"Unless someone from within starts calling them out for it, no one is gonna change their thinking or feeling. I started talking to my Muslim friends about how gay people are treated within mosques..."
Cheerio Munfarid! Thank you so much for coming out here today and being my first guest. It is truly an honor to be interviewing one of my best friends, and someone I dearly admire. I would like to open up today by allowing you to identify yourself. As QTPOC, I feel like we are constantly policed when it comes to our identity.
When I identify myself, I always start with the fact that I don’t belong to a single community fully, that I belong to multiple communities like everybody does really. And that your identity ends up being a result of the intersection between those communities, rather than a single one on its own.
Being LGBTQ+ is a single identity. Or a separate one. Being Pakistani is another one. Being Muslim is another one. Until we mix them together, each one individually will never show you all of the person that you are. It has to be that when you combine them, it helps illuminate the person that you are underneath all of that. Umm. So who am I?
I am Munfarid. I am a newly empathetic person. I am heavily driven. I’m obsessed with my family members. I love seeing gay people holding hands. I love seeing Muslims embrace people from other communities. And so many other things. And all those things together make up a little piece of the person I am.
Thank you so much for sharing that. You mention the importance of intersectionality when it comes to identity. What has it been like navigating the LGBTQ+ community as a Pakistani American?
There’s a funny thing about being Pakistani and Muslim, or any culture that is anti-gay as a remnant of its culture. You can be many minority groups overlapping each other and they’ll all feed into your personality, but there’s something special and especially insidious that happens when you’re LGBTQ+, and in my case Pakistani Muslim. You are a member of two minority groups that hate one another, or at least have a very difficult relationship with one another. You have a difficult time being Pakistani in your LGBTQ+ circles, and you have a very difficult time being gay in your Pakistani Muslim circles. So instead of being yourself throughout all of your life and all of your interactions with people, you pick and choose pieces of yourself to express with one kind of person, and then choose another for another kind of person. So really, to feel whole you have to go to different places and talk to different people. That’s the special thing about lying in that intersection.
It’s like an extra piece of adversity you have to overcome in life. On its own, obviously not so good, but when you navigate that, it helps you kinda understand communities you don’t belong to. It’s very easy to say, oh I’m part of this minority group and we’re subjugated, so I completely understand how this other minority group feels when you don’t understand at all. You can never understand the unique experiences of a group that you don’t belong to. But when you both experience subjugation, and also feel isolation from separate minority groups from within them because of another identity, you start to realize a little more how difficult it is that you being in a minority group doesn’t allow you to feel this kinship with others. You have to understand each one individually.
What was it like coming out to your family?
There’s this expectation from the gay community that anything less than acceptance from your parents, of an embrace, not even an acceptance, from your parents is a failure in your parents. And so that when I tell people that I've come out to my parents and they’ve reacted badly, only in the case that they don’t embrace it completely, they see it as a failure on their part. And I’m so surprised and happy with my parents because they still support me 100%. The degree to which they love me hasn’t changed at all. I am still the same person to them. With an addition, a problematic dimension to them.
But it's so much better than what it could be. And it's tough to get context for that when you don't belong to the community. So these are expectations placed upon you by the gay community as a Pakistani Muslim that they can’t really understand until they've been there. And then, on the other hand, the expectations of the Pakistani community is you live this exact wholesome lifestyle, and they have strict ideas of what’s acceptable. You could do everything flawlessly. You could enter the professions of your parents’ dream. Be the kind of person that looks out for others and actively tries to help people, and still be trumped by something as insignificant as your sexuality.
Marginalized and minority were brought up a multiple times. As a hyper minority, what responsibilities do you believe you have in changing the perspectives of others? In changing the narrative.
It is so easy when you're in any position of privilege to ignore your minority status. To not think about it. To just be happy that everything is going ok. Just being a minority doesn't necessarily mean you're marginalized. There are very few times being Pakistani has on its own negatively affected me in a public space. It happens, but because of the money my family has, I’m insulated from it. Thoroughly. And yet, when you're that person, you have influence. Going to John Hopkins and having this expectation of intelligence, and of influence upon me.
It means that when I say something, it might be taken a little bit more seriously, for really no reason, than someone else. It's uncomfortable to rock the boat isn't it? When you're part of a marginalized group or a minority group. When things are going good, they shut up because they don’t wanna screw things up. I think the duty if you wanna take upon it, is to keep speaking up about the problems that are happening to the groups you belong to.
It's a little morally fuzzy to me, because at that point, you are no longer affected by them so you aren't the best spokesman for them. They’ll listen to you and not the people really going through the issues. So that’s a weird space to navigate. I believe it is my duty to speak about the problems that are happening to Muslims, to the Pakistani community, to the gay community. And especially that unique spot, that I have to talk about negative views of Muslims which happen in the gay community, and negative views of the gay community in Muslim communities. Speaking from within a community is far more meaningful than from speaking outside of it. I'm doing the most that I can. The best that I can do without accidentally causing harm in doing so.
