Gay Collective, a new digital magazine for the gay community, interviewed Founder of Naz and Matt Foundation, Matthew Mahmood-Ogston about why the Foundation was setup, its day to day challenges and plans for the future.
“At the moment we spend lots of time one to one with individuals, which is extremely important, but our challenge is how we scale it with incredibly limited resources. How do we reach more people at once? How can we do more? There isn’t an easy answer for this just yet. But I’d hope that within the next few years that we’re able to find one.”
The Gay Collective Interview
On July 30th 2014 Matt Mahmood-Ogston’s life completely changed forever. His fiancé of thirteen years Naz Mahmood had taken his own life, just two days after coming out to his conservative Muslim family. Matt went on the set up the Naz and Matt Foundation in Naz’s honour. The Foundation empowers and supports LGBTQI individuals, their friends and family to work towards resolving challenges linked to sexuality or gender identity, particularly where religion has a pronounced influence. To find out more about Matt and the Foundation read our full interview with him below, and to donate to this incredibly worthy cause click here.
What was life like for you and Naz?
It was incredible. Every day felt like an adventure. We were living in London at the time, Naz was a GP as well as running his own business with three London clinics, whilst I was working in the technology start up space. I had only very recently come out to my parents who were lovely and accepting. Naz is my soulmate, we wanted to spend our lifetime together and we planned to get married.
In late July whilst visiting Birmingham Naz was confronted about this sexuality by this family. Two days later he passed away. How did you cope in the aftermath?
I was, and still am, completely devastated. There was an extremely high risk of me committing suicide back then. I wanted to follow him, to be with him. At the time, I was put on a police suicide watch list as I was such a danger to myself. I needed to have family and friends around me 24/7 to monitor and protect me to ensure that I was unable to end my own life. Now and again gaps would appear in my protection and I remember waiting for them in anticipation so that I could act upon my thoughts.
I told everyone around me that I need to step downstairs for some fresh air. I disappeared for two days without a trace. Nobody heard from me. Police searched for me. Eventually I returned.
Shortly after the gap I had been waiting for appeared as I sat crouched on the balcony of the apartment that I had shared with Naz. My intention was to take my own life. But as I prepared myself to get up, at the very moment my legs started to lift me up, I heard Naz’s voice. It was extremely clear and it was definitely his. He told me to stop. He wanted to ask me to do something, to give me a reason to stay and not follow him. And because he was asking me he knew I would do it. He told me that he needed me to set up a group, a foundation or something to help people in a similar situation to us. In that moment he gave me a reason to stay.
After Naz finished talking instead of walking towards the edge of the balcony I walked in the opposite direction, went in the flat and closed the door. I locked it and I cried and cried and cried. I told every single person I could possibly tell because if I didn’t I know I would have thought that my mind was playing tricks on me.
I heard Naz’s voice. It was extremely clear and it was definitely his. He told me to stop. He wanted to ask me to do something, to give me a reason to stay and not follow him.
Naz was buried shortly after by his family without me being there – deliberately. So I held a special service for him in London – for everyone who loved him and who knew the real Naz – where I announced the Foundation. At the time I had no idea what it was going to do, how I would run it or who would be involved. But soon after the press started to get wind of the story and the people began reaching out offering their help and thanking me for speaking out on the relationship between religion and sexuality.
There was a clear need for some kind of support. There was then and there still is now. And although we’re only a small team of trustees and volunteers, sometimes being heard is all that’s needed. Knowing that there other people out there like you can give so much strength.
What would you say has been your proudest moment since launching the Foundation?
In 2015 it was approaching Naz’s birthday, his first since passing away. Nothing was going to help me get through the fact that I’d be spending his birthday without him. In the two days I went missing shortly after his death, I just walked. Walked and walked and walked. And as much as it caused stress and anxiety to my loved ones, it was what I needed to do and it really helped. So because I knew that helped me I decided that I would walk from London (from the cemetery where Naz wanted to be buried) to Birmingham (where he was buried by his family). There’s 130 miles between the two (actually it was 150 miles we walked after my bad map reading).
One of the first friends I told, Louise, immediately replied “well you don’t think you’re going to walk on your own do you? I’m going to walk every single mile with you”. Another friend proposed setting up a sponsorship page, I thought that it would be a bit pointless – who would sponsor me to walk?! To my surprise we surpassed our £500 target in 3 hours. As more and more donations came in more opportunities came to mind. One of which was an opening and closing party, one in London and one in Birmingham but both in Naz’s honour as we used to love clubbing. We raised £12,000 in 8 days, and we estimate that around 10 million people watched, listened to or read about the journey thanks to the local, national, international TV, radio, social media and newspaper coverage.
The other, isn’t necessarily a moment but it’s an area of our work. We are now starting to work with more and more secondary schools who reach out to us. Usually these schools have a strong religious bias and it’s often evident upon our arrival. Typically we play an 11 minute film about love between two men of different backgrounds, faiths and upbringings. The film talks about endless love, unconditional love, suicide, bullying and the challenges of being born gay and living in a religious community. But we always leave these sessions with a message of hope and things to think about upon returning to their respective classrooms. Seeing their faces, reading student and teacher comments and their impact makes me proud of what we’re doing and gives me a hope that we can positively make a difference.
What have the last few years been like?
We’re seeing more people from similar situations. There has also been a huge increase in demand for our services as the Foundation has become more well-known. One the best pieces of advice I’ve received is “listen, listen, listen, listen” and that’s a lot of what we do. Especially to try and understand the situation that the people who come to us are in. We’re slowly starting to reach out and roll out community support forums. But it is and has been challenging.
I would say our two biggest challenges are funding first and foremost because the Foundation is a charity funded solely by public donations, and secondly being able to provide all the help to all of the people that contact us whilst somehow balancing our day jobs to pay the bills.
We’re seeing more people from similar situations
Where would you like to see the Foundation in three to five years?
The three main things for us are – Increase our presence and impact in closed communities, closer relationships with parents as well as their children, and scaling it all out. Whilst visiting schools helps shape the future, parents can help shape today. We’re really keen to do a lot more work with parents, especially those in communities where British TV and media may not be consumed. Our mission station is to “never let religion, any religion come between the unconditional love between a parent and a child”. Of course there will always be external influences – family, culture, religious texts, a community leader and so on. But we want to get to a point where they’re all secondary to the unconditional love of a parent for their child. When such factors become a barrier they can swiftly result in irreversible consequences.
Lastly we would like to scale what we do to be able to work with a greater number of families. At the moment we spend lots of time one to one with individuals, which is extremely important, but our challenge is how we scale it with incredibly limited resources. How do we reach more people at once? How can we do more? There isn’t an easy answer for this just yet. But I’d hope that within the next few years that we’re able to find one.
Matt set up the Naz and Matt Foundation in memory of his soulmate and fiancé, Naz, who passed away two days after being confronted about his sexuality by his religious parents. It was the first time that they knew their son was gay, in a relationship with Matt for 13 years and that they were planning to get married.