The Beauty of Islam Brought Me Out of the Closet
I grew up in the evangelical household to rule all evangelical households—but it was an immersion in Islamic culture when I was a teenager that showed me who I really am.
Illustration by Taylor Lewis
I grew up in suburban St. Louis, where my father was the pastor of our small evangelical church. My mother is a pastor's daughter; my uncle is a pastor; my grandfather taught Sunday School for decades. When researchers finally confirm the link between a highly churched background and growing up to be a major homo, I will be both case in point and the least surprised.
As a teenager, my devotion to American Christianity through youth group, gospel choir, and summer jobs at Christian camps gave me joy. It also kept me plugging away in "ex-gay" conversion therapy from sixth grade through most of high school. It was the summer between my junior and senior year that altered the straight-to-heaven course on which my life was set: In 2006, I went to Egypt and fell in love with Islam.
In Egypt, the Gothic spires and stained glass windows I idolized in America were rendered gauche next to the domes of Fatimid Cairo, the glazed tiles of her mosques. The songs and dances of Sufism, Islam's mystical cult, awoke within me the same religious passion I'd felt at my most charismatically evangelical moments. And on the final night of my summer-long trip, atop a pony perched on the moonlit sands beneath the pyramids, the 4 AM call to prayer from 10,000 minarets took me on a mystical night journey of revelation like the Prophet's (Peace Be Upon Him). I was one confused little Jesus fag.
I fought this sudden Halal romance as fiercely as I could. I remember befriending one ultra conservative hijabi girl in Cairo who loved to debate religion. The arrogance of my American Christianity, swollen by 17 years of immersion in theology, history, and biblical hermeneutics, got her hot to trot. As a man, she wouldn't shake my hand, but she'd waltz all night through arguments on the evidence for God's existence or how the Council of Nicaea changed the early church. The fearless apologetics she espoused for her Islamic faith left me unnerved. I ended up respecting the hell out of her, which scared the shit out of me.
Added to these aesthetic and intellectual encounters with Islamic religion was the way maleness in Egypt's Muslim society gave the finger to American gender norms. Male beauty—indeed, prettiness—was ubiquitous and celebrated. Boys in skintight pink polos with long lashes and expertly twisted curls blew kisses at one another across the street, or promenaded down the lane arm-in-arm. They held hands and whispered giggling confidences. Nobody was gay, of course, but to my American eyes, everyone seemed pretty damn gay-ish. The visual paradox of these highly un-American homosocial interactions planted seeds of doubt in my mind: If the sureness of my religious superiority could be undermined, what about my sexuality?
It was in Egypt that I encountered, for the first time, male interactions outside the ironclad Western binary of gay/straight. I had been equipped through years of ex-gay ideological brainwashing to dismiss American gay male identity, with its vapid materialism, its promiscuity, and its idolization of youth, wealth, and sex appeal. But tender touches between married men that were neither wholly sexual nor un-erotic was not covered in my American ex-gay boot camp.
And yet, it was the beauty of a religious expression outside American Christianity that opened me up to doubt, and to change. To live in Cairo was to feel Islam in my daily rhythms and physical surroundings, and I, thank God, was an impressionable teenager. Equipped to dismiss heresies of theology, I was unprepared for heresies of the human variety: Sweet-voiced Qur'anic recitations floating like cigarette smoke through the taxi radio; the fierce self-confidence of a veiled girl who loved her own religion as deeply as she knew the tenets of mine; the beauty of a million people putting their day on hold to wash themselves and pray together. It was heresies of the senses and of the soul that got me.
In Cairo, both America's religion and her gender norms were revealed to be fallible, though the former had to be unmasked to permit the latter. My prior shame-filled experiments with gay sex and gay love were not nearly enough to liquidate, as the old hymn calls it, my "firm foundation." But if Christian superiority could be questioned, so could everything else. The dehumanization of Muslims in my American Christian experience wasn't something I'd even been aware of until I got to Egypt. If Muslims were human beings with full human dignity and equal access to the Divine, maybe gay people were, too.
Thankfully, my experience in Egypt arrived in time. I quit conversion therapy upon my return to the States and told my evangelical parents to fuck off. Islam, and the unshakable implications of that pluralistic awakening, became the yeast that gave rise to my embrace of queerness. Without it, I can't imagine my course ever being so altered. Rather, had I never gone to Cairo, I could see myself instead ending up at a hipster-approved NYC megachurch—one where the worship leaders wear queer-derived fashion while they wring their hands over their choir members' "sinful" gay relationships
By the time I was 17, I had seen a pride parade, but never a communal Friday prayer. One didn't change me, but the other somehow did. After spending years arming myself against the insidious gay agenda, whaddya know—Islam brought me out of the closet. I could have never seen it coming.
Today, watching the blood-soaked popular conception of Islam and Muslims get pitted against Western ideas of gay identity and gay people feels strange. And sad. And infuriating. It's not like I don't understand the homophobia within Orthodox Islam, but then again, I know all too well the homophobia of Orthodox Christianity. My young experience of Islam and Muslims had been the very thing that liberated me from that. And what's more, I know enough about the interactions of classical Muslim society and Europe to know that we were the ones who brought homophobia as a practice to the Arab world in the first place. It's a complex history, but the long and the short of it is that nobody really gave a shit about men sucking one another's dicks before colonialism got there in the first place. Ironic.
I do feel lucky, though. Because when a nightclub gets shot up, or a bomb explodes in one of New York's gayborhoods, I don't share in the desire to go fuck up some dudes in beards and caftans. I would rather put on some Qur'anic chanting, light a Marlboro, drool over my hot neighbor who left his blinds up, and thank Baby Jesus that he sent me to Egypt while I was still young enough to be turned gay by it.
Drew Harper is the author, with his father Brad, of Space at the Table: Conversations Between an Evangelical Theologian and His Gay Son.
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