Siddhi Joshi- Founder of British Asian LGBTI
I come from a moderately liberal British-Indian Hindu family in London, who are quite progressive and supportive all the way. I went to a Catholic school where being a lesbian was acceptable, but perhaps peer pressure to conform to a hetero-normative adolescence was a greater obstacle. Although I had felt same sex attraction since I was very young, I first realised I loved women when I was in my teens and the realisation made a lot of sense inside. When I realised this I was a thirteen year old girl compelled to write my thoughts down in the middle of a crowded and busy shopping centre (!) Suburban life growing up in London can be tough, but I was lucky to be in love all throughout my teens and beyond. There was silent racism, but luckily I was never bullied at school. This gave me the confidence I needed to learn to be myself to my family. I informally came out in my teens to my parents but was not in a relationship, so they did not really understand the full implications at the time.
When I went to university I fell in love again and this was a much more problematic affair as it made me a target of homophobic academic hate “acts” against my credibility as a early stage researcher. This was particularly painful as I was also racially isolated and segregated, perhaps at times discriminated against, being virtually the only Indian in my whole institute. Still I had really worked hard to build bridges in my community as best I could. My early university experiences affected me a lot and I found it so difficult to cope with the combined “sword of discrimination” both racial and homophobic– and a hate so personally against “my own career.” I was depressed for two years and found it very difficult to be myself again and took the anger out on my family and few remaining friends. I was once sitting on a bench in the rain waiting for my train and all of a sudden I opened a fortune cookie, read it and it said:
“The wheel of good fortune is finally turning in your direction”
I wondered what was to follow- and then I found my ideal PhD advertised on a website! It was here I found my liberation as a lesbian. I could be myself and come our more formally to my parents. My mum was very supportive and my dad was a bit apprehensive but supportive as well. My auntie who I am very close to told me that same sex marriage was not natural and that she believed homosexuality is an illness. I was upset but I know for sure she does not really believe that (and also the World Psychiatric Association have issued a statement). (see also Indian Psychiatric Association statement here) This mixed response meant that I don’t talk about my sexuality that much to my family and my extended family of masis, mamas and phois in India with whom I am very close to still do not know properly. It is one of my aims to tell them sensitively as for me it is important to come out and be accepted in a mature society and also for me to be honest with my loved ones. It is particularly difficult, as in South Asian families there is the fear of being rejected by your close family or even disowned or forced into “secrecy” or a web of lies. To avoid all this I really needed to be honest with myself and contribute somehow to the LGBTI movement and so I started campaigning for LGBTI rights!
I gradually became more educated in the field of human rights law, as a route to protect, change and liberate. Now as a volunteer for Amnesty International, LGBTI Rights education and activism play a central role in my daily activities. I have founded this Facebook page to support British Asian LGBTI community as a solution to reduce isolation, discrimination. Working with many activists both in human rights and in the South Asian community who are there to support you should you ever need help. Once during my period of depression I found a voice by sharing my academic story anonymously, as it did affect my career; the response I got was very positive- when things get tough –form constituencies- join support groups- talk to someone who can help- never suffer in silence.
Khakan Qureshi- Founder of Finding A Voice
“My father was a founder member of the Birmingham Central Mosque and expected us to follow the 5 pillars of Islam. However, mum was much more lenient about this and encouraged us to be “free spirits”.
When I was about 6, I attended the local masjid (mosque) the after school Qur’an studying class. Although I did relatively well, I couldn’t stand the authoritarian male figure, the Staji (Muslim preacher) who would scream and shout at the other children, hit them with a stick, pull their ears really hard or make them crouch on the floor with the heads bowed down, arms locked under the knees and forced to hold their own ears as punishment for “lacking discipline, not able to recite passages from the Qur’an and generally misbehaving. I think I lasted about a week or two before I told mum what was happening and she withdrew me from those lessons. I never went back although this caused arguments between my parents.
