by Shanon Shah
As a gay man from Malaysia, I often feel conflicted when Malaysia makes the headlines, especially on gender or sexuality. It pains me that there is still so much homophobia and transphobia there but, at the same time, it is deeply frustrating when the news reports – especially in the Western media – resort to stereotypes and distorted views about Islam or non-Western cultures. These ideas can be downright condescending, especially when they are spouted by people with supposedly liberal, Western perspectives. It exhausts me greatly to clarify repeatedly that there is more to Malaysia – and Islam – than this.
Doing doctoral research about gay Muslims in Malaysia and Britain helped me to analyse the issue more critically, including by understanding how these stereotypes also affect other former British colonies and Muslim societies. Around the time I was doing my fieldwork, in 2012 and 2013, the headlines were also rife with homophobia in Uganda and Nigeria. Being Malaysian, however, I knew in my heart that there had to be more to these countries than what was in the news cycle.
LGBTQ Muslims at London Pride in 2015 (Photo courtesy of Shanon Shah)
Part of that knowledge came from getting to know the members of the St John’s congregation from different African backgrounds. Thus, when the dust had settled after I finished my PhD, I jumped at the chance to attend the Ugandan Martyr’s Day service at Okusinza mu Luganda. By this time, I was aware of how Martyr’s Day was used by some sections in Uganda to justify homophobia, but I also knew that this wasn’t the whole story. More importantly, I wanted to experience Martyr’s Day for myself, Okusinza style.
Giles and Alice Mwanje catching up after the Martyr’s Day service in 2018
Photo courtesy of Shanon Shah.
Martyr’s Day, Okusinza style
When we arrived, Canon Giles Goddard (my beloved spouse) and I were ushered to the front aisle like guests of honour – we were even singled out for thanks by Reverend Godfrey Kaziro in his welcoming remarks. Immediately afterwards, we were each served with a plateful of Ugandan delicacies. “I’m sorry,” I said, slightly nervously, “I can’t eat this right now because I’m keeping my Ramadan fast.” The Ugandan auntie holding my plate looked at another Ugandan auntie who nodded and took it away. Within five minutes, she returned with the goodies packed neatly in a carrier bag. “For your iftar (the Ramadan fast-breaking meal),” she said. No fuss about me fasting, no fuss about me being gay, but plenty of delight that both Giles and I were there to join in the festivities.
I’ve been reliving many of these memories while conducting interviews for the Waterloo Festival’s 2020 digital edition to commemorate the start of Okusinza’s 30th anniversary celebrations. The interviews have featured Godfrey’s pastoral voice and our organist Michaiah Mukiibi’s musical reflections, both of whom are familiar faces to many St John’s members. I enjoyed the added privilege of speaking at length to co-founder Dorothy Mukasa and Okusinza’s behind-the-scenes tech wiz Stephen Kafeero. I even had a chance to catch up properly with Sara Kwagala, whom I often greeted warmly but hurriedly on Sundays, BC (Before Coronavirus). But what made me – a gay Malaysian man of Muslim background who only moved to the UK less than a decade ago – so passionate about this modest project with Okusinza?
Melba and Shanon holding meeting up just before the Black Lives Matter demonstration at Parliament Square on 6 June 2020
I came to the UK in 2010 initially to pursue my Master in Religion in Contemporary Society at King’s College London. I was meant to be here for only a year and then return to Malaysia – I had begun to establish myself as a journalist with The Nut Graph, an independent news analysis site there.
Circumstances then changed. I fell in love – with Giles and with my academic studies – and I decided to stay on. One day, Melba, whom I was gradually getting to know better, approached me in church after a Sunday service and presented me with a homemade cake. I was incredibly moved, but this was in the middle of Ramadan, so I said tactfully, “I’ll make sure I tuck into this delicious cake in the evening – I won’t have it right now as I’m fasting.”
“Me too,” said Melba.