“Living My Life As In Cage”: The Psychological Wellbeing of Intersectional British, Gay, Pakistani, Muslim Males

Muhammed Ali is an aspiring clinical psychologist based in Yorkshire, UK. His interests include social justice, intersecionality and Islamic psychology. For findings beyond cognition, emotions, and mental health, you can follow him on his Twitter and Instagram account, where he further disseminates his project.

This blogpost provides a psychological overview on the intersectional experiences of British, Gay, Pakistani, Muslim Males (BGPMM) by considering how their multi-identities interact in their various social contexts. It is important to note that for the purposes of this blog, I will not be exploring the actual lived experiences British, as this falls outside the scope of a psychological lens.

I start off by talking about my own positionality in relation to the research project, then the project background is discussed. A rich insight to the potential psychological impact of BGPMM’s identity is then provided, with extracts from primary interviews. To finish off, the implications of these findings are highlighted and future directions for the field and population are suggested.

Positionality

In aligning with social constructionism, it is important from the outset to clearly acknowledge the context within which research is produced, interpreted, and disseminated, as in “who is conducting it?”. This approach recognises the implausibility of conducting research objectively, as argued by quantitative methodologies. Simultaneously, it accepts facts and truths as non-existent, only subjective interpretations can be made.

Therefore, it is important to open this blog by describing my own identity components as a Pakistani (Kashmiri), partially ‘closeted’ pansexual, spiritual agnostic raised within a Muslim household, Non-binary, British male. All of these components independently and interdependently, in an intersectional manner, construct my worldview with a ‘lens’ for me to perceive my experiences from.

Research Project

The findings presented within this blog were obtained from my undergraduate BSc Psychology with Counselling’s dissertation project (“Living a Double Life”: An Intersectional, Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis on the Experiences of BGPMM), following Smith and Osborn’s analytical method. Aligning with my philosophical and research interests, a qualitative methodology was preferred as its epistemology facilitates the investigation of meanings participants make of their subjective lived experiences.

An intersectional theoretical approach naturally fit to pick up BGPMM’s multi-identity nuances in a holistic manner. ‘Intersectionality’ was coined by racially minoritised feminists and critical race theorists, drawing from post-structuralism and post-modernism. In 1991, Crenshaw described Black females’ unique experiences, who simultaneously experienced a double-barrelled disadvantage of racism (due to their racially minoritised identity) and sexism (being female). Therefore, intersectionality was justified as holistically highlighting potential homophobia (homosexuality), xenophobia and racism (Pakistani ethno- culture), anti-Muslim hatred (Muslim) simultaneously.

Considering potential sensitivity for participants, face-to-face semi-structured, audio-recorded interviews were rationalised (fortunately they were completed before COVID-19 took hold!), as conducting interviews remotely may limit to those who have access to a safe space to conduct these interviews from. Or I might have accessed those who are already ‘public’ about their sexuality, which may have positively skewed findings. Initial participants were obtained by snowballing personal networks. During recruitment, I quickly noticed the ‘hard-to-reach’ nature of this population, and thus immersed myself within BGPMM’s communities as means of overcoming access barriers.

To meet the population where it is at, I contacted LGBT+ Muslim organisations, such as Hidayah, and created ‘professional’ social networking accounts, including Tinder and Grindr. Six interviews ranged from 49:52 to 1:19:49, averaging at 1:00:56. The interview schedule explored identity components (holistically and independently), media and relationships. Questions were formulated from extensive research, including documentaries, blogs, vlogs and journal articles.

Following analysis, themes concerning families, marriage, self-conceptualisation, ‘coming out’, conditional acceptance, socio-cultures, honour-based abuse, mental health, and colonisation emerged. For the purposes of this blog, I will touch upon the potential psychological impacts.

Psychological Wellbeing

Considering the environment BGPMM’s navigate, with potential homophobia, xenophobia, racism, and anti-Muslim hatred simultaneously, it is argued BGPMM navigate a socio-cultural context in which participation is challenging on all fronts, when adopting an intersectional lens. When navigating this context, psychological wellbeing may be challenged.

