Life Stories: Raheem Mir (Kathak Dancer, Choreographer & Performer)
The first thing you need to know about Raheem is that he has a wicked sense of humour. And is an exceptional flirt (more on that later!). However, I was struck by his Kathak dancing and ability to play with gender in doing so, using his performances to show us stories that transcend heteronormativity. What I loved most about our conversation was that Raheem is unapologetically himself, it’s the kind of authenticity that most of us strive for and sets an example for all us queers.
27, male (he/him), gay, British Asian (mixed race English and Punjabi)
Life Right Now
I’m pursuing my PhD this October which is expanding my mind with new topics and theories. I’ll be looking at the dance form I practice (kathak) and exploring gender theory through this lens; namely male representation in performance and the expression of female narratives through their bodies. As an example, when men perform as females, how are they seen and to what extent is this perceived as a queer narrative? There is little exploration of this area, and given what I do, I think it’s fascinating. More generally, I’m focusing on maintaining relationships with the people I care for, to really be present and listen to them in what can be a hectic and busy world. It’s so easy to forget how to really talk and listen to people.
I first became aware of my sexuality when someone else used it as a slur towards me when I was 12 or 13. I didn’t even understand what the term was or meant. I remember from a young age I envisioned being with a man, and that I would be a wife and have kids; I tried to fit my understanding of the world into what was heteronormative. Even at events when I was younger, I would spend time with women, so I’ve been in touch with my feminine side from an early age.
I couldn’t say I was gay until I was 18. I first said I was bisexual, in the hope that this would be more acceptable to other people because it meant there was still an option to get married to woman – but we all knew that certainly wasn’t the case! I remember being at University and there was a drunk girl on the steps at our dorms, I was helping her and she said I was really pretty and I said she was too. Her male friends arrived, and she told them ‘don’t worry, he’s gay’ and then she asked me if I was gay – and for the first time I said yes, yes I am. That was the beginning of my acceptance.
My Family & Culture
I’m very lucky in how my family responded. My parents and siblings have been brilliant, as have my extended family members. I’m very close to my maternal grandparents, who know about this but we don’t talk about it. But that hasn’t changed the love and relationship I have with them. I know I’m very lucky to have this support. Apparently, my Mum once said to my grandmother 'What if one of your grandchildren is gay, what if Raheem is gay?' And my grandmother replied 'He can’t be gay. I’ve seen his genitals and they are too big for him to be gay'. It’s amazing what we tell ourselves and how sexuality was understood (also boys, take note). I found this hilarious!
I’m very close to my Mum and gran, they are my best friends. The three of us would spend a lot of time together as I was growing up, particular accompanying my gran to functions such as prayers, mehndis, etc. Even to this day we still go together! My relationship and time spent with my gran is something I’ll never let go of, our bond is incredible and she is a huge part of my life.
My Dad’s reaction was to protect me and he tried to do this by making me more masculine. He was a teacher and he knew how mean children could be at school and so he wanted me to have an easier life at High School. He just wanted me to survive – it wasn’t coming from a place of malice or erasing my identity. Ultimately, he wanted me to be safe and happy in whatever I did. Now he sees I’m much stronger so it’s not a concern for him. As for my siblings, they all have gay friends, so this wasn’t an issue for them.
I feel very connected to my culture across both identities as I grew up in such a multicultural environment at home. I can speak Punjabi fluently, I listen to the music and my dance is an extension of my connection to my culture.
I never had to come out; my mother came out for me. To put this into context, the very first dance performance I did in the context of family gatherings was a song called Choli Ke Peeche (meaning ‘what is hidden behind the blouse?’). I would pick up a chunni from anywhere to dance to this song, be that from the floor or another woman. My mum’s best friend had said to her that it was likely I would grow up to be gay, and my Mum said she knew, but she’d wait for me to tell her.
I remember sitting in my grandparent’s bathroom at their house in Oxford, and my Mum was getting ready. She asked if I liked any girls at school, to which I said no. As she finished applying her lipstick, she asked if I liked any boys at school. And I knew then it was OK.
