Heidi Dietrich

To Be Gay and Muslim

For Salman Husainy, an autumn drive four years ago was the moment of truth. Sitting in the passenger seat of his sister Shaheen's car, he blurted out what he'd long known but kept hidden.

"I'm gay," Husainy said. Shocked, Shaheen bumped into the car in front of her. The minor accident didn't cause any damage, and Shaheen parked the car on the side of the road so they could talk. "Are you sure? We don't have any gay people in our community," Shaheen said.

Like most Muslims, Shaheen had never imagined that someone praying beside her at the mosque could be gay. Since Islam teaches that homosexuality is wrong, gay members often keep their sexual orientation in the closet.

Gay Muslims aren't the most visible group, but they also aren't insignificant: Of the one to three million Muslims living in the United States, an estimated 10 percent are gay. Some, like Husainy, have come to terms with their homosexuality. For others, confessing their sexual orientation remains a distant dream. They fear shaming their family and losing respect at their mosque.

"Honestly, I do feel that it's wrong," said Sheikh Mustafa during a web chat. Mustafa is a gay Muslim living in Singapore. "Islamic teaching prohibits gay activities. I'm trying to be straight to be close to Allah. I'm praying very hard."

Iftekhar Hai, Director of Interfaith Relations for the United Muslims of America, says that homosexuality is unnatural. He points to a verse in the Quoran where the prophet Lut says "For ye practice your lusts on men in preference to women: ye are indeed a people transgressing."

"According to the scripture, there's no doubt," Hai said. "It's not right and proper."

Gay Muslims look for alternative interpretations to Islam's view on homosexuality. One gay Muslim is training to be an imam, or religious scholar, in Washington D.C. He prefers to go by Abdala because other Muslim scholars don't know he's gay. Abdala hopes to use his education to help fellow gay Muslims come to terms with their sexuality.

"I'm training to be an imam so I can provide a better service of how to live in this society," Abdala said. Abdala does not believe that the Quoran condemns homosexuality. He explains that in the religious text, men are punished 'for raping and abusing other men' not for engaging in consensual sex.

"I've always challenged scholars because they're heterosexual and that's why they interpreted it that way," Abdala said. "I think I'm breaking new ground."

Still, Abdala acknowledges that he hasn't been open about his homosexuality in training. His instructors have said that being gay is going against good ethics and morals. He worries that coming out would impede the training process and hurt his chances of graduation. If Abdala doesn't graduate, he won't be able to offer religious services to other gay Muslims.

Abdala has good reason to worry. Traditional Muslim scholars don't accept alternative interpretations to the Quoran. Hamza Yusuf, a Muslim scholar at the Bay Area's Zaytuna Institute, condemns those who try to find new meaning in the holy text.

"If one considers it acceptable in Islam [to be gay], then he or she is not considered to be a Muslim by consensus of the scholars," Yusuf said. "On this I know no debate whatsoever."

Gay Muslims, unable to turn to religious leaders, look for alternative support networks. Messages posted on Al-fatija, a support group and web site for gay Muslims, reveal the complexities of being gay and Muslim.

"Looking for a Lesbian friend and maybe marriage," reads the heading on one personal from a gay man seeking a show marriage. "I'm in a four-year relationship with my partner whom I love dearly, but there is also my family who is on the other side pushing for marriage," the author writes. "I feel like a rag doll in the middle of a tug of war, and for all of you who are in the same boat, you know what a difficult position this puts us in...I've come to realize that I cannot be the only one in the world in this predicament. So if you are a lesbian Muslim in a similar situation, I'd love to talk to you, and maybe we could help each other out."

Muslims feel obligated to marry and produce children. The traditional family structure emphasizes extended family, and Islam advocates populating the world with more Muslims.

"The pressure builds because you're supposed to extend this family," said Ghalib Dhalla, a gay Muslim and author. "There's a lot of cherished hopes that I can't consummate."

