Norrina Rashid: Full Interview

Duration 35:44


Norrina Rashid
Interviewed by Rachel Larman
23rd October 2018

RL: This is Rachel Larman for West Yorkshire Queer Stories. It’s the 23rd of October 2018 and I’m here with Norrina who’s going to introduce herself.

NR: Hi my name’s Norrina, I’m 53 years old. I live and was born in Bradford. I am a Muslim black queer.

RL: Okay, so Norrina, tell me about growing up in Bradford.

NR: Okay. Growing up in Bradford was… [pause] Growing up in Bradford was interesting, it was challenging – there were no young gay people, let alone y’know, black queer people out and about. So I grew up very much as a very politically motivated young black person. It was the era of the National Front, who were very alive and well in Bradford, so I was part of a political youth organisation called the Asian Youth Movement, and that’s where my politics started. But it was very cis-gendered and straight.

RL: So when was that, when you were getting political?

NR: Okay so it was around, my first demonstration that I went to, I think I was about 12 or 13 years old, and it was when the National Front had been allowed to march through the middle of Manningham, which was then a very heavily black/Asian community.

RL: Where did you learn about your politics, where did you get ideas from?

NR: I think that some of that was learnt within my family. I remember having conversations with my elder brother about things not being fair. Seeing stuff on the TV. My Mum had very good social values in terms of being – I would describe it as being fair and nice to everyone, from a very Islamic point of view.

RL: Do you want to say how you got into youth work?

NR: Well – I wanted to save the world [laughs] No basically I think the truth is I wanted to actually do social work because of some of the challenges I’ve faced in my own life. So the first job I got as an apprentice, I actually got in a residential home and I really didn’t like it. I didn’t like the role that I had to play. I saw an apprenticeship with the Youth Service and I think I was 19 years old, 19 or 20 years old, and I’d been involved – through the Asian Youth Movement – I’d been involved in community work and youth work as a kind of very young peer mentor, so yeah.

RL: And what about the LGBT youth groups you’ve helped to set up?

NR: Okay, so when I came into the Youth Service, the apprenticeship thing that I got on, it was the first ever detached project – it was a black project, they employed an Asian guy, a black guy, me and another Pakistani girl to work with black and Asian young people. And working on the streets with young people, it was always like ‘who’s your boyfriend? What’s he called? Blah blah blah blah blah’ and actually I was like you know what I’ve not got a boyfriend I’ve got a girlfriend. And what happened was, young people started coming, so they were all mainly black young women that we were working with, so people started coming out to me, and then I kind of started – I mean, at first – y’know I got a lot of stick, it was like: ‘argh, she’s queer, she’s a gay, she’s a lesbian, blah blah blah’ and all of that, but over time, over years, young people started coming out to me – young black lesbians started coming out to me, and so I created a space for them in terms of groups, drop-ins and stuff. And then there was no work for queer kids per se, so then they used to bring the little, y’know white friends, white queer friends, and male friends, and so then I y’know had a job which I had to do, which was certain targets to meet in terms of working with black young women, which meant then I had very little resources, I had to go and argue out that I wanted more staffing and money to provide a service for this other group, which was queer kids, be they white, black, male, female, whatever at that time, and that proved to be quite a battle at that time, and I would say that was probably like the very early ‘90s, and stuff. But, over time y’know that work has grown and has developed, and so we would have, we’d go away, we’d have residentials, we’d have drop-ins.

I’ve got some magazines which we created which I’m gonna hand in for the archive, and the magazine was called In Your Face, and what it was was that young people – and you’ve gotta remember – I feel a bit embarrassed at people looking at these, that this is pre-social media days – young people couldn’t connect with each other, do y’know? There was no easy way of making contact. So a group of young people decided to put this magazine together and it was literally written on a typewriter, it was literally cut out with a pair of scissors, and it was literally stuck down with glue, and then it was photocopied and then heat-bound. And we sent these magazines out locally, we got a list of queer youth groups within the Yorkshire area, within the North, let’s say, but then we got – we realised there was a demand for the magazine. But anyway, we had articles in it, y’know book reviews, stuff about youth groups, activities that we do – we had the stars, the horoscopes – I think we were quite creative about that. We had groups of young people – none of this was done by adults – I was the only worker who was literally making sure that it was printed, but the whole contents and stuff was led and run by young people, and obviously I had to kind of overlook it to make sure that everything that went in it was okay from the point of view of, y’know, safeguarding, let’s say. So, yeah, they set up a pen pal scheme, and people from other countries would subscribe to it. What else can I say about the youth groups?

