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Last updateTue, 07 Apr 2015 11pm

Muslim. British. Gay. And Proud. Asifa Lahore: The Unwitting Activist.

I've managed to catch Asifa Lahore half-way through her make-up routine. 

Strangely, I'm trying desperately to reconcile her outlandish fake eye-lashes with the considered, eloquent manner in which she describes her work not just as a drag queen but as an unwitting activist for the South Asian LGBT community. 

But that is just a reflection of my personal prejudices.

Asifa though, is in her element.  Unsurprising, for someone who's life has been defined by one reconciliation after another. 

Born - prematurely - in Lahore, Pakistan, Asifa was raised in a conservative Muslim family in Southall where she developed a love for Bollywood, English boys, saris and Little Red Dresses, later combining those elements into a successful career as a singer, cabaret artist and club hostess. 

There's been a few unforgettable - not to mention outrageously camp and politically incorrect - music videos, including 'Punjabi Girl', an excellent reimagining of Aqua's awful 'Barbie Girl' and a cover version of the Disco Dancer classic 'Jimmy'. 

Then there's been the club nights, the latest of which is a collaboration with the appropriately-named 'Sholay Productions', an entertainment company that's enjoyed huge success with Bollywood-themed events for the South Asian LGBT community in New York, and who are hoping to replicate that success in London.

Amidst all the fun, Asifa has emerged as a campaigner, of sorts, for a community long loathed to talking about sexuality, let alone homosexuality.

I caught up with Asifa at Sholay Productions' first 'Bollywood Central' party in London in June.

Viji Alles: 'Bollywood Central' isn't just about camping it up on stage...
Asifa Lahore: "No.  We are helping to raise funds and awareness for the Naz Project London which has been doing HIV and sexual health awareness in the South Asian community for more than 20 years now.  They are also active in India and recently set up a branch in Pakistan as well.  They are doing some amazing work primarily raising awareness among the Black and Ethnic Minority communities in the UK.  In May, the Health Protection Agency released figures that showed that in the UK, 56% of South Asians living with HIV were diagnosed very late, the highest of any community.  The weird thing there is that HIV is very common in South Asian communities and it's not just a gay thing.  It's a variety of factors; British men marrying women from overseas, among other things.  But when they are diagnosed, it happens so late that their immune systems are already compromised and their health deteriorates very rapidly.  I don't think people quite appreciate how big an issue it is." 

VA: Where do you even begin to deal with a problem like that within such a conservative community?
AL: "I think the important thing is to go to the core of any community.  So we are doing HIV awareness programmes with faith leaders.  We hold events where we invite Imams, Pandits, heads of churches and Gurdwaras to come and actually learn about the transmission of HIV and sexuality in a very culturally and linguistically appropriate manner.  Once they have taken a course they are given an accreditation by the British Association of Sexual Health.  The thing is, as an individual you can go to a faith leader and get advice but on a wider scale if that faith leader can also articulate the issues in front of his or her congregation that is even more powerful.  Every Imam and every Pandit and every priest is aware of gay people and everyone is aware of HIV and the dangers it poses.  Some of those same leaders might well be gay and some might be HIV positive.  It's just that if we can get a conversation going, people will listen, especially to people who have credibility within their communities." 

VA: So you're starting from the most conservative element within the South Asian community...
AL: "Yes, because faith has such a prominence in the community and the only way we can really break the social stigma is by talking about it from a faith point of view and also a cultural point of view.  For instance, Bollywood has done a tremendous amount, relatively speaking, in the last five years to put the spotlight on the gay community.  'Dostana' was quite a landmark, using comedy to introduce homosexuality.  In 'English Vinglish' Sri Devi stands up for a gay man.  There's been the first gay kiss in Bollywood in 'Na Jaane Kyun'.  These are small steps but they are steps in the right direction.  Our Bollywood club nights have created a huge buzz as well.  More and more people are coming out in public and talking about the issues that we face.  It's very different to twenty years ago.  Who knows what will happen in ten?  There's talk that Bollywood will very soon have its first drag 'item number'!"

