By Ash Akhtar, Strategic Comms Business Partner

In celebration of Pride Month, I was asked to share my coming out story. At first, I had quite a nervous reaction. It instantly took me back to a time in my life when I felt dread, shame, rejection and self-hate and an underlying fear of how people from my Pakistani Muslim community would react to my true identity.

I decided to share my story, hoping to offer comfort to those going through similar experiences and provide insight to those wishing to support someone they know struggling or experiencing discrimination.

I grew up in Huddersfield in the early 80s, mainly before being gay was tolerated or even understood. Coming out is never easy for most people but being from a South Asian heritage and brought up in a religious household comes with some additional challenges, to say the least!

I learnt from an early age that the way I looked at some boys was not how they looked back at me. It only became apparent to me years later that the horrible insults I’d hear in the playground – “that’s so gay”, “queer” and some that are too inappriopriate to mention here – applied to me. 

For a long time, I hated myself for being attracted to men. I’m sure you’ll have heard this many times, but if I could take a pill to have ‘normal’ feelings, then I would have done. I became a devout Muslim hoping to pray away the gay and lived a celibate life throughout college and University. Focussing on my faith and devotion to God helped me to shelve the gay stuff for a while. Like a box of secrets, I could hide away but eventually open when I had to.

After a decade of praying for forgiveness, I realised these feelings weren’t going away. I felt a strong desire to explore the real me. What would it be like to be with another man? I’d always dreamt of being in love, walking down the street hand-in-hand, and feeling at peace with someone who’ll be there for me, no matter what. 

These instincts, emotions and desires are as natural for me as my straight friends, siblings and people in my community – just as they didn’t choose their sexuality; I didn’t choose mine. I knew this realisation would mean a significant change in my life. But I was tired of faking it, it was time to open the box of secrets.

I didn’t know anyone from the LGBTQ+ community. I’d never met a South Asian gay man, not knowingly anyway. Or maybe I did, but I chose to ignore it for fear of revealing my true identity. Nor had I ever stepped foot in a bar, let alone a gay bar! I was terrified. I needed to be discreet, so I turned to the internet. Back when there were no apps on your phone to tell you how close the nearest match might be. 

After several months of searching, meeting up with some unsavoury characters, I met a guy I connected with, and it felt right. He was white British and had been out to his family and friends since he was 19. I began to experience a world I’d never been part of before. It was scary and exhilarating all at the same time. 

I’d kept him a secret for almost a year, fearing the repercussion, but knew I had to come out soon if we were to take things further. He didn’t understand my culture or anticipate the difficulties we’d face. He was fortunate enough to have family and friends that were accepting of his life choices.

After much procrastination, at the age of 26, I decided to test the waters with some close friends. The reception was mixed, which was no surprise. Soon after, I plucked up the courage to come out to my older sister and brothers. They didn’t take the news well, and after many heated arguments, our relationship broke down. 

Since coming out over 20 years ago, I’ve a new family and the confidence to be proud of who I am. My partner and I have been together for almost nine years. He’s incredible! We were set to get married in 2020 but unfortunately, Covid struck, which meant we’ve had to change our plans a little. But I’m the happiest and most content I’ve ever been.

Things with my family will never be the same. It makes me sad they’re unable to compromise their beliefs even after such a long time. They still believe it’s a choice. I don’t hate them, but I no longer tolerate any negativity towards my life.

Even though society has moved on, attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people still feel hostile in certain communities. For decades, activists have been striving for equal rights, and still, many brown, black and white people are abused, disowned and mistreated by their loved ones because of their sexuality. 

The values and structure of religious beliefs are deeply ingrained within each culture, making acceptance an upward and challenging battle. For this reason, we must continue to have conversations about people’s identities and raise awareness of the impact they have on our society.

Which brings me nicely onto a panel discussion that the Rise Network and Respect are co-hosting on Tuesday 22 June 2021 about the experiences of LGBTQ+ ethnic minorities

The event will be hosted by me, Andy Phelps, the sponsor for Respect and Namratta Bedi. We have the privilege of being joined by some truly fantastic pioneers and leaders from the LGBTQ+ community:

Please save the date in your calendar. Join us using this link, we’d love to see you there. Here’s a quick guide on the experiences LGBTQ+ ethnic minorities. I hope this helps you understand more about some of the challenges, along with charities and volunteer groups you can reach out to for support and more information.

Reflecting on my life and experiences, I realised that all I wanted was to belong. Is that really too much to ask?

If you’re affected by the themes in this article, please reach out for advice and support. 

Join the conversation! 18 Comments

  1. Ash, knowing you a little, as a thoughtful creative and supportive colleague, this story made me appreciate your strength even more. You must have a great capacity for forgiveness as resilience even though you’ve had such a hard family journey. Thank you for telling your story so candidly. Most importantly…Wishing you a wonderful future together. Let happiness prevail.

  2. Glad you found happiness as that’s all that matters, after all, we get one life and nobody should have to live it in fear or without love. Truly hope your family come round.

  3. Thanks for sharing so bravely and honestly Ash. You are an inspiration. All the best for your future wedding!

  4. Ash thank you so much for being brave and sharing your story. Unfortunately being gay in the South Asian community is still a huge taboo because there is this paralysing fear of “log kya kahengay” (what will people say?). When actually what matters most is that you are happy and at peace inside. So proud of you for putting this event together so we can discuss some of the issues and I can’t wait for tomorrow!

  5. Thankyou for sharing your story Ash

  6. Great share Ash. And written brilliantly of course. I really hope it helps others who may be experiencing the dread and rejection that you experienced. Very happy for you now!

  7. I am full of admiration for you Ash, thank you so much for telling your story. Its sad that others cant accept you for who you are however you have one life and its important you live it as you x

  8. Ash
    Had to read this a number of times to take this all in and understand your life story/journey which of course still ha many chapters to come!
    Thanks for sharing and being a fabulous role model both in and out of our organisation!

  9. What a journey you’ve been on…such courage and strength

  10. Ash, I am completely in awe of you. Your story was heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measures, but I am so happy you have found happiness, and are so completely at peace and comfortable in yourself. Happy Pride Month friend, so grateful for you sharing this with us all!

  11. Supremely brave in sharing your story, Ash. I cannot imagine what it took to tell your family; what a huge amount of courage.

  12. So brave Ash!

  13. Thanks for sharing your story, Ash – a truly inspiring read.

  14. Thank you for sharing your story Ash.

  15. Its so difficult trying to keep a connection with family, when they just can’t get their head around you being your true self. It really feels like a battle doesn’t it! You are very much loved by your extended family and we can’t wait for the wedding once lockdown is over!!! thanks for sharing your story Ash. I’m sure there are so many people out there who can relate

  16. Thanks for sharing your story and being open and honest about your feelings and reactions, everyone should be allowed to be themselves no matter what their sexuality, bravo for always being yourself. Have had the pleasure of working ali=ongside you and can honestly say please don’t change for anyone you are wonderful person who I am priviledged to know 🙂

  17. thank you so much for sharing your inspiring story 🙂

  18. So brave to share your story Ash 🙂

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