I grew up the youngest of seven in a fairly liberal, westernised family. My father was a founder member of Birmingham Central Mosque and my mum was a traditional housewife who managed to hold three part-time jobs as a cleaner as well as looking after the family and home. Within our household, there always appeared to be a culture clash of traditions versus modernity, the desire to progress and assert our “Britishness” versus the Indo-Pakistani cultures mind sets of our parents and their peers.
As a child, I knew I was “different”. I know it sounds like a cliché but there was no other word to describe how I was feeling. I didn’t identify as anything but I grew up with the expectation that I would marry, bring home a beautiful wife and have plenty of children. At that time, I was happy to fulfil my parents’ wishes for me.
However, things changed when I moved to London at 19 years old, to study Community Theatre Arts at a drama college. It was here that I was encouraged by a female friend to explore my sexuality.
Although I was not a fully practising Muslim, I didn’t observe all Five Pillars of Islam religion still impacted the way I thought. Being with another man made me feel all manners of mixed emotions, positive and negative.
I carried religious guilt, feelings of shame and embarrassment and intense excitement. These illicit affairs made me feel like I was involved in dangerous liaisons. It was at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis and I was scared I might become infected. I created scenarios in my mind and thought, if I ever caught HIV/AIDS , how would I explain it to my parents? Although I like to think I was more discreet and careful about whom I slept with. I was looking for my own “Mr Goodbar”. Fortunately, he never came and I never found him in London.
I returned to Birmingham in 1991, one year after I found the man I would spend the rest of the life my life with. He was 43 at that time, I was 22. He was white, C of E and at that time, I think we broke many taboos. We were inter-generational, interfaith and interracial. He was a chain smoker, wore tattoos with pride and would go out clubbing and drinking in gay clubs. Despite my experiences in London, which were few and far between on the gay scene, I still held strong religious reservations about being seen on the scene, and regarded tattoos and smoking as haram (forbidden).
Whilst I was coming to terms with my sexuality and experiences, I had no-one to turn to for support. In London, I was pulled back from the brink of suicidal ideation by a friend. In Birmingham, I had nobody I could talk to about my strong feelings and attraction to another man. I tried to end the relationship several times because the pull of my parents and family was too strong and I wasn’t in a safe position to commit to a relationship.
When I came out to my mum, the reaction was not what I expected. It was an intense conversation but the outcome was positive. My mother said she loved me regardless of my sexuality and would be happy if she could see me being happy. My father’s reaction was very different. It was initially negative but after a year, he also accepted me. Reactions from my siblings and extended family were mixed.
I was barred by my traditional and conservative brother-in-laws from visiting my niece and sisters in their own homes and was not invited to my nephew’s wedding.
I still could not find the support I needed to discuss the issues I was having but I managed to share and continue my life with my partner. Over the years, I would scour the internet and research Muslim or South Asian LGBT social/support networks. I could not find anything in Birmingham or anywhere else in the Midlands. Everything appeared to be either in London or in the North.
That all changed a few years ago when I responded to a tweet. A student from Bournemouth University wanted to speak to South Asian LGBT individuals and “break the taboo”.
I said I as willing to speak on camera. We met, discussed the project, I shared my experiences and stated I felt that to change the mind-set of the older South Asian community would make it not necessarily easier, but better for South Asians LGBT to speak up and be themselves. We discussed support systems and networks for South Asian LGBT.
The student said I was a pioneer and positive role model and suggested I set up a group. This was the catalyst to research other groups. I found British Asian LGBTQI on Facebook and after posting a few comments was asked by the creator of the page to become an administrator. This led to me joining Imaan on social media and, spurred on by a several comments made by other members within the group, I set up Birmingham South Asians LGBT – Finding A Voice (FAV) in 2014.
FAV is open to all South Asian LGBTIQ men and women over 18, regardless of faith, culture, religion and disability. One of the aims of this group is social inclusion for all and supports those who may be of different backgrounds, who have a mental health issue or illness such as anxiety and depression, physical disability and those who choose to remain silent about their sexual identity or orientation.
We have taken part in Birmingham Pride, an online photography exhibition called “Gaysian Faces” and discuss ways we can make South Asians more visible and accepting of themselves and within the community.
Since setting up the group, I have written several articles about combating homophobia, shared my experiences on other platforms such as events for LGBT History Month and The Unbreakable Rope exhibition organised by The Quilliam Foundation, spoken on BBC WM and Asian Network , received an award from the Independent Rainbow List 2015 and was invited by Downing Street to attend the LGBT Community Reception in May this year.
I have also aligned FAV to work in partnership with The Naz and Matt Foundation and joined other South Asian and Muslim LGBT Activists to try and make changes within the community.
It is important that we discuss religion, sexuality, diversity and intersectionality and have the platform or “safe space” to be who we want to be and be accepted by all.
I feel, from being isolated and not having support when I came out, after 25 years, progress is finally being made but we still have a very long way to go before South Asians, Muslims, BAME or LGBT+ people can say we are definitely Finding Our Voices.
FAV meet every 3rd Wednesday of the month from 18:30-20:30 at Matchbox Cafe, Smallbrook Queensway in Birmingham, B1 1EQ