VA: You've been doing club nights for three years and doing cabaret's for longer.  How and where did the activism come into the equation?
AL: "To be honest, I never set out to do any of this.  When I started performing at gay mainstream venues, the first thing that people noticed was that I was Asian and Muslim.  That was actually an issue even for the gay community.  I suppose I became "political" just by being myself.  I can't help being Asian, I can't help being British and I can't help being gay.  I refuse to give up any one of those identities.  On paper, those three things should not sit well together but here I am and I'm a fine example that they can!  I don't think I'm political. I just think that me being me is political in today's society.  I don't want that to be necessarily so but if it is, then so be it.  I'm just like thousands of other people that want to be visible.  For every person that is visible, there are a hundred more waiting in line." 

VA: As a British/Pakistani Muslim, what was your first reaction when you knew that you were gay?
AL: "I always knew I was gay.  When you're straight you just know.  The challenge was when I reached my teens and you come to a point where you start questioning whether it's okay to like the same sex because everyone around me liked the opposite sex.  Growing up in an Asian, Muslim household you're constantly telling yourself, 'this isn't right!'  And the first thing that even other gay people would say is, 'You can't be Muslim because you're gay or vice versa'.  The challenge was reconciling the two."

VA: How did you approach the matter with your parents?
AL: "I come from a very strict Muslim background and when I told my parents, their world came crashing down.  It's taken them many, many years to come to terms with my sexuality and with my Civil Partnership.  I'm happily married to another gay Muslim guy.  But things are a lot better.  My mum comes running to me after seeing my videos on YouTube, saying she didn't realize I was so good!  It's been a long journey for me but to be honest, it hasn't been as hard as I imagined.  I think contrary to what you hear in the news, the horror stories about honour killings and all of that, are in a minority.  Yes there are plenty of people struggling but you can have those challenging conversations in a culturally and religiously sensitive manner.  Not everyone has the confidence to do it but you can and there's plenty of help out there for everyone." 

VA: Now this is not a trick question but as someone who is in a Civil Partnership, where do you stand on the current debate on Gay Marriage?
AL: "Firstly, the institution of marriage isn't something that is culturally gay and I think it's going to take another half century for the gay community in the UK or anywhere else, for that matter, to adhere to marriage.  But I find it interesting that the debate is still raging in a forward thinking country like the UK.  I'm obviously biased and do support it but not because I'm gay.  I actually support the Gay Marriage Bill because I'm a Muslim.  I believe in the concept of marriage.  But for someone who was brought up as a Muslim, marriage goes hand-in-hand with sexuality and I fully support it.  For example, when I got into a civil partnership with my other half it made sense for my parents.  Muslims believe in monogamy and they believe in marriage.  One of the first things that they questioned when I first came out was whether I will be promiscuous because that's the perception that society tends to have about gay men.  For me it wasn't at all about that.  I had always wanted to find that one person and be in a monogamous relationship.  And the other thing is that marriage provides stability, it creates a family unit which is immensely important for anyone."

VA: You've recently come back from Pakistan; how is the LGBT community coping there?
AL: "It's underground but thriving.  Interestingly, and unlike the punk rock and alternative music scene in the country, with the gay community in Pakistan it's not just about the elite or even the Middle Class.  At the average gay party you will see everyone from the sons of ministers to taxi drivers and rickshaw drivers.  The internet has helped tremendously, bringing people together and breaking the stigma and telling the rest of society that we do exist.  There is a survival instinct of course and there are plenty of ways around everything.  Parties or gatherings are advertised in a very hush, hush manner and if there is a raid, the police are paid off by those people attending who can afford to pay off the police.  And you get parties at five-star hotels in Islamabad and Lahore and even in Karachi these days." 

VA: Politics apart, when do you reckon you'll be doing an item number for a Bollywood film?
AL: "Soon, I hope!  I'm keeping my fingers crossed and if it's meant to happen it will.  There is definitely talk about a drag 'item number' so let's hope.  But I'm glad I am in a position where I am getting attention from not only within the British Asian community but from India and Pakistan as well.  The British Asian community can be so proud in many ways, not just the gay aspect but just the fact that so many British Asians now are crossing over internationally.  I'm glad we are in a position where we can celebrate that."

- Viji Alles

Main image courtesy of Sholay Productions.

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