Since many gay Muslims remain in the closet, they are an elusive group. When asked for a number, gay Muslims throw out ten percent (the estimate given to gays within the general population), but all admit that it's tough to pin down. At an Al-fatija conference in San Francisco last year, about 250 gay Muslims attended. Many spoke of Al-fatija communities in their own towns. The group can't be used as a measuring tool, however, since Al-fatija members are only one portion of the gay community. Joining requires a level of personal acceptance that some gay Muslims haven't achieved.

Personal experience doesn't reveal much more. Unlike race, religion isn't obvious to someone cruising the gay night scene. When Dhalla visits a Los Angeles gay bar, he'll nod to fellow South Asians. Are they Muslim? Dhalla doesn't know, and doesn't care.

"Gay culture is not so much about religion as much as what appeals to you visually," Dhalla said. Many gay Muslims prefer a low profile, and they aren't about to announce their religion and background at a bar or club. When Arslan Durrani spies fellow South Asians at gay bars in San Francisco's Castro district, they often avoid him. "They want to be anonymous," Durrani said.

Salman Husainy no longer wants to be anonymous. He spent his early years in Pakistan, where his only introduction to gays was the hijras: hermaphrodites who dress in women's clothing and perform at weddings. Hijras are both ridiculed and feared in Pakistan. Laughing behind the performers' backs is okay, but beware of angering one of them; the entertainers can give curses or blessings at birth ceremonies and weddings.

Beyond the hijras, gay relationships are kept in the closet in Pakistan. Section 377 of the Pakistani penal code says that two men practicing intercourse can be stoned to death, but the rule is rarely implemented. More often, gays are ostracized from friends and family.

It wasn't until college at UC Irvine that Husainy managed to accept his own homosexuality. Not long after, he decided to confront his family. After initial shock -- and that minor fender bender -- Shaheen provided needed moral support. "If that's what you are, stand up for it," Shaheen said. Shaheen was easy. His parents were another matter. He decided to prepare them for the news. Husainy showed his family a Lifetime movie about Greg Louganis, the Olympia diver who was gay and had AIDS. He told his parents that he was interning at an AIDS center in Orange County. "You have to be careful with those kinds of people," his mother said.

On Thanksgiving weekend, Husainy carefully scripted an introduction to his announcement. When he sat down with his parents, though, the script went right out the window. "There are all sorts of people," Husainy said. "I'm gay." His parents asked what that meant, and Husainy tried to explain. His mother was horrified. "You need to go to the mosque every day and pray," she said. "We should have never brought you to America. You got this disease."

His father stepped in. "Wait," his father said. "Husainy is our son. We must learn."

Learning came gradually. Husainy went back to college. When his parents called, they avoided the topic. Husainy always brought it up. "How are you doing?" he'd ask. "Do you want me to send you literature?"

On another visit home, his father pulled him aside to talk. "There are so many diseases out there," his father said. "You need to be safe."

"Are you talking about safe sex?" Husainy asked, incredulous. In the Muslim community, safe sex conversations aren't the norm. Husainy assured his father that he protected himself. His father was relieved, and Husainy was encouraged that he'd brought it up.

"From that day on, it was more open," Husainy recalls. Inside his parent's household, Husainy could be gay. "At least he's not disabled," his father reasoned.

At the mosque, it was a different story. His parents worried that their son would bring the family shame. "Have a low profile," they urged him. "Don't go to gay pride parades. Don't get on TV."

Husainy has followed their wishes. He doesn't advertise his homosexuality at the mosque. Close friends know, but the mosque's leaders do not. Husainy feels lucky. He estimates that among South Asian gays he knows, half are out and half are still closeted. He won't encourage someone to come out to his family, though.

"It's up to the individual," Husainy said. "If they feel that they won't be thrown out of the home. They need to assess that."

