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Into the World of PoC LGBTQ+ Activist, Khakan Qureshi

In this profile, we celebrate Finding A Voice founder Khakan Qureshi for all his work in creating safe spaces for LGBTQ+ PoC.

Relaxed by a summer Sunday’s evening, Khakan Qureshi joined me on Zoom from his home in Birmingham. Friendly and open from the start, Qureshi and I immediately bonded over our names, laughing as we both understood how pronunciation can become mangled in different cultures. 

Born to Pakistani parents, Qureshi knows all about navigating his way between two cultures as his Pakistani and British sides often clashed together; “we grew up with trying to marry our eastern spiritual Muslim faith with what’s going on around us. We tried to assimilate ourselves within school. We wanted to be more like our English counterparts… to do the things they were doing, like playing outside, staying out late, eating various foods, including sausages and other pork products.” 

At home was a different story, as between him and his six siblings, Qureshi was trying to become more culturally aware; “one minute we were identifying as Muslims by observing Ramadan and observing the five pillars of Islam… speaking Punjabi in the family, eating halal foods and not wanting to drink alcohol. But all the time just thinking, ‘where do we fit in?’ As it happens, 30 years later, there’s a lot of British Asians still trying to figure that out.”

From a young age, Qureshi developed a strong bond with his mother and his sisters; “I didn’t quite fit in with the more masculine roles… my upbringing wasn’t very much like a Muslim boy upbringing.” The attempt to blend two worlds together obviously caused friction, especially when some people in the community had an “archaic mindset” and reinforced gender roles. On this, he says: “But, I was a bit of a free spirit. I was always very religious-minded and I just wanted to know how the world was operating even as a young child.”

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Throughout steering his identity as a British Asian, Qureshi had to also navigate his way through his budding sexuality. This time, he couldn’t rely on his siblings, and struggled to come to terms with his sexuality alone, “I knew a lot of people was saying homosexuality is haram, forbidden or a sin. So that was a struggle for me… I really couldn’t kind of talk to anyone about it and I had no role models.” 

It was a three way clash – navigating what it means to be British, what it means to be Muslim and what it means to be gay. But when you have a self-support system relying heavily on religion pushing heteronormality,  it can become difficult to plunge straight into your authentic self. Qureshi called himself a “good Muslim boy” as he wanted to fulfil his parents expectations of having a wife and children, but he did always question; “is this what I want? My religious aspects conflicted with my sexual identity, although I didn’t know it at that time.” 

With no role models and no one to talk to, Qureshi pondered if he was asexual because of his lack of attraction to women or men. At the same time, he was facing negativity; “we now call it homophobic abuse. There was a lot of name calling, teasing, people taking them in trying to imitate the way I walked, the way I talked. I think I was quite resilient to that though, I didn’t allow it to bring me down because I used to respond in a different way.” 

Throughout his life, Qureshi always questioned why things had to be done a certain way, and wanted to understand the mechanics behind social and religious interactions and obligations. He stood up for himself, saying “it was quite interesting to be honest, looking back. I think in my own way, I always had the sense of fighting social injustices. I just didn’t have a word for it.” 

Then he went to university, and everything changed. “When I was student in London, I had these intense conversations in the evening with one of my housemates . She used to say “you’re a young lad and you’ve got no boyfriend or girlfriend, are you gay?”  She used to think I was gay, and I said, but how do you know? Because at that point I hadn’t experienced relationships…I was struggling with myself.”

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Being in a drama college, Qureshi was faced with a “number of LGBT people who were quite confident in themselves, and who quite openly expressed who they’re sleeping with and their relationships.”  But he never openly spoke about his feelings. Eventually, after repeatedly saying no to meet at a pub with his classmates, his friend mentioned he could join them but not drink any alcohol.

He recalls, “the guilt I experienced going to that pub! I was a Muslim boy in a pub – I just thought this is all wrong.” Another friend suggested he try a gay bar instead, just to see what happens; “I had to pluck up the courage to go to a gay bar but again it took me a long time to have the confidence to actually walk in…a period of weeks actually. But then one day I thought “let me go inside”. And I met somebody that evening! I didn’t realise at the time they were chatting me up. One thing led to another and I was with him for about three weeks.” 

But the 80s were rife with turmoil, as the AIDS pandemic tore through the queer community. Section 28 also became a huge heartache in the LGBTQ+ community; “don’t get me wrong, it was an exciting experience, but because of the time factor was there’s HIV, AIDS and Section 28. There’s a lot going on so I was experienced what I would call now, religious guilt.” 

“I kept thinking to myself, this is haram. What would people think? What will my family think? It just escalated to the point where I was so cynical about it all, I was experiencing anxieties and depressions. It was not a great time for me, mentally and emotionally. Even at that time, I just thought, well, am I gay? Am I bisexual? I still had the inclination to want to get married to a woman because that was a done thing to do. But I kind of enamoured by the kind of gay side of life. And that’s when I kind of owned up to it.” 

The process was embedded with doubts and negativity. He was still contemplating what it meant to be him, what it meant to be a gay Muslim; “there was no such thing as being ex Muslim, or a spiritual Muslim. It was just Muslims and that was it.” His relationship with his mother strengthened but his experiences in London made him a “different person.”

“I began to assert and explore myself, to the point where I literally ran away from my life at the time. I took myself to Paris, where I didn’t speak French didn’t have anybody, but the timing for me was right because it took time for me to re-evaluate and reassess where I was in my life.” 

Then, at the age of 22, he met his current partner, and started, “going out every evening.” His mother eventually questioned where he was going since, “some of [his] personal belongings had disappeared. She noticed my toothbrush had gone and some clothes and underpants and so she asked me if I was moving out slowly and surely.” 

