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.