by Gurwin Ahuja — June 28, 2020
"Sikhi, at the end of the day, is about equality."
Sundeep Singh Boparai (Sunny) is an advocate, a model, a healthcare administrator, a fashion influencer, and a Sikh. Sunny has become a champion, a trailblazer, and a leader for LGTBQ+ Sikhs around the country, and he is just getting started. Sunny, currently works as an administrator for the LGBTQ+ Transgender Program at Northwell Health. We discussed his childhood, how he became an influencer, and his advice for young LGTBQ+ Sikhs around the world.
The following interview occurred between the National Sikh Campaign co-founder, Gurwin Singh Ahuja, and Sundeep Singh Boparai.
Can you share what your childhood was like?
I was born and raised in Queens, New York, and I was raised by two Gursikh parents who both migrated from Punjab, India. I also have a close connection with my mom because she raised me all on her own. My father walked out on us when I was at the age of 8. Growing up, I saw my mom struggle, but she devoted her life to me, and she always provided for me. She really raised me the best that she could. She gave me everything that I wanted. I don't know how she did it, where she got it from, or how she made it happen, but she would make it happen; she's amazing.
You notice little things about your parents when you get older, and when you reflect back on life after you have your own experiences, you appreciate them so much more.
I also grew up very close to my roots. I learned kirtan, did paath regularly, and went to Gurmat camps. I was very culturally grounded. However, as I got older, I started to realize that I was not the same as the other kids. I was attracted to the same gender.
How did the discovery that you were gay impact you and your family?
It was always a struggle in my head. I always had this internal battle that I always thought that I needed to assimilate to society and date a girl and make my parents happy. I also didn't know how to express it to my mom. At the time, I didn't feel I could show her that. There was always this other side of me that was like …you're not doing the right thing...you have to be true to yourself.
As I got older, I became more self-aware of who I was as a person and what I stood for. I realized I have to be able to be authentic because when you're authentic and true to yourself, that's what propels you to move forward.
How did you become an advocate for the LGBTQ community?
I remember reading this article about a gay couple. One of them was dying in the hospital, and the other partner was not allowed to go see his partner while he was dying simply because they were not a heterosexual couple. I was like what the hell! This is actually happening in America.
I was so astonished because we're supposed to be a progressive nation. But when I really started studying the law and policies affecting gay people, trans people, and gender-nonconforming people, I became so inundated with knowledge. It was an "Oh My God" moment. I wanted to do something with this information and bring awareness to these issues.
How did you get into fashion and becoming an influencer and how do you leverage those platforms for your advocacy?
Fashion has always been the epicenter of my world. Growing up, I would dress differently and have a unique aesthetic that others would find humor in. As I got older, I would watch YouTube videos that focused on modeling, fashion, designing and walking in runway shows. Modeling was always something that I was truly in love with before I even knew that I could excel in it.
Two years ago, I was sitting on my couch browsing social media and I would come across different Sikh advocates and/or models who were excelling in their lane and on the other hand I would come across LGBTQ+ advocates and/or models who were excelling in that lane. But, what I wouldn't come across is seeing someone on social media who I could relate to and be inspired from. Instagram didn’t have a page that showcased awareness and visibility around being a Sikh LGBTQ+ person of experience. There was nobody from our Sikh Community highlighting LGBTQ+ issues and policies that would inherently affect our Sikh queer brothers and sisters along with the rest of the LGBTQ+ community.
With this administration in office working to silence voices of vulnerable communities, I could not stand along the sidelines. I felt as if I needed to do something more, something bigger than me. It was at that moment, that the KingSunnyB platform came to fruition. I utilized modeling to heighten my platform and focus on issues that truly mattered to me. I started working with local photographers, one in particular, Jaiel Perez. It was my photoshoot with TurbanInc and Awarecauses that brought so much attention to my platform. Shortly after I was signed to a LA based modeling agency, WestHavenManagement and became a brand ambassador for 360 Magazine.
Currently, I am represented by SalientModels and WestHaven. KingSunnyB started buzzing on social media and in turn I was able to guest appear on numerous podcasts, radio shows, vlog collaborations and book editorial modeling work. Every collaboration and project I book aligns with my role as an LGBTQ+/HIV influencer while continuing to grow my following on social media and throughout the LGBTQ+ community. I am thankful to Waheiguru for utilizing me as a vessel to bring knowledge, awareness and visibility to my Sikh Community regarding these hot topic issues.
How has your Sikh background influenced you?
I have a strong relationship with Waheguru (God). I am very rooted in Sikhi and my faith, and it definitely has guided my life in critical moments and in stressful moments. I grew up engrossed in Sikhi and Sikh culture, so I have a strong affinity to my faith. I know from Sikhi that Waheguru loves his entire creation and that even though I am different, he still loves me too. Sikhi, at the end of the day, is about equality.
What is your advice to the young LGBTQ Sikhs across the world? How can they navigate these issues as they grow up in our culture?
Growing up, I wish I had a role model to look up to. Someone who identified as a Gay Sikh and was able to obtain that “American Dream” with the husband, kids, beautiful house and great career. Unfortunately, that was unrealistic as I grew up in our culture.
Nonetheless, the LGBTQ+ movement has made tremendous leaps and bounds, therefore, I would tell young LGBTQ+ Sikhs around the world to trust your intuition and always believe in yourself. You are your own advocate and you have the power to change minds and bring light to these issues in your own inner circles. Be confident in who you are and never let anyone dim your light.