As Husainy sits in his Los Angeles office and looks at an old picture of himself - closeted, unhappy and overweight -it's obvious how far he's come. Now, he counsels women on welfare at a mental health clinic, and his colleagues all know that he's gay. As his coworkers prepare to head home for the night, he sticks his head into the hallway. "Alice, let me see the dress! You look hot, honey!" he says, doing a little dance move. Stepping back in the office, he explains, "She's going clubbing tonight and she's wearing the black dress."

He flips through the photo album, and his eyes linger on a picture of himself and a young man reclining on a couch. "I just started dating him," he says. I note that he's cute. "I know!" he says gleefully. "I am so excited!" At that moment, he sounds like anyone starting a new relationship, giddy with the promise of new love. Salman Husainy is gay and Muslim, and he's okay with it. His family, though reluctantly, has become okay with it too.

Husainy has achieved acceptance within his family, but the larger Muslim community might be another story. To most straight Muslims, being gay is just plain wrong.

"I've been told by my Muslim friends about how sinful homosexuality is, but I never think it's true," said Abdul Razak Kollikathara, a gay Muslim from San Jose. As a religious scholar, Hai knows the Muslim community. He says that being gay is a taboo among Muslims, and attitudes aren't likely to change. "Ninety-nine percent of Muslims feel that it's wrong because the Quoran says so," Hai said.

Abdala, the gay Muslim training to be an imam, counters that most Muslims have only been exposed to narrow viewpoints on homosexuality. "They're unable to think for themselves," Abdala said. "There's a blind following." With more exposure and education, Abdala feels, Muslims could see the Quoran's take on homosexuality in a different light.

Some gays remain skeptical that Islam will ever accept homosexuality. Oakland resident Arslan Durrani believes that gay Muslims are a bunch of hypocrites. Durrani is gay, and while he was raised as a Muslim, he has denounced his faith. "Where in the Quoran does it say that it's okay to suck dick but wrong to eat pork?" Durrani said. "It's just the usual bullshit you get from people trying to reconcile their homosexuality with spirituality."

Durrani grew up in Pakistan and came to the United States at age 22. He says that in Pakistan, sex among men is common, but they don't label themselves as gay. As long as the men marry and have children -- fulfilling their duties -- they can sleep around on the side.

Ghalib Dhalla explained that it depends on who is administering the sexual act. "If I get blown, I'm not gay," Dhalla said.

Durrani began to realize that he was more attracted to men than women in high school. He tried to ignore the feelings and remained a devout Muslim, praying five times a day. He believed that he had a sickness that needed to be cured.

When Durrani started college in Pakistan, he met a couple of professors who were atheists. He started reading the works of atheist authors, and realized that all those years of praying and crying to God hadn't done anything for him. Durrani's parents were beginning to pressure him about marriage, and his father tried to pair him with a cousin who lived in Austria. "That'd be a nightmare," Durrani said. "I'm not about to make a huge sacrifice, and I'd also be ruining a girl's life because I could never love a girl."

Durrani left Pakistan on his own at 22, and in eight years, he hasn't been back. He received asylum in the United States. As attorney general, Janet Reno added a clause to immigration law which offers asylum for those who will be prosecuted in their home country based on their sexual orientation. Durrani says that he'd feel threatened in Pakistan because he's vocal about his homosexuality and his atheism.

"I could be beheaded or hanged," Durrani said. "If I said something blasphemous and a mob killed me, they can't be held accountable."

Durrani hasn't told his parents that he's gay or that he's an atheist. He has no immediate plans to do so. When he confessed his sexual orientation to two educated friends in Pakistan, they were horrified.

"If my friends, who are highly educated and from my generation, find this difficult to accept, my god, my parents? Who are in their late fifties and not very educated?" Durrani said. Telling his parents that he's an atheist would be even worse. "Even if I'm leading an immoral life and sleeping with boys, there's hope," Durrani said. "But with this, I'm giving God the finger. It would hurt them that their son is going to hell."

