Muslim Drag Queens
Nirpal Dhaliwal parties with London’s new Desi queens
It’s not every day that I get to see a pair of clean-cut Asian preppies twerking to heavy-bassed R’n’B like a couple of Jamaican dance-hall divas. Instead of glittered batty-riders and boob tubes, these fellows sport pressed shirts, waxy black short-back-and-sides and sensible shoes – epitomising eligible young Asian males.
But like a lot of men in the club, they are working their booty over one another with Nicki Minaj aplomb.
Minutes later they are upstaged by a trio of similar lads – one twirling the length of his colourful headscarf – who simulate a beautifully synchronised threesome to the resounding drumbeat of the bhangra blaring through the room. Like any good Sikh, tears of pride well in me, touched by their connectedness to their roots as they rhythmically swish their hips and sing along in Punjabi.
Welcome to London’s gaysian scene. Every week, somewhere in London, you will find a club playing bhangra, hip-hop, Bollywood show tunes and the kind of sexy fusion house-music that plays at chichi parties in Delhi and Mumbai to a throng of beautiful young gaysians – as well as their straight friends and the odd spice queen (as white guys with a brown kink are known) – who have left their inhibitions at the door, expressing themselves with an abandon that is otherwise unthinkable in the rest of their lives.
I am at Desi Boyz, a night that runs every second Friday of the month at 229 Great Portland Street, having been invited by Asifa Lahore, a slinky British-Pakistani who will star in a Channel 4 documentary on Monday night entitled Muslim Drag Queens. In everyday life, Asifa is Asif Quaraishi, a quietly spoken 32-year-old LGBT support worker who focuses on issues in the Asian community.
In a back room at the club, I watch the 90-minute transformation he undergoes to become Asifa with the help of his childhood friend Sergio, a professional stylist and make-up artist. They met as pupils at Southall Grammar School. “We came out to each other,” Asifa tells me as Sergio trims and feathers the red wig she is wearing, “at a bus stop when we were going home.”
Asifa has a large Asian female online following wanting style and beauty tips. “Other than me, there aren’t many other brown-skinned people giving make-up advice,” she reflects. “Kim Kardashian – that’s about it.” And this has benefited Sergio’s own career. “I’ve been booked for weddings and mehendis [the bride-painting ceremony],” says Sergio, “because women have seen what I’ve done with Asifa.” Tonight Asifa wears a purple mini-dress with lots of shadow that gives her face a decidedly feline aspect.
As we chat, other Asian drag queens take the dancefloor, dressed in the less revealing salwar kameez — a baggy two-piece north Indian outfit — clapping their hands and doing rustic folk dances in perfect imitation of how my mother would at an engagement party. “They’re chutney queens,” says Asif. “They like the very traditional look. I’m a forward queen. I go for the more modern, Western-influenced Bollywood style. I love the tight, revealing saris that show off the curves.”
Watching the gaysians and chutney queens bhangra-dancing, I am struck by their lack of irony. Unlike mainstream drag culture that often parodies women with shrieking exaggerations of femininity, these gaysians emulate the women of their community with genuine respect: they dance with restraint and an obvious love for their culture and the role women play in it. But when the music segues into grimy house or R’n’B, they go back to grinding one another in a manner they certainly didn’t learn from their mums and aunties.
Club nights such as this provide what Asif describes as “five hours of freedom” for many gay Asian men. “You should see how they transform from the moment they walk in,” he remarks. “Outside they’re a completely different person to who they can be in here.”
According to Shahid (not his real name), the night’s 23-year-old organiser: “Only 10 per cent of the guys in here are out. This is the only place they have to be gay in their lives.” Shahid himself is in the closet, though he lives with his Sikh boyfriend, who also keeps his sexuality a secret from his family. “They think we’re flatmates,” laughs Shahid. It’s a mark of how naïve and ignorant many Asians in Britain are about homosexuality that two such handsome and outwardly camp men can be so close without sparking any suspicions among their friends and relatives.
Asif, however, is definitely out. He is an outspoken advocate of gay rights and LGBT issues and uses dressing up as Asifa to get his message out. He came to prominence when, on a televised debate last year, he challenged the mainstream Muslim opinion that homosexuality is incompatible with Islam. Since then, he’s received both great support and a good deal of intimidation, including death threats. “Someone posted my parents’ address online,” he says, “saying they would be killed if I didn’t stop doing what I do. But I love doing what I do. I’m passionate about my message and I can’t stop.”
Homophobia is rife in the Asian community but times are changing. Gay rights are increasingly on the agenda in India – homosexuality is technically illegal there (a law inherited from British rule) but no one is prosecuted for it, which makes the sexual conservatism of British Indians seem ever more absurd. My own sister is gay, her sexuality having never been an issue in my family: she and her fiancée are both adored.
But her experience isn’t the norm. Though he describes his family as “liberal and not very religious at all”, Shahid would face banishment if they found him out. “The vast majority of Muslims believe homosexuality is a sin,” he says. “They think it’s a choice, that you can’t be gay and be a Muslim. Which is amazing, because there’s a joke in Pakistan that everyone there is bisexual. Some men have their first sex with another man because they’re so separated from the women. But if they’re caught it’s just brushed under the carpet and forgotten. Being gay and having a relationship, though, is totally unacceptable.”
So how do gay British Muslims live? “By lying,” he replies. “It turns you into a liar, and a very good one. It’s a horrible situation to be in. A lot of the guys you see in here are married, some of them with kids, and this is the only time they get when they can briefly be themselves. A lot of guys move to London and start to slowly drift away from friends and families. That’s what I’m doing. I’m slowly and deliberately drifting away.”
The gaysian scene has been around a long time in London. Club Kali pioneered the movement 20 years ago, and now with nights such as Desi Boyz and Urban Desi (desi is a slang term in South Asia that means “from the homeland”) it’s an established part of gay life in the capital. The hypocrisy has been around just as long. More than 10 years ago, a friend of mine would amuse me by showing me the lewd Gaydar profiles of the bearded Muslim fundamentalists he was meeting for casual sex. They were closeted and adamant that they were just “going through a phase”. No doubt things have moved on, and these chaps now check each other out via Grindr apps at Friday prayers.
But Asif believes such promiscuity doesn’t suit Asians, gay or straight. Married since 2009, he thinks gaysians will be at the forefront of the gay marriage movement. “I’m married because I’m a Muslim. I fast, I pray and I’ve been on pilgrimage. Marriage is central to Asian culture, and I’ve always wanted a stable monogamous set-up. I think most gaysians do. Marriage is still a new and niche thing among gay men in general but I really think gaysians will lead the way in making marriage more popular.”
So clubs nights such as Desi Boyz play a crucial role, not just for gaysians or British Asians but for Britain as a whole. “We want to provide a platform where people can be themselves,” says Shahid. “And for a lot of guys it’s been their first gay experience. They found us on Facebook and then came along and discovered what it is to be gay for the very first time.”