Remember that doctor that jumped from the balcony of his home in London last year? That's him on the right, Nazeem Mahmood. He killed himself at age 34 because his family couldn't accept he was gay. Read his story after the cut...
In the spring of last year, Matthew Ogston and Nazim Mahmood moved into their dream home.
The apartment, on the top floor of a mansion block in north-west London, offered stunning panoramic views of London. Nazim was a doctor who ran three London clinics, Matthew a web designer.
The life Nazim enjoyed seemed a world away from the working-class traditional Muslim community in which he had been raised. It was that world – conservative and closed – that he had left behind for a new life. In their first week in the flat, the two men stood on the balcony as London glittered in front of them. Matthew looked at Nazim and said, “Darling, I think we’ve finally made it.” They both smiled. Four months later, Nazim jumped off the edge of that same balcony to his death. He was 34.
Nazim was 21 when he met Matthew in November 2001. Matthew was at a gay nightclub in Birmingham, when Nazim approached with the words, “Excuse me, may I sit here?” Something about Nazim’s shy demeanour appealed to Matthew. They started talking. “There was an instant connection,” he recalls.
We are in the living room of the apartment. It is more than seven months since Nazim’s death but the condolence cards are still on display. This is the first time Matthew has agreed to talk openly, and during the hours we talk, words tumble and tears flow. It was only minutes after first meeting him that Nazim had said to Matthew: “I’m a Muslim, is that going to be a problem?”
The two were soon inseparable. Matthew was working as a web designer and Nazim was a medical student. Their families did not know they were gay. After a year they bought a house. It had two bedrooms so their families might assume they were just housemates. “We used to have to keep the window blinds in our front room closed so no one would see us,” says Matthew. “When we walked down the street we made sure there was some distance between us just in case a family member of his spotted us together.”
They grew tired of looking over their shoulders and wanted to stop hiding, so when Nazim was offered a job at a London hospital in 2004 they seized the opportunity to move to the capital.
They would be far from their families, in a city where they knew no one and could fashion a new life together. “In London we felt free,” Matthew says. “We didn’t have to worry about bumping into our parents.”
They made friends and created a social world that reflected the people they were. Of necessity, this new life was founded on sadness and deceptions. Nazim was leading a double life: his family had barely met Matthew and thought he was merely an investor in their son’s flat. On the rare occasions they visited London, Matthew had to spend the night in a bed and breakfast. “We had to ‘de-gay’ the house,” says Matthew. “That meant putting pictures of Kylie into the cupboard, Cher too – and any photo or memento that suggested a relationship had to go.”
Nazim didn’t like to talk about his family. He had left Birmingham and felt that to talk about pain or sadness or guilt would have infected the new life they had created in London – he was resigned to playing the dutiful Muslim boy to his family in Birmingham when, in fact, he was a happily gay man in London.
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of their first meeting, Matthew and Nazim threw a party at a London club. Nazim was now a GP as well as running his own business – three London clinics that offered Botox treatments – and Matthew was doing well working for a software company. During the party, Matthew asked the DJ to lower the music. He led Nazim into the DJ booth, got down on one knee and proposed. “He looked at me and his face was just lit up,” says Matthew.
The following year, Matthew came out to his parents, who were loving and accepting of both of them, but for Nazim, whose family were culturally conservative Muslims, the only strategy was to keep the solid borderlines between the old life in Birmingham and the new life in London.
On the last Saturday of July 2014, Nazim and Matthew drove north to Birmingham. It was a strange time: a close friend had died and they had to be back in London on the Monday for his memorial service. It was also the weekend of Eid, the Muslim festival.
When he arrived, Nazim’s family were annoyed that he was late for the Eid celebrations and planned to leave early for the memorial. Things were said – Matthew does not know what, exactly – that left Nazim distraught. “I am a good person,” Nazim said, weeping. “Why can’t people accept me for who I am?” “Is it because you like men?” his mother had asked him, out of the blue. And Nazim, who had spent years hiding and pretending, to protect his relationship with Matthew, did something he had never expected to do: on the spur of the moment, he told them everything.
