Something groundbreaking happened after the Orlando shooting at Pulse nightclub in June of this year, the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the United States. Days after Omar Mateen opened fire at the gay and Latino nightclub, leaving 49 dead and 53 wounded, there was a noticeable presence of queer Muslim voices in the media—a media that hasn’t always been kind to Muslims. In previous years, after tragic events occurred in which the perpetrator had a relationship with Islam, Muslim voices were largely absent from the press. What usually ensued was a lot of finger-pointing and painting of Islam as a breeding ground for terrorists who were mostly anti-American.
In 2014, Bill Maher stated on his HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher that “vast numbers of Muslims...believe...that humans deserve to die for merely holding a different idea” and that they share “too much in common with ISIS.” There were no Muslims invited to be on the panel to speak about their lived experiences. On another occasion, TV host Jeanine Pirro issued a seven-minute dialogue on Fox News, urging the United States to send death squads throughout the Muslim world to kill Islamists.
According to Media Tenor, a research institute that analyzes media coverage, from 2007 to 2013, more than 80% of the media coverage on NBC and CBS about Muslims was negative. Stories that dominated airtime ranged from international terrorism to regional conflicts. The study also concluded that in most cases, Muslims were not included in mainstream media as experts on Islam.
That changed a bit after the Orlando shootings. Perhaps in an effort to avoid the us-versus-them narrative, media offered many queer Muslims a platform to share how they too were in mourning and how they often felt doubly ostracized. Voices addressed the need to dismantle Islamophobia and homophobia and the notion that Islam is a monolithic religion. The unifying sentiment echoed among the wide range of queer Muslim voices was the need to include the experiences of queer Muslims in the dialogue around LGBT equality in America.
Faisal Alam of the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity told MSNBC’s Brian Williams “We do have to work on homophobia and Islamophobia at the same time. And our communities need to work together to build more harmony, interfaith dialogue, and more understanding on diverse sexualities and genders that exist in this country.”
He added of the Pulse victims, “It could’ve been any one of us within the LGBT community, including myself.”
Queer Muslims’ willingness to boldly align themselves with the LGBT community in an open way hasn’t always been the case. No doubt social media has had a huge role to play in nudging queer Muslims toward self-acceptance despite the backlash many feel at home or in traditional mosque spaces.
The emergence of LGBT-friendly mosque spaces, founded by LGBT Muslim activists who often felt alienated in traditional mosques and queer spaces, have become incubators for self-acceptance for many who have been told that there was no place for them in Islam. For the most part, queer imams across North America are advocating for personal interpretations of the Koran for followers who don’t want to denounce the religion. Not only are they validating the experiences of queer Muslims by creating inclusive spaces, they’re reimagining the role the mosque should play in the 21st century for all Muslims.
It’s the first cool day of fall in Toronto, but the sudden chill in the air and torrential rain are not enough to stop the gathering of Muslims at Unity mosque. It’s a makeshift prayer space at a women’s medical center attended by queer Muslim refugees seeking asylum, young LGBT Canadian Muslims, new converts, and straight allies. For many, the weekly gathering is the only community they have after having been rejected in their native countries for being queer or not connecting with the LGBT community in Canada.
After the prayer, everyone shares what they would like to pray for that day as people sit in a circle, warming their hands with hot cups of caffeine-free tea that is served after the prayer. This is also an opportunity for the attendees to share topics for which they need support: ailing loved ones, refugee trials, or passing university exams. The central figure in this gathering is El-Farouk Khaki, who helped start Unity mosque in 2009. After most of the congregation gets up to leave the room, three 20-something queer Muslims crowd around the openly gay human rights lawyer and imam.
It’s easy to see El-Farouk Khaki as a comforting father figure to whom young queer Muslims gravitate. Instead of reciting a list of dos and don’ts in his Friday sermon, he talks about healing and self-care, topics that are welcomed by mosque attendees who have been traumatized during their upbringing through experiencing rejection by family and mainstream mosques. One of the three 20-somethings is boasting about using a newly launched halal nail polish on her fingers. Brands like Orly have launched a breathable nail polish as a response to many Muslim women’s concern that wearing nail polish prevents water from permeating the nails, making ablution—the ritual cleansing that must take place before prayer—less than optimal.
Khaki wonders about the need for the product: “Aren’t your nails already clean before you apply nail polish? You’re probably not applying nail polish to dirty fingernails,” he remarks as the trio smirks.
Unlike at traditional mosques, everything is open for debate and dialogue at Unity mosque. Congregants are encouraged to speak about their individual experiences with the religion. It makes sense that Khaki would launch the mosque to create a safe space for everyone who feels unsafe in society. Growing up in Tanzania, where he was one of the few brown-skinned people in black Africa, and then moving to Canada with his family, he always felt like a minority. Although his parents grew up in the Shia community, they later started identifying as Sunnis when Khaki was a child, and he felt out of place in both sects. He tried being Sunni in his 20s but realized that sectarianism didn’t reflect his relationship with Islam.
“I think that’s something that a lot of people are realizing, especially new converts who are entering Islam,” explains Khaki, referring to how pledging allegiance to sects is losing its appeal. “Prophet Muhammad was neither Sunni nor Shia. So I gave that sectarianism away because it doesn’t mean anything to me.”
