Growing Up Muslim & Bisexual Wasn't Easy, But I Made It

Photographed by Stephanie Gonot
Growing up British-Asian and in an Islamic family was always going to be eventful. We’ve got a lot of family in my city and they’re all conservative – religion ruled in our house and there wasn't much space for anything else.
Before I could say my first word I had a hyphenated identity, but the "Asian" modifier in front reminded me I’m not quite British. Religion was another factor — by the time I’d grasped a vague understanding of my identity, someone would ask why my mum wears a headscarf and whether I’d be getting an arranged marriage.

I wasn’t Asian enough for my Asian friends, Islamic enough for my religious friends, or British enough for my English friends.

Once I was old enough to know better, I quickly realised I wasn’t Asian enough for my Asian friends, Islamic enough for my religious friends, or British enough for my English friends. It’s undeniably isolating, but after all, my identity reflects the sacrifices my family made. My grandparents are migrants from Pakistan, my mum is a proud first-generation British-Asian, and I am a second-generation bisexual Muslim. Yes, we exist.
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As a young Muslim girl, things were always a little stricter for me than my older brother. While my family increasingly pushed aside old-fashioned ideologies that girls were viewed as less than boys or we couldn’t do as much, there were times when their liberalism fell short. Given typical cultural and societal norms, everything was segregated based on gender. Mosque classes were split into boys and girls, social groups often were too; I’d even gone to weddings where the men and women sat in separate rooms, which meant I naturally spent most of my time with girls. This disjointed bridge between cultural and heteronormative conditioning only skewed my perspective on relationships further. It didn’t make sense why schools were openly mixed, but cultural or religious events were all segregated. Typified norms like that highlighted how Western and traditional culture struggled to co-exist, which was probably a reflection on my own split identity. As a result, I grew up feeling more comfortable and safer around girls. From as young as 8 years old, I remember spending practically every school break talking to the same girl, until she moved to high school two years later. I still think about her every now and then.

It wasn’t until the age of 11 that my first female crush dawned.

It wasn’t until the age of 11 that my first female crush dawned. A first crush is always a monumental moment, but it’s much more striking when it’s a girl. It unfolded in year 7, and it was terrifying. It had all happened like a tectonic shift in my brain. Suddenly there was this slowly settling feeling of wonder and excitement, tangled with outright horror. There I stood, in absolute awe of this girl, and absolute disgust at myself. She was entirely different to the type of girls I’d met. For one, she wasn’t Asian. That in itself would be a red flag for most, but for me it was an intriguing difference. She eventfully ended up in my friendship circle and I was taken by everything from her artfulness, her open spirit to her dorky smile. I know, it’s horribly cheesy. This innocent feeling of emotion rapidly transformed into a toxic feeling that anchored itself in my consciousness. The wonderful moment of bliss ebbed away into a fearful reminder of my new secret. All my religious and cultural education kicked in and guilt, anger and self-hate flooded my system. I wasn’t allowed to feel the way I did, even though I wanted to. There was no space for a bisexual girl in Islam. So, of course, I avoided her. It was how it was supposed to be after all.
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From that day, my sexuality has always been a secret I’ve buried. You might wonder why I didn’t just do what I wanted, but in a community where everyone knows your family it’s not easy to go unnoticed. And, honestly? It’s not worth it – the risk of anyone finding out far outweighed any personal benefit.
The torment of keeping a secret to myself came at a very obvious cost. Over the years, my mental health deteriorated. I felt more isolated than ever. Unable to talk about my feelings, for months I struggled to eat, sank into depression and often contemplated suicide. This downward spiral continued until, one day, I blurted out a question about homosexuality to my mum – "What do I do if I think I like girls? Where do I fit in?" Now in my early teens, I expected an honest answer. For the first time, my mum and I tried to communicate on a topic which was taboo in our house. It was my first attempt to come clean about how I felt. I point-blank told my mum I had feelings for girls and, of course, she normalised it. Brushing it aside as mere friendship, she said we acknowledge the attractiveness of the same sex, "so it’s probably nothing more than that." After that, I realised there was little use in trying to seek comfort from my parents. They didn’t understand my mental health issues, let alone my sexuality struggles. My mum might be first-generation British-Asian, but she wasn’t able to see that depression was more than heightened sadness – an issue that has continued to plague me. She refused to acknowledge my feelings for the sake of honour, culture and religion. She refused to see me for who I really was.
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It was heartbreaking to see that my family couldn’t tell I was falling apart behind the scenes; then again, I’d spent all my life hiding my secrets, so could I really blame them?

That inability to connect with anyone through my issues put up a wall between me and my family. It wasn’t that they couldn’t understand, it was like they didn’t want to. It was heartbreaking to see that my family couldn’t tell I was falling apart behind the scenes; then again, I’d spent all my life hiding my secrets, so could I really blame them?
My late teens were the hardest years of my life. Between sexuality and mental health, it felt like I was being pulled in every direction, but there were still moments that offered hope. I told my best friend I was gay and, funnily enough, he said the same thing. We took refuge in each other and it was one of the first moments I felt peace among all my pain. After that, it no longer felt like the words got stuck in my throat. It got easier to be honest with myself and others. I told my closest female friend, and I remember her hugging me for as long as I needed. I was finally getting the acceptance I’d craved. Slowly, it felt like things were falling into place.

It was like gay Jekyll and Hyde, but it was my way of coping.

I’m still closeted but I’m now in my early 20s, and just getting where I need to be. No longer do I guilt-trip myself into fulfilling the archetypical Asian narrative, but I try to be as diplomatic as I can with my identity. Getting into university was a turning point. Although the uni I chose was in my home town, the campus felt lightyears away from home. It wasn’t much, but the freedom was liberating. I’d ended up living at home, but university allowed me to seamlessly switch between my selves. It was like gay Jekyll and Hyde, but it was my way of coping. I made friends who didn’t resent me for my identity, I sought counselling to clear my head, and graduated university with a clearer sense of who I was supposed to be.
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Now, a few months after graduating, I’m still figuring myself out, but I can tell you it gets easier. Yes, it’s painfully cliché, but it’s true. You’ll find moments of clarity which feel like they’ve been scripted just for you. For me, it was times like watching The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Love, Simon with my friends, or having my driving instructor tell me to watch Bend It Like Beckham a million times before I told her I was gay.
As I’ve grown more confident and comfortable, I’ve confronted it. A few weeks ago, I told two of my siblings about both my mental health and sexuality and they were supportive. In fact, they encouraged me to write this article. The crossroads of culture, religion and ethnicity can be difficult to navigate but someday you’ll know all the street names. If I’ve learned anything it’s that you can’t expect others to accept you if you’re not at any stage of self-acceptance yourself – you’ve got to give yourself a try.
If you are thinking about suicide, please contact Samaritans on 116 123. All calls are free and will be answered in confidence. For support and advice on coming out, visit Stonewall.
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