A lot of times, we don’t give enough credit to our immigrant parents. Come out to them, let them know about your truth. Trust me, they will surprise you. Our parents have never been exposed to gay culture so they fail to understand our lifestyle. It may take some time, but involve them in your life. They will come around and they will support you. Their love never falters; they just need some understanding.
In order to navigate issues amongst our Sikh society/culture, it is important to make sure you never let anyone get in your head about your sexuality. You know you better than anyone else does. You will come across hateful kids and adults who might mock you or taunt you, just know that is because they are uneducated and ignorant. Please do not carry that burden with you throughout your childhood and adolescent life because in turn it will affect you in your adulthood.
Try to make friends with other Queer children, join Queer virtual safe spaces and try to find someone in your life that is trustworthy who you can confide in. Before coming out to my family, it was my close friend circle that helped me through many challenges. There is a lot of guilt and shame when it comes to sexuality. You first have to overcome that on your own before you can confidently want others' support on your journey. I am thankful to my best friends - Aman, Chanda, Hina and Punam. They are friends who have become sisters. Without them, I wouldn’t have had the courage to openly date the same sex, I wouldn’t have confidence to let another man love me for me and I wouldn’t have been able to showcase my authentic self to my family. Best friends have a vital role in your growth and I would hope that you all have a similar support system to get you through the most treacherous experiences and times.
It is not easy being a person of LGBTQ+ experience and navigating this world. But, you are not alone. KingSunnyB is an essential safe space on Instagram for all of my Queer brothers and sisters.
Currently, working as a LGBTQ+ Healthcare Administrator I can provide ample resources and referrals in regards to legal counsel, housing, HIV testing, STD/STI prevention, group therapies and other virtual safe spaces to network and knowledge share. Barbara Gittings once said equality means more than passing laws. The struggle is really won in the hearts and minds of the community, where it really counts. So, it starts with you first. Once, you can conquer that then you have become unstoppable.
I believe in you all because I was once that young kid. Just remember, Waheguru created you and you are nothing short of a blessing to this universe. He has blessed us all with individualized gifts. Start unraveling them and start using them to inspire the uninspired. Believe in that magic that Waheguru has blessed you with and never let it go.
We are seeing a lot of discussions today about how to best address human rights issues, primarily for Black Lives Matter. How has the LGBTQ community addressed human rights issues in the past and what advice do you have for advocates of any marginalized group today?
As a Sikh LGBTQ+ person of color it is essential more than ever to advocate and bring light to Sikh issues that people face. The KingSunnyB platform has become crucial more than ever to provide visibility that there are Sikh LGBTQ+ people and that we matter.
In regards to Black Lives Matter, this message is for those who don’t include the black LGBTQ+ community in #blacklivesmatter. You can’t just want equality, fairness and justice for everyone except for people who have a different sexual preference or gender than you. We need better inclusion of LGBTQ+ people within all movements pertaining to human rights issues.
The Stonewall Uprising was a movement created by black Trans people of color. We need to remember those names and their importance. Marsha P. Johnson, an activist, drag performer, sex worker who was fearless in advocating for her rights and the rights of the LGBTQ+ community at a time when doing so put her safety in jeopardy. Sylvia Rivera was a Latina Trans activist, who together with Marsha P. Johnson co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, an organization that provided housing and other services to homeless LGBTQ+ youth in NYC. Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician to be elected in California. He pushed for the ban of discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, and public accommodations. Current advocates like Laverne Cox and Lena Waithe have changed the game when it comes to the entertainment industry. Their footprints have allowed new spaces to be created and LGBTQ+ women of color to be given a platform.
The LGBTQ+ community has been through a treacherous time especially with President Trump’s administration revoking the Obama-era transgender health protections. There was a glimpse of hopefulness after the Supreme Court ruled that if LGBTQ+ workers are fired they can sue for bias and are protected by the civil rights laws. Judge Robert and Judge Gorsuch joined the four liberal judges for a 6-3 ruling. Nonetheless, we cannot turn blind to all the work that still has to be done. As a community, we can’t be fired for being LGBTQ+ anywhere in this country but we still need to end discrimination in healthcare, housing and so much more.
In recent times, many in our community took to the streets to protest and put their bodies on the line to stand up for justice and equality. Just a couple of weeks ago, a reported 15,000 people stood in solidarity with Black Transgender community. The protest uplifted the names of Black Trans individuals who have been killed over the last couple of years, including Tony McDade, Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, Nina Pop, Riah Milton, Dominique “Rem’Mie'' Fells, Muhlaysia Booker, Chanel Scurlock and so many more.
COVID-19 is far from the only pandemic afflicting our country and our world. There is an outright assault on Transgender folks, especially those of color. I know for so many of us it is our visceral reaction to seek vengeance. I urge you all, please do not let the same malice that is afflicting the wicked creep into your heart and mind. Let us not become that, which we are trying to destroy.
We all have a part to play. As for me, I will wake up every day and go to work where I can make an impact on the community and the services they may need. I will support and uplift the community and the voices of Transgender individuals who need to be heard. Their voices need to be centered now more than ever. We are all fighting the same fight. Let us not forget that. Let us be kind to our sisters and brothers regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation and gender identity.