This was the moment he came out to his mum: “ I actually sat down and it was really emotional. That’s when I thought I have to own up to this. I just thought, it’s now or never, and I couldn’t lie to my mum. Let me experience the consequences even if it meant they were going to throw me out for being gay. At least I had my partner at that point, and he was there to offer me support. It was very traumatic, that particular conversation. There were a lot of tears, and I had to tell her what I was going through and who I met.” 

“When my siblings found out, each of them, over a period of time, had a one to one conversation with me about what I was doing with my life, who I met, why had I met this person, and there was some homophobic attitudes”. Qureshi’s sisters blamed their mother’s illness on him (his mother fell ill years later, after she had accepted Qureshi and met his partner). 

Qureshi’s relationship with his father was “never really that great” and he was reluctant to tell his father about his sexuality. But he had a choice to make: “There was a lot of tension in the air, a lot of arguments. A lot of conflict. On one hand, I wanted to be in the family house. But on the other hand, it got to the point where nobody could talk about me or my partner or my relationship. So I stepped away from the whole household for about a year.”

He eventually reconciled with his parents after his father phoned him, but in order to have that level of acceptance and reconciliation, he had to make a tough decision, and that was to walk away from his family. He says his parents were, “Better Muslims than I had expected because they allowed us to express ourselves and be with whom we wanted to be. They showed what it meant to be a true Muslim, because it was about acceptance.” 

But it was from this experience Qureshi became the figure he was today. In 2014, he set up a pioneering support group called “Finding A Voice” for LGBTQ+ South Asians. “Initially it was supposed to be just a social group, so I could link in with other South Asian LGBTQ+ people. It’s purpose was to allow us to socialise a bit in the community, and have a bit of fun. But we just got to know each other a bit better, and spoke about our coming out experiences, what kind of backgrounds we had and how we tried to merge faith with sexual orientation or culture. We talked about family dynamics too..”

This was a defining moment for Qureshi, as beginning one of the first LGBTQ+ support groups in the Midlands, he was invited to speak at talks. Five years later, in 2019, he became “one of the main advocates of the No Outsiders programme”. The No Outsiders Programme was created in Birmingham by Andrew Moffat to teach children about different sexualities and religions – aligned to The Equality Act. 

Qureshi’s work garnered national attention, leading him to present talks around the nation. In 2020, he was presented with the British Empire Medal (BEM) for his commitment to LGBTQ+ advocacy, and making the New Year’s Honours List in 2021. In the “last three or four years I’ve been invited to go to the LGBT reception at Downing Street.” He mentions, “they also recognise that in terms of diversity or South Asian LGBT representation, there wasn’t much going on. I was one of very few who’s willing to put my head above the parapet.” 

From being himself, and providing more safe spaces for LGBTQ+ South Asians, his services to the community have been recognised and he was also awarded with a Point of Light Medal in 2020. But for him; “it’s more about speaking up more than anything. A lot of people see me as a very open, liberal Muslim. And also, I kind of adhere to some aspects of the British values.”

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But that’s not all he’s been getting up to. Qureshi has made a significant amount of appearances on reality TV shows, from The Weakest Link to Come Dine With Me. Why reality shows? He says, “My dad passed away in 2008 and I was trying to come to terms with that and then my mom became ill. Because my background is health and social care, I wanted to break away from all that. So I started applying and auditioning like crazy for a number of reality TV shows, just because I wanted that headspace. And I said to my other half, people seem to forget I did go to drama college as well! Not only was I wanting to break away from the health and social care, but it was also about representation within the media. I couldn’t see any gay Muslims anywhere, no matter how much I researched on Google.”

There’s a subtle power in his approach. When people watch TV shows with their family, they would see an elegant and successful gay Muslim man, not in the news or as a topic of controversy, but as a regular human being, doing regular things, like dinner parties and quiz shows. That human context is what we cry for when we ask for representation – and Qureshi has mastered it to the T. He says representation is about longevity, “People should have those conversations that representation and visibility is important, so people become more and more comfortable as time goes on.” 

Now, what’s next? Well he recalls; “In 2018, we had the first South Asian LGBTQ+ conference which was fully booked. In February 2019, there was the LGBTIQ+ Intersectionality in Islam Conference, then the LGBT school row erupted (relating to the No Outsiders Programme) which went on for a year. Because of COVID, any social support in the real world was on a hiatus because of the restrictions.”

“There was a project I was working with the QE hospital here in Birmingham, and that was a community project to bring people together whether they LGBTQ+ or straight, at the end of the year, it should have culminated in exhibition…I would like to have more conferences and workshops to raise the visibility of South Asians LGBTQ+. I was hoping to have another conference this year to be honest but we’ll see how things pan out.”

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“I’ve also just recently written a 3000 word report about LGBTQ+ Muslims. All this is giving me the confidence to write my story so I need to take time out to do that.” Qureshi spoke quite frankly about his position in the community, saying “as the dynamics changed a number of asylum seekers and refugees would come in – they’d be facing persecution because of their sexuality. So I started supporting them by writing letters of support to their solicitors. I end up supporting people, not necessarily just the asylum seekers and refugees, but people online as well who contact me.” He called himself an agony aunt, but I say he’s a father figure for our generation. 

Voices like his are paving a way to create a more inclusive society. He laughed when I mentioned this and said; “although my relationship with my dad was very strained. I’m falling into his footsteps, because he was a pioneer for the South Asian community, per se, he had one of the first curry houses in Birmingham, and he pioneered a lot of things for the South Asian community. And even though as a child I never knew exactly what he was doing outside the house. As time went on I figured it out. And now I’m doing it for South Asians, especially those who are LGBTQ+.”