So yeah, so then what happened was, I think it was in 1997, basically I ended up living in hiding because a group – my job was not just to work with young queer people, my job was to work – my actual job was to work with young black people, and young queer people came to me because I work in a very inclusive manner, and so my work kind of grew, and so I had this huge section of cis-gendered, heterosexual, sort of community that I worked with, and it was this community that didn’t like what I was doing. My belief is, right, it was this community that didn’t like what I was doing, and it was – I don’t believe it was really anything to do with the queer work that I was doing, there was another huge section of work that I was doing that was about working with young black women who were facing domestic violence, mental torture, physical, sexual abuse, all this kind of stuff, so I was working with them and supporting them and it was this area of work that I think was being challenged, and that I was being targeted as an example of, y’know, don’t kind of support this group of women because – anyway, that’s my theory. So basically what they did was, I will never forget this date: on the 14th of February 1997 we started getting loads of phone calls at my office going ‘oh y’know, we wanna kill Norrina, we wanna speak to Norrina, queer, lesbian, blah blah blah’. Now this would happen nearly once every three or four months, it was nothing new, right, so to us it was nothing new, but on this particular afternoon – there were three different phone lines in that office, one of them was as two different organisations, it was just absolute non-stop, and we were like ‘okay, what have I – I’ve done nothing different’, nothing new had happened and then a friend of mine, a colleague, phoned me from the Pakistani Community Centre and he said ‘have you seen what’s going on?’ and I went ‘no, but our phone lines aren’t stopping’. And what he said to me was that there had been a leaflet had been distributed around most of the mosques in Bradford on a Friday afternoon, after afternoon prayers. One side was in English, one side was in Urdu, and it basically said something like ‘Norrina Rashid is a lesbian, she’s sexually abusing our young sisters, turning them into lesbians, making them leave home, etc. etc. We demand that Bradford Council sack her’.

So for, initially I – work said I couldn’t go to work and I said ‘I am coming to work, y’know you’re not stopping me’, so I went to work – my bosses allowed me to go to work, but for two weeks they didn’t allow me out of the office – I literally came to the office and I just had to stay in the office, and then kind of y’know we started getting phone calls, post, stuff chucked at the windows, and then the following – I think it was two weeks after – they released another leaflet, did the same thing, and they went ‘right, so the Council have chosen not to sack her, here’s her home telephone number and address’. So, and they released my car registration and everything and all that stuff, so for two weeks I – my bosses were like ‘you’re leaving and you’re going to live in hiding’ and I’m like ‘no I’m not’. And so for two weeks I lived in my house with 24-hour police security guards and CCTV and all that kinda stuff. And then eventually, like two – a couple of weeks after that, then I left because things were just getting ridiculous, y’know, sort of the house was being attacked, the car was being attacked, blah blah blah. So I did move, I stopped work. I went to live in hiding. And when I look back at it, I kind of think ‘y’know what, that were the biggest mistake I made’. I should’ve stayed in my house – it was better to have had my legs broken than to have gone through the mental breakdown that I did. So I was off work for two years.

