Over a year ago, I told my coming out story on a popular LGBTQ YouTube channel called I'm from Driftwood. In the video, I talked about how difficult it was for me, at age 26, to come out to my Muslim, Palestinian father, despite the fact that I'm not Muslim, was born in Iowa, and came out to most family and friends by age 20.
I was surprised by how many people reached out after the video was posted, relating to what I felt was a wholly unique—almost isolating—experience. But what struck me most were two specific emails I received from viewers: one from a closeted Palestinian-American who said my video was the first time he heard the words "gay", "Muslim", and "Palestinian" from the same mouth, and another from a gay Middle Eastern man who called me "a role model for gay people from Muslim backgrounds."
My relationship with Islam has always been limited to my relationship with my father; I've never practiced. To suggest I am a role model for young Muslims due to a mere YouTube video wasn't just surprising, it was a reality check: Few role models exist for gay Muslims searching for answers about their identity online. That's why these two had turned to me.
Google results for "young, gay, Muslim" or "gay Muslim" show it's both easier and harder to be gay and Muslim today than ever before. Great headway has been made in efforts to bring visibility to the gay Muslim community over the past decade, but what becomes clear after surveying the articles and media you'll find is that homophobia remains nearly as entrenched in Muslim communities as ever.
Films like I Am Gay and Muslim, A Jihad for Love, Naz & Maalik or the documentary series Gay Muslims from the UK's Channel 4 relate the struggles faced by gay Muslims, from struggling to come out to coming to terms with "the ambiguity and secretiveness of the life they feel condemned to live," as I Am Gay and Muslim puts it.
Articles relate challenges faced by young, gay Muslims who choose to come out and the plight of those who feel they can't. Some tell of the soul-searching or guilt provoked by the Pulse tragedy. More general articles tell of the immense difficulty faced by gay Muslims to reconcile their faith and sexuality, and of the little progress that has been made in bringing visibility to and changing attitudes about the community.
What becomes clear is that for gay Muslims searching for resources online, at least in the US, progressive efforts like the Trevor Project or It Gets Better have no match. Instead, they'll be met by a disjointed array of articles and films, only some of which provide positive role models and hope that things do, indeed, get better.
Samer, a 25-year-old gay Palestinian living in Maryland, says he "learned to be gay and Muslim through Google and talking to strangers online." He adds that "there are a few resources for adult gay Muslims, but definitely not enough for young gay Muslims."
Tareq, a Lebanese gay man born Shia Muslim who has since left the religion, advocates for taking a global perspective when thinking about how things may be getting better or worse for young gay Muslims. "Lebanon is better off than most [Arab countries] in terms of resources," he said. "We have had a gay rights NGO since 2002, but that NGO has had its fair share of controversies. There's now an Arabic word for gay that is not derogatory—'mithly'—and a number of talk shows have discussed the matter, and a number of gay people have come out on them. Yet we still have a long way to go before being gay is tolerated in our part of the world." Both Tareq and Samer refused to disclose their full names for this article.
While Tareq said he would settle for any increase in resources online, Samer wished specifically for a support group of people like him—people with unaccepting families and a crisis of faith brewing within. But if the internet's answer to a support group is a message board, resources available for gay Muslims are bleak.
The first message board I found through Google, Al-Jannah, alleges it's "concentrating on creating a strong community for various types of LGBT Muslims, not just for those who are out, also those who are in closet." The first thread on the page, labeled "Introductions" and updated as recently as last week, is mostly peppered with classified soliciting "MOCs".
MOCs, or marriages of convenience—marriages established for some practical purpose other than that of love or family ties—are still a reality in many parts of the Arab world. One post on Al-Jannah relates a woman's search for a masculine gay man for an MOC, because it would devastate her family should they discover she's a lesbian. Her ideal gay husband would be a great friend, someone who would understand that eventually, they may both find other, same-sex partners.
It's a bleak but representative example of the kind of arrangement many gay Muslims seek out in lieu of coming out. For a young person to stumble upon such a post in the course of naturally curious online research is unsettling, and it's not a far leap to expect they may come to see such arrangements as normal.
Legitimate Muslim LGBTQ advocacy organizations exist, but their websites are difficult to find and tricky to navigate. Several articles cite the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity as an authority, but their web presence is updated infrequently and contains little actionable information. Muslims for Progressive Values has a more robust web and social presence for LGBTQ Muslims, and should be a guiding light for current and future organizations in the space.
After an exhaustive look at myriad search results, what's noticeably absent from the most accessible news articles and advocacy organizations online are far-reaching campaigns or stories that give LGTBQ Muslims a human voice. Where It Gets Better and the Trevor Project have succeeded is in their ability to humanize gay people and start a loud conversation about issues like bullying and suicide that were once only whispered about. Janet Mock launched a hashtag, #girlslikeus, in 2012 in pursuit of trans visibility. It still trends today.
With more resources like those—those which seek to humanize the lives of gay Muslims—young people might see that they aren't condemned to the closet. "I think sharing your story is the biggest responsibility a LGBTQ person has," said Nathan Manske, the founder of I'm from Driftwood. "It changes lives, it saves lives, and to keep your story a secret is a disservice to the community."
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