As a gay, Arab American Muslim, it was scary for Hussein Ayoub to be so religious as a young man and at the same time be something that is damned by God. But how does he choose being gay over his religion?
“I didn’t. I suppressed my feelings,” said Ayoub, who immersed himself in his faith and hoped to pray away the gay.
He came to the U.S. from Lebanon when he was 3 years old.
“I actually don’t know anything but America. I just happened to be more inclined to learn about my history and learn my language and my culture more than some immigrants,” he said, noting that his family is not religious at all.
Yet Ayoub gave lectures at the mosque, he worked as a tutor at Islamic camps, he taught the Quran and attended school wearing Islamic Thobes like religious leaders do. All the while listening to his circle of friends at the time talk negatively about gay men.
“They would say things like, ‘Send them to Iran and let them get hanged’ or ‘If that was my brother, I would be so disgusted. He wouldn’t exist to me anymore.’ Hearing someone you love say that destroys you,” said Ayoub.
Around the age of 18, he grew more and more depressed in his Dearborn community. He was fearful of the idea that people like him can be sent back to their homelands to be tortured, beheaded and buried in unholy land.
“We can’t come out because our families are so abusive verbally and emotionally,” said Ayoub. Religion did not help nor did the long nights he spent alone crying.
“I knew I had to try. I didn’t know if I was gay, but I wouldn’t know if I didn’t try. I would joke around with my friends and say things like, ‘He’s such a cute man,'” said Ayoub, who slowly started spending less time with his religious friends. “But this isn’t a joke. It’s getting really serious. I’m truly having feelings for my guy friends.”
So he acted on them.
“June 5, 2015 was the day that I finally went out on a date with a man and that’s when I knew I have feelings for men because that four hour date with him was by far the greatest four hours ever,” said Ayoub. He went on another date a few days later and was overwhelmed by “how good this felt.” That feeling continued when Ayoub went to his first Arabian Nights event at Menjos in Detroit, which celebrates 15 years on Saturday with DJ Andrew and Middle-Eastern Princess Samantha Divine.
“I have never felt so much pride in being myself while I was there. I loved the atmosphere. I even saw four or five friends from high school there – Lebanese, Iraqi, Pakistani and Yemen men and women – not just me. I am not the only one who exists,” he said.
Al Gamea Gives Meaning to Arabian Nights
Arabian Nights is sponsored by Al Gamea, a group formed in 2006 to address the growing needs of local gay Middle-Eastern Americans. In 2009 it became a non-profit organization founded by Christiano Ramazzotti who opened up his home to host gatherings and perform outreach. The goal was to find out where this community was hiding. Eventually, they outgrew the space and moved it to Craig Covey’s house. The longtime activist and politician served as the first openly-gay mayor of Ferndale.
Working in the LGBT community for many years, and also in the field of HIV education and prevention, Covey had made sustained efforts to reach and organize the gay Latino, Arabic, and Asian communities.
“I worked on this not only because we needed to reach these groups with health information, but because I have always believed that diversity and inclusion were important and desirable,” he told BTL.
With support from the state health department they used surveys, community outreach techniques, popular opinion leaders and business owners to learn about the community and reach them in a safe and supportive way. “We had a lot of success, and this resulting success story is one I am really proud of, and it certainly can be and has been used as a model,” he said.
Arabian Nights outgrew Covey’s house too so they moved their event out of the shadows and into places like Q-Bar and Club 9 in Ferndale. They also gathered for a short time at Gigi’s and the Malebox in Detroit.
“In the beginning it was just a party to be more visible in the community,” said Ramazzotti, who co-produces the event with his husband David Ponsart and Tony Eljallad, vice president of Al Gamea. As this inspired more people to come out, the greater the need became to protect each other and keep each other safe. Ramazzotti began using the event to fundraise for Al Gamea, which established an Emergency Shelter Assistance Program for Middle-Eastern LGBT people who have been ousted by their families and from their communities.
“In July of 2015, someone told my mother that I was gay and all hell broke loose,” said Ayoub. “I was able to push away the gay accusation because of how religious I was, but by January 2016 the tension between my mother and I had gotten so bad and she decided that she no longer wanted me to live in her house because ‘a gay man does not belong in my house. God’s wrath is upon this household because you’re gay.'”
Since then, he has been living with a roommate who was also displaced.
When something like this happens, Ramazzotti said, “We offer first month’s rent and deposit for an apartment. Some people ask us for food. Just recently we approved somebody who was kicked out of his home. He had enough money to move into an apartment but he had no food, bed, anything. So we’re taking care of him.”
A Voice for the LGBT Middle-Eastern Community
In June 2016, the weekend of Motor City Pride, Ayoub woke up to news of the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando.
“That shook me like crazy. This could have been me. Suppressing my feelings. Keeping it hidden. I was feeling thousands of emotions. It was very shocking. Someone taking my religion and killing people in my religion’s name. That’s not what my God taught me as a devout Muslim. I would never think about hurting someone else.”
So he posted a Facebook message that said, “As a gay, Arab American Muslim, I do not condone this at all.”
Ayoub decided he no longer wanted to live in the closet.
“I knew I had to be a voice for Arab Muslims who are gay and they had to have a voice for themselves,” he said. “I was immediately ostracized by family overseas, some of them whom I have never even met before or seen or heard of in the last 15 years. The death threats from my family and my father in particular, my friends and Islamic community who I loved and cherished so much here in Dearborn also turned their back on me and sent me many hateful and hurtful messages online and to my phone.”
Although some progress has been made, Ayoub said, “This is not an issue that will go away or that Arabian Nights alone will solve. There is so much to talk about and so much to do. The Arabic community just doesn’t want to do it. Being Arabic and gay is something that is so taboo. Just bringing up the subject for discussion is difficult. We can’t even talk about it. People in my culture are so concerned about what other people think, it blinds them.”
Part of the solution, he said, is that more LGBT Middle-Eastern Americans have to come out.
“There is also a very large Iraqi Chaldean gay community and they also remain in the closet out of fear of their community. The hatred towards gays is not just an Islamic, Christian, or Arabic issue. It is a Middle Eastern cultural issue as a whole. Chaldeans who are not Muslim or Arab are also killed for being gay. Even Persian men and women who are gay face hangings in Iran and Afghanistan and they are killed and beheaded in Saudi Arabia.”
By being more visible, Ayoub hopes more conversations among community leaders will be unavoidable and perhaps second generation Arabs and Chaldeans will feel more comfortable going against the conservative customs and beliefs held by their elders who emigrated from Middle Eastern countries to the U.S.
“My mother and I are close friends now and after some dialogue and patient conversation between the two of us she now has a more open mind about gay men and women,” said Ayoub, adding that Arabian Nights is a good place to be authentic and seek out much-needed support.
He added, “The sense of community you feel when you see people there who speak your language, are of your own heritage, culture and sexuality – celebrating who we are – immigrants, proud of being Arabic, proud of being gay. The pride they have – Tony, Chris and David – the time they put into creating something so inclusive is just awesome.”
Jason A. Michael contributed to this story.