Coming out: Growing up gay and Muslim in America

In traditional Islam, homosexuality is considered an unspeakable crime, leaving many young gay Muslims in the shadows

NEW YORK — Born in the suburbs of Seattle to a close-knit middle-class American family, Omar said he felt pressure to live up to his family’s expectations, as a man and as a Muslim.

At UCLA, he attended prayers and participated in the Muslim Student Association. But in secret, he started dating men. Unable to reconcile being gay with his faith, he stepped away from Islam.

“I did try to divorce myself from Islam because I was gay,” says Omar, who asked to be identified by only his first name. “Growing up, I was taught that being gay was not OK … You were completely excommunicated or lived on the fringes or had to come up with a lot of solutions that weren’t honest.”

Since moving to New York City five years ago, Omar has lived as an openly gay man.
Courtesy of Omar

Traditionally, Islam does not tolerate homosexuality. Of the estimated 4 million to 7 million Muslims living in the U.S., many are first-generation immigrants, who, like Omar’s Pakistani parents, came from countries where same-sex relationships are stigmatized, criminalized or even punishable by death. That cultural reality makes it difficult for the message of acceptance and equality, which is becoming mainstream in the U.S., to find an audience in more traditional Islamic circles. 

“Being Muslim — it’s not safe to be gay sometimes,” Omar said. “So if you’re not there yet with your surroundings to be open and feel like your life is safe, I would not tell a 16-year-old to just come out of the closet just like that.”

It was only when he moved to New York City five years ago that Omar took on his new identity.

“First and foremost, I am gay, “ he said, “who happens to be a person of color, who happens to be raised Muslim.” 

Mixed messages

American Muslim leaders recognize that times are changing, but that doesn’t mean they’re fully embracing the shift. Imam Chenor Jalloh of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, the city’s largest mosque, said the doors are always open to gay Muslims. But while he welcomes the individual, he said he rejects the sexual orientation, which he called a “contradict[ion]” to “the system of Islam.”

The imam offers this advice to Muslim parents of gay children: “Love them. Care for them. Do not expel them. That is not the solution.”

Despite his temperance, Jalloh suggests that in time, gay youths can change. Parents “should also encourage them to not live that life,” he said. “I cannot say that people are born gay.”

We’re not reinventing Islam … We’re cutting out the middle part, all the political and social corruption of the faith.

Ani Zonneveld

founder, Muslims for Progressive Values

It is this view and mixed messages that often leave young gay Muslims feeling confused and alone, torn between the fear of being disowned by family and faith and denying their sexual identities. And given the myriad social challenges facing American Muslims in general, from government monitoring to discrimination, these pressures can leave some gay Muslims feeling like a dual minority, isolated within and outside their communities.

But some young gay Muslims are challenging this arrangement, rising in the fields of politics, media, art and activism and working to create a more inclusive American Islam. Writing in Time magazine, Rabia Chaudry called this moment nothing short of “a new Muslim rising.” 

Islamic values

Sara said it was natural for her to reconcile her sexual orientation and her Muslim faith, but she remains estranged from her family.
America Tonight

Sara, a 27-year-old lesbian living in Brooklyn who identifies as queer, experienced a painful estrangement from her family. But she maintains deep ties to her faith and still considers herself religious.

“Reconciling my Islamic faith and my sexuality was pretty natural,” she said. “I believe this idea that Allah has created people in the best form and that Allah loves his creations.”

In New York she found support in both her gay community and her religion. She said her faith has actually grown stronger since coming out.

“Faith used to be a box that I held on to, and it looked a certain way and I could only ever be a certain way within that box,” she explained. “But as I went on with my life, I realized that faith was the promise of change, recognizing change and striving toward truth.”

And while the tradition remains that homosexuality is a sin in Islam, there is a growing movement of scholars, activists and religious leaders rereading sources and pulling from them ideas of tolerance and social change.

“The truth is that during Prophet Muhammad’s days, he appointed the first female imam, and gay people were not persecuted for being gay,” said Ani Zonneveld, founder of Muslims for Progressive Values, a Los Angeles–based organization that advocates for women’s rights and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality.

She is a trailblazer, helping create the kind of safe spaces in Islam that young gay Muslims like Omar and Sara seek, has officiated at the Islamic wedding of a lesbian couple and challenges the establishment by leading prayers — a task women are traditionally not allowed to do.

“We’re not reinventing Islam. We are actually going back to the values of Islam in the Quran, and we’re bringing those values into the 21st century,” Zonneveld said. “And we’re cutting out the middle part, all the political and social corruption of the faith.”

Sara holds out hope that her estrangement from her mother isn’t permanent. “I’m settled and living my life, and I’m happy,” she said. “I think that would mean a lot to her.”

Now 30 and living as an openly gay man, Omar still hasn’t explicitly come out to his parents. But he thinks they know he’s gay. “In the last five years or so, I’ve been more brazen about certain details,” he explained. “And this sounds silly, but even on social media, on Facebook, I’ll let some pictures go on there that could really be perceived as gay, and my family can see that.”

There are still parts of his faith and community that he misses. To his surprise, he’s now in a relationship with another Muslim.

“I think that was something I tried to deny,” said Omar, “that someone who I would be most attracted to and most comfortable with would also be Muslim.”

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