The first British Asian LGBT conference was held at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham on Saturday 28th July. Organiser’s Khakan Qureshi, Siddhi Joshi and Peta Cooper rallied together a team of LGBT activists, doctors, academics and allies from around the UK who all came together to discuss, debate and share stories on issues impacting the South Asian LGBT community. The conference was a huge success warranting national media attention from the BBC Asian Network, BBC Leicester and the online desi news page Barfi Culture
The aim of the conference was to create a safe space for people from the LGBT community to openly discuss issues impacting them. Topics on sexuality, religion, mental health, sexual health, women’s health and section 377 – a law in India prohibiting homosexuality, were all areas of much needed discussion. There was also a screening of India’s first queer love story Sisak (as seen pictured above). The film won itself 43 international awards for the way it detailed a wordless romance that develops slowly between two men in the quiet comforts of their train journeys home in Mumbai India and was well received.
The trailer to Sisak
Guests were also introduced to the world’s first openly gay prince, Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil through a video call where he talked openly about being ostracised from the royal family because of his sexual orientation. Whilst everyone’s contribution to the conference was highly valuable to the LGBT dialogue, there were two prominent speakers who stood out to me on the day – Matt-Mahmood Ogston and Professor Rusi Jaspal.
“This communal approach among South Asian LGBTI+ shows that we can be all united irrespective of faith and culture, people don’t have to be on their own, we can be visible, and we can make a difference. All you need to do, is reach out!” – Khakan Qureshi
Founder of the Naz and Matt foundation Matt-Mahmood delivered a deeply moving and inspiring presentation. Not only was he eloquent and concise in his message of equality, he also deeply motivated the entire conference to carry on the conversation of acceptance and inclusivity outside of the day’s events with a powerful tribute to the love of his life Dr. Naz Mahmood. Dr Naz tragically ended his own life in July of 2014 following rejection from his conservative Muslim family for being gay. This brought a cruel end to Naz and Matts 13-year long relationship who were engaged to be married. His agonising story was deeply moving, leaving me with questions about the morality of a society that disowns and shuns its own in the name of honour, religion and communal respect. Naz and Matts story was tragic and it stayed with me for days.
There was also a sexual health panel with Makinder Chahal, Professor Rusi Jaspal from De Montfort University, Dr. Rageshri Dhairyawan and Dr. Jake Bayley. The panellists offered an important and educational addition to the conversation on women’s health and LGBT+ issues. Professor Jaspal shared his research on faith and homosexuality by constructively dismantling the existing myths in society that dictate that religion and homosexuality can never be in agreement with one another. Professor Jaspal’s research aptly pointed out, that in fact, the two can.
Discussing his interview data collated through his research by speaking with Muslim, Sikh and Hindu gay men, Professor Jaspal shared the attitudes of people from the South Asian community which gave a clear indication of existing familial and cultural attitudes towards LGBT issues. Some of the comments that were directed at these men for being gay, are as follows:
“choosing to be subversive” “homosexuality is a western influence” “maybe something has gone wrong in one’s childhood” “religious faith can heal” “this is a test from God” “Satan is tempting you” “A (heterosexual) marriage will put things right”
These findings were interesting for a number of reasons. Often my accepting attitude towards the LGBT community has been scrutinised or challenged with my own sexuality coming under question by both heterosexuals and homosexuals. Furthermore, the above statements are ones I have come across myself when talking to heterosexual South Asians. I always found these attitudes interesting about people, especially this bizarre need to question my heterosexuality because I have aligned myself with, or am speaking on LGBT issues in my own social circles. This simply reaffirms how prevalent homophobia actually is – particularly in the South Asian community and an example of this has been included below.
A few years ago, a gay Muslim colleague of mine wrestled with the homophobia he was subjected to from both South Asian men and Bengali and Pakistani Muslim co-workers in the workplace after embracing his homosexuality publicly. The derogatory comments and awful rumours that made their way around the office were shocking and negatively impacted his confidence. The worst part about this was how no one took any responsibility for the way they made him feel – it was abhorrent. Fast-forward two years from then and a close friend of mine tells me she is gay, however, due to rejection from the wider Sikh community as a practising Sikh (Amritdhari) she questioned her position in the Sikh community as a homosexual. I began realising just how difficult this conversation was for South Asian LGBT, and hearing the upset this caused my childhood friend, I was angered. She, like the rest of the heteronormative world, has every right to love and feel loved, what was so unacceptable about her that the wider community could not come to terms with? It was just beyond me.