My family were absolutely excellent. I couldn’t have lived without my family, my partner, and there were a bunch of colleagues at work that set up a campaign that was called CHIN – Challenge Homophobic Injustice Now. They went to Union meetings, they kept it alive, they went nationally – I mean, it was just an ongoing thing. When – I was very angry at the time, but when I reflect back – I have somewhere I think at home this whole catalogue of letters from the Council, from me, from the Unions, from whatever, trying to catalogue this whole event because I felt that I shouldn’t have been taken off work in the first instance. And, but anyway, long story short, when I look back at it now, and I read some of the stuff that went on I – in that moment I felt that Bradford Council behaved really, really badly and that I was shat on from a great height, but like now that I’m well and can look back and look at it objectively, I think what happened was that it was institutionalised racism – they wanted to take care of me, they didn’t know how, and they didn’t know what to do, and their decisions were very, very poor. And I was the one that suffered at the end of it all, I mean I was – they tried to move me out of the Youth Service and I refused, I kind of refused.

I had this white guy, Steve Brentley was my Union rep, he was brilliant, he was excellent, and on our final – they were trying to get me back to work, cos like, over time things kind of, settled down – having said this, with things like y’know like billboards got pasted at Eid with ‘kill Norrina Rashid’ – when I actually did return back to work, it was like the whole of the youth department were briefed that if anybody rings up for me, you don’t tell them where I am, you just take my – you take their number and ask them and I will call them. But what I learnt, like, a couple of years after I’d been back at work was that the HR department got loads of calls asking for me, wanting to know where I was, and stuff, so it was like Steve, yeah my Union rep, he said to me that I had a choice, he was like – when they tried to move me out of the Youth Service, he said ‘look, you can just file for constructive dismissal, just leave, let them sack you’ – cos they said that if I didn’t accept the job they wanted, that they wanted me to do, i.e. move from the Youth Service, they had no alternative but to terminate my contract – those were the words. And Steve said to me that I would win that case, hands down, and he said – but what he wanted me to know was that it would take two or three years to go through, and I’d already been off work for two years, and I was already mentally not in a good place. And so I talked with my family and myself, and y’know and Steve and decided that, y’know what, I’m gonna go back, but he tried to wing me into a different kind of job, which he did do successfully, and I just took the decision to not challenge it because I – y’know, like I say, bad decisions were made, but I don’t believe, I felt that they were targeting me, but I just think that they were crap at what they were doing, sort of thing, so do y’know what I mean?

RL: So you got back into working with the youth groups and there’s some that you’ve set up relatively recently, can you say a bit about those?

NR: So basically I came back to youth work. I ran loads of apprentices. They tried to keep me away from the Asian community, that was the deal that they got me in but kept me away from the Asian community. So over the years I managed lots of different teams and I’ve always been in the background of trying to keep the queer work. And then around five years ago there were massive, massive cuts made. There were like 40% cuts made in Youth Service and if – I felt I had enough on my plate with trying to deal with my own day job, but I felt that if I didn’t do something then all the queer work was gonna disappear. So basically I kind of like rebuilt the queer work, so the Sound group, which I original set up continued, and it was still running. I got it growing, I put resources into it, I put work into it, I put effort into it, and, so that’s the Sound youth group, which is for LGB and T young people, and one thing that we’ve always known, that I’ve always known is that there’s always been a need for a queer black space, and what’s interesting is that, y’know, that all this work that I’ve done actually set up and started with queer black people, and then when I moved away from it – the black queer worker – you end up with, it becomes predominantly white, so I find that in itself an interesting thing.

So anyway, so I came back, I fronted the group for about a year, but I just didn’t have the capacity, so I put some workers in, and then times are changing as well, and we start noticing that, do y’know what – 50% of the group, at least, are trans young people. We had young people that were quite young, y’know, young people that were 12, 13, that were identifying as trans. We had young people, 12, 13, that are trying to figure out whether they are gay or not. We had older young people that were very confident in their gender identity and their sexuality, which we thought, God, y’know there needs to be a space for trans young people so I partnered a very good organisation – Equity Organisation – I partnered them, I worked with a worker there, I made contact with Gendered Intelligence in London who I’d come across, and I liked the training they did. I got them into Bradford, I got them to train all the full-time youth workers. This is a shortened version anyway. So anyway, in the end we got a bit of funding, we did this-that-and-the-other and we’ve set up Phoenix, which is a trans youth group. It’s been running I think for nearly three years now. We run it in partnership with Equity [Equity Partnership in Bradford], and it’s excellent, y’know the number of – I can’t tell you off the top of my head, but we have made contact in these years with – I would say – over 200 young people. And young people come from like Halifax, Huddersfield, Wakefield, Leeds because there isn’t a trans youth space of such. Actually there is in Leeds as well, but we do get young people from all over the region.

