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Coming Out as a Western Concept

Updated: Jun 12, 2020

In celebration of Pride Month this June we will share stories from and about the LGBTQ+ South Asian community. The first story we share was published in the second edition of our quarterly zine, we are colorfull, which celebrated LGBT history month from a South Asian diaspora perspective.

I grew up in a big British South Asian family where my older siblings followed the traditional path of what was expected of us; they studied, they prayed, they got married and they had children. For me it was never going to be so straight-forward, I knew one day I’d have to come out to my family as gay.

For me, coming out was never a question of if but a question of when. I’ve always felt that eventually being honest with my family was important because I wanted to share all parts of my life with the people I love. I envision getting married to a man in the future but I don’t want an English wedding or civil registration, instead I dream of celebrating the day by inviting my relatives, wearing traditional clothes, waiting for the mehendi to dry and hoping no-one steals my shoes. How could I give that dream a chance if I didn’t come out to my family?

In all cases of disclosing your sexuality, the bigger the chance of rejection, the harder it is to come out. Over the years I found it easier to tell colleagues at work that I’m queer because ultimately what they thought about my sexuality didn’t affect me. Telling my parents was a larger leap of faith for me because of the fear of rejection and disownment. I made sure I wasn’t economically reliant on my parents before I came out, so unlike most of my siblings who moved out only when they got married, I got a job in London after university and became self-sufficient. This gave me some confidence to come out to them because I knew potential emotional distress aside, I would still have a roof over my head. That was important.

Coming out for me was primarily about being fully honest, and secondly to break the shackles of the heteronormativity which damaged me throughout my early life. In that sense it was the act of rebellion I had harboured within me for so many years.

After I came out to them, emotions ran high and they admitted they had no idea I was gay beforehand. That’s when it dawned on me that my parents thought being gay was a Western concept and therefore my coming out was an unusual move for someone from our culture. A lot of South Asians communities expect us to follow the typical and traditional path, so when we deviate it’s easy to say we’ve been ‘westernised’.

South Asian cultures place heavy importance on family traditions whereas Western cultures tend to centre around individualism. Many queer South Asians have a journey of self discovery which is counter-balanced with a natural instinct to please our family. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk if you don’t have the support from others. For me, that support came from some very close friends who I still confide in to this day.

Anti-gay laws in the Indian sub-continent, specifically Section 377, are derived from a time when the British were in power. So, is coming out a western concept even though it is western ideals that have forced us into the closet in the first place? Fast forward to modern day and India has stated Section 377 is unconstitutional. Pakistan and Bangladesh have enjoyed many decades of independence yet still uphold homophobic laws, primarily due to cultural and religious ideals. In South Asian countries, many queer people cannot risk coming out due to fear of discrimination, arrest or worse. So, if anything, coming out could be said to be a ‘western privilege’ because here in the UK the consequences of coming out are relatively less harsh compared to our queer siblings in South Asia. It could take years of ground work for someone in Bangladesh to get into a position where they can live their authentic queer life - and even then ‘coming out’ publicly may not be part of that plan.

Coming out in a conservative family usually means weighing up a happy home life, which is a key link to our culture and traditions, vs. being queer, which paves a road to further self-acceptance and personal happiness. It’s a constant internal struggle we live with before, during and after coming out, so does telling your family really help with self-acceptance? A person may weigh up the options and decide to live partially out (out to friends, but not family) and conclude that this set-up makes them the happiest. Is it fair to judge someone who chooses not to come out? For many years I lived like this, it was manageable and I was happy.

Living authentically means being true to yourself first (self-acceptance) and it doesn’t mean you have to be visibly queer just to be valid. How we present ourselves to others and our family (coming out), is a choice we make to project our authentic selves.

In the years I chose not to be out to my family, what helped me the most was having close friends who I could talk to honestly, with no judgement, and complete confidence - this helped to keep me connected to my authentic self. If you don’t have that friend, find that friend. No matter what the situation, talking always helps.

The difficulty in coming out in South Asian communities is that it means challenging deeply held hetereonormative beliefs about our cultures and religions by our loved ones. Being queer can be seen by some as an attack on traditions we hold so dear, a western idea invading our spaces. In reality, being loving and supportive towards family has always been the most South Asian trait and one that I urge families to embrace should their children be queer.

Written by Mufseen Miah. Mufseen has built a career in finance and business in tv/broadcasting with roles at All3media and Little Dot Studios, and currently the Finance Director of Pride in London. He is vocal on issues that affect the well being of queer people of colour and works to increase the visibility and representation of queer Muslims. When Mufseen isn’t writing articles or recording his new podcast (@queer_talk) he’s oversharing his daily life on Instagram and Twitter, follow on @mufseen

Artwork is by Surya Shekhar Biswas, a visual artist, art director and stylist who believes the future is non-conforming. Their previous work includes campaigns for H&M, The Queer Bible and Maya the Drag Queen. They say, “I didn’t choose to be queer, so I don’t want my sexuality to become a subject matter. If who we are makes others uncomfortable, then we must use the power of education. Art is my go to language when I want to tell a story. I’m not good with words but I can draw something and create a visual to tell a story which has the power to educate others”.

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