Nazim was in a state of shock as he drove back to London. It emerged at the inquest in December 2014 that he had told his mother he was gay and had been in a relationship with a man for 13 years, and planned to marry him. Her response was to tell Nazim to consult a psychiatrist with a view to being “cured”.
The coroner, Mary Hassell, ruled that Nazeem killed himself. She said: “It seems incredible that a young man with so much going for him could have taken his own life. But what I’ve heard is that he had one great sadness which was the difficulty his family had in accepting his sexuality.”
Nazim had never planned to reveal his sexuality and found it hard to process his mother’s extreme reaction.
The couple went to the service for their dead friend that evening and a second ceremony the following day, but Matthew recalls Nazim being distant, but trying to put on a brave face. On Tuesday evening, Nazim helped with paperwork for the new job Matthew would start the following morning and then they retired to bed.
In the office next day, Matthew got a text from his sister, saying simply “call me now”. It was early evening on Wednesday 30 July. He rang her and was told to go home immediately; she would not say why. It couldn’t be Nazim – they had talked at lunchtime and Nazim had called again at just after 3pm and then twice after 5pm, but it was Matthew’s first day in a new office and he had been too busy in meetings to take the calls, though he had tried to call Nazim back. Had there been a bomb scare at the flat?
As he left West Hampstead station Matthew began to run. “It was like I was running for my life,” he recalls.
As he speaks, he is clutching himself tightly, right hand gripping his biceps. “I was pushing people out of the way and as I came round the corner I saw flashing blue lights and police cordon tape, then I saw this red blanket on the floor covering something up.”
He began to scream. He was bundled into a police car as friends started to show up, faces grey with shock.
Matthew arrived at Handsworth cemetery early on the day of Nazim’s funeral. In the aftermath of the death, Matthew had met Nazim’s family but the encounters were tense and uncomfortable. It appears that they did not want to have to deal with what they considered the shame of having had a gay son, and a gay son with a non-Muslim lover. Out of respect for Nazim’s mother’s plea not to make a scene at Nazim’s burial, Matthew agreed not to ask for a major role at the funeral, which was due to take place at 3.30pm.
With less than half an hour to go, nobody else had arrived and Matthew began to worry. In the distance he could see a burial taking place. “I went over and asked one of the officials where Nazim was being buried,” he said. “She said, ‘I’m really sorry – they have already buried him.’”
He ran out and saw Nazim’s family pouring dirt on to the coffin. “I was so angry,” Matthew tells me, tears streaming down his face, “I could not move. My arms and legs were just clenched. I felt completely betrayed.”
Nazim’s family had apparently given him the wrong time for the funeral.
He returned to London feeling desperately low. “I wanted to end it all,” he says quietly. “Follow Naz and leap off the balcony.”
His friends ensured he always had at least three people with him round the clock. “Every time I tried to get to the edge of the balcony, my friends would stop me. I couldn’t find a reason to stay alive.”
Then, in his distress, Matthew recalls: “I heard Naz’s voice.”
He is convinced that Nazim spoke to him, telling him to set up a foundation to help other young gay men and women driven to depression because of religious homophobia. He had a reason to go on at last.
The Naz and Matt Foundation was announced at a special service held in London for Nazim, two weeks after his funeral. The service featured contributions from a gay Muslim, gay Hindu, a gay vicar, a trainee Rabbi and a l£sb!an interfaith minister. Matthew has been seeing a psychotherapist but he doubts any counsellor can help to liberate him from the questions that haunt him. “I don’t have answers to the questions I have and I can’t find peace of mind because there are no answers.”
Who does Matthew blame for Nazim’s death? “I blame a community that is so closed minded to allow these bigoted views that make families believe that their honour is more important than loving their children,” he says. “The respect and honour of the family is more important than the happiness of the children they gave birth to. How sick is that?”