Through a programme of uplifting events, The QSA Space brings together queer South Asians in celebration of their identities and cultures, providing the community with safety, understanding and hope for the future.
Too many stories go unheard; the potential impact of asking a young person ‘what’s your story?’ is often overlooked. This was the case for Kay, the Founder of Queer South Asian Space (The QSA Space), much to the detriment of her mental health.
“I’m a minority within a minority,” says Kay. “I’m from a South Asian background and, growing up with a big weight from my culture and surroundings, I went from a traumatised child to a traumatised adult.”
When Kay’s friend invited her to contribute to a dissertation project about coming out stories, she had no idea how transformational the experience would be.
“It was the first time I ever wrote my story for anyone else. I put it down and it was such a relieving experience for me that I never knew I could feel. I was like, where is there a space for me to share my work? How can I explore sharing my identity? That’s why The QSA Space was formed: to reduce the number of traumatised adults and to show up for the younger generation. I don’t want a young person or child to grow up feeling the way I did and literally hate themselves as much as I did. For me, it’s about showing kids that it’s ok and then hoping they don’t turn into adults that have this trauma about who they are.”
Initially, Kay built an online magazine and forum and secured funding from Peace First, but she soon realised that her vision for The QSA Space was too great to achieve on her own. One of The QSA Space’s early Instagram followers, Lokesh, now a member of the team, invited Kay to meet with them and suggested she take a different approach and create a physical community space.
“I sat on the idea for a bit and then Vinay came along and, between them both, they brought it all to life,” says Kay.
“We wanted to recreate and reclaim these traditional events that we’ve felt really excluded from.”
“I remember getting a call from Kay,” says Vinay, co-Founder of The QSA Space. “It was a nice moment because we’ve been friends since childhood and, naturally, life happens and you lose touch. But then I heard from her after thirteen years and that was the first moment I realised that Kay also identifies as queer. That was such a special moment in itself because it was someone that I’ve been friends with since I was so young and I didn’t realise. She told me about The QSA Space and immediately I was really keen to get involved as I didn’t really have much of a chance to explore my own identity so just the idea of being able to give that to other people was really exciting.”
With funding from Challenge and Change, The QSA Space organised its inaugural queer Garba, a dance event at which queer South Asians can celebrate both their identities and their culture in a safe environment.
“The queer Garba hit home for a lot of people,” says Kay. “It was tapping into religious and spiritual identity and a lot of people said this was one of the most affirming events they’ve been to and asked if we could do it again. The Garba comes around every year and we get so many messages asking for the details. One person said they want to travel in the next few months but they’re going to book their travel around the date of the event. Just to think that people are already anticipating the next one in a year is really special. The impact was huge because, unfortunately, there’s not a lot of competition. Another event that had a really big impact was the QSA Prom Night. We wanted to recreate and reclaim these traditional events that we’ve felt really excluded from and open them up to our community.
Not only did it have an impact on people attending but it also opened up opportunities to others. For example, we had a queer South Asian group of dancers who performed in front of a crowd for the first time. They wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing that at a heteronormative prom night or other event but, because it was a space that felt safe, it had an impact on their confidence. The idea for this came from my partner after she saw a picture of me attending a wedding as a child in a suit. After sharing with her that this was one of the only few time’s I’d felt comfortable, my partner said she wanted others to experience that and for me to experience it again too, and that’s how Prom night came to be.
Young people chose the people that got the Challenge and Change funding and that meant the absolute world to me. These young people are so clued in with what is needed in society. I remember being so happy and it felt more special because it was chosen by young people. We’re now registered as a CIC. That’s given us credibility as well and it’s been really nice to have all these ideas and not be completely limited. It’s opened up a lot of doors for us and for the community to experience something new.”
“We’ve been lucky enough to get this funding and actually think about what has been missing from our lives.”
Funding from Challenge and Change has also supported The QSA Space to uplift and commission other queer South Asian artists, including visual and music artists.
“There aren’t many opportunities for young, queer South Asians to produce art,” says Vinay. “Because we got this funding, we were able to pay people to make a poster for our first ever queer Garba event in the UK. We’ve given people a first experience in life, like we’ve given a DJ their first opportunity. She was so nervous to do the QSA Prom Night because she’d never DJ’d in a professional capacity but was passionate about doing it and we completely trusted her with quite a big event and since then she’s taken on paid bookings and her confidence has grown so much.
