Imams help gay Muslims embrace new social identities

By Shahzeb Jillani BBC News

Some British Asian gay Muslims are embracing a new identity, based as much on race and religion as on sexual orientation with a number trying to do it with the help of their local imams.

Not all British gay muslims feel they can be open about their sexuality

When Khalid Habib decided it was time to come out about his sexuality, the first person he chose to confide in was not anyone in the family but his local imam.

“It was really important to me because I am a practising Muslim. It was about my personal relationship with Allah,” said the 35-year-old media professional from the north of England.

“I sat in his sitting room struggling to get the words,” he said.

“I told him I have issues, but couldn’t bring myself to utter the words ‘with my sexuality’. We spent many hours sitting in silence,” he recalled

When Khalid finally told him, he was struck by the imam’s reaction.

“He was really honest. He told me that in his 25 years of experience as a leader in a British Muslim community, he had never thought about homosexuality in a practical sense.

“So, he had approached it in the textbook sense, preaching that it was immoral, wrong and ‘haram’ in Islam. But he had never looked at it in a human sense.”

They said it was all in my head and that I was fooling myself” – Zeinab

Khalid says that as a British Muslim, he feels gay men have yet to find answers to some very difficult questions: “If it is wrong to be gay, should we force ourselves into heterosexual marriages?

“And in doing so, should we lie to the women we get married to? Or should we go for marriages of convenience with lesbians? Or, should we just remain celibate?” he asked.

Unlike Britain’s wider gay community, the Asian gay scene is still largely underground.

They may go to gay clubs or support groups, but most remain in the closet.

But the fear of rejection, humiliation and in some cases physical harm from their own communities keeps many Muslim gays isolated.

Iranian-born Zeinab, 18, is a case in point.

Death penalty

I met her on a Friday evening at a gay pride event in London’s East End borough of Tower Hamlets.

Even though the neighbourhood is home to one of the highest concentrations of British Asians, there were only a few Asians in the crowd.

Zeinab was there with two of her girlfriends – a lesbian wearing a hijab and a British Asian woman who described herself as bisexual.

She said: “When I came out to my family last year, they were shocked and angry. They said it was all in my head and that I was fooling myself.

“We had so many fights. I wanted to leave home. I was really depressed. I wanted to commit suicide.”

Zeinab says she is fortunate to be in Britain where she has the freedom to go out with friends to gay events and be herself, unlike Iran or Saudi Arabia where homosexuality carries a death penalty.

Some of their families and friends may even attend these nikkahs (marriage contracts), but they would never publicly admit it for fear of being ostracised by mainstream Muslims” Ibrahim Ismail – Activist

But at home, Zeinab’s sexual orientation remains a tense, taboo subject. She says the family refuses to recognise for who she is. So, they just don’t talk about it anymore.

“I would say I am quite religious. But I also know I am attracted to girls,” said one of her friends.

“The way I understand Islam, I don’t believe homosexuality is a sin because Allah is kind and generous.”

An overwhelming majority of Muslims worldwide reject this argument and believes gay Muslims are trying to re-interpret Islam to justify a lifestyle that is simply not permitted.

Asif Qureshi, a key worker at The Naz Project, a London-based support group working with British Asian gay men said: “In my experience, the number of Asian gays coming out has almost tripled over the last three years.”


In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that those who dare to come out and seek long term same-sex relationships are sometimes not content with the idea of civil partnerships.

They desire religious recognition of their union, with some reportedly taking the daring step of entering into nikkahs (Muslim marriage contracts).

Different organisations are trying to tackle the taboo

Mr Qureshi said he was aware of couples who had opted for such nikkahs but stressed that these were performed by imams in absolute secrecy.

Muslim gay activist Ibrahim Ismail has been working on sexual health issues for many years.

He said: “Some of their families and friends may even attend these nikkahs, but they would never publicly admit it for fear of being ostracised by mainstream Muslims.

“They are very much invisible.”

Even though it is something entirely covert, the idea of Muslim gay marriages sheds light on the role some imams could be playing in helping people reconcile their sexuality and their faith.

As Khalid Habib said, when he came out to his imam three years ago, little did he know that this would be the beginning of a long process to come to terms with sometimes uncomfortable aspects of his faith.

He said, since then, he’s been engaged in an ongoing dialogue with three separate imams to discuss what Allah would have to say about various aspects of his lifestyle.

“It has been a difficult but a mutually rewarding process.

“At least I have found an imam who has agreed to perform my nikkah when I get married,” he said with a smile as he discussed his plans of having a traditional South Asian wedding one day.

Some names have been changed to protect the identity of individuals interviewed for this piece.

