What if the boy in your life literally turns out to be a man’s man?
Zeenat couldn’t believe her luck. The young man who her aunts so desperately wanted to hook her up with turned out to be as handsome as he was charming, witty, generous and oh so mysterious. With good reason, it turned out, seeing as he’d decided to keep the small matter of his sexuality hidden… until it came out, forgive the pun, on the night of their honeymoon.
‘I can’t do this,’ he said tearfully, and then hit her with the bombshell. He was gay. When Zeenat managed to compose herself enough, she wanted to know just the one thing: ‘then why the bloody hell did you marry me?’
There isn’t just one answer to Zeenat’s question. It’s easy to deduce this deception was a selfish, cowardly decision, made simply to keep up appearances at the expense of the blameless woman. But like so many Asian men who turn into reluctant perpetrators in this way, as illustrated by the current storyline revolving around Syed Masood’s sham marriage to Amira in Eastenders, Zeenat’s husband truly believed he could change. That homosexuality was an ailment, a phase perhaps, and it would all go away the second he had sex with a woman. Only being gay isn’t something you can turn on and off, it isn’t a trend that you grow out of, and having sex with someone of the opposite gender is just as impossible as it would be for straight people to imagine getting hot between the sheets with one another.
According to Fazal Mahmood, the Community Development Officer of Positive East, which facilitates Himat, a support group for South Asian men who are gay or questioning their sexuality: ‘For many Asian men from traditional families struggling to come to terms with their sexuality, facing up to being different can be full of unique problems. Being a minority within a minority, they can experience a strong sense of isolation from other men. They often find it difficult to meet other South Asian men who share their sexual orientation, and certainly none who live with their families.’
This isn’t an issue about whether homosexuality is right or wrong (for the record, it isn’t – what two consenting adults in love get up to is their business and no one else’s). The problem here is: if you are gay, do you have the right to live a lie by duping someone into marrying you? Judging by the growing number of men who turn to organisations such as Himat, it would seem the answer is: sometimes...
Says Fazal: ‘The major reason why sham marriages as depicted in Eastenders are a reality is because many men want to do right by their parents. Far from thinking getting married as a selfish act on their part, many see it as a selfless sacrifice in order to uphold the family’s izzat. Not to mention the fear that if they don’t go through with it, they not only risk losing the support of their family, but in extreme cases, their lives.’
If the more liberal-minded among you are thinking that’s an overly-dramatic statement to make in these more tolerant times, then it’s worth noting that homophobia is very much alive and kicking. Just ask actor Marc Elliott, who despite being straight, regularly gets homophobic abuse hurled at him for simply portraying the controversial character in Eastenders: ‘Since playing Syed I have really got it in the neck when I’m out. I haven’t been threatened but there’s a lot of cat-calling in the street. Any insult, I’ve had thrown at me.’
He adds: ‘A lot of people are supportive but there is still a huge amount of negativity. In so many cultures being gay is something swept under the carpet.’
And far from battling their corner, it would seem many men in this position are more interested in finding ways to accept their fate. According to Asif Quraishi of South Asian MSM (Men who Sleep with Men), an affiliate of Naz Project, they cope with their predicament by identifying themselves as bisexual, as able to connect with two lovers as they are with their two separate identities. He reveals: ‘Gay men often find it easy to switch identities according to their environment. Inside a gay club, for instance, they display a very different personality to the one they have to adopt once they are back at home.’
He adds: ‘This leading a double life isn’t exclusive to gay men, by the way. All Asians have some sort of experience of having to put on a front for their families and the community at large.’
Both Fazal and Asif advise the men who come to them to be as open with their wives as much as possible, and to always practice safe sex, but the question remains: is it fair on the woman? We spoke to a few gay men, and the women who found themselves married to them. Names have been changed to protect the innocent, and well, the not so innocent…
WHAT SHE DOESN'T KNOW CAN'T HURT HER
Many men can’t see anything wrong with living a lie, seeing as they’ve become so good at it!
Kalpesh, 28, has been married to Supriya for nine years.
They have two children.
‘I knew I was gay for sure the day I saw Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, and whereas all the other boys were swooning over Madhuri Dixit, I found myself quietly fantasising over Salman Khan. I’d just turned into a teenager and the lads I used to hang around me were proper bad boys, so I made a promise there and then that this would be a secret I’d take to the grave with me.
And it wasn’t that my parents were the ruthless type who’d rather murder me than accept they had a gay son, just that as the only son among five kids, I knew it would destroy them. So you could say I’ve been used to living a lie for as far back as I can remember. The thing is, being raised by four elder sisters means I have nothing but respect for women, which is why it hurts to think you consider me as the kind of man that uses a woman and destroys her life just because he isn’t brave enough to admit the truth. On the contrary, I treat my wife with a kind of courtesy and appreciation that I see very few straight men extend to their wives – she is my best friend and I would never do anything to cause her pain. Which is why she will never know what I get up to with other men, always discreetly and always safely. I don’t see it as cheating. What I share with men is purely sexual, and devoid of feeling. What I have with her is beautiful and tender. Of course I wish it wasn’t this way, but while I can lie to the world, I can’t lie to myself. Doing what I do, very rarely I may add and even then with men in a similar situation as me, means my wife and children get a man who is satisfied with his life and always willing to make that extra effort because of the guilt I inevitably carry around with myself. We work as a loving family unit and, the way I see it, as long as I’m responsible and don’t do anything to rock the boat, everyone’s happy!
It works if you agree to come to a compromise.
Sometimes accepting things aren’t the way they should be can have mutual benefits.
Jamal, 25, has been married to Zamiha for three years.