Can you give an example of when you’ve spoken up for your communities?
When the Orlando shooting happened, that was one of the biggest moments where being Muslim and being gay was put in the same headline, and everyone was thinking about how the two groups interact with each other. Their attitudes. They're biases. Their prejudices. And here I was, on both sides of the issue. I was simultaneously seen as the oppressor and the oppressed. A member of the group that people felt were attacking the other, and a member of the group they felt was being attacked. It would be easy to join either side and say no, we had nothing to do with this as a Muslim, or we were killed and need to start taking this seriously as a gay man. But instead, I decided to speak to other Muslims about the prejudices we have against gay people. It’s there hidden under the surfaces. We don't talk about them very much but they're there.
Unless someone from within starts calling them out for it, no one is gonna change their thinking or feeling. I started talking to my Muslim friends about how gay people are treated within mosques, and asked if they had conversations about how they treat gay people in the masjid, and they always say they don't because it doesn't feel like the right place to, but after this, I feel like I can.
I’m interested in how we are all socially conditioned when it comes to gender and sexuality. How has your identity affected your perceptions of masculinity and sexual expression?
I grew up taught that the only emotions you should feel are happiness and anger. You can only either express yourself in triumph attached to happiness, and then the violence, this traditional idea of power attached to anger. Any other emotion was perfluous or set you back. Prevented you from reaching the ideal level of masculinity. Masculinity was stoicism. Masculinity was being boisterous. Masculinity was easily being angered by others. Masculinity was never crying or talking about your feelings.
I grew up in that culture, and I subscribed to it, and was submerged. And accepted it, and thought I lived happily with it as a part of my identity. I even felt proud of it. And then slowly as I got older and started moving into different cultures, and the ideas of masculinity shifted from one another. I felt like I was still holding on, but I started to feel like there were other views to it. And just this year I realized the power that comes from feeling. And especially the field I'm entering. Medicine.
Somebody who doesn't feel what their patients are going through isn’t powerful at all. They aren't able to do the job they need to for their patients. And so this idea of having to subscribe to a very strict, limited emotional range for masculinity started dissipating, and I started feeling all these emotions.
I went to watch Finding Dory two to three days ago, and I cried 2-3 times, and I have never cried a single time ever watching a movie in my life. It was always because of happiness and a desire to protect Dory. And it is so freeing and so beautiful, and it doesn't make me feel any weaker than before. It's funny how evolution has gone along with all of this. The culture I was brought up in had a strict view of masculinity, and kinda through my own experiences through life. Not necessarily American culture, but the individual journey taught me to let it go. And I'm in the process of letting it go right now. Still right now.
If you cried two to three times, I just might bawl 5-6 times.
You bring up the idea of erasure. Have you felt neglected or erased when it comes to the dating scene? I’ve been thinking a lot about the microaggression or blatant racism on these apps.
I find that when it comes to dating apps, and it is based solely on your face and body, it is definitely there. Mostly you end up matching with other minority groups. I don't exactly feel erased from Hispanics, Black people, Asians. For the most part, they seem to mingle relatively well from my perspective as a South Asian. But for white people, I believe they have this idealized version of what gay couples should be. Portrayals of gay people are always two immaculate white dudes in media. So when they go to start looking for people, they look for that. However, when it comes to in person, I feel it less. Cause when people get to start to know you, they don't see you as the stereotype they imagined from seeing your face. They realize there are not so many differences between you two. So it's much less than dating apps.
I always close with this cheesy question. What advice do you have for your younger self and/or the next generation of QTPOC folks?
Never let one of your identities erase another. Never let it overwrite another. Don't feel like you're never gonna feel happy in this one community because of this other thing. That you can't be happy amongst Muslims because you're gay or happy amongst gay people because you're Muslim. Explore all of them. Be fearless when it comes to each of them.
PUSH your Muslim identity into the part of your life you consider the gay part of you. Push the gay part of you into the Muslim circle. It's possible. There's always ways to do it. I think that'll make you happier. You'll realize that you're stopping yourself from being all that who you are.
Sweet! Thank you so much Munfarid. What do you have planned for yourself in the upcoming future?
You know, it looks like I know exactly what I wanna do, and I guess my career path. Going to med school at JHU appears very solid and structured, but I'm not 100% sure. There are many things that could possibly make me happy, but I haven't explored them all enough. I know that I wanna use the position I have to speak on behalf of others from my own community. What exactly that means? I'm not sure yet. But the upcoming years will be when I figure it out!