“There is a problem that so many people still think you can't be brown and gay. ”
Ata Rahman, Digital Marketing Officer,
Growing up Pakistani
A lot of Asian kids probably felt similar to me growing up, but my experience as a child in Ealing was quite unusual. The borough of Ealing contains Southall, which has one of the largest South Asian communities in the UK, but my family lived on the other end where there were no people of colour. On my street in London, the first other people of colour moved here when I was 15 – I was born in 1989, so we’re talking the mid-2000s, which is crazy to even think about.
I predominantly had white friends as a result, at a very white school. I think that created a sense of me feeling a tiny bit of shame because I was raised with a lot of Pakistani culture at home. We would spend a lot of our weekends spending time with different families who lived in stronger Asian communities. I was raised Muslim. I don't practice now, I'm an atheist, but I was taken to mosque a lot too.
People wouldn't have understood a lot of things about my family and I was definitely embarrassed by a lot of it.
In my life with my friends, I pushed a lot of my culture aside and it took me a long time to work out why. There weren't a lot of other people like me for one, and there also wasn't a great deal of understanding around my culture. People wouldn't have understood a lot of things about my family and I was definitely embarrassed by a lot of it. It was only in the last few years that I realised how much I was hiding – even up until my mid-to-late 20s. I’m 33 now and I feel more confident talking about my family's culture and the culture I was raised in.
One aspect of this is that for me Pakistani culture and Muslim culture growing up were inextricably linked, so I couldn’t see a difference between them. It wasn’t until my late 20s again that I finally started to be able to separate them. That was a big turning point for me because I never disliked growing up Pakistani. I love the food and I've learned to cook all my grandma's cuisine, I love the fashion that comes out of it.
I think there is still a very strong perception in British society that when someone sees my name, they automatically assume that I am a practicing, praying five times a day Muslim.
I think because I hated growing up religious, I maybe thought I hated Pakistani culture too for a really long time, but they’re not the same thing. There are other religious groups who live in Pakistan, there are obviously non-practicing Muslims living in Pakistan. If I hadn’t had that epiphany, I’d probably still be sat here ashamed of my Pakistani heritage, but I'm not, I embrace it and I love it.
I think there is still a very strong perception in British society that when someone sees my name, they automatically assume that I am a practicing, praying five times a day Muslim. In one of my previous jobs, I remember my boss was really scared that I wouldn’t want to come to the pub after work – he was nervous about inviting me. I didn't really know what to say to that because I hadn't come across that view for a long time. He said: 'Sorry, I just assumed because of your name'. I think we should encourage people to get to know an individual before they make those judgements.
'I didn't have any friends who were gay and people of colour back then'
I’m also gay and one of the hardest things for me growing up was that I was stuck in a world where both sides of my identity, the Pakistani and the gay sides, don’t tend to like each other. When I came out, I expected backlash from the South Asian community, particularly from the religious Muslim community. What was disappointing and really shocking to me was the amount of racism within the LGBT+ community.
When I first came out and started going out in Soho in London, I was turned away from many places. This happened for about seven or eight years after I came out when I was 18. I was shocked by the number of people who would come up to me and tell me that I didn’t belong there or who would basically assume that I was there to blow up the club. I would say that there is still a significant amount of prejudice towards people of colour within the LGBT+ community – it's a serious problem. I know that more and more steps are being taken to tackle it, but I think we still have a long way to go.
That was something I wasn’t prepared for because there is a moment when you come out where you want to feel like you are part of a new community that really understands you. I didn't have any friends who were gay and people of colour back then, so I really did feel very alone at that time. There also weren’t any nights for gay brown people and there weren't any spaces for us. No one was really saying anything about it either, as if it was just assumed that we weren't ever going to be part of the community.
I did a workshop through Stonewall which was about trying to get community champions for people of colour. That was the first time I have ever been in a room where every single person was LGBT+ and a person of colour. It was the safest space I could have ever imagined. We were able to share experiences that our white LGBT+ friends never understand or that people from our communities in terms of ethnicity never understand. I think we've got such a long way to go on this, because there is a problem that so many people still think you can't be brown and gay.
Intersectional voices are key for progress
One thing that I think is good about Imperial is that they are upfront about the different communities that people can access through work. That’s a sign of an inclusive employer. I’m a member of Imperial As One and Imperial 600 and it’s good to know that they’re there, even though I should do more with them. I like the fact that people are being told in their first week about all the various staff networks available to them without an assumption about which group they are a part of.
If you're having people contribute to any kind of initiative, I think you need to make sure that intersectional voices are considered.
I also value the open culture and dialogue here. I think what Imperial is doing with the conversations around history at the top level are really good, but I think what they can do to drive more change is to bring in more voices who represent a more diverse range of communities. If you're having people contribute to any kind of initiative, I think you need to make sure that intersectional voices are considered too, because they really do present quite a different case to a white LGBT+ person, for example. The same goes for the intersections with gender or disability as they will have a very different experience and outlook and they will help you to consider things that have not been considered before. I think building more intersectional voices into any initiative, anything that requires change, is key for progression.
It was only in the last few years that I realised how much I was hiding - even up until my mid-to-late 20s
I’m 33 now and I feel more confident talking about my family's culture and the culture I was raised in
Making language more accessible
With communications roles, it is the writing part that is the best fit for me and the same goes at Imperial, where the bulk of my work is copywriting for different webpages. I love getting complicated language and making it simple for everybody to understand because I really value the importance of plain English. In my spare time, I'm an English teacher. I run a school (the Ealing Community School of English) which provides English language lessons for asylum seekers and refugees. It is the most rewarding thing you can do, even though it’s a lot of work.
I love getting complicated language and making it simple for everybody to understand because I really value the importance of plain English.
I would love to devote more time to it, but it's a nice setup because we've got about 30 staff and we're all volunteers. There isn't a hierarchy of paid and non-paid staff - everybody does it because they want to, which is a special thing, especially considering we've been going for 17 years now.