However, the experience didn’t prevent me from trying to be a “good, Muslim boy”. This meant respecting my elders and keeping quiet most of the time.
From about the age of 11 to 17, I observed Ramadan on and off over the years. Although I felt liberated from the constraints of religious oppression, I still developed a strong interest in religion, debating and discussing moral issues such as death, relationships and touching on the subject of homosexuality.
With everyone concerned in my family and with my peers, just the idea that someone was gay is/was a sin. Just watching two men hold hands or kiss on TV in US soap operas such as Dallas/Dynasty or Soap was abhorred. We had to turn the channels over.
At 17, I was quite happy with the way things were progressing at school/college. I didn’t tell anyone that I had gay feelings or a crush on anyone. Back then, as it is now, it was very much a taboo subject to discuss sex, never mind homosexuality. I was very much asexual. In hindsight, I think I may have only had two unspoken crushes on two male teachers.
I spent a lot of times with the females in the household. We would talk about marriage, looking for the right partner and how many children we would have. Mum had great dreams and aspirations for me.
But it all changed when I moved down to London, aged 19. I was alone, isolated and found it difficult to engage in conversation and make friends. I was painfully shy and withdrawn, partly because I was so tense and insecure, and partly because I had been mocked and ridiculed over the years for my effeminate voice and mannerisms. But I became quite attached to an older female student, a maternal figure, who queried my sexual orientation. As I was still in the throes of seeking spiritual enlightenment, I denied that I was gay or had feelings for men and claimed to wanting to find my own “Miss Right”. Writing this now, I realise what I experienced was internalised homophobia but in my teenage years, I had no words to describe how I felt. Outwardly, I was appalled by seeing a gay man in a public place, but inwardly I was in awe and attracted to particular types of men. Overall, I denied my feelings and chose not to acknowledge the gay men, who would look my way, say hello or even just be within my peripheral vision or space.
My friend suggested that although I appeared quite aware of the world, I was still very much “sheltered”. She didn’t say I was “closeted” but that I “just had to find myself”. She suggested I visit a gay bar in the centre of London.
So I did.
I was excited, embarrassed, guilty and ashamed as I walked through the doors of Brief Encounter in Charing Cross. My struggle to accept myself began. Because of, and in spite of my religious beliefs, I couldn’t, didn’t and wouldn’t accept my feelings, desires and urges. I was totally repressed sexually and mentally. I wanted to be a good Muslim husband and father. I had my life plan mapped out. I wanted to please my parents and family. I struggled with what my body and emotions were telling me. My mind and body were just not connecting. This went on for weeks, if not months. Then, a week before my 20th birthday, I met a man at the gay bar and he was my first one night stand. I was overwhelmed with both positive and negative feelings. Religious guilt forced me to leave. All I kept thinking was that what I just did was “a sin, that I would be damned and sent to hell”. I cried and several times in the coming months, contemplated suicide.
I wanted my family to be proud of me, not ashamed. The most difficult and hardest thing for me to do was to accept and come to terms with me being gay, never mind telling others and expecting them to accept me for who I am or what I was. I was seeking religious conciliation.
After several brief encounters, I would go back to my bedsit and read the Qur’an and then read the Bible. I even read passages from the Kabbalah. It sounds like a cliché, but I was searching for answers and forgiveness. It never came from the passages I read.
It came from my own self-worth and being. Rather than push it away, I began to trust my own instincts, feelings and beliefs. I wasn’t harming anyone. I wasn’t placing myself or others at risk. I didn’t query what other people did in their own bedrooms. I didn’t ask anyone to lead my life for me. I made my own path and followed it.
In 1992, I met my white male European partner, 21 years older than me. We shared many common interests and passions. In the early days, our relationship was discreet. I still held some reservations. I tried to differentiate between what was right for me as opposed to what “religion, tradition, faith and culture” dictated and expected me to do.