They have no children.
‘My story isn’t unique, but I think the way we’ve dealt with it is. Both Zamiha and I come from strict families, and not getting married was out of the question for both of us.
I was planning to keep my sexuality a secret from her, but it became clear pretty early that she wasn’t in to me at all. She didn’t want me anywhere near her, and obviously, that wasn’t exactly something I was hoping for! I was happy to let things carry on in that cold fashion, until one day she revealed she was still madly in love with her ex, who she couldn’t marry because he was a different religion. I reacted in the way I thought I should: with anger and hurt. But I felt sickened by my own hypocrisy and finally built up the courage to tell her my truth. She didn’t take it too well either!
But over time, we realised we were both duping each other and have now reached a compromise. I know a lot of marriages of convenience, especially between gay men and lesbian women work, so why not us? This way, I could carry on seeing men, and she could rekindle her affair with her ex. It’s not ideal – we have no idea what will happen when it comes to children (her ex, can’t handle another man, let alone a gay one, raising his kid), but for now it’s working. And even though Zamiha and I started off hating each other’s guts, we’ve now become great friends. We hope in time we’ll be brave enough to face the community we fear so much, but whatever we do, we’ve agreed to do together, as a solid unit. Which sounds a lot like what proper husbands and wives are supposed to do, don’t you think?
Ultimately, the woman is the real victim.
Gay men have no option other than to marry. Tell that to the wives who have to live with it…
Shabana, 34, divorced Lutfor after ten years together.
They have three children.
‘It’s easy to imagine all gay guys are sweet, understanding men who just want to go shopping with us, but a lot of them are vicious, women-hating bullies. I should know. I married one.
Lutfor, like many gay Asian men, hated himself for being gay. So he took it out on someone weaker – me. He started beating me from our honeymoon night after saying my lingerie was ‘too tarty!’ He raped me anyway. I eventually found out he was into men because he’s too ignorant to delete the history on our computer, and when I confronted him with it, I got another beating where he actually said it was my fault he was the way he was. That I wasn’t woman enough to make him change into a real man.
Like most abused women, I blamed myself. And for a long time, I tried to help him. But after my third child was born, and I started to talk to other women who’d suffered domestic violence, I realised he was beyond help. I saw him going to the mosque and pretend to be this pillar of the community, but then visiting seedy places to get his end away. He gave me a few horrible diseases, but luckily, they were curable and haven’t done any damage to my children.
I’ve finally divorced him, and as expected, my family have been of little support. They accept the violence got out of hand, but still keep badgering me to work it out. And I know the whispers in the community suggest Lutfor is such a good man, I must have either exaggerated the beatings, or deserved it!
I toyed with the idea of appearing in your magazine with my name and photograph published, to let the whole world know just what Lutfor is really all about, but I couldn’t for the sake of the kids. I know of a lot of Asian women who put up with men who don’t want them so treat them badly, but I’m glad I’m one of the few who refused to put up with it.’
CAN YOU TELL IF HE’S GAY?
• Let’s start with the stereotypes. They exist for a reason. Just as the stereotype about women being into shopping and gossip, and men into football and cars sounds appalling to individuals who believe people can’t be pigeonholed so easily, fact remains, these things are true for many men and women. And therefore the stereotype about gay men liking show tunes and wiggling their bums in tight pants is also true for many gay men.
• Chances are you’re not dating a camp gay man. If he displayed the signs you’re looking for (i.e someone who looks like he’s just walked off the set of Pineapple Express), you wouldn’t go for him in the first place. But the opposite of the cliché can also be true. A man desperate to hide his sexuality can often be overly homophobic to make sure no-one cottons on.
• Sex life is not necessarily a barometer. A survey we conducted last year in collaboration with YouGov revealed 23% of gay or bisexual men slept with their wives. Like women who can endure bad sex for the sake of it, so can a man who’s accepted he has to. But it’s quite unlikely he’s gay if your sex life is fantastic. Although you might have a worry if you only ever have angry sex.
• The company he keeps is a good indicator. Generally speaking, straight men (especially after they marry) tend to have a small group of mates they’re loyal too. Gay men tend to have many friends, with new ones popping up all the time.
• How is he around gay men? Asian men tend to be visibly uncomfortable around gay men. If your man is at ease with them, and even has more than one gay friend in his social circle, you might want to wonder why.
• The party never stops! Of course not all gay men are in tight vests sniffing poppers to house music every weekend, but to many, clubbing is a religion. Some married gay men freely admit to their wives that they go to gay clubs because women don’t hit on him there.
• It’s like music to his ears. Gay men love music in the same way women do – to sing along to and dance to. If there’s broody rock or hardcore hip-hop in his CD collection, relax – your man is just a regular tortured, testosterone fuelled heterosexual!
• He has a keen fashion sense. All men do these days, with many straight men proudly wearing pink and even knowing to suggest which shoe goes with your dress, but as Fazal Mahmood from Himat jokes: ‘Does he say top instead of shirt? If he says top, then it’s safe to say he has sex with men!’
• He is superclean. This is probably the major factor why straight women married to a gay men stay married. The house is always tidy, and he has miracle creams and fancy moisturisers that she can steal off him!
• But seriously… If you think you are stepping out with a gay man (trust your intuition – it’s not normal for women to suspect their partner’s sexuality just for the hell of it), but there really is no way of telling for sure. Unless he admits it or gets caught out surfing porn or red handed in bed with a man like Syed in Eastenders, you’ll never know. You could live with your paranoia, or accept there are worse husbands than one that cooks, cleans, knows how to have fun and looks good all the time!