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PASSAGES Gay activist Ifti Nasim dies
Posted July 24, 2011
by Erica Demarest
2011-07-27

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Iftikhar "Ifti" Nasim, a Pakistani-born poet, radio host and gay activist, died July 22 at the age of 64 following a sudden illness.

Best known for his award-winning poetry and over-the-top style, Nasim maintained a vivid presence in Chicago's LGBT scene for the past 35 years. He founded Sangat Chicago, a South Asian LGBT organization, and was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1996.

"In a world where race, racial identity, sexual identity and immigration status all matter," said Kareem Khubchandani, 28, who considered Nasim a friend, mentor and role model, " [ Nasim ] would always talk about the changes he had made, and then make me really aware of the fact that things aren't perfect, things have to be done, things don't happen on their own."

Nasim, who identified as gay and Muslim, began his career as an LGBT activist in the United States in 1974, the year he moved to Chicago. In addition to working on behalf of immigrants, Muslims, South Asians and eventually AIDS victims, he frequently wrote and performed poetry. Nasim saw two collections published in his lifetime: Narman ( 1994 ) and Myrmecophile ( 2010 ) .

His work is considered the only poetry to express gay longings and desires in the Urdu language; it has garnered both enthusiastic praise and hateful criticism, and even earned Nasim several death threats through the years. Despite any controversy surrounding the books, many young Pakistanis considered them inspirational; Narman was responsible for inspiring the narmani, or honest poetry, movement in the country.

The son of a journalist, Nasim was born in Lyallpu ( now Faisalabad ) , Pakistan, Sept. 15, 1946. He grew up poor and often worked odd jobs to help support the family. When he was 21 years old, Nasim's parents pushed him toward an arranged marriage—a common practice in the predominantly Muslim country.

"I did not want to live a double life," Nasim told the Chicago Tribune in 2001. He had known he was gay since he was a teenager and had already had several sexual experiences with other men—always under a pseudonym. "I did not want to leave a wife at home and go out and pick up guys. I thought that was a dishonest way of living."

Hoping to escape the marriage, Nasim—who had recently earned a law degree from Punjab University in Lahore—convinced his father to fund a three-month trip to the United States to further his law studies. "I read an article in Life magazine, which said that the United States was the place for gays to be in," Nasim told the Thaindian News in 2008.

He soon relocated to Detroit and enrolled at Wayne State University. The months turned into years and, in 1974, Nasim moved to Chicago. He instantly fell in love with the city and its thriving disco scene.

"At first I was afraid to go into a gay bar," he told the Chicago Tribune, "but I went in. They were the nicest people on the planet Earth. I said, 'What the heck? Why haven't I been here before?' It was a non-stop party. I loved it."

It wasn't all fun and games, though. Nasim said he witnessed hate crimes and robberies at the hands of homophobic people. "I couldn't believe my ears and eyes," he said. "What had happened to the Life magazine story? But the gay liberation movement was on, and I joined."

When he wasn't working full-time selling cars at Loeber Motors ( Nasim was known for driving a gold Mercedes ) or writing poetry in English, Urdu and Punjabi, Nasim worked assiduously as an activist. He focused his energy primarily on Muslim, immigrant and South Asian queer communities, and worked to help those who were persecuted in other countries gain asylum in America.

In 1986, he founded Sangat Chicago, a South Asian LGBT organization that takes its name from the Sanskrit word for togetherness. "If you are a Muslim and a gay, you are a minority within a minority," Nasim said. He frequently spoke out against war, homophobia and social injustice in Pakistan and other Muslim countries.

With a penchant for ostentatious jewelry, fur coats and drag get-ups, Nasim was anything but a wallflower. The combination of his dramatic ensembles and uninhibited honesty drew attention everywhere he went, and it wasn't always positive. While eating in a Rogers Park restaurant in March 2001, Nasim was reportedly attacked by a Muslim man who called Nasim an "abomination" and threatened him with a knife.

" [ Nasim ] would show up to an event or a meeting—to anything—wearing a fur coat and a sequined beret," Khubchandani said. "He'd make an impression before he'd even speak up. And I think that was part of his way of making an impact, of getting people to see him and pay attention to him, by making a spectacle and being glamorous and being amazing well before he even spoke up."

Once the AIDS epidemic began in the 1980s, Nasim used his considerable flair to educate people about HIV/AIDS prevention. In addition, he regularly hosted a weekly radio show called Radio Sargam, and his books of poetry have become part of the curriculum at Santa Clara University and Truman College.

"The LGBT community in Chicago—not just the South Asian and Muslim communities—has greatly benefited from his activism," Khubchandani said.

Nasim is survived by his partner of 28 years. Nasim was buried July 23 in the Rosehill Cemetery, 5800 N. Ravenswood Ave., following Muslim traditions.

See more about Nasim on the Chicago Gay History website at www.chicagogayhistory.com/biography.html.


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