I use humour to disarm people, I’m able to not take myself too seriously and play with my identity. It helps people warm to you and see you beyond one facet of who you are. I’m authentic in how I present myself, be that brash or blunt – but it’s entertaining. It’s my way of connecting with people and showing who I am, beyond the labels society puts on us.
I explored my ethnicity through dance, arts and performance in general. Kathak, albeit being rooted in Hinduism, was a way for me to connect with other people. It helped me explore the emotions I was feeling, especially as music was a big influence growing up from my Dad playing vinyl records to my Mum singing beautifully. Dance also helped me connect with my own sexuality (and I don’t mean sleeping with other dancers!). I connected with my own narrative, being able to convey the range of emotions (called abhinay) as part of my dance practice.
I’ve always been unapologetically me, and doing so on stage and putting myself out there every time I performed was part of my evolution. I really fucking feel it when I perform, it’s like no-one else exists. It’s also another outlet for me to express my sexuality – from flirting, my wanton glare and seduction.
Love, Dating & Relationships
I’ve never been with anyone. I have dated, but I’ve not been with someone exclusively, so I don’t know how that is. I believed it was all me, that I was doing something – and sometimes still think it is me. I look at my friends who are beautiful people and in beautiful relationships, and I see that it’s a human need to also want companionship.
I’ve been close to having relationships, but something always seems to go wrong. I’ve found that the gay scene can be super promiscuous. There have been guys who are invested in me and my life are also invested in another guy’s mouth on a Saturday night. I’ve been through a phase where I’ve hated men, I wouldn’t want to be around them and as a result I built up some barriers – but I’m working through them. I guess my past experiences have made me wary.
One thing I am is a flirt. The flirtation I bring into my performances is symbiotic in the way I can be in real life. Anyone try and tell me I’m not an amazing flirt! My family is open and expressive, so there I no filter. I think that means a person fully sees who I really am.
We have to be better allies to each other, and treat each other with respect. We can’t turn on each other and reduce each other by our judgements. I have performed as a woman and been gender fluid in my performances, but it doesn’t mean that’s who I am once the performance stops. However, I’ve received judgement and been associated with stereotypes and assumed to be the ‘woman’ of a relationship, especially because I’m more feminine. It highlights people’s insecurities within our community which are then projected onto others.
We have to get better at sticking together. As queer people of colour, we have to be even more vigilant in not enforcing generational outlooks into our community. By that I mean you can’t come into queer spaces and enforce parental type laws on each other, specifically how a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ should be. You have qpoc men who present in a very masculine way and push gender norms on others and display misogyny – but fundamentally, they are still going against everything they have learnt anyway; they still want to put their dick in another man’s mouth.
So stop with that bullshit. I say own it and own you. If you don’t carry yourself with confidence, you’re asking for unwanted attention.
Isoa Tupua is an incredible dancer and someone who I think is brilliant. I love the Bitten Peach Collective which is the first pan-Asian cabaret in the UK and founded by Shay Shay who is also incredible. I also admire people such as Anthony Pius, as well as Shahmir Sanni, Leo Kalyan and MNEK .
Words of Wisdom
Don’t hide yourself from yourself (or other people). Embrace your authenticity and your uniqueness because ultimately there are people who will celebrate you for being you.
Never be afraid of rejection. Be it professional or personal, because you don’t know it yet but you are really strong.
Make sure you spend time with good people, a variety of people and people who ‘get’ you. This means not shying away from spending time with new people and expanding your social circles. Ultimately you could be building a relationship for life. PS – don’t worry about not having a boyfriend.
What has stayed with me most about Raheem is how incredibly brave he is, in truly being himself and playing with gender expression in a space that is notoriously heteronormative. It’s actions like these that dismantle stereotypes (and the patriarchy). In addition to the delicious sass, I saw a softer side to him and reminds us that what we see isn't everything about a person.
You can follow Raheem (and his glow ups) here.