Parallel to all of this, it’s niggling away at me that I have felt that, in Bradford, I’m your lone black queer worker, knowing that there needs to be a space for black queer kids. And y’know, as any typical youth worker, we grow our young people, so I’d been in a position where I’d had a couple of people who were like, 22, 23 who I’d known since they were 13, 14, that are gay – queer black people who had grown up through my youth service, who had volunteered for me on wider projects. I’d met a couple of workers from Manchester. I knew Sabah from London, from Gendered Intelligence. So basically I had a conversation with Sabah and Chloe – Chloe’s from the Proud Trust in Manchester, Sabah’s from Gendered Intelligence in London – and I talked to them about, we need to organise a networking day, and I want it in the North, for queer workers who work with young people, and let’s see what comes up, because they need black queer workers to support them. So anyway, we had this day, and I think it was about two years ago, and about ten people turned up. I’d say I think three or four of those weren’t relevant in that they did work with young people, but they were like solicitors that worked – and we phrased it wrong, we should’ve said that work in a youth kind of setting with young people.

So anyway, we decided three years ago to have a residential for young black kids, because we all knew of young people that we were working with locally. Manchester actually had its own group, Fusion, that was very difficult to keep alive. In London they were facing the same thing, everything’s predominantly white, y’know, and the other thing I think to say about this from my perspective is that, looking at the other services around in different cities – I’m the old git, right, I’m the one that’s been here for ages, I’m the manager, I’m the one with the power, I’m the one with the budget, I’m the one that decides what happens now. Whereas, some of my partners, they’re kind of like, what, mid-20s, right so they’re still like me 30 years ago, like ‘boss can I do this, boss can I do that?’ And your boss is nearly always a white institution in one form or another. They call me Grandma, actually [laughs] they do, the young people and some of the workers, and I just thought – at first I thought ‘hmmm’, now I think ‘respect, no worry’, I don’t have a problem, call me what you want, Grandma, Grandpa, I could go with that.

So anyway, getting back to it: so the workers, we decided that we’d run this residential and see what happened. So basically we went away to the Lakes somewhere. There was London, Manchester and Bradford, and I think we took about 30 young people – all our staff were black, all our kids were black, and the only white people in sight were our, the place where we stayed, the cooks, the outdoor pursuits instructors, and I have to say they were absolutely bloody brilliant. They were really, really nervous, y’know with the blackness of it all, the queerness of it all, the trans of it all, but they were brilliant, and the kids had such a fantastic time and it was such a moving experience to have that many, y’know – none of us, myself included – I have ever once, only been on a black queer residential and that was, I don’t know, maybe 30 years ago, when I was really young, when there wasn’t really that much health and safety so I just could get two of my mates to come on the residential with me, and we had about 12 kids from Bradford that we took. But it’s like, y’know now you need to this, that – and do y’know what I mean?

So it’s the first time really to be in a group of like 50 black queer people, and for the kids it was absolutely amazing, so what’s developed – that now happens every year, and it’s like now we have London, Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham and Bradford, so as you can see, in the last three years we’ve got two more cities on board. And again, Birmingham, y’know you look at Birmingham and you think ‘wow, look at the population of black people there’ and there’s no, nothing specifically for black queer kids. So, we call ourselves Colours actually, that’s what our group’s called, Colours, right, so you’ll have Colours Bradford or whatever. And we’re going to have Colours Youthfest, which is gonna be in Birmingham, in February next year [2019]. So we decided to kind of try and make our mark, hoping that the white queers of Birmingham will think: ‘Wow! This is happening in our city, should we support it? Should we put some resources into getting black queer workers to develop this work with those young people?’

