Across the Last Gay Frontier
Family and religion can make it doubly hard for British Asians to come out, but now they are doing it with confidence and with pride
Something new is happening among Asian gays in Britain. Gone are the days when the closet or social exclusion seemed like the only two options. Today, they are embracing a new identity, based as much on race and religion as on culture and sexual identity. ‘I have a few identities – you can tell by the music I listen to, the colour of my skin, the food that I eat. I’m also British – the way I was brought up, my schooling, the people I mix with. I also pay my taxes! I contribute to society as much as I can. I’m also Muslim, which is a very important part of spirituality; nobody can take that from me. I’m also gay – something I can’t change. I’m proud to be gay in the same way I’m proud to be British and Asianand Muslim. I’m proud to be gay and I live with it and I
deal with it. Those people who can’t deal with it, well, that’s not my problem. It’s theirs. I have a life to live.’
This is Azeem Ahmad. He came out to his family in 1994 and is one of a growing number of Asian men and women who are confident enough to challenge the ‘norms’ accepted within Asian communities.
Azeem realised he was gay when he was 15 but was convinced it was wrong to be gay. ‘I thought my faith said it was wrong to be gay. I thought I mustn’t ever tell anyone I am gay. I did turn to religion and I found a lot of solace in that but I didn’t find answers to my questions. I use to pray to God to make me straight. But funnily enough my prayers were never answered. When I was 21, I got married. I thought maybe this would make me straight, but the fact our marriage didn’t continue was the best thing that happened. I couldn’t live a dual life.’
Two years after the break-up of his marriage, he told his family he was gay. His parents found this difficult to accept. They tried to persuade him to leave his job in London and return to their family home in Scotland, but Azeem refused. Eventually, they have accepted him for who he is.
Hiren Worah was also married for four years until he realised he could no longer live a ‘false life’. He came out to his wife and his parents. ‘When I told my parents, I had to speak in English because there’s no word for being gay in Gujarati.’ His parents were disheartened and sad but
have become supportive. Hiren also continues to be on speaking terms with his wife.
Those who are Asian and gay are becoming more confident about who they are and London has become the focus of a growing Asian gay scene. Brian Teixeira is the director of the Naz project, an organisation that is primarily concerned with issues of sexual health in the city’s south
Asian, Mediterranean, Latin American, north African and Horn of Africa communities. He says the visibility of Asian gay communities has grown. They have become less clandestine and more willing to assert their existence. ‘Look at the Mardi Gras festival this year in London. There was an entire float celebrating Asian gays.’
The club scene, he points out, has also expanded. It has tripled over the past 10 years. There is now Club Kali every fortnight in north London, Azad every week in Soho and Bhangra Mix in Vauxhall every month.
The Naz project has been going since 1991. As well as its work on sexual health it also has support groups for men and women who are attracted to the same sex. Masala is for younger men, who feel comfortable within the mainstream British gay culture; Dost tends to be for older gays or bisexuals, who are struggling more about their sexuality and often feel more isolated.
Kiss is a support group for lesbians and bisexual women, between 20 and 40 of whom attend its monthly meetings; its membership is now about 250. Parminder Sekhon, a support co-ordinator from the Naz project, who helps to run this group, says awareness of lesbian or gay issues has grown within the Asian communities. ‘There is less of an underground culture, although that is still there. I certainly receive calls from not just the person concerned but also from parents, asking for advice on how to deal with their child who has just come out.’
However, although there is more awareness and acceptance within families, some still fear the reaction of the wider community and the ‘shame’ a gay child may bring to a family.
The importance attached to marriage within south Asian communities cannot be underestimated. It’s still seen as a parent’s duty to find a suitable match for their children. Weddings are occasions to celebrate, with functions lasting days, and marriages are expected to be enduring. The pressure is so great that many gay Asians continue to hide their true sexuality from their family.
