Ifti Nasim: Celebrating the Life and Legacy of an Avant-Garde Gay Pakistani American Muslim Activist

The world lost a true trailblazer last Friday when Ifti Nasim, poet, journalist and advocate, died of a heart attack in Chicago at age 64.

An openly gay man, Nasim left Pakistan for the United States at the age of 21 to avoid persecution and an arranged marriage, eventually settling in Chicago.  He dedicated his life to art and advocacy, founding SANGAT/Chicago (a South Asian LGBT organization) in 1986, penning poetic works in Urdu, Punjabi and English (including "Narman," believed to be the first book of gay-themed poetry published in Urdu), hosting a weekly radio show, writing a weekly column for a Pakistani American newspaper, serving as President of the South Asian Performing Arts Council of America, and advocating for LGBT, South Asian and Muslim communities.  He also worked full-time as a car salesman at Loeber Motors in Chicago for many years.  He was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1996.

Nasim’s passing has caused worldwide reverberations, with tributes published in media outlets from Forbes to the Times of India to The Advocate to the Huffington Post.  Mary Schmich, columnist for The Chicago Tribune, called Nasim "one of the most famous Chicagoans most Chicagoans have never heard of."

While Nasim was well-known for his vibrant behavior and clothing, those who knew him personally remember his generosity and his commitment to community above all.

Ashok Easwaran, a Chicago-based journalist, knew Nasim for 15 years. In a memorial column he wrote,

beneath the bravado and the posturing was a man who cared deeply about people and the causes dear to him, and one whose engagement with other humans went beyond the barriers of sex, religion, politics or geography.  His poetry reflected the turbulence and pain of a life in the shadows.  "Even success brings only grudging acceptance. They just about tolerate you," he told me once, "if you are a gay Muslim in America, you are a minority within a minority."

Debanuj Dasgupta, doctoral student in the Department of Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies at Ohio State University, and long-time advocate in South Asian, immigrant and LGBT communities, remembers,

I met Ifti within my first month of coming to the US in the summer of 1996 – he was listed in Trikone magazine as a Chicago contact. I was really depressed at the time, because I had been out and organizing in India, but had to go back into the closet while visiting my extended family in suburban Ohio. I poured my heart out to him, and he counseled me, sang songs to me, and told me which bars I could go to to meet people. Since then, many of my friends have gone to him for support within first arriving in the US, and I’ve referred many folks with asylum claims to him to write support letters for their cases – he was brilliant at this. He was a landing pad for many LGBT immigrants, and his passing reminds me that I need to reconnect with people with whom I have had separations – I don’t want to hear that another friend passed away via Facebook.

In terms of his legacy, I really hope that his life and work is preserved in a larger archive of queer immigration and migration stories.  These catalogs don’t always exist for people of color.  Our lives are easily erased by history books.

Faisal Alam, a self-described queer Muslim advocate, adds,

Ifti was a pioneer in the South Asian and the Muslim community, specifically the Pakistani community. He was definitely an eccentric person, but beyond that, he was one of the first people we know about living, writing about and talking about homosexuality in Pakistan in the 1970’s.  He was beaten up for it, lost his job for it, and eventually moved to Chicago.  In Pakistan, the identity of being gay is often associated with an elite Western community that exists there, such that people from low-income communities who have same gender attraction often don’t have easy ways to express themselves or form community.  By publishing the first book of Urdu poems on same-sex attraction in Pakistan, Ifti brought visibility to a community that was largely invisible.

His passing is very, very sad - he taught us our legacy and our history. So often, that history is easy to forget.  So remembering him and what he contributed is vital for us...

Umayr Hassan of northern California, who knew Nasim through community work, reflects,

Ifti’s passing marks a threshold of expression, which was a bridge between languages (Urdu, English, Punjabi), between the spoken and written, between body and sense. I hope to read and re-read him, to translate across languages and genres, to finally let him speak apart from my infinite memory of him, of his big, dark eyes in particular, that always spoke before speaking, that I still try to gaze into, that I hold on to.

Vijay Prashad, Professor of International Studies at Trinity College, adds,

What an amazing guy – he could be harsh, but he was really a community builder, and very affectionate.  He always had time to hear people’s woes.  Of course, he was also a very good poet. That’s how I first encountered him – he was asked to recite some poetry at a party I was at.  I hope he’ll be remembered for being a complicated and loving person.  Every side of him was important – he cannot be reduced to being a caricature.  Many people can be remembered in a sentence, and other people need novels – Ifti was definitely the latter.  He was a very brave guy.  He was himself wherever he was, and that is something we don’t often appreciate in the language of ‘the closet.’  That closet didn’t exist for him.  He was who he was wherever he was, no matter who he was talking to, and that is very important to note.  He was able to indulge in great pleasures and at the same time understand people’s pain. He knew how to enjoy life and love and be loved.  That’s how we should remember him – as a complex, loving, giving human being, not as a cliché.

Kareem Khubchandani of Chicago’s South Asian Progressive Action Collective notes,

Our community has lost an important figure, but we must continue to be inspired by his activism, his art, and his exuberance.  I have lost a special friend, but I will attempt to sustain the difficult work that he has done, and widen the path he has laid for queer desis in Chicago.

Nasim was laid to rest on the north side of Chicago on Saturday, the area he had called home for many years.  He is survived by his partner of 28 years.  GLAAD offers deep sympathies to his loved ones and all who loved him.