What It's Like to Be Gay and Muslim in America

Double or triple minorities, LGBTQ Muslims struggle with discrimination in many forms—and Orlando might make it worse.

Non-Muslims watch a special prayer at the American Muslim Community Center Monday, June 13, 2016, in Longwood, Florida, after the mass shooting at the Pulse Orlando nightclub. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Gay Muslims tend to be virtually invisible in the United States.

In a culture that has been alternately skeptical of and downright hostile toward Muslim Americans, coming out as LGBTQ inside that community isn't exactly easy. Too many are left to live and love in the shadows—foreigners in their own land, estranged from their faith.

But after the tragedy that saw 49 killed and 53 injured at a gay nightclub in Orlando last weekend—and widespread reports that the perpetrator Omar Marteen was struggling with his sexual identity and mental health—gay Muslims find themselves under new scrutiny.

In my conversations with gay Muslim Americans this week, the resounding message was that Omar Mateen is no representative of the Muslim community—LGBTQ or otherwise. And they say the gun violence he perpetrated is a uniquely American problem that is homegrown, not imported.

"I wish we didn't have to be brave just to continue living." —Jordan Alam

Eman Abdelhadi, 26, is a PhD candidate at New York University whose work focuses on gender in the American Muslim world. Born in Missouri to an Egyptian mother and Palestinian father, she identifies as queer, and has been open with many members of her community since she first began dating women. When asked about the tragedy in Orlando, and whether Mateen was inspired by religious extremism, she struggles to hide her frustration.

"When something like this happens in America, Islam becomes the main topic of discussion," Abdelhadi tells VICE. "The narrative was first that Mateen was a homophobe because of Islam. Now that we're told that he may have been secretly gay, the narrative has become that he was self-hating because of his Islam. They want to divorce Mateen from all the factors in American society that created him, but there is nothing foreign about Omar Mateen."

The young man was, after all, born in New York*. If early reports about his life are to be believed, he had a relatively uneventful childhood, but became increasingly unstable as a young man—exhibiting signs of mental health issues. Just as was the case for mass murderers Adam Lanza, Jared Lee Loughner, James Holmes, and Dylann Roof, those problems were either ignored by authorities or overlooked by those closest to them. The only notable difference between those white men and Mateen, of course, is that the latter was brown and Muslim, the extremist ideology he flirted with supposedly Islamic.

To be sure, homophobia is a real problem in the Muslim community, one that can produce alienation for many young people.

"But that is true for all religious communities— Jewish and Christian alike," Abdelhadi explains. "We all have conversations about it and a range of opinions. The problem is that American media presents Islam and its people as a monolith: They validate the view that all Muslims are homophobic. That is simply not true."

24-year-old activist-writer Jordan Alam. Photo courtesy of Jordan Alam

Sadiya Abjani, 28, is a queer Ismaili Muslim activist who chairs the LGBT Muslim Retreat, part of the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity. As a rule, she tends to regard the American political arena as an environment uniquely unwelcoming to Muslims, which only further exacerbates the challenges faced by those who identify as LGBTQ.

"It is hard for us to trust the media," she says, referring obliquely to Donald Trump. "Anti-immigration and xenophobic rhetoric is rampant. Even if Muslims were born here or have been living here for many years, there is an assumption that we are all immigrants and un-American."

Abjani, born in San Antonio as the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, was introduced to these harsh realities when she was 13 years old, shortly after 9/11.

"I was attending a Catholic school, and the teacher crumpled my homework, gave it to me and said, 'Go back to where you came from.'"

"But I'm from here," she says now. "I'm Muslim, American, and queer."

Abjani challenges the idea that Muslim parents are more rigid when it comes to sexual orientation, or more likely to disown their children: "I have come out to my parents over the course of ten years. And now they've stopped asking me to get married. They are silently supportive—and though it is not ideal, it's a step in the right direction.

"My father was outraged over the Orlando shootings and asked, 'How could he do this? Those people were doing nothing,'" she continues. "I knew that was his way of saying he loves me. And showing his support."

In this Tuesday, June 14, 2016 photo, Eman Abdelhadi, a lesbian doctoral student at New York University, poses near the campus. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Twenty-four-year-old writer Jordan Alam has had a similar experience. Born and raised in Seattle, Washington, her parents are of Bangladeshi descent.

"My core family is supportive," she says. "When I came out, my father was only worried about my safety. He felt it added another layer to an already complicated identity. He was never ashamed of me. He was only scared for me. That picture of a Muslim family is one most Americans know nothing about."

As for gay and lesbian Muslims without the support network she enjoys, Alam says, "I wish we didn't have to be brave just to continue living."

Omar Sarwar is one such brave soul. The 34-year-old was born in New York to parents originally from Pakistan. He spent years in counseling and ex-gay therapy, as he and his parents tried their best to engineer him into a hetero-normative lifestyle. He worked in finance and dated women, but the results were depression and a deeper isolation from his faith. He has since come out, found healing, and considers himself less religious, but still culturally Muslim.

"When I was in college, I was practicing a modernist version of Islam but one that was still homophobic," he says. "My parents helped fund my therapy and became angry when I decided I would embrace who I am. Coming out created a painful rift in our relationship. There will always be a small part of them that wishes I would marry a woman, that may never change. But they've also come around to wanting to see me happy and hope that I will find love some day."

Kamal, 37, represents those still living in the shadows and asked us not to reveal his real name. He's a Palestinian American and works as a public health professional, traveling to countries in the Middle East and Africa where there are large Muslim majorities and strict laws against homosexuality. Though he lives openly with his partner in New York, he remains closeted to most of his family and friends back home.

"My initial reaction to the event in Orlando was fear," he says. "I am worried for Muslims in America and terrified of a potential Trump presidency, because there is a lot of room for hate."

Though Kamal is grateful for openly gay Muslim voices, he remains cognizant that his journey is far more common among men and women of his community—who remain silent for fear of being ostracized at best, or victims of violence at worst.

"In the bubble of New York I am safe," he tells VICE. "But events like Orlando remind me how easily our safe spaces can be shattered. Now the intersectionalities of my life are converging. But that said, coming out to my family is not my final frontier—there are still many barriers, many closet doors to open.

"The truth is you can still be denied a job or housing because you're gay," he adds. "You can't even use the bathroom in North Carolina. It's 2016, and there are far too many places in this country where I am made to feel uncomfortable because I am Muslim. But there are just as many places where I am afraid to be gay."

*Correction 6/17: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article said Mateen was born in New York City.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is a television producer, correspondent, and writer living in New York City. His report "Gay and Muslim in America" was nominated for a 2015 GLAAD Media Award. Follow him on Twitter.