By ANDREA POTEET
Growing up, Faisal Alam thought there was no one else like him.
As a devout Muslim in suburban Connecticut, Alam had never heard of anyone else in his religion being gay.
“I almost had to convince myself that if I pray hard enough or become religious enough that these feelings inside of me will somehow go away, that God will take them away,” Alam, who will visit the University of Michigan-Dearborn Jan. 24 to present his program “Hidden Voices: The Lives of LGBT Muslims,” said. “I became very religious in high school and became very involved in the Muslim community. I was organizing camps and conferences for American Muslim youth .”
But being the perfect Muslim didn’t change what Alam had known for most of his life: He was gay, and his religion not only condemned those who were like him, many didn’t even believe they existed.
“You will have strict followers tell you that there’s no such thing as gay Muslims; they don’t exist,” Alam said.” It varies all the way to people who say it’s a test from God and you would have to stay celibate.”
After graduating high school and going off to college, Alam began facing his sexuality head on. Soon, the model Muslim teen was out – and outspoken.
“It was really a shock to a lot of people because here I was, this poster child of my community and all of the sudden I was saying that not only was I gay, but it’s okay to be gay and I’m going to tell the whole world about it,” Alam said. “It was really shocking and traumatic in many different ways.”
But though he was out, Alam still felt on some level that he was alone. So at 19, he set up an email list to search for others like him. As his subscriber list grew, he set up in-person events for the growing numbers of gay Muslims he was finding online. One of those retreats was christened Al-Fatiha, which means “The Beginning,” or “”The Opening.” In 1998, Alam formed an organization with the same name and a mission to spread counseling and resources to Muslims throughout the world grappling with their sexuality. Before it disbanded in 2008, the organization had 800 members in eight U.S. chapters and sister organizations in three countries. Those involved plan to start a similar organization next year.
Alam said the organization was one of the first to start the conversation about homosexuality in Islam on a national level.
“We were really the first organization in the U.S. that brought the issues of Islam and homosexuality out on a national level and really made people alware of the many challenges that LGBT Muslims were facing and how they were quite different than what mainstream LGBT people talk about,” Alam said. “We were dealing with issues of coming out to family and parents who don’t have any conceptions of same-sex relationships. We were dealing with language barriers and income disparities and just the milieu of different (Muslim) cultures that exist within the U.S.”
Alam will highlight many of those challenges during “Hidden Voices,” which he has taken to more than 100 colleges and universities around the world in the past five years.
He said he hopes people leave with a better understanding of Islam and the challenges faced by its LGBT members.
For Alam, those challenges have included being unwelcome in many of the Muslim spaces he used to once call home. On a spiritual “journey,” he has found a few progressive Muslim organizations and has attended their prayer services, but is still weighing his religious options.
“I was able to create spiritual spaces for LGBT Muslims but that was the only time I got to practice my faith,” he said. “So im still on the journey …we’re dealing with 1,400 years of theology that’s against us so there’s still a lot of healing that needs to happen, for me and for a lot of other LGBT Muslims. “