by Khakan Qureishi Follow @khakanqureshi
Last year, I participated in a project whose aim was to explore the issues surrounding people who identify as LGBT amongst South Asian communities in the UK. The interviewer asked the following three questions:
1) Why are LGBT South Asians still “hidden”?
2) Why aren’t there any visible role models of South Asian LGBT individuals?
3) Is being LGBT still a “taboo” amongst South Asian communities?
The media student who initiated the project at Bournemouth University told me that she hadn’t had many responses to her request to interview people, and that those who had responded were only prepared to speak on audio equipment or wished to remain anonymous in the written word. I was the only one willing to speak on camera.
I’ve come across many similar situations. In my experience people who identify as LGBT are more likely to keep their orientation or gender identity hidden if they are from a South Asian background. The pressures that cause this are both internal and external: from within communities dogma is rife; and from the outside diverse sexualities/gender identities and “Asian-ness” are often considered mutually exclusive.
I chose to “come out” for my own reasons. I didn’t want to be burdened with emotional and mental anguish, negative feelings of guilt, depression. It is, for me, a form of self-expression, acceptance; having the ability to be confident and comfortable within myself and to be able to move forward in life without feeling oppressed and suppressed. It is about how one feels in themselves and being able to challenge appropriately forms of prejudice and discrimination.
Some members of South Asian communities often have extremely conservative expectations and ideological notions of what constitutes a “good and decent” person or life, ideas that they believe to be a part of their cultural tradition. In this environment, individuals who identify as LGBT can become indoctrinated by ideas of shame and “izzat” (honour), whilst others might fear (the very real danger) of reprisals. Religion also plays a role; in my case, for example, to be gay as a Muslim is considered by the majority to be “haram” or forbidden. In most of these situations individuals may feel that they have to choose between family or their own lives, because to express their true identity would mean to be cut off from loved ones.
The university project was enough to galvanise me. Instead of seeking and asking, “Where are the role models for people who identify as LGBT amongst South Asian communities?” it provided the opportunity to make a stand for myself.
I’d already been approached to become an administrator for a Facebook page called “British Asian LGBTI” but since there was a complete lack of services on offer for people like me, I decided to set up my own social and support group which I called “Birmingham South Asians LGBT – Finding A Voice” (herein referred to as Finding a Voice). I added the tagline as I felt the “minority within the minority” were not being listened to, acknowledged nor empowered to speak up either within or outside South Asian communities. I wanted to highlight that white LGBT spaces are also failing in this respect by ignoring the the specific challenges that we face due to our cultural heritage on one side, and racialisation on the other.
In a nutshell the aims of the group are to:
- Offer a space to socialise
- Provide peer support and role-modelling to enable members to “come out”
- Allow opportunities to share experiences to help wellbeing and self-worth among members
- Build a safe space where individuals can express their feelings and their identity as both South Asian and LGBT
You may be wondering why I, or indeed anyone from an ethnic minority background, would need a space separate from mainstream or white LGBT communities. It’s a question that I have come across a lot. As one white man asked me at an AGM meeting for LGBT groups, “Why would you want your own South Asian LGBT group or space, when there are plenty of facilities you can access in the community?” I’ll answer with some anecdotes of my experiences over the years.
In October 2014, I attended “Picnic in the Park”, an alternative event to Pride, for LGBT people at a local park in Birmingham. It became immediately evident that no ethnic minority individuals were in attendance. My initial reaction was to walk away. Where were the brown faces? The assembly of white groups and individuals felt intimidating.
I was relieved to see a member of Finding A Voice who invited me to join him and his friends. We both agreed that we expected more of our “brothers and sisters” to be present and were disappointed at the turnout as we intended to promote our group.
Approaching random people to promote a cause is difficult enough, but attempting to explain the aims and the focus of the group to people who do not face the issues for which the group exists is even more difficult.
We received questions which appeared to be full of prejudice, ignorance and discrimination:
“How do you get your people to engage?”
“I suppose the only way you can signpost them is when they’re in your bed?!”
“Your community is so low key…Where is your community?”
I felt a strong urge to challenge and ask, “What do you mean by my community?”
Their questioning over why a separate service was needed for South Asians was answered by their own prejudice which seemed to make assumptions about all brown LGBT people.
I was made to feel as if I was a subordinate, back in the days of the Maharajah, bowing down to the compatriots of the British Empire, citizens sitting in the shade and waiting for the Punkah Wallah to fan their lily white faces.
I apologised for my intrusion on their space and walked away, embarrassed that I had dared to make such a request of support and solidarity.
Although LGBT people as a whole have made some headway with legislation and equality issues, this progress has not stretched to attitudes within communities. These days I’m often still greeted with the same disdain, displeasure and discrimination I had experienced when I came out over 20 years ago.
Of course all mainstream LGBT spaces make the claim to be “anti-discriminatory and inclusive”. Yet upon arrival it becomes quite clear who is and is not welcome.
On one occasion when my group entered a well-known gay establishment in Birmingham, we were looked upon as if we didn’t belong. Several in our group used self-deprecating humour to make light of the situation by saying, “It looked as if a sea of brown faces was taking over”.
I’ve found that lots of people come to Finding a Voice for the same kinds of reasons. The drag artist said she appreciated being part of a South Asian group as the other groups she had attended were all white and treated her as if she was a “novelty” or “an exotic toy to be played with”. The FTM trans person who had come up from Brighton for the evening said he was “totally overwhelmed to see so many brown faces in one group and felt… it was like coming home to a family” because “trying to make the white community in Brighton and its surrounding areas understand that you can be [from] an ethnic [minority] and LGBT is very difficult and challenging”.
A lesbian member of Finding A Voice, a political and social activist who provides support and advocacy for women, said some of her white counterparts and members of the audience when providing workshops, training and conferences, tend to be condescending or patronising when they see a “young, brown face”.
There still appears to be a long way to go to eliminate prejudice, discrimination and racism within the LGBT population, never mind trying to reduce it from mainstream cultures and society.
However, whilst I believe that white LGBT spaces and narratives aren’t always appropriate for us, I don’t think that this is an excuse for us to suffer in silence. “Coming out” for me is is also about being visible within South Asian communities and the mainstream, raising awareness, educating others, challenging stereotypes, offering others who may be suffering or experiencing issues (bullying/ homophobia/ prejudice/ domestic violence) whilst they come to terms with or explore their identity.
Ultimately, I feel coming out is not just about “acceptance of self” but also for others to learn to accept so that boundaries and barriers are eliminated, and especially so that LGBT South Asians become visible both inside and outside our communities.
In an attempt to answer the questions posed by the media student from Bournemouth University, there is still clearly more work to be done and discussions to be had. Perhaps to eradicate homophobia in its entirety, we also need a “Gaysianphobia” campaign.
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