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Indian American Leaders Applaud Obama’s ‘Gay Marriage’ Stance

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Trikone members at a rally in San Francisco, Calif., holding a sign that says “shukriya” (thank you) to the president. (Photo courtesy of Harsha Mallajosyula)
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    Several Indian American leaders have come out in support of same-sex marriage following President Barack Obama’s historic announcement May 9.

    The president said in an ABC interview that he supports same-sex marriage, a position that has been at once praised and criticized nationwide. However, a diverse array of South Asian American religious, political, and advocacy leaders have largely said that they support equal rights even if that position may be at odds with their religious practices.

     “I am really pleased that President Obama has endorsed marriage between people of the same sex,” Kamil Hasan, Democratic National Committee at-large member, told India-West in an e-mail. “It is a major civil rights issue— it may not help him politically just six months before the elections, but this is the right thing to do.”

    Harsha Mallajosyula, advocacy director of Trikone, a non-profit support group for lesbian, gay, and transgender South Asians, said he couldn’t believe the news at first, and thinks the announcement is a step in the right direction.

    “(Acceptance) is not going to happen overnight. It’s always difficult and an emotional topic to talk about in the South Asian community, but I know a lot of people who have deep respect for Obama as the first person of color in the White House,” he told India-West. “South Asians look up to authority, so to hear the president of the United States to finally come out and support same-sex marriage— it gives us some room to have a discussion.”

    California Attorney General Kamala Harris also issued a statement supporting the president. “I applaud the president's statement today supporting marriage equality,” she wrote. “Equality before the law is the founding principle of our nation.”

    Hindu leaders largely supported the president’s decision as well, although opinions differed on whether Hinduism allows same-sex marriage.

    According to the Hindu American Foundation, there is no evidence in the Hindu scriptures that support or deny marriage to same-sex couples.

    “The Hindu American Foundation stands strongly against discrimination of any kind, and we believe no one should be discriminated against based on their sexual preference,” said said Samir Kalra, director and senior fellow for human rights at HAF. “It doesn’t matter what your sexuality is, the main concern is your own individual spirituality. There is no distinction between a heterosexual and a homosexual person.”

    In contrast, Raj Bhanot, co-founder of the Sunnyvale Hindu Temple in Sunnyvale, Calif., said that in Hinduism, “the only marriage that is accepted is husband-wife.” At the same time, he said that the temple supports Obama’s decision and has previously advocated for gay marriage.

    Bhanot acknowledged that there is a discrepancy between the temple’s acceptance of gay marriage and the beliefs of its constituents. “We never discuss that issue at any social gathering or religious gatherings,” he told India-West, adding that it is important for that dialogue to begin.

    “It’s a fact of life in this country and that’s why we should be knowing the plus, minus and real things behind it,” he said.

    Rajan Zed, president of Universal Society of Hinduism, said in an e-mail, “Hinduism broadly leaves this issue to the individual devotee's consciousness. But as a general principle, Hinduism is strongly against any kind of discrimination, prejudice, inequality and unfairness.”

    The non-profit advocacy group, Muslims for Progressive Values, issued a similar statement in response to the announcement.

    “We teach our kids to live up to the ‘golden rule,’ but in our daily lives as adults we often fail miserably,” said MPV president Ani Zonneveld. “This is an epic example of living out that golden rule and, as Muslims, we should remember that Islam is a faith rooted in justice and from justice sprouts equality. We know that marriage equality is about justice for all so we must support it on both legal and religious fronts.”

    “The Quran teaches us marriage is between two souls. It is time the law of the land allow LGBTs their God given right to marry,” said the statement.

    Zahra Billoo, executive director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, declined to comment on behalf of the advocacy group but said, “We recognize that the gay community is one that has been targeted more than any other minority community,” she said.

    In contrast to MPV, she added, “Islam makes clear that homosexuality is not permitted as an activity so there’s sort of this fine line that we walk in terms of balancing civil rights with religious concerns.”

    Billoo said the reaction from the Muslim South Asian community has been mixed. 

    “I’ve heard from other South Asian Muslims who are really proud of President Obama,” she said. “They were so excited by it that they sent in a donation just as a result of the announcement.”

    Harmeet Dhillon, chairwoman of the San Francisco Republican Party and a candidate for the California state Senate, had different statements according to her varying roles. 

    “I think President Obama has taken a stand that’s popular with a number of Americans including many Republicans who believe that people’s private sexual lives should not be the subject of government regulation,” said Dhillon, commenting as chairwoman of the Republican Party in San Francisco. She noted that former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney had taken a similar position.

    But as candidate for the state Senate, Dhillon said that “all citizens should be equal under the law.” Conversely, Dhillon, a practicing Sikh, said that it is her personal understanding that Sikhism does not recognize or condone same-sex marriage. 

    Interestingly, Dhillon happens to be representing a Symantec employee in a sexual harassment lawsuit who is openly gay and Sikh (Read: Gay Man Files Suit Against Technology Giant Symantec).

    A recent poll shows that over 85 percent of South Asians support the president’s job performance and 75 percent plan on voting for him in November (Read: Poll Shows Overwhelming Indian American Support for Obama).

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