Gay and Muslim: Can Orlando tragedy lead to acceptance, tolerance?

The World
Participants are silhouetted while holding a rainbow flag during the annual gay pride parade in central Nicosia, Cyprus May 29, 2016.

As a gay Muslim living in Toronto, Shawn Ahmed says the shooting at a gay club in Orlando hits him hard.

"The victims are part of my community, because I'm gay, and the perpetrator is also part of my community, because he's Muslim," he says, adding that words can't describe how he feels.

Ahmed's own experience coming out as gay and being Muslim has been a difficult one. His parents fled what is today's Bangladesh and landed in Canada. Ahmed was born in Toronto.

It took him until his 30s to come out. He's a Muslim, and Islam views homosexuality as sinful.

"I would try and pray the gay away, I would try to fast, as if it was some sort of impurity in me," Ahmed explains. He was determined not to cause his parents "pain and dishonor." But as time went on, Ahmed realized that in trying to spare his parents pain, he was developing a pain of his own. 

"It was almost making me wish I could take my own life," he says.

Then Ahmed decided to post a message annonymously on a Muslim support group on Reddit. "I ask them: 'I'm gay. I've tried everything. I don't think I can change this. What's the lesser sin? Should I take my own life? Or should I accept that I am gay?'"

After some debate and backlash, the consensus from the group was that suicide is the bigger sin and it should be avoided at all costs. So during a trip to Bangladesh, Ahmed came out.

"My parents wanted wanted to offer an arranged marriage as a cure," Ahmed says. "My dad even said, 'We can find a lesbian and so two people will be cured.'"

Since then, Ahmed says, he has received both support as well as hatred from the Muslim community.

"A lot of Muslims are disgusted that I call myself Muslim so I find hatred in this community sometimes as much as I find acceptance," he says.

The shooting in Orlando has brought to light the complex issue of how the LGBT community is viewed by Muslims. Many Muslims have passionately condemned the Orlando massacre.

But Muslim community in Durham, NC, has reached out "their LGBT brothers and sisters,” says Imam Abdullah Antepli, who is the chief representative of Muslim affairs at Duke University. They held a peace vigil yesterday, and he says they will hold another tonight.

American Muslims across the US have also started a fund to help the families of the victims in Orlando and so far they have collected $45,000. Many Muslims also donated blood to help the injured.

But amid everything, questions have been raised about the place of homosexuality in Islam, and how Muslims perceive and react to homosexuality.

According to Antepli, “there is a spectrum of views and reactions. But what has been said in the past from a theological social or cultural point of view is very much irrelevant today.”

But most times religion is up to interpretation, and these result in millions of perspectives.

“To pick up the worst interpretation, the most violent, bizarre and most inhuman interpretation and to lift it up as the most authentic and most Islamic … is not only inaccurate but also unfair to the 1,400 years of Muslim civilization and history.”

Yet there are many LGBT Muslims who sit on cultural fault lines, and they remain largely closeted. Antepli hopes the aftermath of the Orlando attacks can be a beginning for American Muslim society to embrace LGBT Muslims.

“What Muslims have seen being implemented 400 years ago should not limit us to reach out to the LGBT Muslim community or the LGBT community'' he says. "Our love, our grace, our welcome is all-inclusive. My heart especially goes out to the members of the gay Muslim community. Who are marginalized by the Muslim community for being gay, and then marginalized by everyone else for being Muslim.”  

Antepli has a 15-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son. He has had to have “painful conversations” with his children in the aftermath of the Orlando shootings.

“After the attack, all Ramadan conversation shifted into, 'Who is this person? Does he represent our religion? Where is this deep hatred and homophobia coming from?'” Antepli says. “I’m hoping that my children will be able to recognize hate in the name of religion or any ideology, and they will fight against any form of hate against any community wherever it happens.”

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