These are personal stories from members of our LGBT+ Network to support Virtual Pride.
Hi all and as-salamu alaykum. 😊
For those outside of my work who don’t know me, I am Ray Mason, my pronouns are he and his, just turned 40 (growing old disgracefully!) and I am a CQC hospitals directorate support team leader for London & South East, based in Brixton, SW London.
I’m happy to share my story about being raised from birth until 11 as a Muslim. A bit of background may of course help… My biological mother gave birth to me, one of many children and all of us immediately given up for care each time. In my case, I was fostered until 6 months old to sort out long term arrangements. I initially went to my maternal grandmother who couldn’t take care of me at the time, so her sister who was married to a Bengali, took me in. That’s where I stayed until I was 11 years old.
Born in Whitechapel East London, a large Bangladeshi community and immediately living with a Bengali family, I just always assumed every white kid had a Bengali connection. It was a strange feeling at times living with Uncle Awlad and Aunty Doreen and my Bengali cousins (I was never asked to call them mum and dad, or brothers and sisters). I never felt left out of anything in the family and I was always shown love, strict love perhaps but love nevertheless. I didn’t know my name was Ray at first, they refused to use a ‘Christian’ name so called me Abdul which turned in to Abbey then Abs at school. I spoke Bengali before English, which was always interesting as I got older, to see people’s reactions to a very Northern European looking kid speaking Bengali. I was taken to the local mosque every week and it was even planned for me to do my secondary education in Dhaka. Kids being kids, I was teased for being the only white kid in our house (7 kids in total) and everyone laughed at me being left handed and trying to eat using that hand. For those of you who don’t know, in a nutshell, the right hand is considered the noble hand and therefore the clean hand.
At the age of 11, ahead of me potentially being sent to Dhaka, my grandmother stepped in and stopped this, instead taking me up to Sunderland for my secondary education and teen life. Maybe it’s a child looking at the world through rose coloured glasses, but I never wanted to be taken away from my London life. With that feeling in mind and going to a new life in Sunderland within a now Catholic household, I hit secondary school and immediately hated my life there. I was bullied from Year 7 onwards about being different, sounding different and once I realised I was gay, that added another layer of hate thrown at me. My Bengali family, although there were clear differences between us, they had always encouraged me to be open and celebrate myself as I am. Never hiding my sexuality in Sunderland, I therefore couldn’t understand why my differences weren’t being celebrated in the same way.
My first 11 years’ experience in London gave me the strength I needed to get through what I considered hell at the time. Both school and my Mackem (Sunderland) family never wanted me around in my head, my grandmother openly saying she ultimately took me up north for the extra social money. As soon as I arrived, she would leave me alone for weeks at a time to fend for myself, in a flat above a butcher which then became a Spar. By 14, I had my own social worker called Sylvia who checked in on me daily. Sylvia, not my gran took me for the shopping I needed to prepare for joining the RAF at 16. That was my way out of Sunderland. I left the RAF at 19 and had to go back to Sunderland as a home base. Through new friendships I was building, I had the great opportunity to go live in Russia for 2 years at 21, then Portugal at 23 and finally back to London where my heart always belonged at 24. Sadly by this point, Uncle Awlad had died from heart complications and Aunty Doreen had herself gone back to Sunderland on his passing as she had no further reason to stay in London. The cousins were all grown up with their own families.
Although through these experiences being raised first in a Muslim then Catholic family, I am no longer practicing any form of religion, I fully respect and appreciate what Islam gave me. It gave me the strength of character to power through tough times, to give thanks for and appreciate what I do have and to help my fellow human when they have their own struggles. Now as a 40-year-old, I look back with fondness on my childhood. The bowl haircuts in the backyard, the TV being turned off whenever a kiss was coming (even Home & Away!) and the gorgeous food my Aunty cooked. Although I do still eat with my left hand 😉
Dhan’yabāda ধন্যবাদ (yes, I had to google that!) to Uncle Awlad and Aunty Doreen for making me the Ray you see before you today.
(I have very few photos from childhood and sadly none of Doreen and Awlad together)