Section 28: Growing up and coming out as a British Muslim

Growing up and coming out as a British Muslim under Section 28
5 min read
16 Jun, 2021
Opinion: Those British people asking LGBT Muslims to account for homophobia in the Middle East should be asking questions closer to home, writes Aniqah Choudhri.
Members of the British LGBT Muslim group Imaan wave from atop a float during the EuroPride parade in London on 6 July, 2019. [Getty]

When you're a British Muslim, especially a woman on social media, there it's likely you've been called on to explain things outside of your control; violence against women in a country you've never even been to, or terrorist organisations that you only know from news headlines. 

One common query is about homophobia in the Muslim world. Often those who demand explanations about this don't spare a thought for the safety of LGBT people other than to make this point, assuming that state-encouraged homophobia doesn't exist in Britain.

Don't misunderstand me, I am fully aware of the dangers of being gay and Muslim in a country where it is illegal. I know I, as a gay person, am much safer here than in many other countries, where the punishment for being LGBT can be a death sentence.

Perspectives

However, the irony is - the reason it took me years to acknowledge to myself that I am gay and that I shouldn't be ashamed, wasn't solely because I grew up as a Muslim. 

As I've grown older, I've come to realise that the root of my ignorance, the stigma and the self-repression, was the fact I grew up in a time when it was illegal in Britain to discuss gay people in the classroom. It wasn't just that I didn't know gay people could look like me. I didn't even know they could look like the girl next to me or any person I knew.

"Slurs against gay people could be thrown around in the classroom, even in front of a teacher, and it wouldn't matter because queer people weren't people - they were the butt of a joke"

Section 28

The law responsible for censorship was Section 28, a law brought in under Thatcher's government that prohibited the "promotion of homosexuality." This law meant that you could study a poet like Wilfred Owen for a year at GCSE, as many of us did, and never be told that he was a gay man. It meant that sex education only covered cis-heterosexual relationships and that there were no healthy representations for people who did not fit inside that box.

It meant that slurs against gay people could be thrown around in the classroom, even in front of a teacher, and it wouldn't matter because queer people weren't people - they were the butt of a joke.

I was 13 when Section 28 was repealed and it took years for me to acknowledge to myself that I am bisexual and even longer to unlearn the harmful lessons I had absorbed for years under a cruel piece of legislation repressing the LGBT community.

A lot has been said in hindsight about how damaging the law was. In fact, Baroness Knight, the woman largely responsible for introducing the legislation, has apologised for any pain caused by the bill. A whole generation of queer people suffered the consequences, with effects still felt today. Section 28 was repealed in 2003, but any person who grew up in the UK and was unable to ask for or receive support for being LGBT is still feeling the after-effects of the law.

"Under Theresa May's tenure as Home Secretary, it is reported that gay asylum seekers were subjected to humiliating and degrading questions to 'prove' their sexuality"

Tory Islamophobia continues

You could argue that the Conservatives have changed their tune since 1988. It was the Tories who introduced same-sex marriage in 2013, after all. However, it's telling that in the vote on the legislation, less than 10 years ago, 136 Conservative MPs voted against same-sex marriage, seven more than voted in favour.

Other historical evidence points to continued Conservative antagonism against the LGBT community. Under Theresa May's tenure as Home Secretary, it is reported that gay asylum seekers were subjected to humiliating and degrading questions to "prove" their sexuality, a practice that is allegedly continuing to this day despite promises to investigate. In 2017, the  Conservatives formed a coalition with the DUP, a party that ran the "Save Ulster from Sodomy," campaign back in the 1970s and remains anti-LGBT to this day.

Our current prime minister, Boris Johnson, has a history of homophobic slurs along with unacceptable comments about black people, single mothers, Muslims, and Malaysian women. Johnson's cabinet, especially Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, has a poor voting record on LGBT rights.

If I asked any white British person on the street, regardless of their sexual orientation, to account for this state-sponsored homophobia, I'd rightfully be seen as unhinged. Yet this is what has been expected of me, countless times. 

I've been asked to account for homophobia across the Muslim world as if it is one interchangeable community. Those who have asked me have been obvious Islamophobes and racists yes, but also colleagues playing "devil's advocate," people I thought of as friends, and non-Muslim LGBT people. The fact that the "Muslim community," contains hundreds of thousands of LGBT people, one of them being myself, doesn't seem to register as an issue.

My experience of being asked to account for the stigma against my own sexual orientation isn't a one-off. I've seen the same demanded of countless other Muslims on social media. If those interrogators truly cared about LGBT people, Muslim or otherwise, they would realise that they should not use the pain and dangers the LGBT community faces to make a cheap point.

Aniqah is a freelance journalist based in Manchester. Her work has appeared in The Independent, gal-dem, and Exeunt Magazine. She also writes fiction and poetry and has been published in several anthologies.

Follow her on Twitter: @aniqahc 

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.