‘When you are a person of colour in Ireland people don’t see you as gay’
New to the Parish: Pradeep Mahadeshwar arrived from India via the UK in 2012
Pradeep Mahadeshwar in Milltown, Dublin. ‘It’s disheartening to say but most of my racist experiences have been in gay spaces,’ he says. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
When Pradeep Mahadeshwar was growing up in Mumbai he regularly saw members of the city’s transgender and intersex community – known as hijra – in the streets around his home and school.
This “third gender” community, as they are described in India, intrigued Mahadeshwar who realised at an early age he was gay.
“Hijras are all over India but it’s particularly big in Bombay [renamed Mumbai in 1995] and they are more visible there. There is no shaming in Bombay for being who you are, it’s so busy no one has time for shaming others. Of course there are underlying prejudices but generally there is plenty of space for everyone.”
I didn’t play football or cricket in the summer. I wasn’t masculine. I liked to read and make art and cook and help my mum clean the house
The son of an artist and community educationalist, Mahadeshwar was exposed to politics and literature from an early age and studied art at university. However, as a young boy with a strong stammer, Mahadeshwar found his childhood very challenging. “I was bullied all through school, there was a lot of shame around stammering. Nobody cared about children with stammers back then, there was no help from the school.”
Mahadeshwar’s sexuality also made him a target for bullies. “I didn’t play football or cricket in the summer. I wasn’t masculine. I liked to read and make art and cook and help my mum clean the house. Indian society is quite male dominant and there are certain rules you’re supposed to follow. But I rejected everything. The bullying made me stronger.”
Mahadeshwar never formally “came out” as gay but became more comfortable about his sexuality at college as his circle of friends grew. Unfortunately, he did not get the same acceptance from his family and with Indian society’s consistent pressures and expectations, he eventually decided to leave the country and start a new life abroad. He moved to the United Kingdom with all his belongings packed into one suitcase to study a master’s in fine art and “build a life from zero”.
“I wasn’t new to London, I had visited a few times and that supported my decision to move there. In Soho you’re exposed to so many people. I loved the vibrancy of its gay culture. It was a beautiful time.”
While in London, Mahadeshwar started dating an Irish man and in 2012 he moved to Dublin to be with him. “My first impression was Dublin was cute and nice but when I went into bars at that time it was very white. Everything came down to your accent and your colour. I felt it was hard to make friends although my boyfriend’s family were amazing and supportive.”
Dublin FrontRunners was an opportunity to meet people outside bars where the lights are dark and everyone comes with an agenda of hooking up. With the running I could meet real Irish queer people in broad daylight
When his relationship ended, Mahadeshwar was unable to move back to the UK because of his immigration status, and so he stayed in Dublin. Trying to meet new people in Irish gay bars was difficult and he found many men stereotyped him because of his appearance.
“When you are a person of colour in Ireland people don’t see you as a gay person. They don’t see you as someone worth going on a date with or kissing casually in a bar. And being from southeast Asia, there are so many stereotypes. Indians are seen as working in IT or nurses, Pakistanis are seen as taxi drivers and running fast-food joints. People put you in boxes.”
“It’s hard to build meaningful relationships if you are an immigrant, it took me more than eight years to develop friendships.”
He was working as a freelance designer when he secured a position as art director at Groupon, a job he says “changed my life”. “You don’t have to hide who you are at Groupon, and I got pride from that. They hire people from all around the world; it’s an inspiring place.”
He also joined Dublin FrontRunners running club where he met other members of the city’s LGBTQ community. “It club was an opportunity to meet people outside bars where the lights are dark and everyone comes with an agenda of hooking up. With the running I could meet real Irish queer people in broad daylight.”
In 2015, he campaigned for a “Yes” vote in the same sex-marriage referendum and knocked on more than 100 doors in Glasnevin and Ballymun. While he has fond memories of celebrating the result of the vote, the anniversary celebration the following year was somewhat different. “My friends had decided to go to a gay bar to celebrate but the doorman wouldn’t let me in because he said I ‘didn’t look gay’. He told me I looked new to Dublin and asked whether I knew what the bar was. He said that people like me would bother people inside and make drama. That made me so angry, what does it matter what I look like? I’m gay.”
People don’t come here just to work and learn; they bring their whole culture with them, and in the process our society becomes more mature as we’re exposed to different realities
Racial stereotyping is an everyday occurrence for most people of colour on the Dublin gay scene, says Mahadeshwar. He’s found people openly state on dating app profiles that they’re “not into Asians” or “no Brazilians/Latinos please”. Some accounts specify “only Irish”, he says.
Latino gay men, particularly Brazilians, are seen as “glamorous, fun and sexually desirable” while Asian or black African gay men are regularly considered “unsexy” or “unattractive”, he adds.
Mahadeshwar has witnessed members of the gay community develop friendships, go on dates or engage in casual hookups based on “skin colour, class and geographical stereotypes” but then “express outrage about racism on social media”. “It’s hypocrisy. The gay community needs to show a little bit of empathy for each other. The online and offline Dublin gay scene could be more inclusive.”
Mahadeshwar has found life during the pandemic difficult but says social isolation is not new for him. “Some of my Irish friends say they miss meeting people but for me that was always hard, Covid or no Covid.”
He recently started contributing to GCN (Gay Community News), writing articles about Asian queer people’s experience of Ireland’s LGBTQ community.
“I think there’s a rich culture of immigrants here but we don’t give them a chance to showcase themselves. People don’t come here just to work and learn; they bring their whole culture with them, and in the process our society becomes more mature as we’re exposed to different realities.”
He has also made a short film during the pandemic about how social isolation is affecting sex and intimacy.
Despite the challenges he’s faced since moving here, Mahadeshwar says he’s very happy in Dublin and recently became an Irish citizen. “It’s disheartening to say but most of my racist experiences have been in gay spaces. Otherwise, I think this is a beautiful country. I definitely have a sense of home here.”