The divide between Durrani and his parents is tough, but Durrani says that being in America makes it easier. Many of his American friends aren't close to their extended families. Durrani is active in Trikone, a support network for South Asian gays, and often engages in religious discussions with fellow South Asians. He says that he's given up trying to convince his Muslim friends that what they're doing doesn't make sense. "They don't want to give up their desires but they want to hold onto the security blanket of God," Durrani said.

Durrani has rejected Islam, but he faces the same obstacles as religious gays in coming out to a Muslim family. Gay Muslims must consider not only themselves, but also how their homosexuality will reflect upon their families.

San Jose resident Abdul Razak Kollikathara hasn't told his family that he's gay, and he worries about how the news would affect them. He hashes out the problem over a latte and pot of tea in a Palo Alto coffee shop one evening. Although Kollikathara is unemployed at the moment, he dresses stylishly in a button down and slacks, blending in well with the cafe's yuppie after-work crowd.

Sipping his coffee, Kollikathara explains his background. He grew up in a Muslim family in India, and all of his siblings are in arranged marriages. His sisters married very conservative men. Kollikathara believes that if he came out to his sisters and their husbands found out, it could be grounds for divorce.

"The problem with coming out is the shame that it'd bring to the family," Kollikathara says. Honesty is important, but so is family. Kollikathara stares into his coffee, wanting answers for a question that has no easy solution. "Maybe I could come out to my sisters and say don't tell your husbands," he ponders. Moments later, he changes tracks. "Coming out -- it's just not worth it."

Iftekhar Hai welcomes the reporter into the front hallway and waits while shoes are slipped off. It's evening, and his house smells of spicy Indian food. A group sits cross legged on the floor of the living room, singing and strumming sitars. Hai whispers that his wife is one of the singers, and she comes here every week for her music lesson. The Quoran lesson takes place in a room down the hallway. He has brought along two copies of the book, and the beginner-friendly text includes an index which lists "homosexuality" and provides page and verse numbers. To Hai, each verse stands as proof that being gay is wrong.

Halfway through the lesson, the woman of the house brings in a tray with Indian tea and baklava. Her head is covered with a pink shawl. She smiles, says nothing, and leaves the tray on a table. Hai rejects the baklava because his doctor has warned against sugar, but reaches for a tea cup. As he sips the tea, creamy from added milk, Hai explains that most homosexuals were abused when they were young. When they age, they become abusers themselves.

"That is the norm," he says. "You see, gay men lack the confidence to screw a woman good." Iftekar Hai has never counseled a gay Muslim, and he doubts that anyone would admit such transgressions to a religious leader. "What would be the reason?" he asks. "Islamic people aren't ready for this kind of thing."

On a recent Saturday night, a group of South Asian gays have gathered for a Trikone potluck. Platters of rice, chicken curry, dumplings, and chips and salsa cover the dining room table. "We try with the food," one of the men laughs, noting the lack of culinary- proficient women at such celebrations.

Traditional gender roles are still accepted by these decidedly untraditional men. Wine is poured into plastic cups, and bottles of beer are passed around. When plates are scraped clean, the lights are dimmed and a CD is popped into the stereo. A popular Indian song sounds from the speakers. Kollikathara hops out of his chair and whips off his black leather jacket to reveal a tight white sleeveless t-shirt. He walks over to a slim South Asian man, takes his hand, and leads him to the center of the living room. The two dance close as the rest of the men cheer from their sofa seats.

After a brief intimate dance, Kollikathara is ready to get the party started. He ignores bashful protests and yanks men from the chairs and onto the dance floor. Pretty soon, inhibitions are gone, the music is rocking, and the South Asian gays are dancing and laughing. Here, it's okay to be gay and Muslim. No explanations needed. No tears, no lost dreams, no cries that you're going to hell. Just music, friends, and people who understand.

Heidi Dietrich is a freelance writer and is pursuing a master's degree in journalism at Stanford University.