Books

What it's like to grow up gay, Muslim and afraid

The author of This Way Out explains why he wrote the novel, which is based on his own struggles to come out to his deeply religious family

Illustration: Eleanor Bannister

I recently read an early review of my debut novel, This Way Out, on Amazon that really cemented why I wrote this book. The person, a gay – presumably white – man from Canada felt that it was “just another coming-out whine”, that my story wasn’t needed, that it had been done to death. “The new normal is gay,” they wrote. 

It’s exactly this kind of misguided thinking that compelled me to write my protagonist Amar’s story. While it’s true that there may be greater acceptance and tolerance of LGBTQ+ people across the world than ever before, that doesn’t mean that we are all equal. Often it’s the people in the majority of minoritised groups – in this case, white gay men – who think that, because they feel equal, the same must be true for the rest of us. That just isn’t the case. Especially for queer people whose identities intersect more than one minority group.

There is one point that I will concede to my Canadian critic: Yes, there is a lot of LGBTQ+ coming-out fiction. But it’s almost always about white characters. In This Way Out, I wanted to reframe the coming-out experience to centre someone that isn’t usually the focus of these stories. 

In my novel, Amar is a British-Bangladeshi man who comes out via text message to his devout Muslim family after getting engaged to his partner, Joshua. Amar’s coming out is just the beginning of his story, not the end, just as it often is for queer people of colour from deeply religious backgrounds. 

The book explores the cultural and religious challenges that Amar faces in telling his family, including the risk of being rejected by his loved ones and disowned, being ostracised by his community, and questioning whether he belongs in a religion that he’s always been told prohibits homosexuality. Unfortunately, these are difficult circumstances that queer Muslims can and do face to this day. But these stories are rarely ever told in film, television or books. 

Growing up in the Nineties, like Amar, I desperately tried to hide my sexuality from my family and friends, and even though, in hindsight, it was probably glaringly obvious to all that I was gay, I was so afraid of being found out, of being kicked out of my home, that I didn’t just live in a closet, but an impenetrable steel-doored panic room. I grew up wearing an invisible armour to protect myself: if someone asked me whether I was gay, I would deny, deny, deny. And I confined myself to a childhood and adolescence of solitude to avoid probing questions or potentially troublesome situations. I didn’t have many friends to hang out with at the local park or go to the cinema with. I spent a lot of time alone, throwing myself into books and setting my schedule around TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Top of the Pops

There is no roadmap or guidebook to coming out, particularly when you’re from a conservative South Asian and Muslim background. The examples of gay people portrayed on television were usually white, middle-class men who were immediately accepted by their parents; the mother reassuring her son that she always knew and it didn’t change a thing. Not much has changed.

While stories like Heartstopper and Call Me by Your Name are moving, people like me struggle to relate, because of the sheer complexity of our lives, in which family is so entwined with our migrant heritage, religion, and the close-knit communities we live in.

This Way Out by Tufayel Ahmed is out now
(Lake Union, £8.99)

As Amar explains in the book, to the older members of his family the very concept of homosexuality is alien and unthinkable. They don’t see beyond the heteronormative binary. That ignorance is true of many people from similar backgrounds to Amar’s family. But the world is evolving, and more and more people are identifying as LGBTQ+, so it’s essential that we are able to see ourselves represented in media, that there are stories out there like Amar’s that might help a closeted queer Muslim, for example, see that they are not alone. That might offer families like Amar’s some insight into the torment we go through to find our way out. That might allow the more privileged members of the queer community the chance to step into the shoes of those who are still fighting for their right to simply exist and love who they want to love. 

I received my first piece of fan mail recently from someone who identifies as a straight, white, Christian woman. She had read This Way Out and saw parallels between Amar and a family member. This reader said the book helped “bring a new perspective into my life” and, as its author, that is all I can hope for.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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