The Legal Intersection Between Sexuality and Race

What do Sikh immigrants to B.C. almost a century ago have to do with gay issues?

Everything. Or, maybe nothing.

On Oct. 24, 2008 I saw a film, Rex vs Singh, a 20-min. short film on a legal case from B.C. in 1915.

The event was hosted by Standing Against Queer Discrimination (SAQD) as part of a film festival at the University of Western Ontario.

One of the film-makers, John Greyson, introduced the film and answered questions.

A New City with Big Problems

Vancouver was a new city at this time, but was still Canada’s most multicultural city with a few pockets of Chinese, Japanese and Sikh communities.  In 1907 riots ensued, destroying Chinese and Japanese neighborhoods,  while the rioters sang ‘White Canada Forever.’

In 1914, a year before the case of Rex v. Singh, the Komagata Maru tried to dock in Vancouver.  It resulted in a split within the Sikh community, and increased xenophobia by the rest of the population.

Discrimination Under a Different Name

The men in this case were entrapped by the police and accused of sodomy, which was of course illegal.  Apparently this was part of a routine process of discrimination in a series of legal cases stretching back to the 1800’s.  The film mentions over a dozen cases between 1905-1930.

But not necessary because these people were gay.   In an interview earlier in the year Greyson said,

Were the men having sex? Or were they just entrapped? We don’t even know what the verdict was in this case —that part of the story has never been uncovered. There is so much about it that is unknowable, that is mysterious. This is a video about fragments of a story —the more we try to answer them, the more they fall apart.

Homophobia was used to persecute these minorities because they had full rights as British citizens, and could not be targeted using techniques more routinely used for harassing minorities.  Immigration laws were deliberately designed to limit the number of Sikh women arriving in Canada, to discourage permanent settlement as much as possible.

Vancouver historian, Gordon Brent Ingram, who researched the case and also appeared in the film, said,

Certain white people in Vancouver were not happy about this. The early ‘city fathers’ of Vancouver were all white and often quite racist. They didn’t want Indo-Canadians becoming a significant demographic group in Vancouver, and by sexually harassing them they hoped to make these men feel unwelcome.

The film brings to life a transcript from the actual case, as the officer describes his tactics of tricking the accused as being “necessary.”  But the accused responded they knew he was a detective, and did not attempt any sexual impropriety.

A witness also claims one of the Sikh men asked him to participate in sexual activities, but could not explain how this could have happened when informed that the man did not speak English.

The outcome of these cases are unknown, but similar cases in California resulted in sentances of 5-7 years.

What’s the Relevance Today?

The point is not whether or not these individuals really were gay.  When intolerant elements of Canadian society were unable to persecute ethnic minorities using institutionalized discrimination, they resorted to other legal techniques to accomplish the same purpose.

Some reporters are attributing the recent Tory win to their ethnic strategy, which has given them 10 ridings in the GTA and Vancouver that have significant populations of ethnic minorities. Ruby Dhalla of Brampton-Springdale, a riding with one of the highest Sikh concentrations in Canada, won by a mere 1,000 votes, down from 8,000 in 2006.

Interestingly enough, the new Conservative Minister of Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Jason Kenney, has himself made disparaging remarks dismissing them in 2000 saying they were,

…overheated Sikhs using the race card, which they so often do when their credentials are being questioned.

Family values, crime and taxes are issues supposedly resonating in these communities.  “Family values” is often used as code for anti-homosexual policy.

What all these ethnic communities should realize, and often do, is that issues of discrimination cross boundaries of ethnicity, religion, race and sexuality.  Advocacy therefore requires support for others who don’t necessary share your beliefs, culture, lifestyle or identity.

The case of Rex vs Singh is yet another reminder of this lesson.

1 Comment on "The Legal Intersection Between Sexuality and Race"

  1. This was a great entry Omar. Nice work!

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