These challenges may stem from BGPMM’s belonging to their multi-group memberships being at risk, or their internal psychological coherence, which is related to individuals’ perception of the compatibility between the multiple, intersecting identities. In this manner, psychological coherence is also related to the continuity of BGPMM’s identity, pre-and-post identity development (to incorporating homosexuality?). Collectively, these factors contribute towards self-esteem and self-efficacy, and more generally impact psychological wellbeing. This section explores psychological wellbeing by unpicking some extracts from my research project, pseudonyms* are used (Eesa, Abdullah and Syed) to maintain anonymity.

“I do have some ups and downs, there will be times where like wish I was straight and it would be easier for my parents and it would be easier for me”

Eesa*

Starting with Eesa’s quote, he describes his mental health as “ups and downs”, in the context of his intersectional identities impact on his psychological wellbeing. Further elaborating on the “downs”, Eesa shares there are “times where like wish I was straight” (heterosexual). The desire of wanting to change a sexuality, into one that is more accepted hegemonically by their various group memberships and social structures is positioned as heteronormative, presents unique challenges in terms of psychological coherence, belonging and acceptance.

When expressing this, the word “wish” was emphasised, suggesting the strength of this desire. This preference is rationalised as being “straight” is considered as “easier for my parents”, indicating how Eesa’s identity exists within a social network and is influenced by how others perceive and receive him. This “easing” also extends to Eesa’s psychological wellbeing, potentially minimising the “downs” he experiences. Further exploring psychological wellbeing, this blog will consider potential identity conflicts and the concept of izzat.

Potential Identity Conflicts

“My personal issue that I have of being gay and the fact of my religion not allowing me to be
gay. I have this perception where I feel like, you know, God (Allah) is watching me, what I’m
doing, what I should be doing, what I shouldn’t be doing [I: mhm] how am I going to answer to
him? (Allah)”

Abdullah*

With Abdullah’s reflection there is a clear essence of personal identity conflict. It is argued Abdullah’s religion (Islam) does not “allow” him to “be gay”. In describing the “personal issue” and “perception” Abdullah faces, both identities are considered, however, in this narrative it is evident religion takes centrality over Abdullah’s sexuality. Abdullah expressed hypervigilant thoughts with “God (Allah) is watching me” and “What I’m doing” but also “What I should be doing” and “What I shouldn’t be doing”, which when contextualised within the extract implies the enactment, expression and internalisation of homosexuality is problematic from a religious lens for Abdullah.

Further contributing towards challenging psychological wellbeing is “how am I going to answer to him (Allah)?”, indicating a sense of fear when questioned about his homosexuality whilst being a Muslim, potentially due to the internalised odds at which Abdullah finds himself at. When enacting their homosexual identity, from this premise, it is easy to see how this can be overwhelming and difficult to navigate for Abdullah, a BGPMM. Socio-culturally these assumed identity conflicts may come with negative familial and societal suppression, which is another component explored below, in relation to psychological wellbeing.

Regaining Izzat (honour)

“So they knew …I’m texting someone and they ask from me who is his so I said “I don’t know
who he is” ….[I: yea] so I er- they said “ok” so my brother was now here and that time he was out
of this country….and my family told him and he started asking me “who is he??” and he starts
slapping me…he beat me up a lot…my brother took my phone and every single thing- my wallet,
my money…so I was just living my life as in cage”

Syed*

Following on from Abdullah’s account, the above extract from Syed’s interview provides further insight into the potential societal realities for BGPMM. From his narration, it seems initially the family were “ok” with Syed talking to “someone” (his boyfriend at the time) whilst his brother was out of the country. However, this quickly changes once his brother returns. The emphasis on the second questioning (“who is he??”) implies this change, which is also further supported by the remainder of the extract as “he (brother) starts slapping me” to the point where Syed was beat up “a lot”.