As a result of the experiences that surrounded me I decided to open up the conversation on LGBT issues in my own social circle. I have since found that many British Asian men are of the opinion that being gay is a direct result of a western conditioning by fault of the mass media. This ‘parading’ of pride on the news, ‘gay couples in television shows’ and the ‘over the top’ portrayal (as someone told me) of LGBT is something that many are very uncomfortable with. Others simply deny that homophobia within them exists, by making statements like ‘I’m not homophobic, I just don’t want that around me’, or ‘I just don’t get how a man can want a man, but I still would never treat them differently’. These comments are self-explanatory and just point to how stupid some people sound when defending homophobic attitudes.
From attending the conference and to later attending my first desi drag party (having been spontaneously invited) to Seema Butts flat, I started to realise away from the day’s events and fun evening had, just how many South Asian families have struggled to accept their LGBT children or relatives.
I heard of stories about how Muslim families struggled to accept their LGBT family members because of the religious clash this presented. One guest at the party told me how his family had tried to kill him for being gay – I was horrified. I also realise how many gay Sikh’s have also struggled with telling their family members that they are gay, despite the religion not explicitly stating homosexuality to be a sin (as Professor Jaspal’s presentation noted and as some practising Sikhs have also mentioned to me). Evidently, the struggle for South Asian LGBT is widespread in the community in differing and complex ways. A conference enabling these conversations to safely take place then, seemed long overdue.
Seema Butt is a British Muslim drag queen and was featured in the HSBC advert for pride month this year as seen above.
The founder of the organisation for LGBTIQ South Asians in Birmingham, Khakan Qureshi, set up the conference to create a safe space for people like the ones I met to discuss LGBT issues without fear of prejudice or discrimination. In an interview with me following the success of the conference, Khakan discussed the media response and his reasons behind organising the day’s events.
Did you anticipate the level of media response that the conference received?
Following the conference, the media reaction we received has been pleasantly surprising and very affirming. All the messages and feedback received has been very positive and it has boosted my confidence in that I would like to do more and more! Siddhi and I are complete opposites in that she is painfully shy and I’m more outgoing but we’ve managed to work together, independently and remotely via electronic communications. With the media attention this has gathered, we have started a much-needed conversation. The South Asian community, both LGBTI+ and heterosexual, has awakened to the fact that we, the LGBT, are finding our voice.
What encouraged you to set-up up the first LGBT conference for British South Asians?
Siddhi Joshi, the editor of British Asian LGBTI, Peta Cooper the founder of Gaysian Faces and I are all volunteers for a South Asian LGBTI online social support group. We all virtually came together back in 2013 quickly realising through our online interactions a shared passion and goal when it came to the representation of South Asians LGBTI+. The lack of visibility of south Asian LGBTI+ when attending these events was striking.
Given that the three of us live in different parts of the UK and Ireland, we communicated online about wanting to organise an LGBT event together, we felt something had to be done, but lacked the funds to make it happen – so, as time went on, we sort of put it on the backburner.
As a gay South Asian Muslim man, I was becoming more vocal about the lack of representation in the media and at LGBTI+ events. I started connecting with other South Asian LGBT individuals who seemed to be just as frustrated as I was about there not being a “movement”, and about us not having our voices heard and thus not being able to reach out to others.
We all knew we wanted something to happen, an event, workshop or conference. But finding the funds, right venue or safe space was an obstacle and the motivation and momentum to mobilise this seemed to be stifled.
The idea of wanting or having a conference was one of those topics which wouldn’t go away.
Then earlier this year, the Head of Inclusion at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham Antony Cobley, reached out to me through LinkedIn. We met, he showed me the lecture hall and offered to help me. I shared my vision to have a LGBT conference and explained the challenges and issues faced around initiating this. Antony was very understanding and around two weeks later he invited me to an NHS LGBTI conference. To my surprise, it was here that he announced to the audience that I was organising the first South Asian LGBTI Conference! I was taken aback but it ignited the impetus and it was when I knew that I just had to do it. This was how the first British South Asian LGBT conference in the UK came to be and I look forward to making this an annual event so watch this space!
Seen here with Lucky Roy Singh (I’m the blonde one) at Seema Butt’s very fun and welcoming desi drag party – the perfect way to end an LGBT conference.