Born into a traditional, conservative Sikh family in the 1980s, Attitude Pride Award winner Manjinder Sidhu’s sexuality and his struggle to accept it drove a wedge between him and his parents.
Like many young gay or queer boys, he was verbally taunted at school, but describes it as teasing rather than bullying. “The kids would call me ‘Woman Gender’ instead of Manjinder,” he recalls. “If they said it to me, it was fine, but I felt ashamed when they said, ‘He’s gay, miss,’ in front of the teachers.”
At home, which he describes as being “like a war-torn country” where gay people were never mentioned, he tried to brainwash himself into being straight, repeating mantras to himself every day.
His mental health suffered from the weight of expectation he felt from his parents, who both speak only limited English. “There was the expectation of marriage, of wedding proposals,” he says. “My parents bought a huge house because they thought my wife and my kids would live there.”
He went to study at University College London where, after years of feeling suicidal and using sex as a way of feeling good, he found comfort in spirituality, something which he still practises every day, through meditation, yoga or affirmations.
While working for the UN in Israel, he came out to his parents via text message, having told his sisters several years earlier. “I’d wanted to come out to them for so long,” he says, “it was like a plaster I wanted to take off.”
Both his parents responded as positively as he could have hoped at the time, and have improved since. “They just didn’t understand,” Mani says sympathetically. “My dad thought I had a physical disease, and my mum thought it meant I was transgender. There’s no literature in their language, even back in India, about this.”
Realising this, he’s worked to provide resources to help others in similar situations, educating the Punjabi and wider South Asian communities about being gay. It started with a radio interview in Punjabi about a man he’d dated who married a woman but still saw men on the side.
After this, Mani continued to talk about what could be done to improve the situation for gay men like himself, many of whom were being forced into marriage or threatened. In his YouTube videos, which have amassed a total of more than 200,000 views, he talks about his sexuality, spirituality and other issues.
Mani is also a life coach, spiritual counsellor, and author. Earlier this year, his self-help book, Bollywood Gay, was published. “Each chapter talks about my life, labels, what it is to be gay, the issues faced by South Asian gay men, and dating. Then I talk about how we can change these things.
“There’s also a pamphlet in 13 languages about coming out, to help people who are gay and want to share that with their parents.”
As for his own journey, he says his mother is trying to find a surrogate in India for him. But he’s uncertain about the future — with good reason. “From what I’ve learnt, life doesn’t go to plan.”
Read the rest of Manjinder’s story in the August issue of Attitude, out on July 20.