What David Kato’s death can teach the world

Posted Tuesday, February 1 2011 at 00:00
News of the brutal murder of Ugandan human rights activist David Kato has reverberated around the world. Kato was beaten to death at his home outside of Kampala on January 26. He had dedicated much of his working life to helping those persecuted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In the months leading up to his death, he had himself been a target of a hate-campaign mounted by a local newspaper, The Rolling Stone, which printed his name, photograph and address alongside those of dozens of others the paper claimed were gay or lesbian, and called for them to be hanged.

Just last month, he and two other litigants took the newspaper to court, successfully securing an injunction against the newspaper to prevent it publishing similar stories in future. Kato’s visibility as an openly gay man and an activist for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people has understandably fuelled speculation that he was the victim of a fatal homophobic attack. At the time of writing, a police investigation continues into the circumstances of his death.

We must await the outcome of judicial proceedings to know who killed him and why. But whoever is responsible and whatever their motive, we know the fear felt by many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals in Uganda and elsewhere who continue to face widespread prejudice and the constant threat of homophobic violence. Kato’s death robs them of a brave and eloquent advocate.

If Kato’s murder stimulates discussion about the violence and discrimination facing people because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity, then his death will not have been completely in vain. That discussion must inevitably address the question of decriminalising homosexuality. Criminal sanctions for homosexuality remain on the statute books in more than 70 countries, including Uganda.

Such laws are an anachronism, in most cases a hangover from the old days of colonial rule. They are inherently discriminatory and constitute a violation of the human rights of those whose conduct they seek to sanction. States often justify the existence of these laws with reference to popular opinion. Yet popular opinion alone can never justify depriving certain people of their rights. People are entitled to disapprove of homosexuality. They are entitled to express their disapproval. But they are not entitled to harm or inflict violence on their fellow human beings, nor to use the criminal law to have them arrested, imprisoned, even in some cases executed, simply because they disapprove of them.

Decriminalising homosexuality is an essential first step towards establishing genuine equality before the law. But real, lasting progress cannot be achieved by changing laws alone. We must change minds as well. Like racism and misogyny, homophobia is prejudice born of ignorance. And like other forms of prejudice, the most effective long-term response is information and education.

Over the past half century, we have seen a marked shift in public attitudes in almost all societies towards race, gender and disability. The challenge, for all those who believe in human rights and non-discrimination, is to encourage a similar shift in public attitudes towards those whose sexual orientation or gender identity differs from that of the majority in society. This is a major undertaking that will require the involvement and commitment of us all.

Basic messages on non-discrimination, equality and human rights should be included in school curricula everywhere, reinforced by effective public education campaigns that engage the general public. The role of civil society is vital. Wherever social progress has been achieved over the last hundred years, it has involved the concerted efforts of community-based groups and other non-governmental organisations. Today, with the presence of social media and Internet-based campaigns, the potential impact of civil society-led public education is greater than ever.

We at the United Nations must be prepared to support and encourage this change. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has already committed himself to the task. Speaking on Human Rights Day on December 10, 2010, he pledged to work for the worldwide decriminalisation of homosexuality, using both private diplomacy and public advocacy to mobilise support. “Violence will end only when we confront prejudice”, he said. “Stigma and discrimination will end only when we agree to speak out. That requires all of us to do our part; to speak out at home, at work, in our schools and communities; to stand in solidarity.”

Today, we mark the loss of a remarkable man, a remarkable human rights activist. Let us honour Kato’s memory by recommitting to the values he sought to defend: the equal worth and dignity of every human being, regardless of their sexuality or gender identity.

Ms Pillay is the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights


EQUAL GROUND into 7th year

EQUAL GROUND, a non profitable trust working for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Questioning community blasts into the new year with a full program of events, projects and an LGBTIQ Center in the heart of Colombo.   Community members are encouraged to drop in and make use of a DVD and book library filled with LGBTIQ films, novels, research and educational materials and a number of other publications.  Definitely NO PORN!  So those of you who are silly enough to think this should wipe their minds clear of it!

WE are pleased to welcome new members and old members to our center for movie nights, fellowship evenings and special events.   The center is also available for community members to hold meetings, rehearsals, and games such as carrom, badminton, cards, board games etc.  We also operate a counseling service for the LGBTIQ community on three hotlines:

The first line (which is a mixed line) can be reached on 5679766 or 2512977 – Monday to Friday 930am-530pm
The second line (women only) can be reached on 5748705.  This line is operated by only Women volunteers and staff trained in LGBT, sexual  and mental health issues.  Also open – Monday to Friday 930am-530pm.  We will soon extend the counseling hours to late nights and weekends as well.

Give us a call or drop in!