South Africa's gay mosque is a small room with windows covered with venetian blinds, a greenish carpet and a kitsch Qibla compass pointing to Mecca. On the wall, the famous verse of the Quran: "There is no God but Allah." On Fridays, more than a dozen gay men and women visit the place of worship run by the country's only openly gay imam, Muhsin Hendricks.
Homosexuality here is not a sin. You don't need to change the way you walk or the way you speak to avoid disapproving glances. God accepts you as you are. You can even get a blessed marriage. Here it is possible to be a queer. And a Muslim.
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Compared to many countries in Africa, where gay sex is a crime and in some can be punished by death, South Africa is a bastion of liberalism. It was the first country in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation in its constitution, and the fifth in the world — and the first in Africa — to legalize same-sex marriage.
But the reality on the ground is very different. Gay, lesbian and transgender people face "corrective rape", discrimination and violence on a daily basis, say activists. "If they could, they would behead you. They just don't do it because they would go to jail," says Taj Hargey, a campaigner against Islamic intolerance who set up the Open Mosque which welcomes believers of all races, genders and sexualities in Cape Town last year.
His mosque has been attacked several times. But just down the road is another place where Muslims shunned by their community can go to pray. Unlike Hargey's place of worship, The People's Mosque, run by Hendricks, explicitly describes itself as a gay place of worship, and has managed to stay out of the spotlight.
Hendricks has been a pioneer for gay rights among South African Muslims for the past 18 years. It was "a call" based in his own experience and his inability to reconcile, he says. The son of an imam himself, he always wanted to be a cleric, but as a gay young boy, he thought he would go to hell. He couldn't understand why a god of compassion would punish him for something he couldn't choose.
He moved to a Salafi school in Pakistan at the age of 21, and fell in love with one of the students. But he got married to a woman and had three kids, thinking that it would change him. Fasting didn't help either. He came out of the closet when he was 29.
"I thought I was the only one who had that problem… But I saw so many people like me, who didn´t have the tools, because they didn't study Islam. That's how I started helping them," recalls Hendricks, sitting down on his mosque carpet, in a white robe and a beige pashmina.
'It is a safe space. Here we just don't judge people.'
In 1996 he formed a support group and campaigning organization called Inner Circle aimed at "integrating Islamic Rights with Human Rights", free from any kind of discrimination. He went on to open The People's Mosque in his house in 2011, because there was a demand for it.
"It is a safe space. When you sit in a mainstream mosque, you are going there for spiritual upliftment and to connect with God, but the imam is telling you there's something wrong with you," he told VICE News. "Here we just don't judge people. It should be a place where you could also question Islam; that's what I think a mosque should be".
For years, Hendricks has studied the verses of the Quran, particularly those which talk about Sodom and Gomorrah and have been used as to condemn homosexuality.
"In Sodom and Gomorrah there are a number of atrocities, and only one of them is a sexual atrocity," said Hendricks. "It is about assault and rape where men are the victims, sexual acts which violates the rights and integrity of a person. [But] it is not about sexual orientation. The Quran is silent about [that]."
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Ziyaad Follentine, 27, is getting ready for the Friday prayers. He has put on some foundation, although he will have to remove it in the ablutions before going to the mosque.
It's a sunny, lazy morning in Wetton, a southern suburb of Cape Town. Far away from the Table Mountain and the city's safer streets, thousands of one-story houses stretch out towards Mitchells Plain, one of South Africa's largest townships.
Wetton borders with the suburb of Hanover Park, where gangs such as the Americans, the Mongrels, the Sexy Boys, and the Hard Livings, fight a daily war for control of territory and drug trafficking. But Ziyaad's mother's job for a local NGO makes his home a well looked-after middle-class household.
'I would cry, asking why would a god of love, of mercy, would condemn such a small boy?'
He prepares some tea in a kitchen with fresh orchids and irons his robes in his mother's bedroom. Next to the wardrobe hang a dozen pairs of high heeled shoes, shoes which Ziyaad has been wearing every day since he was just a five year old child.
He was always a feminine boy, he recalls. He recites verses from the Quran with a soft melodic voice, but Ziyaad is a tough guy. His boyfriend was a gangster. He is now in jail for murder.
For almost four years, Ziyaad was a drug addict. He smoked 'tic', a downgraded crystal meth very popular in Cape Town's marginalized areas, unable to accommodate his faith and his sexual orientation. His life was not easy.
"I am the eldest son and my father wanted me to carry his legacy. He forced me to play soccer, he would hit me if he saw me walking in a certain way, and I had to go into hiding to do anything associated with women," Ziyaad told VICE News. "When I came out of the closet at the age of 16 he disowned me. He never spoke to me, he used to pass me by on the street. I only could reconcile with him on his deathbed. It was only then, when I was 22, that I started to live my life. Before that I was always looking around, so nobody would go and tell my father that I was openly gay."
'It is amazing to have people of your kind, praying with you and reaching out to God with you'
Studying in an Islamic high school was not easy either. He was teased by his friends all the time. "I myself was a very religious boy," he said. "I used to read the verses of the Quran where Allah speaks about Sodom and Gomorrah, those verses that imams use to condemn homosexuality, and I would cry, asking why would a god of love, of mercy, would condemn such a small boy? I was depressed, and I was not satisfied with what imams told me, to pray and ask Allah to change me.
"I realized I had to accept me as I am. I went to a gay support group, but they couldn't help me with my religion. Islam is very conservative. It's all about the male figure. They lead the prayers, he needs to get married and have kids to make religion stronger. When you come out of the closet, how are you going to live up to all of those expectations? That's when I met Imam Hendricks, and he told me, Ziyaad it is is not haram [forbidden] to be a gay and a Muslim."
For the past year, Ziyaad has been attending the gay mosque, and helping other gay men in seminars where they learn a "queer narrative" which can help them reconcile with their sexuality. Today, on his way to the mosque, he wears his long black robe, dark sunglasses and a big handbag on his shoulder. "It is amazing to have people of your kind, praying with you and reaching out to God with you," he said.
Friday service at the gay mosque takes the same form as that in any other mosque in the world. Imam Hendricks leads the prayers and delivers his sermon. Today he is talking about Quran as a sacred book; but it is more than than just a physical object, it is something which lives upon the pages, says Hendricks, criticizing those who get scandalized when a book is burned.
A man attending the prayers shares a story. He was last week in an event where Muslim scholars spoke out about racism and tolerance. "Why do they talk about tolerance if afterwards, in their mosques, they are always creating divisions and hatred?" he asks.
When they pray, women and men stand in the same line. They do their duas together. They ask God for help, and forgiveness, but no longer regarding their sexual orientation. At the end of the prayers, they all stand up and hug each other. It's not a gay thing. "They do it in some other mosques too," a man says, almost as if he is trying to excuse himself.
Follow Jaime Velazquez on Twitter: @jvelazquez_