Ian McCurrach (Editor of The Quest Newsletter) talks to Tahir Saleem (a previous participant on The Quest Programme) on being a Volunteer Assistant on The BME Quest Programme
Ian: Tahir, you recently took part as an assistant on The Quest Programme for Black, African, Black Caribbean, mixed Black and other ethnicity (BME) Gay Men, and Men who have Sex with Men. Why do you think it was important to deliver this programme for this group of men in particular?
Tahir: Asian and black gay men in my opinion and from my own life experience, definitely do have a considerable need for a programme such as The Quest Programme taking place in our community. Coming out is really a near impossible feat for us. Our culture typically involves the extended family, the neighbours and community playing quite a significant role in our life and usually an abundance of religion.
Ian: What issues do you think this group of men has to deal with that differs from other gay men?
Tahir: This is principally in two ways: firstly we battle a different culture and norms that make it considerably harder to deal with being gay, and then secondly upon acceptance of our own sexuality we become a visible sub group of the greater gay brotherhood. The black and Asian family, or peer culture, is embedded with shame, especially gay shame.
Ian: What did you get out of being an assistant in particular on this programme as opposed to a more mixed group?
Tahir: Seeing a group of black and Asian gay men who were strangers, come together, trust each other with mutual respect, partaking in a process that involved offering their trust and willingness and sharing their intimate experiences for their own and the groups wellbeing, was nothing short of inspirational. I feel honoured to have been an assistant in this process.
Ian: Why else is this work with this demographic important?
Tahir: In many African, Asian and Arab countries, from where we originate, first or second generation, homosexuality is still considered a severe crime and the attitude of people is really still quite different to what we see here in the West. Our parents and families tend to have a very different view to being gay than the average white middle class tolerant couple. For many of us, we are still not accepted. I remember thinking to myself when I first realised that I was gay, “Oh my God – can this really be happening to me? How can I possibly be gay? I am not white… God, why did you do this to me?” We are torn apart by thinking of the inevitable shame and disgrace that comes about as a result of our homosexuality. We struggle with accepting that we are actually black/Asian and gay. Saying it seems so much easier than living with it.
For some noticeably gay men who live in a predominantly black or Asian area, they are often labelled and humiliated. Worse still, the family concerned is made to feel the effects of the shame from the community. Thus the individual concerned doesn’t just perceive himself as suffering, but has brought shame and disgrace upon his whole family in the wider community. The church, mosque or temple sometimes gets involved and the only way out for the black or Asian gay man is to completely exit a family, society and culture with considerable traumatic results.
We struggle to find people who understand us. Many Asian or black men tell stories of the first black or Asian man they met and befriended knowing they had found someone like themselves. We ourselves know our difficulties and often see the problems of the white gay population as “Oh it’s alright for them, they can get away with it.” This is not to undermine the difficulties that other gay men suffer, but in the eyes of the black or Asian gay man, our problems seem so much more compounded.
A gay white man can possibly just leave home and set up on his own. But when we leave home or run away, the family often comes to find us. These actions in my opinion are largely based around black and Asian societies’ views on honour within the cultural group. The families frequently try everything to rid us of the abhorrent illness of homosexuality including using various superstitious methods: prayers, emotional blackmail, arranged marriages, violence and even in some cases honour killings.
Thus many Asian and black gay men find it incredibly difficult to come to terms with their own sexuality in a hostile culture of their own where they would have otherwise received acceptance if they were straight. They feel isolated and lost and lonely.
The usual gay support groups funded by local councils aren’t enough to help these people, and I have seen it over my lifetime. These people turn to their own for support and form large peer groups of the same community. In short, they find a ‘family’ away from their family.
These families are often supportive in the early traumatic years but as with all peer groups they are riddled with other like-minded individuals dealing with similar issues of shame and acceptance. Many participants in these groups eventually leave these groups after suffering many other issues such as depression or sexually transmitted diseases or arguments where banishment or shame play a significant role. These groups are just a group of people not trained therapists for support. What many Asian or gay black men are left with is a void.
The growing black or Asian gay man faces being ostracised from his own people for being different, and then suffering to find acceptance in a largely gay white community where (like it or not) the first thing we tend to be judged upon is “our appearance”. Here again we are perceived as “different” from everyone else.
Growing up as black or Asian gay men, we come across racism as well as homophobia in our daily lives and this contributes to the difficulties in our struggle and self-acceptance. Although the racism that was prevalent in some parts of society has largely and significantly diminished, nevertheless it is still there. You only have to flick across some of the adverts of popular dating websites where men still list “ white men only” or “ no Asians” for example.
The Quest Programme’s support for Asian and black gay men is different. It encompasses everything about us that is different. Yes we are gay, yes we are black or Asian too. Yes, we have the same problems and issues as other gay men yet our issues are subtly and uniquely different due to our cultural norms.
The Quest support group allows us to deal with issues in a caring, loving and understanding environment where other like-minded individuals nurture cherish and support us. It is very much a needed space.
To register or find out more about The Quest Programme for Black and Minority Ethnic Gay/Bisexual Men, click here. The next London Programme will take place 1/2/3 & 23 May and the one in Manchester 5/6/7 & 25 June 2015.