Epic new comedy about lesbian choir wants to do for queer women what It’s a Sin did for gay men

The cast of The Ministry of Lesbian Affairs sitting on chairs, holding songbooks and singing

Iman Qureshi’s new comedy, The Ministry of Lesbian Affairs, promises to explore “deeper questions of lesbian visibility”.

Qureshi was inspired to write her play, which is playing at the Soho Theatre until 11 June, after seeing an uptick in projects about gay men – but not about lesbians.

“Gay men have made amazing traction and visibility with shows like It’s a Sin, which was so widely watched [that it broke records],” she tells PinkNews.

“And it wasn’t just gay men that were watching it. I really felt the full country come together to watch this show about a moment in history that impacted gay men so profoundly. I don’t see the same happening for queer women on as big a scale. I don’t see a Queer Eye or RuPaul for lesbians.”

The Ministry of Lesbian Affairs directly confronts this lack of representation. It follow a group of women in a queer choir, exploring the idea of visibility, the lack of community spaces specifically for lesbians, and the importance of inclusion within them.

Back row standing L-R Lara Sawalha, Fanta Barrie, Mariah Louca. Front sitting L-R Claudia Jolly, Kibong Tanji, Kiruna Stamell.

Back row standing L-R Lara Sawalha, Fanta Barrie, Mariah Louca. Front sitting L-R Claudia Jolly, Kibong Tanji, Kiruna Stamell. (Helen Murray)

“If a community is visible, it means that community can tell its own stories on a mainstream platform,” Qureshi explains.

“Queer women have loads to offer the world, like our version of feminism or body positivity. Yet they are some of the most ridiculed and some of the most depressed, and [the play shows that] there’s so much violence done to those bodies by the world.”

PinkNews spoke to Qureshi about the play, queer spaces and being pigeonholed.

PinkNews: How does the play explore safe spaces? In what ways does trans inclusion intersect with the need for safe spaces for queer women of colour?

Iman Qureshi: They absolutely intersect. We can’t talk about ending homophobia, ending transphobia, ending misogyny, ending racism, without also ending the patriarchy. These things are so connected, and power is so centred around male whiteness.

In The Ministry of Lesbian Affairs, there is a trans woman, Brig (Mariah Louca), and a butch, Black lesbian, Lori (Kibong Tanji). I’ve deliberately created moments for them to connect and identify with each other, because I think butch, Black lesbians and trans women are two of the most oppressed groups in the world. I wanted to show people that the fight for their freedoms are two sides of the same coin.

There’s this argument about transness erasing butch lesbians or all butch lesbians being forced to transition. It’s nonsense. No one I’ve ever met has been pressured or forced in that regard.

It’s really sad that particularly within lesbian communities, there is factionalism. One of my primary aims with this play from the start has been to go some distance to try to heal and bridge that divide, and really show people that the struggle is all of ours.

(Helen Murray)

In the play, Connie (Shuna Snow, RSC) briefly makes a point about why she doesn’t drink. When considering spaces for queer women, how important is it for these to be focused on something other than alcohol?

It’s so important. I know British culture is alcohol-focused, but there’s also a lot of addiction in queer communities. Even if it’s not addictive drinking, there is a hiding in alcohol. When I first started uni, we’d go out and all my friends would drink, but I wouldn’t. I would connect with people, see their vulnerable side, only the next day, they’d have forgotten it all because it would have been in the moment where they were hammered. So then I felt robbed of that moment of connection with a person.

Particularly with queer people, there’s a struggle to let people in. Alcohol becomes a crutch in those spaces. I just really wish that we didn’t have to do that.

Your first play, The Funeral Director, focuses on a Muslim woman who is struggling with her sexuality. Do you ever feel like you’re pigeonholed in terms of what you’re expected to create because of your identity as a queer, South Asian, Muslim woman?

Big time. I feel such a tremendous responsibility to the communities I represent, particularly South Asian communities, whose visibility is often negative. I have been very privileged to be given this platform, and I want to redress that balance. But that also can be really suffocating, because then I’m not writing for myself. I’m writing for a racist audience, or I’m writing for a community who I feel don’t have a voice. I’m trying to give them a voice, but also I’m not entirely from that community.

I don’t know whether that’s the right thing to do, and I constantly struggle with that. With The Ministry of Lesbian Affairs, I just really wanted to break free from all of these expectations and just purely satisfy myself.

(Helen Murray)

I have faced industry pressure. I feel like I’m the brown commission and so they want a brown play out of me. But actually, I can write anything. And it gets you thinking – why do white people get to write all the other plays, and I have to write the brown plays? White people are never writing plays about white supremacy, so why do I have to write plays about ISIS and arranged marriage?

