There are activists who devote all their struggle to make people feel less isolated, and part of a community: Sabah Choudrey – who co-founded Trans Pride Brighton and started online social and support spaces for queer, trans, and intersex people of colour in Brighton (QTIPOC Brighton), and for LGBT and queer desi people in London and the South East (desiQ) - is one of them.
As a queer, Muslim, Pakistani, trans and non-binary person, Sabah experiences every day how different identities intersect: “I feel there’s this assumption in society that the communities I am a part of don’t all fit together,” they said during a TEDxBrixton talk. “But my gender is never actually going to be separate from my race, and my race from my faith. I feel we need to smash the assumption you have to lose a part of yourself to find the rest, that you can only be one minority at a time.”
We had the chance to meet them during the 6th European Transgender Council in Bologna, Italy, where they took part in a panel about intersectionality and the trans movement(s). Here is what they told us.
How did you become an activist? Has there been a specific moment that made you decide you wanted to be involved in first person?
I never really thought of myself as an activist, because I thought I was just creating a necessary community. It wasn’t a chosen path, but my only option: I was living in Brighton, UK, and I was really lonely and isolated. It was very difficult to find people like me, and I decided that I had to start something myself.
So I set up a Facebook group called “Queer Trans and Intersex People of colour – Brighton”. There were only two members for a long time, but slowly people started using this online space, and then we began having meet-ups and going to events together.
The thing about being a queer person of colour is that your mental health may suffer a lot, and that you may not be in a good place, financially; so, by meeting other people like me, I learnt that the needs of our communities are very different from other LGBTIQ ones. What happened then, I guess, is that I just started to speak out more about why this is, and challenge other trans and LGBTI groups, and society. I think it would be really important for groups to say “this is for LGBTIQ people” and “for LGBTIQ of colour” and “for LGBTIQ people with disabilities”, for example: these validating statements are a simple way to make groups more accessible and inclusive.
The lack of representation and visibility of my communities made me really angry, and for once I felt like I had the right to feel angry, as my feelings were validated by other members of my group. I wanted to speak up about it, and I began writing on my personal blog.
So, I can say my activism is made of writing and creating spaces.
How, in your opinion, can marginalised communities become more visible, and what can be done?
It is really hard, because it’s great to be visible, but it comes at a price of potentially becoming a target. Safety is a huge problem for people of colour and for trans people: when you are both of these identities, you are a target. This is especially true for trans women, as we know because of the hundreds of murders and crimes targeting black and Latina trans women. To be visible, you have to be in a position of privilege – and I am, compared to many people in my community. So, visibility is a really difficult line to walk on.
You were raised Muslim, and you publicly talked about your personal experience with religion – how you distanced yourself from it in the past, and how you have come to reclaim it, but also how you now feel that you always have to justify it to other people. How would you describe your journey towards reclaiming your faith?
I feel like I can explain my relationship with religion in a better way if I talk about the moment I came out as an atheist. That was an interesting point in my life.
I remember that, when I was very young, I told my mum: “I don’t believe in God”.
At that time I felt God is not someone who loved me – I didn’t really know where that feeling came from, but it happened in that moment when you are growing up and you feel there is something wrong about you: it’s always there, and it tells that we’re not loved, and we’re not valued, and we’re not normal.
My mom then said: “You do, it’s just a phase” (laughs). And I was so angry, because I wanted to take control of what God meant to me, and she didn’t let me.
Being in an atheist community, though, was really difficult, because it still felt like I didn’t belong: religion and culture for me are so interconnected, and trying to divorce the two of them was really hard. I couldn’t connect with people who were atheists: it made it so much harder to talk about myself, my upbringing, my culture and my community, because it felt like it was a sign of weakness, while actually it was atheism that made me feel weak.
I feel many people have to deal with that sort of feeling of not being respected when they talk about their religious upbringing.
Yes: it’s always very difficult, and it shouldn’t be that way, especially within the LGBTIQ community. I think everyone has different relationships with faith, God and spirituality: I talked to my mum about how she feels about religion, and her views are very different from mine, but we still call ourselves Muslim, and I like that. Religion is personal, and this is something that should be celebrated.
Sabah Choudrey at the 6th European Transgender Council, Bologna, June 2016 (ph. Daniele Paletta)
For many people, though, and especially in the LGBTIQ community, religion can also feel like a form of oppression, and distancing yourself from it can be a reaction to feeling excluded. What can be done to make faith communities more inclusive?
We have some examples of inclusive spaces in England: there is a church called Metropolitan Community Church, which has been very welcoming of queer, trans and gender-nonconforming people, and has a big visibility in the LGBTIQ community.
They are there, and that is a very important thing even if you are not looking for them. And there is also an Inclusive Mosque Initiative, which is LGBTIQ-friendly and doesn’t segregate women for prayer.
It's easier than people think to be inclusive of any kind of marginalised group: it seems a hard or expensive process but being inclusive isn't an expense, it's a practice.
How will your activism evolve from now on?
I am sure I want to focus more on people of colour and people of faith, but at the same time I don’t want to use my personal experience to address these issues and relive the trauma every time: I keep having the same conversations with LGBT groups, and nothing is moving forward. This is also why I find writing more useful than using my personal experience while doing advocacy work. I want to spend my energies in constructive dialogues: homophobic people will be homophobic, and I would rather talk to someone who is willing to listen.
Sabah Choudrey can be reached at www.sabahchoudrey.com or via Twitter @SabahChoudrey
Their Inclusivity - supporting BAME trans people guide can be downloaded here