But even this is slowly changing. Where previously a gay man or woman would marry a heterosexual to ‘fit in’ as a married person within the community, now marriage is serving a different purpose.
Take Sharon – not her real name -who is a 26-year-old professional living in London with her parents. She came out to her parents two years ago. At the time, there was a lot of pressure on her to marry and there was concern from relatives and the extended family.
‘I remember when I told my parents. I had to think of the worst thing that could happen to me and that was to be chucked out. I knew I was financially secure, that I had a good job, so if the worst came to the worst I’d be OK. But it would have been hard, because I would have to break up with my family. But it was something I had to do.’
Her parents’ initial reaction was one of shock. Then they convinced themselves that Sharon was just going through a phase. But eventually they accepted her being gay and have been very supportive. However, such is the stigma attached to young men or women who aren’t married that Sharon and her parents are arranging a ‘mutually beneficial arrangement’. ‘I’m looking for someone to marry but in a marriage of convenience,’ Sharon explains.
These ‘MBAs’ are advertised in the pink press or in the Asian papers. Here, a man and woman will marry but although from the outside it looks like a ‘normal’ heterosexual marriage, in reality both parties will be gay and will be helping each other out. In a community where marriage is
highly valued, Sharon feels it’s the least she can do for her family.
A new openness is also reflected in the number of support groups that have sprung up over the past two or three years. Al-Fatiha is a discussion group set up about three years ago, with more than 260 members in the London area. Not content withthe two labels of being Asian and gay, they also claim the Muslim label.
‘For the first time we marched in the Mardi Gras this year. We wanted to say that you can be gay and Muslim,’ says Adnan Ali, who runs the group. He says there were many reasons why they set up Al-Fatiha UK. For one thing, it was difficult for Muslims to participate in mainstream British gay culture, which frequently revolves around bars or clubs. Also, although gays are perceived as a tolerant community, there is still a lot of racism directed at Asian gays, particularly Islamophobia.
Before setting up the organisation, Adnan was keen to have a spiritual dimension to it. ‘We believe that homosexuality is not a religious problem, it’s a social taboo. So we started this group because we thought we’d explore what the Koran says. For many of us, our link with our Creator, with Allah, is still important to us. And we are determined to remain Muslim and gay.’
Adnan recently organised a conference for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Muslims and friends. It’s the second year they’ve held one. ‘Last year we did have a lot more security concerns from within the mainstream Muslim community. But this year things were a lot less tense. We’ve just had a few abusive calls, but nothing more than that.’ Guest speakers included academics, documentary-makers and one openly homosexual imam who flew in from America.
‘You should have seen one of the worksho
ps we had last year,’ Adnan says. ‘We had a talk given by four mothers who had gay sons. What wa
s amazing was that they agreed to come at all and the huge spectrum of debate within these four mothers. One of them had known her son was gay for 20 years, another for only two months. The difference in their attitudes was wide, ranging from those who accepted their son’s sexuality to those still hoping their son will change back. The discussion itself was extremely moving.’
Al-Fatiha isn’t the only organisation catering for those who are gay and Muslim. The Safra project for women was set up in October last year. Suhraiya, one of its founders, says they wanted to be more than a discussion forum and become a point of reference for young women who need information on social and legal services. In time, she hopes to have a website, too. Safra also has an office in Manchester and hopes to expand to Bradford and Birmingham.
The mere fact of more support groups and information services being set up specifically to cater for those who are Asian and gay is recognition that this emerging group is here to stay. Asian gays are slowly but surely marking their mark within Asian mainstream society.
Karl Kanadia moved to the UK from Canada nearly six years ago. He has noticed a definite change from when he first moved to the situation now. ‘You can see that Asian gay men and women are forming their own identities and are speaking out. They are not hiding behind closed curtains any more.’
Naz Project London, Palingswick House, 241 King Street,
London W6 9LP; tel: 020 8741 1879; www.naz.org.uk
Al-Fatiha can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Safra Project can be contacted at