As Muslim Drag Queens risk their lives, one man on death row fights to keep his

Two very different programmes broadcast this week - Muslim Drag Queens on C4 and the Sky Radio Podcast Another Dead Man Walking - look at issues of life and death with varying degrees of success

“You’ve got to be big. You’ve got to be bold. And you’ve got to have balls of steel.” Those are the bombastic opening lines of Channel 4’s Muslim Drag Queens, which despite the in-your-face title is actually a delicately handled fly-on-the-wall documentary about the most niche of British communities.

The big, bold and ballsy words are spoken by the waifish Asif Quraishi, a leading figure in the gay Asian or “Gaysian” community. Quraishi was born into a conservative British Pakistani family and began performing as a drag act (stage name Asifa Lahore) four years ago.

Homosexuality is widely forbidden within Islam, so the Muslim drag scene is an underground one; yet Quraishi’s (educated) guess is that between 100-150 Muslim drag queens live in Britain. The documentary follows him, and two other gay Muslim men who dare to do drag.

Muslim Drag Queens comes from the First Cut stable – Channel 4’s talent fostering scheme – but this particular director Marcus Plowright applies a sensitivity to his subject matter that has been lacking on previous First Cut shock-jock shows such Benefits Street, Dogging Tales and My Baggy Body. Plowright adeptly balances the sequins and the serious.


We switch from 32-year-old Quraishi and his deliciously bitchy make-up artist slagging off a rookie drag queen for not taping himself before he squeezes into a cocktail dress, to Quraishi lying on his bed quietly reading the hate mail that threatens to kill him and harm his family.

Drag queens spearheaded the gay rights movement in the US in the 1960s, kicking off with the Stonewall riots in New York. Just the same way punks were about more than Mohawks, and hippie culture was bigger than bellbottoms, drag is about a lot more than fishnets and miming to Cher.

And so, when Asifa Lahore goes on stage dressed in enough pan stick foundation to cover a shed and a burqa (before stripping down to a figure- hugging outfit) it’s not about sex, it’s about subversion. Men stuffing their bras are every bit as brave as women burning theirs.

Subtly, Plowright also points to the problems within the gay drag scene. Imran is a 28-year-old gay Muslim and has no shortage of suitors (largely married Muslim men), but his lonely story is the hardest to watch.

“The scene is very shallow, no one is sincere . . . it’s very hard to find true love,” he explains. Later, he hints that for him, drag has stopped being about freedom of expression. “It’s a cover up, like being a clown . . . ”

Narrated by the wonderfully RP yet roguish voice of Ian McKellen, not a huge amount happens in the 45-minute-long show, which is understandable considering the small pool of just three subjects who have put their necks on the line by allowing themselves be filmed. Yet it makes for a controversial and challenging watch, and if you can get to the end without crying, you've done better than me.

An appointment with death
Hot on the heels of the engrossing Serial comes a new true-story five-part podcast from Sky News Radio (nope, me neither). Another Dead Man Walking  chronicles the real-life, real-time story of death-row inmate Richard Glossip.

His story is even more compelling than that of Serial’s Adnan Syed because the clock is literally ticking (Glossip is due to be put to death by lethal injection on September 16th in the US state of Oklahoma).

For eight months, Sky News has been following the case of Glossip, who has always denied arranging or paying for the murder of his boss back in 1997.
In the first 15-minute instalment  Belfast-born journalist Ian Woods, who has 30 years experience in news under his belt, introduces the case and "explains" how he came across it.

And there’s the problem. Unlike Serial’s narrator Sarah Koenig, Woods doesn’t show, he tells. Part one is more like listening back to an unedited recording from a journalist’s Dictaphone than a podcast. Despite Sky’s “commitment to multi-platform coverage”, Another Dead Man Walking feels like an uncomfortable pairing of old-school reportage methods and new media. The expertise in aural storytelling that has made This American Life (the creators of Serial) so popular is missing and instead we have a riveting subject, but a monotone, wooden delivery.

Surely someone as skilled as Woods would have done a better service to his subject, and himself, by sticking to what he does best (TV) rather than jumping on a bandwagon.
There is of course another issue lurking in the shadows here. Both Another Dead Man Waking and Serial deal with real-life cases. Despite Serial's unmatched popularity (five million downloads and counting) it faced backlash for being voyeuristic and exploitative.

The question of far we should all go in making the news as desirable, as sensational or as addictive as a soap opera in order to attract huge audiences is yet to be answered.
And while this podcast doesn't do justice to Glossip, or his story, there's still hope that the state of Oklahoma will.