am, I purposefully didn’t go down that road because it suggests their hate would be ok if I was Muslim. … Once allowed to grow, hate doesn’t pick and choose, it spreads like fire.”
Since I’ve started researching the (literally) hundreds of other incidents like Singh’s, I found that every other Sikh shared this attitude when faced with Islamaphobia. They didn’t differentiate themselves from their Muslim brethren because they didn’t acknowledge there to even be any significant difference between them. The issue wasn’t that they were mistaken for Muslim; the issue was that the ignorance, fear, and hate existed at all.
Maybe the reason Singh’s approach struck such a chord with me is because I’ve had to deal with rife defensive differentiation in the LGBTQIA+ community. I’ve been disappointed by the many, many problematic conversations among queer people concerning Queer People of a Different Letter (QPDL). QPDL is a simple way of saying that you’re queer, but you’re not the same kind of queer as another person who identifies under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella and so your issues and experiences are going to be different. I’ve had conversations with some lesbians, for example, who aren’t sure about sharing their spaces with trans women, allosexual folk who don’t think asexuality is real or nonmedical, and binary people who don’t think genderfluid is a legitimate identity. These debates draw lines that lead to deep fractures in our community, sometimes divides as deep as those that exist between queer and nonqueer folk. I’ve seen even the most open minded queer people abandon or ignore a QPDL’s plight because they just aren’t concerned about their issues.
The sixth principle of Unitarian Universalism is the shared goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. That goal can’t be realized if we’re willing to forsake others because we have the option to safely disassociate from them. Labels and differences between people matter, but as a queer person who has had to face bigotry and abuse alone while allies stood aside, I feel it should be our mission to take on the philosophy of Sikhs and acknowledge our differences yet still band together to fight injustice, whether it’s injustice against us personally or not.
While this can be especially important when dealing with the issues of QPDL because our differences are so great yet our issues so tightly intertwined, it concerns every Unitarian Universalist who claims to uphold our principles. Hatred, fear, and injustice is our enemy, no matter who it affects. It’s larger than the LGBTQIA+ community. White people need to stand up against racial injustice; religious people need to stand up for nonreligious liberty; men need to take on and promote feminist ideologies. It’s crucial, now more than ever, that we don’t buckle to the temptation of drawing lines to avoid taking on the burdens of others. Because once it grows, fire and hatred can’t be contained.