The Textile Services Association (TSA) Autumn Conference took place 18-19 October at Hilton St George’s Park, Burton Upon Trent, an event designed to appeal to laundry leadership teams, according to TSA CEO David Stevens. The first keynote speech addressed diversity in a novel way, with a speaker who encapsulates many aspects of diversity. Asifa Lahore, is a drag queen pushing the boundaries of what it means to be LGBT, disabled, South Asian and Muslim.
Introducing the segment, Stevens said: “Now, I am pretty certain we have never opened our conference with a drag queen, although I did book a contortionist, Rubber Ritchie, at the Hyatt in Birmingham and we talked about stretching budgets. But we have moved on, thankfully.
“We always have a few chats with our guest speaker and I promise you Asifa’s story is an amazing one. What does it mean to be LGBT, South Asian, Muslim and suffer from severe sight loss?
“What I think is special is that Asifa’s story could be anybody’s story; she is just passionate about telling it. Her introduction in the Conference Programme explains how she has become so prominent within the various diversity campaigns but what it doesn’t say is that she only agreed to come and speak because she was brought up in a laundry family with her Mum working at Brixton Sunlight laundry in south London.” Asifa admitted her presence was due to her mother telling her she had to do it because she had so loved her time at the laundry.
“Taking to the stage, Asifa told a fascinated audience that around the age of 10 she thought there was something wrong with her but knew it wouldn’t be tolerated by her parents and the wider Muslim community so she kept it to herself. “I realised I wanted to play kiss chase with the boys rather than the girls,” she said. She was bullied at school for being gay and didn’t even know what that was. “Every summer holiday we went to Pakistan and would see transgender people performing at weddings and begging on the street. In India they are regarded as the third gender, and it is the same in much of Asia. We didn’t see those sorts of people in the UK.
“We have gang violence in the UK today but in the 1980s it seemed so much worse and I would be beaten in the playground. I was kept inside until 6pm for safety. Why didn’t the teachers do more? in the 1980s, the Conservative government at the time brought in the Section 28 law forbidding promotion of homosexuality (subsequently scrapped when Labour came into power). There were no hard and fast rules on how it was to be applied. It left everything at the discretion of the headteacher. Mine was more interested in getting grades up. Why didn’t I tell my parents? Mum and Dad really would not have understood and I was scared of being carted back to Pakistan. (I managed to keep it to myself until I was 16 when my sister read my dairy. It was OK with her, but she said don’t tell mum and dad. She had the same thoughts as me at 10. She has always been supportive).
“I made friends with the only other gay kid at school. We were always looking over our shoulder. The trauma I have had to deal with! – but I have learned to deal with it. I dealt with it by putting my head down and getting on with my education. It was my ticket out. I got A Stars across the board (and some Bs). I found I had a talent for the performing arts and had singing and drama lessons.
“Then it was off to audition for the British School for Performing Arts and I got a place. I fought Dad over this but Mum was OK with it. Leona Lewis was two classes above me and Adele two classes below. There, I could be every member of the Village People. I wanted to go on to RADA but didn’t get the scholarship so decided to stop there. I had a good run but didn’t want the community to find out about me.
"The next step was film and media studies living in Tower Hamlets in East London, the heart of the Bangladeshi community in London and nothing was going to stop me being ‘queer’ and I had a great love for South Asian culture and Bollywood.
“I eventually came out to my parents after my mother found gay mags under my mattress. She questioned me and Dad was there too. There were days and days of this and a doctor was brought in. Amazingly this guy, a British South Asian Hindu stood up for me, saying: ‘There is nothing we can give him that will make him change.”. Dad asked: “Is something wrong with your ‘equipment?’ “Take him to the Immam”. The Immam said: “Try celibacy.” In my 20s? Really?”
Eventually Asifa entered a competition dressed in a rainbow burka – Punjabi girl in a Punjabi world – and came third after dividing the audience. This was while working as a nurse in the NHS. “It knackered me,” said Asifa, “but slowly, over a few years I got on the ladder.”
Now, Asifa, who calls herself Britain’s ‘first out Muslim drag queen’, is involved in impassioned activism on intersectionality, race, sexual orientation, gender, disability and religion has led her to speak at prestigious institutions such as the Lost Lectures, Channel 4 Diversity Festival, Women of the World Festival, the British Library and the Oxford Union.
She has also been the face of Channel 4's 2016 diversity campaign, 'True Colour TV' as well as one of the ambassadors for 'Open Letters to Queer Britain', a project that created the UK's first LGBT+ museum, Queer Britain.
Asifa is a performer, host, singer and DJ. She performs in clubs, theatres and venues in the UK and internationally.
Asifa’s appearance at the Conference was followed by enthusiastic applause from the delegates. You can find out more about what she us up to here.