Despite the progress that society has made towards understanding and accepting the LGBT lifestyle, the South Asian community still struggles to embrace, or at the very least, acknowledge that there are people within their own community who identify as LGBT. Much of this comes from a culture of upholding the family’s honor and essentially worrying about what other people would think and say.
I’m a British Pakistani man and I’ve always known I was gay but I didn’t properly accept it until much later on in my life. Being a part of the South Asian community I know the stigma towards LGBT people is still very alive and well. But there have been developments in at least opening up a dialogue about it and having an adult conversation that doesn’t conclude with ‘well, all gays are going to hell anyway’.
I grew up in a predominately female household, I have three older sisters and my Mum and Dad divorced when I was too young to even spell the word and though my dad visited often, I had no permanent male figure growing up. I was raised in a densely South Asian populated part of Birmingham, mainly Pakistani Muslim and throughout school I knew I was gay but I didn’t dare say a word about it to anyone. I went to a school where South Asian pupils made up 99.8% of the school’s intake.
Phrases like ‘OMG, that’s SO gay!’ or ‘Eeeee, he’s gay for that!’ were commonplace and it didn’t help that these comments were tolerated and accepted by teachers as standard playground chatter.
When you grow up hearing comments like ‘gays are dirty’ and ‘all gays should be killed’ in your day-to-day life it makes it so hard to accept who you are. I spent a lot of my school years battling between what I was with what I thought I should be, which wasn’t gay. It’s interesting because none of these hateful comments came from within my household. When I look back at it, my mum raised my sisters and I in such an open mind and accepting environment. I mean for goodness sake, we watched the film ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’ as a family one Saturday night!
Part of this tolerance is probably down to my mum’s sister being a lesbian herself. So you would think me accepting myself would come easy because there is already an LGBT person within my family showing me that its okay to be who I am. Wrong. The sexuality of my aunty became, and still is, something no one ever talks about and ultimately it’s a dirty little secret within the family. And that is how I saw myself. I felt as if I would one day come out to my family and then have it be something that is tolerated but kept under wraps, for fear of what everyone else would say and think. That’s the thing about the South Asian community, a lot of the time the concern isn’t directed towards the child and whether they’re okay, it’s more ‘how does this make all of us look to others?’
As I grew older, I slowly began to accept that I liked men, I told myself that I was either bisexual or that I was going through a phase that’ll soon pass. Those are all things I heard growing up by my peers and extended family. Isn’t it crazy how we internalize things told to us or we hear in passing? That’s why I wish people within the South Asian community would be more mindful of what they say when they’re discussing LGBT people and issues.
Even when I began to explore my sexuality I was met with the typical ignorant comments and ideas that plague a lot of South Asian people. The first guy I truly liked was a South Asian guy who was friends with my cousin. To cut a long story short, he wasn’t comfortable within his own sexuality and the entire time we were ‘together’ it would have to be discreet. He would say that relations between two men aren’t ‘real’ and all of what we are doing is just banter. Ultimately, I decided to call it quits but that wasn’t before he resorted to calling me a faggot and gay fuck in the process. See, it’s an internalized hatred and disgust for LGBT people in general that reveals itself even if the person himself or herself may identify as LGBT. That’s why there are loads of South Asian gays who end up become self-loathing and reluctantly accepting that they are gay but hating themselves for it because all they know is that gay=bad. They’re never happy within themselves and that makes me sad.
That wasn’t the last time I encountered South Asian gays with the same mindset. In my experience of dating, when I have met South Asian men, a lot of them are conflicted with the desire to want a boyfriend and have the fairytale while at the same time hate everything about being gay. One guy even said to me that he wishes he could kill himself and start again as a straight man because it would be so much easier. This all stemmed from the fact his family and his community didn’t know he was gay and he knew they wouldn’t accept him for it. It’s important to stress that within South Asian families, the community is always involved. That’s why coming out to your family isn’t just that- it’s coming out to the entire community and putting yourself out there for everyone to say their bit.
