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Asifa Lahore My London Story
Photograph: Andy Parsons

‘I’m an advocate for authenticity’: meet London’s pioneering transgender Muslim drag queen

Written by
Megan Carnegie

Since becoming famous as Britain’s first out Muslim drag queen, Asifa Lahore has been speaking out on LGBT+ rights and her Islamic faith…

Although I spent some of my childhood in Pakistan, I mostly grew up in Southall, surrounded by gorgeous sari houses and garment markets. I was between the two countries and cultures, but couldn’t pinpoint what made me different. As a teenager I realised I loved being around my young male relatives, because I was attracted to them. While studying at Queen Mary University of London, I told my parents I’d met a guy I loved, but they didn’t understand – we don’t have the word “gay” in Urdu or Punjabi. When they took me to the GP, the Asian doctor stuck up for me and said, “This is who he is and you’ll have to accept it.”

After coming out to my parents and entering into a civil partnership with my husband, I saw an advert for Drag Idol UK and decided to enter. I went on stage in a burqa and reached the national finals. It felt amazing because I wasn’t conforming to the example of drag artists who had come before me. That competition – and the title of “Britain’s first out Muslim drag queen” – allowed me to start my career, do documentaries and be vocal about British intersectionality.

I’ve had drag gigs turned down because I’m “too political”, and I still get abuse from the LGBT+ community for bringing my religion into it. On the other side of things, many say my drag career and sexuality goes against Islam, even though I follow the five pillars of the religion. I get regular death threats and online abuse, especially from hard-line Muslims and far-right conservatives, but I leave the comments up. If they’re out there, they can be challenged.

Last year, I came out as trans. It was difficult because I had to go through all the same obstacles again – and end my marriage. But it’s been 18 months since I began transitioning and I’m super happy. I’m an advocate for authenticity, so I couldn’t go on not living as myself.

In 2012, I started my LGBT Bollywood night, Disco Rani, in a pub in Ealing. It soon outgrew the venue and now happens monthly. Many of the acts I host get rejected from big LGBT+ venues like Heaven and G-A-Y because they don’t look gay enough, which is ridiculous. Disco Rani is a celebration of race, class, faith, sexuality and gender, with lots of glamour and colour. All sorts of drag queens and kings are welcome: it’s a love of expression and music that unites people.

Being a figurehead within the “gaysian” community is a huge responsibility, but making a difference in people’s lives makes it worthwhile. Lots of Muslim mums have been in touch because they think their child is trans or LGB, and many young people and LGBT+ asylum seekers approach me for support. I’m glad I can use my art to help the community.

Being a Londoner and part of the city’s diverse drag scenes makes me so proud – our tolerance and acceptance is a beacon for the entire world. History has shown that rights can be taken away just as quickly as they are granted, so with Brexit looming, I don’t want the LGBT+ community to rest on its laurels. We have a global responsibility and I want to help keep that flame burning bright.

The next Disco Rani is on Friday October 26 at Sinbin in Leyton.

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