Asif Quraishi, stage name Asifa Lahore, is Britain’s first publically out Muslim drag queen. She is a regular on London’s gay club and burlesque scene, having recently launched The Masala Club in Walthamstow, a dinner and dance outfit, serving up the double delight of curry and cabaret. She is also known in the LGBT community for her fashion-conscious, funny music videos exhibiting her vocal talent alongside the smoky eyes and burgundy leather. But this is just one half of Lahore’s story. Sitting in a little London café, with the cool air of a lifer rock-star she explained to us, “my career took off because I embraced my identity through my love of performing. There then came a point where I had a huge Asian following, both men and women, and I came to a realisation: I could use my fame to speak up for the thousands of Gaysians (gay and Asian) who’ve felt afraid like me.” Indeed, her conviction is the product of earlier silence: “most British people do come out in their teens, but I was told by my sister to stay quiet. I had even agreed to marry my first cousin in Pakistan. After that my grades started to drop at university and I was finally put in touch with several LGBT charities and support groups, who could help me fully appreciate who I was . Now I do a lot of campaigning, up and down the country, to raise awareness, as well as in the homeland.”
But Lahore refuses to reduce the issue to her background: Pakistani culture being a colourful characteristic of her shows. “It is a difficult time not just if you are gay and/or Muslim” she asserted. “We’re living in world where it is difficult to be yourself, in all your plurality. There is so much pressure to identify - to conform - in one way: you could be straight and Christian, practising or not practising, Muslim, Hijabi, and you’ll face the same challenge.” Hers a narrative of glamour and sexual politics, Lahore does not just stand for the Gaysian community, but also the right to individuality at its very core.
You recently filmed the Channel 4 documentary, Muslim Drag Queens – a programme on the lives of gay Asian performers; how have you felt since it aired?
Initially I felt exposed, but I was expecting that. There were the trolls, online abuse and death threats, but the message of being LGBT and Muslim was put out there, and the overall reception was positive. People across all walks of life and age groups have shown their support: I had 20-30 Asian aunties on the dance floor at one of my club nights, for example.
It wasn’t until your mid-twenties that you came out; tell us more about this journey?
I was afraid for a long time. Coming from an Asian background, everyone was always in each other’s houses and knew each other’s business, and I actually love that feeling of community. But for me it was stigmatising. When my parents found out, for example, they took me to a doctor; not out of malice, just pure ignorance. After the help at university, I regained my confidence and was able to break away. I had always been a great performer – I went to the Brit School of Performing Arts, attended by singers such as Leona Lewis and Kate Nash- and taking up drag just followed naturally. I entered Drag Idol, a national drag competition, and managed to reach the finals as the first Asian person to enter.
Some see Drag as a celebration of fluid sexuality. What exactly is it about performing that attracts you?
Culture! My first experiences of it come from the influences of say, seventies Bollywood, and Asian women in particular just love dressing up. I remember going to weddings as a young boy, and being in awe of all the glamour. We are also very experimental; mixing and matching eastern with western styles.
You have said that Islam has worked in tandem with your beliefs on gay marriage?
Getting married to my husband was a catalyst in coming out. Authenticity and marrying someone you love is at the heart of all South-Asian religion. Having my relationship validated legally on paper also helped my family understand the seriousness of the commitment; that this love was real.
You said in the Huffington Post: “Cameron is talking about the threat of extremism but actually I think it’s a form of terrorism that British gay Muslims aren’t getting the support and advice and guidance that they need to just be themselves in the UK” Please elaborate?
If people aren’t being represented accurately, that is a form of terrorism; my Free Speech segment was cut from BBC Three. People want to avoid being offensive, and a whole community remains oppressed. When British gay Muslims are not being portrayed in all their identities, how can you propose to give anyone an authentic voice? I would love to speak to Cameron: tell him everyone should have a voice.
What are some of your current and future projects?
I just finished work on Channel 4’s diversity programme, True Colours. I would also love to campaign with the UN, raising awareness on an international scale. Finally maybe some modelling in the Indian and British-Asian fashion weeks.
Finally, what would be your advice to others who are afraid to come out?
I would say to the entire Asian community—just be you! Have those difficult conversations. Make sure you don’t sell out on yourself.