Erm, what else can I say? So our Phoenix youth group is growing and fantastic as well, but it’s like everything, it’s like so we’ve still got, in Bradford if you bring it back to Bradford we’ve got Phoenix, we’ve got Sound, and we’re just starting an Unders group, kids under the age of 15. And that is like for – anybody can, any queer kid can go to those, but we always recognise that y’know, for black queer kids there’s another element in there. But yeah, we do what we can, really.

RL: So you’ve talked about those groups, what actually takes place in those groups, so how will you help and how are you supporting those children and teenagers?

NR: OK, so a lot of the groups, our workers in the groups are very experienced in terms – they’re all qualified youth workers for a start – the full-time workers are all qualified youth workers, so we – there’s two kind of I think two main themes in there. The first is emotional wellbeing, so there’s a lot of work activities that we do around emotional wellbeing, some of those can be looking at how to manage coming out, they can look at handling difficult situations, they can look at kind of, a lot of young people that self-harm, looking at support. So, some of them are done directly through discussion, but it’s not just discussion, there’s like activities that help with the discussion, that facilitate the discussion. Some of them are done through dance and drama, some of them are done through play. There’s a lot of fun, we just go out, like with Phoenix, it’s like we’ll go out, go shopping, but clothes or just window shop or take photos because it’s so hard for young people just to go shopping. So one element, as I was saying, is about emotional wellbeing, in a very broad sense.

The other side, which is key in all of this, is about voice and influence, so it’s about power, right. So it’s about young people’s rights, so we’re very, very strong in developing the voice of young queers. And the beauty of it is that because we’re tied up with the Council, right, there’s all this stuff going on, consultations, this-that-and-the-other to do with school, to do with housing, to do with employment, unemployment, mental health, this-that-and-the-other – we always make sure that young queer kids participate in that conversation. We take them to meet politicians, to present reports, to talk about – we invite politicians to our things so that they can have that direct conversation, and through all of that what we’re doing is building up the confidence of young queer people to stand up for themselves and speak out.

So, it sounds really boring, right, but actually we do loads and loads of fun stuff! But this is what I mean, it’s like my workers, my team is very skilled and so all that stuff goes on in and amongst creativity, fun, going on residentials – I mean, like this – a new thing that we’re just doing, we’ve – I have done, through my work, I can’t even list the number of international exchanges; I’ve been to Jamaica, Pakistan, Ghana, Malta, Poland, Germany, all over the world, right, with young people. There is nearly always queer young people that participate. Most of it, the theme is about youth participation, youth voices. My last project was called Let’s Shake Up Democracy, and what was the other one called, Let’s Shake Up Democracy… Oh yeah, Foreign Politic, right? And, as I said, there’s always queer kids involved. And the queer young people always say to me: ‘Can we do a queer thing? Can we just do an exchange?’ And for 33 years I’ve been trying to set up and find a partner and do. Well guess what, right, Erasmus – I don’t know if you know them – right, so Erasmus had – what do they call it? Oh um, Queer Meetings and I thought that just sounds so gay man, it’s not right. So what it was about, oh Queer Partners, Finding Queer Partners. So they had a conference last year for anybody that wanted to set up a queer-on-queer youth exchange, and I was supposed to go, and I went and broke my leg and I couldn’t go, so anyway I sent Phil, so Phil went and the end result of it is that we’re going to be doing an international exchange next August with Iceland and Ireland and the focus is peer mentoring in schools. So how fabulous is that? Onwards and upwards.

RL: What are your thoughts on what’s going on with the Gender Recognition Act at the moment?

NR: I think it’s really difficult, and it really upsets me, because I’ve got my – I have cis-gendered lesbian friends who just make an assumption that I think the same thing as them, which is that the Gender Recognition Act isn’t necessarily a good thing, and that their space will be invaded by men, they’ll be like men who are pretending to be women, and lots of stuff like that. Now, the thing for me is that I think that there’s been massive, massive struggles in society, y’know, and I just feel that people – people need to have conversation. And we’re in an era where the struggle for queer people has been, it’s been really, really difficult and challenging, and people have had to stand up and be counted, like earlier I talked about when I lived in hiding, it’s like I can either stand up and speak out and be who and what I am, and society’s kind of – the majority of society’s like pushing and oppressive of such minorities. Women – lesbians – feminists – they wouldn’t be in this position now, we can’t live – my feeling is that we cannot live in a space, in these separatist spaces. We need to have open dialogue, and the dialogue’s just not happening. I feel really strongly because I feel that my learning curve has been massive.

I also feel that people – that the starting point that some lesbians are at, it’s not just about their space being invaded, it’s kind of like that these people – y’know, the simple statement of saying that there space isn’t invaded, is the unacceptance that these people are women, that they have decided that a trans woman is identified as being female, it’s kind of like if you look at the journey of trans people, the shit that they have to put up with, it’s that – try and understand, people need to try and understand that once upon a time, they thought that if you were a feminist that you were mentally ill and they wanted to lock you up, and that you also had to get all sorts of medical diagnoses, and if you were gay, if you were homosexual, all this shit went around you. The same thing is happening to trans people. Trans people are now trying to, y’know are standing up and saying ‘actually you know what there’s nothing wrong with us’. Yet why are we saying that actually we need them to be medically certified and proved X, Y and Z? These are the things that I do understand, right, that it can be quite challenging to be in particular spaces when somebody has been maybe through violence or y’know whatever the form of violence or abuse, to have somebody in their safe space who may have a penis, right, and they feel that this is a women-only space, and what a penis represents to them. These are really difficult conversations, and I think they should happen. I don’t think there’s any easy answers, but I think we need to have that conversation, but I think that is the conversation that is not happening.

In our youth group that we run, it’s like we have, we have like – I’m thinking about a particular situation where I have a trans young man who is insisting that he wants to come to this girls’ group and has been going to this girls’ group, and we had a conversation with him about it. He wishes to be referred to as a ‘he’ in the actual group. The cis-gendered young people in the group are like ‘er, what’s that all about?’ But do y’know what we’ve done, we’ve had an open discussion with the group about trans people, about how things are, listen to how they feel they’re members of those groups, and we’ve managed to work it out. So I think there are some things, y’know situations where we do need to kind of have maybe do y’know like different rules or conversation about how things are, like for example, I’ve never come across this but I’ve heard about spas, and they’re like oh yeah if you go into a like women-only spa and you can be all naked and whatever and there’s a penis there and you feel X, Y and Z. And y’know, even that, part of me thinks, y’know what? Do we give power to the penis? Right? It’s a body part, it’s true, it’s a body part, it’s the way I see it. It’s like how do we treat women’s breasts in society, right. Do y’know what, they’re a pair of tits for god’s sake! It’s a body part. We in society have put whatever around it, and in the same way we’ve done that with the penis, and yes, I understand that penises have been used as war weapons, as rape, but do y’know if I wanted to be really provocative, what I would say is that lesbians rape, y’know lesbians who don’t have penises rape men and women.

So, y’know I just think we need to kind of get out of this binary world that we live in, cause if we can undo all of this, can we – the question is, if we did, would we break down the patriarchy? What would be there to pin – you’re like this and you’re like that, and these are the power structures. Isn’t that – do y’know what I mean? It’s a massive, massive debate, and I just think that what I find interesting is that, y’know young people – young people are far more kind of like ‘with it’ in terms of the discussion, more willing to have the discussion. And y’know, it’s like, things I’ve heard some feminist lesbians say is that, y’know, after years and years of fighting for my rights, I don’t want to, y’know, I don’t want to just give up that space, and I’m thinking ‘can you actually hear yourself, right, so there’s a person that you think is a man, that actually says that they are a woman, after years – and so how oppressive are you actually being, how does it all sit?’ And the bottom line is we need to be kinder. We need to be kinder to each other, we need to be kinder to people, it’s the only way that we are gonna resolves things and how society’s gonna change.