Coming out to mum was the hardest thing to do. It was heart breaking and she was devastated. When dad found out, it created further friction. Both my parents blamed each other for the way I had “turned out”. I think dad was more concerned about his own social standing and what it meant for his reputation within the South Asian community. Being a self-proclaimed “community leader”, he didn’t want the gossip at his door, stating I was “the black sheep of the family”. I didn’t see or speak to them for a year.
It took some time before my parents accepted me as their son who just “happened to be gay”, my relationship and the lifestyle we led. Initially, when I told my mum that I had “fallen in love” she queried who the girl was, asking questions about her background. I found it difficult to say that I was seeing a man but I thought to myself that I had to tell the truth. “That’s just it mum”, I said “The person is not a SHE but a HE!” As soon as I had opened my mouth and the words poured out, my mother’s face dropped and she was silent for a while. I knew she was devastated. After what seemed like an eternity of silence, she asked more questions. We found the strength to discuss the implications and consequences of my new found relationship and whether or not she would tell dad. She ended the conversation with
“Whatever makes you happy makes me happy. If I didn’t love you for being my son, and for who you are, what sort of mother will I be?”
Dad, however, didn’t find out until several months later. I didn’t confront him or say I’m gay. Mum told me that she had told dad and I knew dad was full of mixed emotions, mostly, I think he was hurt and angry. I visited them one day and he just started to question me about my whereabouts, the people I met, and the person I was with. Then followed a diatribe that made me upset and distressed. I said I didn’t have to listen to him and walked out. As I said earlier, I didn’t visit them again for a year.
When I returned home, mum was emotional and pleased to see me. My parents had argued, blamed each other, threw quotes from the Qur’an at one another, and didn’t speak for ages. It seemed like a simmering pot of verbal exchanges. When dad saw me, we skirted around one another. We didn’t speak. But dad just said
“Your mum tells me that you, as my youngest son, no matter what you say or do, I have to accept you as my son. But remember, you have broken your mothers’ heart. I understand you’re in love. Your partner may not be what we wanted for you, but if he makes you happy that’s all that matters. It doesn’t matter if you are gay. You are my son and we love you!”
That to me is the ultimate accolade of acceptance – If your parents can accept you.
What I didn’t expect was the impact my relationship would have on the dynamics with my siblings. My brothers didn’t really pay that much attention to me. I was too busy daydreaming and living in my own world of books, silence and in the company of the females in the family. In contrast, my brothers were too busy playing in the great outdoors, clubbing and flirting with the girls. I was far removed from their machismo lifestyle.
I had several conversations with my brothers. They queried my new found relationship, asked questions such as if I found women attractive, were I sexually aroused if I saw a naked woman, would I consider marrying one of our cousins to “save face” and show the world we were still a “normal, heterosexual family”. The questions were very explicit in detail and made me feel disgusted and ashamed for admitting the truth of my sexual identity. My brothers told me that what I was doing was wrong, they always had an inkling they thought I might be “that way” but thought I might grow out of it. After all, they said, there were a number of gay people in their social circle and they “tolerated them”. I said tolerating a friend is not the same as accepting them and if they felt “homosexuality had to be tolerated, and then it was not a true friendship”. We had a strained conversation and all my brothers said my sexuality wouldn’t change anything and that I was still their brother and they loved me just the same.
In 2014, I founded Birmingham South Asians LGBT- Finding A Voice, a non-funded, independent, multi faith South Asian LGBT social/support group for men and women which aims to combat homophobia and change mind sets within the South Asian Community, as well as the wider mainstream community.
I believe in being visible, true and authentic to yourself and raising awareness about homophobia in South Asian communities.
My Love will always be strong. I don’t hide behind a mask and don’t pretend to be something other than myself.
I’m glad I came out when I did because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have met my partner and wouldn’t have become the person I am today.”
Peta Cooper- Founder of Gaysian Faces
Page under construction- See GaysianFaces.com