Khaki is also wary of following strict rituals—like reciting the Koran or praying—that are prescribed by mainstream mosques, without exploring the intention behind them. Also unique to Unity mosque is the approach to prayer: Though men and women are separated at traditional mosques, everyone prays side by side at Unity mosque.
Noticeable too is that people at Unity are dressed in manners as diverse as the experiences they represent. Some female-identifying Muslims wear the hijab, while others are covered in tattoos and piercings and pray without a head covering.
“To relegate an entire spiritual identity of a person into a religious cloth doesn’t make someone a good imam,” Khaki says. “The most important role I play is soul care—because the other stuff is ritual, which has no meaning in itself. As a religious leader, is instilling fear really enough for your congregation? What about wholeness and love? That is the role of a religious community.”
Perhaps it is the focus on community health and spiritual well-being that attracts the straight allies who identify more with a mosque where all are made to feel welcome.
“The mosque has to take on that role because the world is not providing it. It’s not enough to say that Islam means peace. That’s complacent. If it meant peace, then the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world should have transformed the planet. And they haven’t,” says Khaki.
The need for introspection and thinking about how mosques are serving a congregation’s needs was top of mind for Khaki and many other LGBT Muslims who did press interviews around the clock in the exhausting weeks following the Orlando shootings. But the imam happily welcomes that shift.
“I don’t want to be the only one,” he says, referring to the historic lack of LGBT Muslim experts in mainstream media. “It’s good to show that there are actually millions of us.”
An unexpected turn of events led 38-year-old Kelly Wentworth to become an imam in Atlanta. After attending Tennessee Technological University, the software engineer was suddenly exposed to engineering students from India, Pakistan, and the Middle East who were Hindu and Muslim, which was a refreshing change from her progressive Baptist upbringing.
“At the time, I honestly didn’t know the difference between Islam and Hinduism,” she admits. “When 9/11 happened, I didn’t know that my Hindu friends at the university were not Muslim. Catholics were exotic to me.”
In 2003, Wentworth went to an event organized by the Islamic community on campus. There were different types of Muslims from all over the world on campus in the small town; Sufis, Sunnis, and Shias practiced Islam under the same roof. Wentworth says the community welcomed her curiosity and didn’t push a rigid way of practicing Islam onto her.
Around the same time, Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, a book edited by Omid Safi, the director of the Islamic Studies Center at Duke University, came out and deeply shaped Wentworth’s burgeoning relationship with Islam. The book includes opinions of 14 Muslim thinkers about the role Islam plays post-9/11 in the modern world. Shortly before graduating, Wentworth traveled to Yemen with her then-partner, and upon her return to Atlanta, she decided that she was going to practice Islam. After finding no communities that accepted LGBT members, Wentworth decided to launch a chapter of Muslims for Progressive Values in Atlanta. MPV is a Los Angeles–based organization that is recognized by the United Nations as an official NGO. It has international chapters and works on advocacy to implement progressive Muslim values as a way to combat radicalization in Islam.
Initially, Wentworth and her then-partner, who together launched the inclusive Muslim space, got a lot of pushback from the Atlanta Islamic community.
“We created a community in Atlanta out of our desire to find something that didn’t segregate men and women and welcomed LGBT Muslims. So we pushed back on the idea that being LGBT is a sin. We believe that not only can people of different genders pray in the same room, they can pray side by side,” Wentworth explains.
The Orlando tragedy drew to the Atlanta Unity mosque a lot of new queer Muslim attendees who needed a place to heal and collectively mourn the lives that were lost.
“There are a lot of struggles that go on with people who have multiple identities, so it’s nice to have a conversation and not shy away from it,” says Wentworth.
Sixty-two-year-old Daayiee Abdullah wasn’t planning on becoming an imam. But he felt like he had no choice when a Muslim man died from HIV and no one would wash him, a requirement before a Muslim funeral can take place.
“A guy called me and said [the man] had been at the morgue for a week and asked if I would come wash him and perform his funeral, and I said sure,” he says. “I took the role out of necessity, not desire, because I was interested in dealing with sexual diversity with a Koranic framework.”
Growing up in Detroit exposed Abdullah to people from all over the world who had traveled to the city to work in the auto industry. He grew up going to a Southern Baptist church and told his parents he was gay right after Stonewall. After becoming bored at his job as a court stenographer for the IRS, Abdullah left the United States to study in China, where he was introduced to a softer, kinder, and more loving Islam at Beijing University that he fell in love with.
“I attended a Saudi mosque in Taiwan after leaving China, and I could see the difference right away. In China, they had gay emperors and scholars, so it was not unusual for someone to identify as gay. But being in the Saudi mosque, I understood that it’s Muslim cultures that promote homophobia, not the religion,” he explains.
In order to address the needs of Muslims who are looking for imams who advocate an inclusive version of Islam, Abdullah recently launched the Mecca Institute. The two-year chaplaincy program trains future imams in inclusive Islamic theology.
“My role is to spread progressive Islamic theology around LGBT issues and create alternative voices,” says Abdullah, adding that the program will equip imams to deal with extremism in their communities, which in return will help advocate a more tolerant Islam and, one would hope, create more inclusive spaces that will embrace LGBT Muslims.