By Dan Singh. Dan is the lead facilitator for South Asian HangOuts, a peer support and social group for South Asian gay, bisexual and trans men. Information, stories and anecdotes are based on discussion and feedback for the South Asian HangOuts group. 

You often hear about the lack of ‘gay’ sex education at schools in the 80s. In fact, there was hardly any sex and relationships education in the 70s, 80s, 90s, let alone any discussions around what intimacy and pleasure were. There is no real surprise here, in the 1980s we had the HIV/AIDS crisis that focused blame culture towards gay and bisexual men, and then along came Section 28 by the Government in 1988, to foster further blame and shame. Section 28 was an awful piece of homophobic legislation designed to prevent the so called 'promotion' of homosexuality in schools. This legislation only further stigmatised lesbian, gay, bi and trans people but in doing so, it united our queer communities. Having said this, you can imagine the impact on not only teachers and educational LGBTQ+ people but also any student LGBTQ+ groups at the time and people at work; the history of which has been captured as evidence of what happened and the action that was taken to dismantle it. The film Blue Jean (2022) handles education teaching fears well. Worth a watch! 

Section 28 was bought to an end in November 2003 but the trauma and impact of it still affects us now. Are schools better now with LGBTQ+ sex and relationships? Are we talking more about ‘gay’ sex and relationships within South Asian communities? Are we talking enough as South Asian men? 

All our voices need to be heard 

It was surprising to find out when speaking to younger gay, bi and trans (GBT) men who had finished school within the last ten years, that there are still no real age-appropriate discussions around 'gay’ sex and relationships in schools. Thankfully, there are some healthy education and interventions happening, including  Diversity Role Models who are working with schools to eliminate LGBTQ+ bullying, Naz and Matt Foundation, tackling homophobia in schools and the all the important work in LGBTQ+ inclusive education by Andrew Moffat with all the valuable work with No Outsiders. Yes, there was a backlash with protests to No Outsiders but all these examples matter, all voices need to be heard and everyone needs to increase their understanding of allyship and inclusion. We need effective advocacy and campaigning and continue to engage with social media platforms of influence that spew our myths and untruths. For a future generation having safe spaces (in-person, online, in schools, youth clubs and colleges) to discuss more openly (without shame or guilt) about safer sex and pleasure and the types of intimacy and healthy relationships are very much needed. LGBTQ+ teachers and educators and all allies within and outside of education, hold your heads up high because you matter to us.  

Being self-reflective and open to transformation is something we should celebrate, not fear

― Alok Vaid-Menon, Beyond the Gender Binary 

Representation matters

Often after the initial awkward silence, and after a fun icebreaker in social support groups, discussions around safer sex from a South Asian and British lived experience with GBT men is understandably tentative. From feedback from various groups over the last few years there was a feeling that there was a lack of South Asian LGBTQ+ representation in general in the media in the 1980s – a virtual non-existence of brown queer bodies in cinema and television (except for notable examples such as the film My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and the TV series The Buddha of Suburbia (1990)). There were also no everyday South Asian GBT men in the main soaps either, in the 80s. In 1999 we had Queer as Folk on TV but the three main characters being "gora (white) perhaps would have had wider appeal and impact if the colour casting was more diverse. Seeing confident brown LGBTQIA+ South Asian bodies being sexual well-beings is needed more in mainstream television, to break down stereotypes and challenge the status quo, and how we see ourselves and are seen by families watching We come in a diverse range of physical and emotional forms. We are not trying to destabilize family honour respect but celebrate our South Asian identities. Often the word safe as opposed to safer is generally discussed in groups and how just having the sex you desire with little risk or sex with the risk level you wanted, felt safer. Anecdotally, clients and people I know tend to use safe through the fear of “catching” an STI (Sexually Transmitted Infections) and consequently not have the freedom of intimacy and pleasure desired. 

Time for open conversations 

From listening and taking part in rich conversations over the last 20 years, most South Asian GBT men have not been able to have open discussions around safer sex, or their masculinities or reflecting on their intersectionality. The power of vulnerability and trust, to ask questions and share lived experiences is encouraging in more recent times. The message about U=U, the effectiveness of PrEP, Treatment as Prevention (TaSP), living well with HIV and how to lower our risk around STI discussions are often had. But these messages are still only slowly getting through to us and still not enough men are being involved in these open safer spaces online and in-person. Challenging negative binary language such as I’m clean mate” with “What’s the opposite of clean mate?” - the response is often a sudden recognition to say, “Sorry I meant recently I have tested.” or I regularly test.” or “my test results were negative happens. Regular testing, and ways of testing (sexual health clinic, home testing, testing at a GP Practice, picking up a home test kit etc) are some ways in which we can stay on top of our sexual healthSome older people reflect on how they may still be internalising fear of AIDS, Section 28, and once the conversations begin, they recognise how new knowledge and awareness helps us navigate our safer sex and pleasure choices. More choice I guess reduces isolation? The better our mental health and wellbeing and the better sex and intimacy we can enjoy with or without others. Issues around consent, communicating what we want before, during and discussions after sex or intimacy, matter some of time. Men are not the best at having frank conversations. Fear of not been masculine enough, fear of being judged and sometimes not having words to express what we need in our own multiple South Asian language translations; is not easy. A poor mental wellbeing and poor body image may lead to little or no sex or for some men potentially lots of exciting anonymous sex (the best sex with potentially higher risk i.e. forgetting to regularly have a sexual health screening or keeping up with our self-care, day to day chores and meds). Experimenting and trying things we were not sure of when we are under the influence of alcohol or drugs and then wondering afterwards whether we would have made the same choices during sober sex has impact in how we feel better about ourselves. Easily said and done but time for open conversations – I think so. 

Non-judgemental support 

What I am hearing is often, South Asian GBT men are having helpful support from sexual health clinics with confidential and non-judgmental support, more than ever before. We are being listened to when we are having discussions around looking after our sexual health, about testing regularly, getting vaccinated (hep A/B, HPV etc). There seems to be more cultural awareness but not necessarily consistent across services. Thankfully more people are talking about topics such as chemsex, due to the fabulous work by sexual health clinics around the UK and all the campaigns to raise awareness of the potential dangers of substance misuse or lack of understanding of what drugs we may be taking and the interaction of multiple drugs one might take to get that highThe worry about not being able to look at how important consent is when we are high and horny is still a concern for all men with unreported sexual assaults, rape and crime. Over the last 10 years, men are initially talking more to sexual health clinics about chemsex, and this is at least a step forward. More campaigns to raise awareness, perhaps in different language translations, are still needed for the communities of people who are too worried about being tested. The need for a daily practice of at least one self-care routine that works for you can help. Having open conversations with each other, with professionals or within a social support group from a South Asian and British and International lived experience, matters. These support groups are non-judgmental and supportive, with thorough ground rules and facilitators.  

Experiencing pleasure and intimacy during sex 

Pleasure can be individual or with another person or group. Pleasure can also be more cerebral, sensual, tactful; of space, memory and time. Sex is often a word loaded without emotional intimacy and about a fast physical reaction to desire and release; reload and let’s go! With hook-up apps this desire intensifies and the need to meet increases at sometimes the detriment of quality time for other social connections or commitmentsAddiction can loom, so digital detoxing might be a way of self-caring and seeking the desire when you are ready to, rather than waiting for that ping, or vibrate to wake us up. Time to turn off notifications – at least for an hour or two? Sometimes, for some men, the desire to experience anonymous healthy safer sex and pleasure is enough, for now. For some men they may need more of a closer personal connection, for sex to continue. With anonymous sex, say in a dark room, men negotiate sex with subtle body language, where consent can feel uncertain, but the excitement of finding the physical connection matters in a consensual way. Places such as dark rooms, may be the only outlet and safe space for some South Asian GBT men and men in general, who are perhaps not out or are in monogamous or non-monogamous same sex or heterosexual relationships.  Experiencing pleasure during intimacy and sex can widely vary, depending on what we desire and with who, when and where we meet. The feeling of being safe with the other person is what can intensify the experience before, during and after, rather than the awkward quick goodbyes or the promises of staying in touch. Most of us agree that pleasure is when both parties have spent time together where physically and emotionally there has been a mutual strong connection. As South Asian GBT men we have control over our own body and mind and can enjoy the safer sex and pleasure we all deserve and desire. 

Further reading