Without the funding, we would have struggled to do that or even to find a venue with a capacity of over a hundred people in central London that was accessible. Now, we have support from a bar company and even on our first conversation, he said he really wanted to be part of this because his brother identifies as gay and he was really loving what we did. It’s been great to also bridge gaps between communities and collaborate with people who may not have previously known the importance of the work that we do. So the funding came at a time that allowed us to move in the direction of building community spaces. We’ve been lucky enough to get this funding and actually think about what has been missing from our lives. What do we wish we had as young LGBTQ+ South Asians? What did we need, growing up, that we can now provide to the community?
We’re trying to create a bit of a community online as well and that’s been really fun because we’ve been doing virtual showcases of queer South Asian artwork, which is something Kay and I felt we’d been lacking growing up. We set a date aside and post for twenty-four hours an exhibition we’ve curated of artists who post on Instagram who are queer South Asians. We do our best to find those hidden gems and we’re able to get fifty or sixty pieces of art out there throughout the day. We also get people from South Asia viewing it as well and we can connect people from South Asia and the diaspora so you see this wonderful pool of connection. It doesn’t matter where in the world you are, you can still benefit from the work that we’re doing here.”
“We’re quite intentional about asking the community what they want.”
As a result of their deepening connections with their community, the team have identified other avenues through which they can offer support. They are currently recording a podcast which will act as a vital online space for people within their community to learn, connect and benefit from each other’s stories beyond the occasional in-person events. Vinay is also leading the development of a language programme in collaboration with queer people living in South Asia.
“One thing that happens a lot in London is that people call spaces South Asian but then they often focus on just India or certain areas,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is really connect with people and tutors who speak the many languages of South Asia fluently. We’ve had a lot of interest in the programme because, growing up here, unless your parents or grandparents speak the language, it’s quite hard to just know the language fluently. I wanted to come out to my grandma but I honestly just didn’t know how to word it. I can only ask her what the weather’s like or what to cook but I can’t say ‘I’m queer’. No one ever taught me that. We’re hoping this will be a big project of ours and, when we put out initial feelers out on Instagram, so many people responded saying they’d love to sign up. We’re quite intentional about asking the community what they want.
If we could ever extend into South Asia and reform things that are going on there or offer support to people and drive change, that would be a really good long-term goal for us. We also make it clear that the space is open to allies and I think that’s really important because, if we want to drive change and become more seen and build connections, we will never exclude anyone from our events and maybe even encourage people from other communities to come along and learn so we can build that bridge.”
“I am who I am. I just have to accept and embrace that. I can’t change that God has made me this way.”
Intentionally intersectional from the jump, The QSA Space is, unfortunately, an entirely unique space for queer South Asians who want to embody and embrace their numerous and complex identities. Crucially, where other organisations focus on services and advocacy related to trauma and the harmful policies and practices affecting their community, The QSA Space team has focused on spreading joy. In doing this for her community, Kay has found herself moving towards joy, too.
“I’ve been able to connect my culture and my identity a lot more through The QSA Space and through meeting Vinay, Lokesh and my team, so that’s been very nice. I am who I am. I just have to accept and embrace that. I can’t change that God has made me this way.
It’s been really rewarding to see some of the responses that we get, particularly after events, because we get really caught up in the organisation of it. Sometimes, I don’t even realise the impact it’s having on people. One person described our prom as ‘so much trauma healing in one night.’ I get really emotional thinking about how people might describe The QSA Space in the future. I want it to be a space that instantly comes into someone’s head the second they need support.
We’re creating a world where we’re not the only organisation doing this. Hopefully, The QSA Space can be an organisation that people can reach out to if they want to do something similar. It’s all about spreading queer South Asian joy. Every event we do, I drag my team around and say ‘stop dancing and take in this moment. Look at everyone in this room. We’ve done that. Look what we created.’”
You can follow The QSA Space CIC on Instagram.
The Challenge and Change Fund is designed by young changemakers for young changemakers. It funds young people directly, supporting them to create the change they want to see. It prioritises young people who are emergent and have lived experience of the injustices they are trying to change, supporting youth led collectives, social enterprises and CICs across England. You can read more about Challenge and Change here.