With The Ministry of Lesbian Affairs, I just wanted to say that I can write anything I want to. But there is a Muslim character in it. Dina (Lara Sawalha) is Middle Eastern, navigating her closeted lesbian identity whilst being married to a man. It’s only a small subplot, but it’s there. I want to remind people of the tunnel vision we can get about LGBT rights in this country, forgetting that there is a much broader world out there.

We need solidarity and to keep fighting the fight for the rest of the world as well, in an intersectional way. The play is a comedy, but it’s also punctured by moments of fear or sadness or poignancy.

The Funeral Director featured a Muslim woman, Ayesha (Aryana Ramkhalawon) who runs a funeral home with her husband, Zayd (Maanuv Thiara). The play explores how they refuse to do a funeral for a gay Muslim man who has taken his own life. How do you distinguish between and balance stereotypes about the level of tolerance in Muslim communities with the reality of being part of that community?

I’m so conscious of the slurs that Muslim men particularly experience in the world. They’re seen as oppressors and tyrants and killers. I have two brothers and a father and they’re three very loving, gentle, kind men. They’re understanding, but with blind spots, like everyone has. Through the character of Zayd in The Funeral Director, I really wanted to show a character who is loving and was initially really open to doing that funeral.

It’s only when he starts to realise his wife’s sexuality that he becomes more hardline and rigid in his views. But it’s because his heart is broken and he’s losing the love of his life, not because he’s intolerant.

I wanted to show the complexity of where those views come from. In the play, the funeral home is suddenly under attack from right-wing media. That attack and the vilification of Muslims I think pushes people further into their silos.

When you shout at people, ridicule them and tell them they’re backward, they’re not going to get on board with you. And actually that does more damage in terms of increasing that divide, rather than bringing people in.

I’m really proud of my first play. I wrote it with my parents in mind – they’re both really religious, and when they came to see it, they were profoundly moved.

There is often a case made in TV, movies and theatre that an actor’s lived experience should match that of the character they’re portraying. For example, queer characters should be played by queer actors. Do you agree with this?

A lot of actors aren’t out. A lot of queer actors aren’t comfortable with playing queer roles. It feels too close and too personal. And I don’t want to speak for any of the actors in our cast in terms of their sexualities, because that’s not my right.

Sometimes I see value in straight actors taking on queer roles. When Brokeback Mountain came out, for example, we had Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal being gorgeous, gay cowboys. They were doing the queer community a service by creating that film when other queer actors couldn’t. They were using their power and their privilege at that time. I think you can also say, well, they’re erasing queer actors, but the good that film did, the steps that film took to make the next queer film easier, I think outweigh the erasure of queer actors in that moment.

To be quite transparent, we found it very difficult to find queer actors of colour when casting queer roles, because a) it was very hard to know whether they were queer, as people don’t always tell their agents, and b) some actors just didn’t want to be out. And I feel like as a creator, I need to respect that and work with that.

(Helen Murray)

So with something like sexuality, I see nuance. But it’s different with bodies. I don’t think an able-bodied actor should play a disabled character over a disabled actor, because a disabled actor may not have the privilege to play an able-bodied character. Whereas I think someone who is queer, but not out, can still play non-queer parts.

There’s something about the embodiment of certain things like disability, body types, transness and race, which feels like it is more important for those roles to be played by those actors. Whereas sexuality feels different and more fluid.

I really hate when skinny actresses put on a fat suit to put on weight. When actors consider a marginalised identity a costume, and then they take it off and are applauded for that role – there’s something grotesque about it for me. When cis men like Eddie Redmayne [who has since called starring in The Danish Girl “a mistake”] or Jared Leto put on a dress to play trans women and then take the dress off and walk down the red carpet and win their award – it does so much damage in the real world. It reinforces these tropes of transness or fatness being a part to play, and then that person can return to their beautiful body in the world and not face any of the suffering or injustice done to that body.

Do you think your work is political?

I would say it’s deeply political – disguised as a comedy, but yes.

Is that intentional?

It is intentionally political. I always set out to write a very serious play. I didn’t think it would be as funny as it is, which is nice. I remember when Soho Theatre originally wrote the blurb for the play as being a musical comedy, and I was unsure if that fit.

But it absolutely is now I’ve seen audiences respond to it. I very much believe that people believe in feelings, not facts. You can present people with all the facts in their world, but they will still believe what they feel is true rather than what they’re presented with.

So if we change how people feel, we can change the world, right? If you make people laugh, if you make people cry, if you move people, if you enable people to empathise with others – that’s how you create political change. So that’s what I aim to do.

The Ministry of Lesbian Affairs plays at the Soho Theatre for five weeks, until 11 June.