Again, there was emphasis on “a lot” when transcribing the audio-recordings, further providing the possible realities for BGPMM. The abuse from his brother was not limited to physical, as Syed’s independence was also constrained with his “phone and every single thing” being taken away, including his “wallet, my money”. Syed reflectively described this ordeal as “I was just living my life as in cage”, a metaphor powerfully encapsulating the suppression which Syed, a BGPMM, faced from his brother. The impact of abuse is well-known and documented within psychological research, especially when it comes from those positioned to be your ‘loved’ and ‘close’ ones.

Contextually considering Syed’s experience which he shared during our interview discussion, the abusive practices can be seen as means of protecting socio-culturally valued izzat, by avoiding sharam (shame) to the family’s concept of reputation. In this manner, we can see how honour-based abuse is deployed to regain izzat, by controlling Syed’s movements and freedoms. Perhaps it can be argued such means were used in hopes of ‘eradicating’ Syed’s homosexuality by limiting him, with phone contact being cut off to his then boyfriend.

This account holds particular importance that I would like to echo within this blog as Syed later goes on to say he was “scared not to go to police but I didn’t want to involving police”. Victims of abuse tend to refrain from reporting their experiences to the police, fearing damaging family izzat or being ‘outed’ due to the lack of intersectional socio-cultural and ethno-religious sensitivity, along with a shortage of resources to safely re-accommodate victims, leaving them with no choice but to suffer in silence.

Implications

Invaluably, this project and its findings shared within this blog provide a broad overview and insight into the lived experiences and realities for BGPMM by adopting a holistic and intersectional lens. It is evident that socio-culturally and religiously there are safe and open discussions to be had, challenging, and questioning the dominant narrative of heteronormativity and its supposed preferred positioning within Islam. These conversations are vital as heteronormative pressures come with damaging effects for all involved, on all levels, including psychologically, physically, financially, and relationally.

This study contributes to services by increasing intersectional understandings of the intricate and interlocked experiences of BGPMM, which can also aid psychotherapists working with clients of marginalised backgrounds.

To note, the ‘small’ sample size (6 participants) of this study does not take away from the project’s findings. This is because within a qualitative paradigm, rich and detailed interviews are preferred to large-scale approaches. The purpose of Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis is to follow a case-by- case analysis, as also emphasised by Smith and Osborn.

Future Directions

Within qualitative paradigms, further research is always welcome to provide depth and breadth, therefore, other analysts will contribute towards addressing the research gap and lacuna of knowledge that is currently prevalent for BGPMM. Regarding personal directions, I am currently building on this project by considering the language and identities of British Pakistani Non-heterosexual Muslim Males at a Masters by Research level. This was a suggested direction from my dissertation report, which I am currently exploring.

Reflectively, I have chosen ‘non-heterosexuals’ as I noticed it was an identity participants from this study (BGPMM) refrained from categorising with. Therefore, to increase access and representation in the findings of my work, I adapted the participant criteria. I hope to continue disseminating findings from my work in an accessible manner, beyond the usual academic journals, through blogs, vlogs, podcasts, and of course the craze with infographics!

Muslim LGBT+ British Support Organisations
If you have been impacted by the contents of this blog at any point, I strongly recommend you reach out for affirmative support, a couple of organisations are suggested below.

Hidayah
Hidayah intersectionally supports those whose identity comprises of gender, sexuality and Islam, aiming to increase representation, acceptance and equality of LGBT+ Muslims by providing a platform and co- constructing safe spaces. Hidayah offers groups, educational workshops and a sense of community and belonging.

Email: info@hidayahlgbt.co.uk

You can also find them on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram

Imaan
Similar to the above charity, Imaan, supports LGBT+ Muslims, their friends and families with any potential identity-related issues by providing a safe space and support network opportunity. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, they postponed the first Muslim Pride event.

Email: info@imaan.org.uk

You can also find them on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram