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What LGBTQ Muslims think about the Birmingham protests against lessons on same sex relationships

"If we'd been taught about LGBTQ relationships at school, I don't think I'd have been as depressed or suicidal as an adult."

"Nobody understood me, they thought there was something wrong with me for being gay."

Ferhan Khan and Afshan D’souza-Lodhi both identify as queer, but also as Muslims.

Like many LGBTQ Muslims, they have both felt conflicted by their sexuality and their religion.

In recent weeks, protesters have gathered outside Anderton Park Primary School in Birmingham.

The protesters, the majority of whom are Muslim parents, are demanding lessons on LGBTQ relationships are halted, saying children are "too young" to understand what they are being taught through storybooks.

On both sides of the protests, there are strong feelings about whether children should be taught about same sex relationships.

ITV News has spoken to LGBTQ Muslims about their experiences growing up and why they feel education around same sex relationships is important.

  • "I just want the protesters to know that education empowers children - but nothing they learn is going to change who they love"

"When I first went to see the protests I felt very afraid and intimidated,” says Ferhan Khan.

The London-based activist first travelled to see what was happening at Anderton Park after joining one of the WhatsApp groups set up by those organising the demonstrations.

In the group, they say they saw organisers sending a variety of homophobic messages: "People where share stories about LGBTQ people and asking others if they wanted their children to end up like that.

"One of the stories was about Britain’s first gay Muslim wedding – they were nice stories, but surrounded by people saying they didn’t what their kids to have an education around that."

Attending the protests brought back memories for Ferhan of growing up in Glasgow, facing homophobia from those within his family and community.

"Nobody understood me, they thought there was something wrong with me for being gay.

"Growing up, my father was despairing about how to deal with the gay issue – there was violence and there was the distinct fear of ostracisation.

"I was told if I didn’t follow the rules of being straight and marrying a woman I’d go to hell and burn for all of eternity.

"At primary school the messages were reinforced. Homosexuality was condemned as being the end of days. I ask myself now why was it okay to say that but not say it’s going to be gay?"

Based on those experiences, Ferhan decided to confront his demons and speak to protesters in Birmingham directly.

"I was actually surprised when I first started talking to people. I realised the protesters aren't evil, they were welcoming and willing to talk.

"Many of them said the basis of their argument was they didn't want their children being sexualised at a young age.

"There was a genuine desire to build a bridge - they just didn't want to lose control of their children's minds.

"Some of them said it would be fine in their teenage years, but four is too young.

"Personally I don't think four is too young. Equipping children at any age with information that is in the public domain can only help. It's going to stamp out homophobia from a very early age.

"In my personal experience, if I'd had that education I would have had a much more compassionate narrative for myself.

"I would have been more empowered to be who I am. I would have been able to achieve much more as a person and not be affected by negative self-esteem against myself.

"I know it's not possible to change your sexuality - it is what it is. I tried to change mine to become straight, you can't do it, I know it's not possible. I just want the protesters to know that education empowers children - but nothing they learn is going to change who they love.

"It's so important, attacks like the one against the couple on the bus in Camden are getting worse. We're living in a much more polarised world. Part of that is because people are having the confidence to come out and be themselves - we need to educate everyone that that's okay."

  • "I was reading I was wrong and against nature - and that led to me trying to take my life"

Activist and magazine editor Afshan, 27, from Manchester says: "I always knew I was queer, but didn’t have a word for it.

"I felt different to other people.

"I didn't start to process it when until I was about 14, around the same time I was introduced to the word 'bisexual'."

Alongside her work in the arts, Afshan is a strong advocate for more representation in society - including in the classroom.

As a teenager struggling to make sense of the world around her, Afshan turned to the internet for answers.

What she found would shock her.

"I was told I was a sinner.

"I was reading how homosexuality and Islam don't go together - it really affected my mental health.

"To be told my sexuality conflicted with my religion, and that made me a sinner in the eyes of God, was hard.

"I was reading I was wrong and against nature - and that led to me trying to take my life."

In the years that followed, those online readings left Afshan conflicted.

Pushing her away from religion, but at the same time wanting to embrace both parts of her identity.

"When I started at university, I joined some LGBTQ clubs and started to meet more people like me.

"We would go out clubbing - but I still felt my queer identity and my Muslim faith couldn't go together.

"I've worn a headscarf since I was six years old.

"At university I'd wear my headscarf during the day, but take it off at night to go out to gay clubs.

"It was my way of differentiating between my two sides - I didn't feel I could wear them at the same time in the same place and be the opposite to what people expected."

When a gunman opened fire at an LGBTQ nightclub in Florida, killing 49 and wounding 53, the world recoiled in horror.

The shooting opened up a new range of issues for Afshan, putting her in a difficult position of having to defend her sexuality and her religion in the same place and at the same time.

"It was really difficult to explain to people - I didn't feel accepted in queer places because there was a lot of Islamophobia.

"I didn't feel accepted in Islamic places because there was so much homophobia.

"I felt so conflicted."

Afshan says her struggles are weighted on the fact there was, and still is, very little representation of LGBTQ people who are Muslim.

"A real turning point for me was seeing a poster with an Asian man wearing a wedding dress - I realised there are more people out there like me.

"It made me think it wasn't some strange western thing, I hadn't been sexualised - I was just me."

Given the opportunity to speak to those behind the protests in Birmingham, Afshan said she would try to explain to parents the importance of representation at all levels and for all ages.

"Seeing representation of people in life humanises people - and shows people it's okay to be gay.

"It's not an easy thing - it's never going to be easy - but you need someone who can show the way, everything is down to interpretation."

Now confident and comfortable with who she is, she told ITV News: "It's my personal journey. People with homophobic attitudes aren't going to be there on judgement day - it's going to be a conversation between me and my God.

"We are judged by our actions, not other people's.

"Being told I'm sinful really annoys me.

"I'm told I'm in the wrong, but other people don't think about their own wrongdoing.

"If you want to talk about the Koran saying homosexuality is wrong, then let's also have a conversation about music and alcohol."