Naz and Matt Foundation: Five years on, charity is saving lives marred by homophobia
- Credit: Nigel Sutton
Five years ago, Dr Nazim Mahmood was driven to suicide by his family’s reaction to discovering his sexuality.
Since then, through charity the Naz and Matt Foundation (N&MF), Naz's fiance has been confronting homophobia within religious communities and supporting those affected by it.
Reflecting on an at times difficult half-decade and marking the 18th anniversary of meeting Naz, Matt Mahmood-Ogston, 41, told the Ham&High how a fractious year - with protests from religious parents at schools in Birmingham and around the country exposing how difficult it can be to be young, gay and brought up in a religious household - had seen the charity expand its reach, but also challenges to his own mental health.
"When we started this charity," said Matt, "I had all these big ideas about what to do, but my dad said: 'Now, you need to listen, the charity should be going by what people come to us for support about.' For us, we listen to their stories and the specific challenges they face."
This year, the N&MF has launched an event - Out and Proud Parents Day, which will now take place yearly on the anniversary of Naz's death, July 30. It has held talks in schools and with the police, worked in Birmingham to combat the homophobia of religious parents who have protested inclusive sex and relationships education, and even been filming a documentary called My God, I'm Queer, the trailer for which was shown at the Saatchi Gallery.
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Alongside hosting conferences and working with LGBTQI+ groups such as Imaan - the oldest Muslim LGBTQI+ group in the country - Matt's calendar has been pretty packed.
He said: "This year has been a really important one for us. Before I started writing a list, it had seemed quite quiet. But we have been doing so much!"
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He added the charity's aims remain the same as they did five years ago, and he felt its success in helping others to come out to religious parents "absolutely connects" to what he had hoped to achieve.
Matt added: "The most important thing - our real challenge - is about making a real difference to people. We hold regular support groups in London for LGBTQI+ individuals but we have also invited religious parents to come too.
"We have to think what can we do that makes a big impact. The problem with only providing support is that, if you do that, you are never going to change things. The critical thing is it's the parents that hold the solution.
"If you get a religious leader who is supportive of LGBTQI+ rights that's one thing, but if the parents are not, those young people will still be at risk. But, if you have parents who are on side, then that child can be safe."
This was part of the rationale behind Out and Proud Parents Day.
Matt continued: "We needed to mark that day in a way which made a difference to people. We do all manner of things around about how to try to change how they think."
The documentary, set for a 2020 release, is also focused on normalising same-sex relationships in religious communities.
Matt exlained. "It follows the lives of a number of different individuals from a similar religious background to Naz. It's about trying to answer the question: 'If we had more positive role models from similar religious backgrounds, would that have made a difference to Naz's parents?'
"I think it really would have. We have had people come to us to say thank you. People say: 'We have used your story to come out to our parents.'"
After Naz's death, the tragic story of a bright young Harley Street doctor driven to death by homophobia was a compelling one, not least in the pages of this newspaper. But Matt was initially "really concerned" about being public about his relationship.
"I didn't know how it would go," he said. "But people started to message me saying: 'I thought I was the only one'. I thought: if people are coming forward on their own, surely we have to make even more noise? There are tens of thousands of people in situations [like that] around the UK.
"And when we are alone it's much harder. That's fact. One of the most important things is that you can see other people and find information."
In March, when protests from conservative religious figures - including parents - from a number of faiths outside of schools in Birmingham who were teaching about same-sex relationships made national headlines, Matt was among a group of "LGBTQI+ folk and educators" who met some of the protesters in an effort to understand their concerns.
The group witnessed homophobic abuse during protests and reported hate crime to the police. Matt said: "We took a decision not to do a counter protest - protesting outside of schools was not acceptable. It was personal to me, especially because of one of the schools is at the end of the road where Naz grew up. He ran away from Birmingham because of the views in that area. For me, to go back and see that was really quite damaging for my mental health."
There have been other dark moments. "We had abuse for doing a school talk this year," said Matt. "It was really horrible. It was a parent - they took great exception to the fact I had come into their school to talk about the impact of religious homophobia and bullying.
"It was just around the time of the Birmingham protests really getting going. It was really personal message about me and Naz. Saying Naz took his own life so clearly the love between us wasn't strong enough. When it came up on social media I didn't know how to process it."
Making progress into institutions like the police and schools - Matt has spoken to both cops and teachers this year - helps, but the key, he said is the parents: "Most of the work we do has to be around religious parents".
Mental health as a campaigner
Matt spoke of the trauma of returning to Birmingham for the protests. Afterwards, he suffered a panic attack.
"I probably learned the hard way. In April I did have a panic or anxiety attack.
"It was a build up. It was around the time of the protests, it knocked me out, I'm still not 100 per cent."
He said campaigning on such a personal topic had been difficult. "People doing campaigning like this, it does have a toll on their mental health. To be honest, the only way you can do it is to create a real barrier around yourself and not let it affect you.
"But then when somebody contacts us saying they need your help, you do it."
The help the charity provides ranges widely. Matt said: "Sometimes they want a coffee, a meeting, a telephone call, but half of our work is helping people who are trying to find asylum in the UK because they have had death threats if they go back to where they're from.
"They might be thinking about coming out. Others might come to us about being forced to come out." Matt gave an example. "A young man was at home in a family environment. He was on Facebook. He went upstairs to the toilet, but he had forgotten to log out, revealing his messages [and his sexuality]. In the space of an hour he went from living in a family home to running around with a bag - running for his life."
The N&MF were able to help fund this man to find a safe place to stay, and to get clothes for interviews.
But Matt added: "We sadly don't have the finances to do that very often."
The N&MF are soon releasing a book for religious parents called My God, My Child is LGBTQI+. You can find out more and support the charity at nazandmattfoundation.org/donate/