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Life as a Gay Imam Isn't as Bad as It Sounds

I spoke to three of them, all on a mission to end the marginalization inflicted on LGBT Muslims throughout the world because of their sexuality.

A float for gay Muslims at London Gay Pride (Photo via)

Just about every predominantly Muslim country forbids homosexuality. In nine of those countries, homosexual activity carries the death penalty. But the thing is, the whole Islamic prejudice against gays seems to be based on one monumental misconception: that certain verses in the Qur'an about Sodom and Gomorrah condemn homosexuality. They do not, according to Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, Daayiee Abdullah, and Muhsin Hendricks, three openly gay imams I spoke to who are trying to end the marginalization inflicted on LGBT Muslims because of their sexuality.  

I wanted to find out whether they were gaining any traction in a world where LGBT people are routinely disowned, beaten, arrested, killed, or driven to suicide, so I sat down for a chat with each of them.

Imam Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed is a French-Algerian imam responsible for the first all-inclusive mosque in Paris, where men and women pray side-by-side and sexual minorities are welcome. He currently lives in South Africa.

VICE: At what age did you decide to stop hiding your sexuality?
Imam Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed: When I was about 21 years old, but everyone always saw me as an effeminate boy. My mother treated me as her daughter. We were very close.

So everyone knew?
Everyone knew, but we didn't speak about it. When I was eight or nine and playing on the streets, other children would always call me names like "faggot." My father, who was verbally very aggressive, used to tell me I cried too much. I spent years trying to suppress that part of myself. I even turned to the strict teachings of Salafism to find inner peace. I did everything to deny that this was a part of me.

What happened when you told your family?
I packed a suitcase, because I thought they would throw me out. I prepared for the worst, but before I could finish one sentence my father said calmly, "Stop; we are going to accept you like that." He knew I had tried everything to get rid of my homosexuality. I am HIV-positive, and when I later told them about that my mother was more OK with my being HIV-positive than my being gay.

That's sad.
Yes. It was horrible. She was horrible to me at the time, but it passed. When it passed it was weird because I had to reinvent myself. Because they didn’t reject me, I had to find a new place in the family as the "real me."

Did it feel dangerous to be the "real you"?
It was pretty dangerous. Especially after the opening of the inclusive mosque in Paris. The mosque is situated in a widely Muslim neighborhood. People on the street would sometimes stop and yell at me. My Facebook page got flooded with threats, too.

What did people say to you on the street?
"Why are you doing this?" and "This is against our religion!"—that kind of thing. It was very challenging. But here in South Africa it’s totally different. It’s very, very peaceful. I am working at a refuge for LGBT Muslims from all over the world.

Like a gay Muslim refugee camp?
South Africa is a very welcoming country for refugees. It's not like Europe, which is far more homophobic. We're only at the beginning phase, but it has strong potential.

So you think there's hope for LGBT Muslims?
Definitely. There is still much work to do, but things are changing. A while ago, a Dutch imam—Hashim Jansen—came out because he heard about me and other imams coming out. More and more gay imams are coming out, and we have an increasing number of straight allies.

Imam Daayiee Abdullah is the first openly gay imam in the United States. He serves as the imam and educational director of the Light of Reform Mosque in Washington, DC, which welcomes all cultures and sexual orientations.

You came out before you converted to Islam. How was that?
Imam Daayiee Abdullah: I had my family's support from early on, so I didn’t have to figure everything out for myself. My parents are Southern Baptists and cared about my character. They cared about how I interacted with my community, not the community's standards. Besides, don’t you think growing up as a black man prepared me for what I'm dealing with today?

Are homophobia and racism the same?
In essence, yes—it’s all hate, just directed to different parts of our identity.

Many people argue that the Qur'an condemns homosexuality. Why convert to Islam?
The sexual acts that are condemned in the Qur'an were done without the consent of the other. They were torture. Sexual acts are not the same as sexuality. The Qur'an doesn't condemn any sexuality, anywhere.

So all the scholars who read the Qur'an that way are wrong?
Their particular reading isn’t part of Islam, but part of the reigning culture at that point in time. Furthermore, their interpretations were also based on earlier Christian and Jewish interpretations. Historians have also never found any reliable case of the Prophet Muhammad dealing with homosexuality. They haven’t found it because there isn’t one. And don’t forget that a lot of the laws criminalizing homosexuality today in Africa and Asia were introduced by European colonialists.

Is it true that your first act as an imam was performing funeral rites for a gay Muslim who died of AIDS?
That’s true. They couldn’t find other imams to do the Islamic funeral prayer for him, so they came to me. If a person dies as a Muslim he deserves a Muslim service.

Have you ever felt threatened when doing your job?
No, I have never felt physically threatened. Why would I? I study and interpret the Qur'an not as a two-dimensional rulebook but as a living thing. Many Muslims have never read the Qur'an. It’s not something they studied. They just took something they heard as the truth.

How do you feel about people calling you "the gay imam"?
The problem is that they mostly use it to make others dismiss us. Or they do it to for sensationalism, to create a boost for personal gain.

Are things changing?
If you look at the number of inclusive mosques in the US, you can see a significant increase in just a few years. Progress is really being made.

What do you say to LGBT Muslims who are struggling because they're being told their existence is a sin?
Study, study, study. Then you will know what you're being told is the real sin.

Imam Muhsin Hendricks is a South African imam who runs a nonprofit, the Inner Circle, to help Muslims who are struggling to accept their sexuality.

When did you come out?
Imam Muhsin Hendricks:
I was 29, living in Pakistan, when I came out, after being married to a woman for six years. I got married in the hope that it would make me straight, but with much effort and frustration it blew up in my face. I then set out to seek answers, which led me to study the Qur'an in greater depth.

What did you find out when you studied the Qur'an?
I discovered that the Qur'an is silent about sexual orientation, and that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah does not refer to homosexuality as such but rather to a bunch of atrocities, including sexual atrocities unrelated to sexual orientation or gender identity. The conclusion I drew was that God is not homophobic but the men who interpreted the Qur'an were. This conviction led to me publicly announcing my innocence and embracing my sexuality by sharing the news of it openly with others.

Weren’t you scared of being openly gay?
I expected the worst actually. I expected to be ostracized by my family and even to be killed. I was quite surprised that most of the responses were positive; as if there was a need for this to be made public and someone to be brave enough to mention it.

How do you feel being labeled "the gay imam"?
I don't wish for my sexual orientation to define the kind of imam I am. I’d be much happier to be called an imam who works with Muslims who are marginalized based on sexual orientation and gender identity.  

Will those marginalized Muslims ever be free to embrace themselves publicly?
Yes, definitely—but it would be similar to racism.  Even though most legal structures prohibit racism, it still manifests itself. I do believe that the Muslim world is opening up to the possibility of accepting same-sex love and relationships, as long as these happen within the confines of Qur'anic values of faithfulness, monogamy and Allah-consciousness.

Thank you very much.