By ANDREA POTEET
News out of France of Europe’s first openly-gay mosque in the last weeks of 2012 again brought to the forefront two points rarely heard in the mainstream media: There are gay Muslims, and they are struggling to find inclusion in a culture that has traditionally cast them aside.
Imam Daayiee Abdullah, of of Masjid An-Nur Al-Isslah, a progressive prayer center in Washington D.C., knows this firsthand. In addition to counseling gay Muslims for the past 12 years, the Detroit native is one of two gay imams known in the religion worldwide.
He said the Quran never condemns homosexuality, using the term for “mate” more often than for those for husband or wife, and most homophobia within the community comes from culture and misinterpretations of the Quran.
“Everyone belongs to the group and if one individual does something that’s not promoting the group as being the proper kind of family or tribal group, it stands out and the person and the family group then becomes suspect or open to being ridiculed,” Abdullah said. “So a lot of it has to do with the culture versus the actual aspects of being gay. ”
Raised Baptist, Abdullah converted to Islam while studying at the University of Beijing in the ’80s after studying law at Georgetown University. He had already been out for 12 years and said his orientation never gave him pause about joining the religion. Since then, he said he has faced only occasional backlash from more conservative Muslims.
” I’d get hate emails, sometimes I’d get a phone call with someone challenging me … and I didn’t pay any attention at all,” he said. “I even was at a mosque one time and several of the men came at me like they were going to physically intimidate me and I told them ‘the issue here is that you can believe what you want, I believe what I want, but I want you to understand that I am a lawyer and if you put your hands on me, I will send you to jail. If you don’t like the laws here in the U.S. , there are planes leaving every day to take you to those places where people think like that, and may I suggest you get on it and we’ll ship your stuff.’ They mumble and grumble, but they leave me alone.”
But through the Internet, he said a slow progressive shift toward LGBT issues is taking place in the Muslim and Arab communities as people begin to connect with others like them, feel less isolated and provide education about the issues to broader audiences.
On the forefront of this movement is Faisal Alam, a Pakistani-American Muslim who began one of the first email lists for LGBT Muslims in the late ’90s. It soon turned into Al-Fatiha, which provided resources to gay Muslims until it disbanded in 2008. Alam now tours the country speaking about homosexuality and Islam and said he has seen a drastic shift in attitude in the community toward homosexuality fueled by a better educated second generation of American Muslims.
“They are more willing to engage in the conversation,” he said. “They may not necessarily agree with what I have to say, but as I’ve traveled around the country, what I’m finding is that younger people at colleges and universities are much more open to dialogue. They understand that Islam is also under a microscope so they aren’t going to be overtly condemning or hateful, which was not the case several years ago where I would get people who would have very vocal opposition to me coming on campus.”
But that’s not the case everywhere. He said Dearborn, in particular, with its insular, more conservative Muslim and Arab populations, has been slower to come to more progressive views.
“The dialogue has been much more difficult to engage in,” Alam said of Dearborn. “When I came there eight years ago the LGBT Muslims who were there did not want to come to a gathering I was at. I do think that is changing a little bit with organizations like (Southeastern Michigan-based LGBT Muslim group) Al-Gamea started … it’s shifting a little bit in terms of social spaces that are being created, but in terms of talking about religion there’s still a lot of fear and condemnation around that.”
Executive Director of Al-Gamea Christiano Ramazzotti agreed that Dearborn’s Muslim and Arab populations have been harder to influence.
“People who live in Dearborn, they come from small towns in Arabic countries, small tiny towns, ” he said. “They come here and they generally tie themselves around the culture and the religion and it makes it harder for people to get out of the box. ”
For second-generation Arab Americans, the culture of the countries their parents came from instills fear in them, he said.
“They hear from their parents and close cousins that being gay is a sin and in some Arabic countries, it’s punishment from God,” he said. “They hear back home that people who are gay are being killed in countries like Iran, ‘honor killings,’ they call it. So for people to hear that all the time, it’s so hard to come out in public.”
Ramazzotti said many Muslims in the area are afraid to associate themselves with groups like Al-Gamea for fear that they will be seen as gay. The group has even lost board members who didn’t want their names in print associated with a LGBT group.
“We have a wonderful event we do every week, but we have to be very careful, to the point where I avoid a lot of advertisements,” he said. “If I’m gonna be that openly gay, the Arab people are gonna be afraid to be around me because if someone saw my picture in a magazine from the Arab community and saw me with their cousin or neighbor, they are gonna say ‘oh my God, he was talking to that guy who was in the magazine; your son is gay, your neighbor is gay.'”
For many, coming out as gay can mean losing everything, since traditionally, Arab American young people live with their parents until they are married and frequently work in family-owned businesses.
“We see it all the time where the person was in college, their family kicked them out, stopped paying for their college, and some of them worked in the family business, and they will end up having nothing,” he said.
From its monthly Arabian Nights social event, Al-Gamea began last year pooling proceeds to help support gay Muslims whose parents kicked them out. Last year, they helped pay rent for eight men and women who lost their homes after coming out.
But more needs to be done to combat the deeper cultural problems faced by LGBT Muslims. Ideas range from campaigns featuring middle-of-the road Muslim allies to open dialogues on Quran teaching versus cultural views of homosexuality. Most, like Ramazzotti, agree that the culture is becoming more progressive in regards to LGBT people, slowly but surely.
“It’s changing because people are more coming out to themselves and more gatherings are happening and this is what’s helping people come out,” Ramazzotti said. “But it’s moving too slow. I’m really happy that I see people out at gay bars. I go out and there’s a lot of gay Arabs around anywhere near Detroit, not just a handful of people, a group of people.”
State Rep. Rashida Tlaib, an Arab-American Mulsim (D-Detroit) who has spoken out in favor of equal rights for LGBT people, said she has not received any backlash from the Muslim community for her stance as a legislative ally. She said she has seen a significant shift toward openness toward LGBT issues within the community.
“I think with the younger generation, those that are in college now, I find there is a huge shift in opinion about LGBT issues,” she said. “I’m not saying their parents feel the same way, but growing up in America as a Muslim, I’ve seen a different shift. I’m the oldest of 14, so I kind of get a sense of what’s going on in the various generations because of my siblings and I can tell you, my sister who is 17 and my two other sisters who are 21 and 22 are very much in support of the work I’ve been doing on LGBT issues and are very proud of it.”
For Abdullah, the answers lie in the Quran, which stresses diversity of God’s creations. Once imams around the country begin teaching lessons from the Quran for what they say and not using it to back up their own thoughts, the religion will become more inclusive, he said.
“That’s how I hope Islam will eventually be taught, so that people are not thrown away because they’re different, ” he said. “Even the Quran says difference is a blessing to our community and once we truly take that and collate that very deeply into our souls and minds, we’ll see that some things are not up to us to decide upon and we leave it to Allah to do that.”