I decided to finally come out as gay to my mum in 2014 and I was so petrified. I saw what had become of my aunty after she came out to everyone and I was scared that would be the case for me as well. I sat down and told my mum I had something important to tell her. Before letting me get the words out my mum tried to guess that I was either getting married or I had gotten a girl pregnant. Oh how wrong she was! Upon telling her she immediately said she loved me regardless and was completely fine with it. I realised then how lucky I am because not everyone has such a smooth coming out experience.
It was after telling my mum that I felt I could properly live my life not hidden away trying to cover up some big secret. I didn’t come out to my sisters until earlier this year. I hesitated because one of my sisters, my oldest, is a devout Muslim and I was so scared of losing her in my life that I didn’t want to ruin the strong bond we have. But when I did eventually tell her she was completely fine with it and told me she loved me regardless. We really are the true definition of a Modern Family.
Something that my mum and sisters all said when I came out was to not to tell my dad. My dad is a man who sadly allows his religion and culture to cloud his judgment of a lot of things. Still to this day he doesn’t know that I am gay but even worse is that I’m better off that he doesn’t. My sister said it perfectly that ignorance is definitely bliss when it comes to our father. I have tried to gauge what his stance is on LGBT people in general and once sat in on a conversation that my dad and his wife were having about gay people. The general consensus was that gay people choose this lifestyle and that despite how progressive society become when discussing LGBT people, the fact of the matter is that all gay people have to answer to God and burn in hell for their sins. So yeah… no big coming out announcement for my dad any time soon.
I am one of the fortunate few who are able to live an openly gay life and be South Asian but no one said it was going to be easy. I still receive stares and disgusted glares from South Asian people if they see me walking down the street holding a guy’s hand. One person even came up to me and asked me if I had any shame in being such a disgusting person because within the South Asian community, being gay is still seen as disgusting and unnatural. Which is funny because in Pakistan, despite homosexuality not being tolerated, it’s the leader in the world for gay porn searches on Google. But I digress.
Due to them not being allowed to be themselves many South Asian men who are gay but have been forced into getting married to women are using apps like Grindr to live a double life. Picture less profiles reading ‘Married- must be discreet’ are extremely common. Other South Asian gay men that I have met have told me of their coming out experience and told me that their family completely disowned them and they are essentially dead to the family. I know of one guy who was sent to therapy by his own family because they thought he was crazy. I’ve also heard stories about witchdoctors coming to exorcise the gay out of some people. That’s why I am aware of just how rare my story is that I come from a South Asian family and they accept me for me with open arms and just want the best for me.
In some cases, the lack of acceptance from families can lead to such tragic situations. You don’t have to look far to hear of stories about South Asian gays who are killing themselves because they’re unable to be open and honest to their family about their sexuality. A prime example if this is the story of Nazim Mahmood who jumped to his death after his mother asked him to ‘seek a cure’ for being gay. Surely as a parent you would want your child to be happy in life? What happiness is there to have when you’re not accepted for who you are?
I think a lot of this ignorance and intolerance towards LGBT within the South Asian community stems from a serious lack of education. You have to remember that a lot of these parents are second-generation immigrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Homosexuality is essentially a crime in those parts of the world and upon coming to the U.K that is all they know. Unless it’s challenged, these hateful ideas will continue to get passed on to future generations that have been born and raised in the U.K. I was at a school a few weeks ago and a student referred to a teacher he didn’t like as gay, I challenged him on it and he said, with confidence, that because both him and I are Pakistani that it is in our nature to hate gay people and didn’t see the problem. I was stunned.
I just think that it’s a dire situation to be in, especially in 2016. There are instances of LGBT people within the South Asian community being accepted and celebrated. In Birmingham there is a club night called ‘Saathi’, which is specifically for South Asians who identify as LGBT. But even then, those who attend the club night get abused shouted at them on the street by other members of the South Asian Community. This in itself a true indication that the South Asian community has such a long way to go until we can accept that LGBT people within the South Asian community do exist and there are thousands of them across the U.K and you know what? That’s okay.