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What’s it like being a gay Muslim?

EastEnders’ current romantic storyline featuring a gay Muslim character has caused a stir. But what is it really like to be gay within Britain’s Muslim communities?

Pav Akhtar is not usually a fan of soaps. But the 30-year-old local councillor and Unison worker has been paying special attention since EastEnders introduced its first gay Muslim character. Akhtar, the chair of Imaan, an organisation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Muslims, advised the BBC on the storyline in the hope that the character of Syed Masood would help tackle the double discrimination of homophobia and Islamophobia that many gay Muslims face.

A muslim protestor at London Pride holds a placard with the words Love is Not Haram
Love is not Haram

The Muslim theologian Amanullah De Sondy said recently that the vast majority of Muslims were “deeply homophobic”, and a survey carried out this summer among British Muslims reported that 0% of those questioned thought homosexuality was “morally acceptable”. Yet, so far, the taboo-busting EastEnders storyline has not sparked the expected deluge of complaints – in fact, the soap’s first gay Muslim kiss attracted a healthy 7.9 million viewers. But what is it like being gay and Muslim in the UK today?

Javaid, 34

It's good that a soap opera is tackling this. The EastEnders storyline may cause a bit of outrage, but anything that gets people talking can only be a good thing. I don't think we should sweep everything under the carpet – people should be challenged. My family are liberal Muslims and I think coming out to them has been no different than if I was Jewish or Christian. But although I am out to my immediate family, I'm not out to my community, so I don't want to identify myself fully. I couldn't reconcile my sexuality with their teachings, and so I lost my faith.

I was religious up to my mid-teens, but once I started to understand my sexuality, I became confused. My understanding was that in Islam homosexuality was seen in the same way as adultery. That sends a message that being gay is something to be ashamed of and not socially acceptable. It was really upsetting and I would pray to Allah to turn me straight. At that point, if I could have done anything to make myself straight I would have done.

When my parents found out, my father did not really understand. But he tried hard to learn. The debate about lowering the age of consent was going on at the time, and he would cut out articles and videotape TV programmes to show me when I came home. He even went to a gay bookshop and bought a book about being the parent of a gay son. It really meant a lot to me. My mum was very different. She is a practising Muslim and has been to hajj twice. She cried for about three days when I told her. That was 15 years ago and I still can't talk to her openly about it. I want to, but I can't do it yet.

Aaliyah, 30s

I don't know about this report that said 0% of British Muslims believed being gay was acceptable. That has not been my experience or the experience of my friends. But I think Muslims do find the concept of having an identity based around sexuality an alien concept. I'm out to all of my friends and most people who know me, but despite being chair of an organisation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Muslims, I have never identified myself in interviews before because I have tried to be respectful of my family's religious and cultural sensibilities. But recently I was outed by a relative to family members both in the UK and in Pakistan. Now I realise I don't want to give anyone that kind of power over me again.

Secret gay affair in Eastenders
Simmering passion: EastEnders characters Christian Clarke and Syed Masoor get physical. Photograph: BBC

I was brought up with a narrow interpretation of Islam from a traditional, working-class Pakistani perspective and believed, like everyone else, that being gay was wrong. I suppose this is still the dominant Muslim interpretation, but it's not the only one. It was a very difficult time when I realised I was mostly gay in my early 20s; that it wasn't just a passing phase. I had something of a nervous breakdown: I couldn't stop crying for days, I had nightmares, I couldn't sleep alone, I thought I was going to hell for feeling the way I did. I didn't know any gay Muslims, or gay Asians even, so I couldn't discuss the religious side with anyone.

Eventually I saw a meeting advertised in the Pink Paper looking for gay Muslims for a support group. Through Imaan, I listened to scholars and open-minded imams, and discovered that, like many things in the Qu'ran, there can be different interpretations about homosexuality.

When an Arabic paper picked up the story of our first conference, an extremist group issued a fatwa against us. The police sent 40 riot officers to protect us. After 9/11, we experienced Islamophobia including from within the gay community – at Gay Pride, some of the crowd heckled us, and even a Pride steward referred to us as terrorists. True, most of the threats we had at Imaan came from Muslims, but they were also more generally from men.

I started telling my mum I was gay about 10 years ago. It took her about 10 years to accept and I'd have to reiterate it when the issue of marriage came up. When I told her the truth, she told me to pray and ask God to forgive me, but she would never disown me. Now she says maybe I know more about it – she left school at 16 in Pakistan, while I studied Arabic at university and researched the subject a lot, so she does take my opinion seriously.

Ibrahim, 40s Charity worker

I think things are getting worse for gay Muslims because of the more extreme interpretations of Islam around today. The Muslim community is more homophobic – at least towards those who are out and comfortable. People have become brainwashed and no longer want to think about the true meaning of Islam.

I've seen Muslim men sent to the US for electric shock treatment to "cure" them of their homosexuality; I know of gay men who have been murdered in "honour killings" – in fact, the police often contact our sexual health organisation if there is an unexplained death of a young Muslim man to check if he is on our database. I have even heard parents tell their children they would rather they were suicide bombers than gay.

Because of this attitude there are lots of men who outwardly lead an Islamic lifestyle, who are married and go to prayers on a Friday, but then go and pick up men for sex. They don't see that they're gay. I've worked with rabbis and imams and the one thing they agree on is that gay men should either marry women or abstain. But abstinence is not an option to most human beings and I always ask, "Would you marry your daughter to someone you knew was gay? Do you think they would be happy with him?" The nikah (Islamic marriage service) is not gender-specific, so why not just let gay Muslim men marry each other?

Many Muslims think gay culture is about promiscuous sex, drugs and drinking. But being a gay Muslim can mean committing to one relationship. If gay Muslims marry each other, it would discourage double lives and promiscuity. The imams I have said this to agree with me, but say they can't say that in public.

My family know I'm gay; we don't talk about it, but they have always known – probably before I did. My mother told me to be myself. But I was bullied very badly at school. It was continuous – homophobic and racist – and it stopped me completing my education. I used to pray to Allah to ask him to make me straight; I even visited the shrines of Sufi saints. Then I spoke to scholars, imams and academics and I learned that there's no word for homosexuality in the Qur'an, but it does teach you to respect the diversity in the world and be honest – which is what I am doing. So now I'm looking for a partner for life, who will accept me and my religion.

Pav Akhtar, 30, Union worker and local councillor

I really welcome the gay character in EastEnders because I want people to engage in the discussion. The Masoods are brilliant – even if they are caricatures, like all other soap opera characters.

I grew up in a household where no sexuality was discussed – it didn't exist. That's true of many British Asian families. You feel like you're not supposed to have any sexual feelings – we had to switch channels if anyone was kissing on TV. It was a working-class Asian family, and I went to the mosque five times a week and was very attached to my faith.

My sisters and brothers are very supportive – I took my partner to Pakistan to visit my family there last year, and that was fine. My mother knows, but I have never actually discussed it with her, although I have introduced her to my "friends". With parents it's not just a cultural taboo, but their concern that without marriage and a family you will be alone.

This article was amended on 9 September 2011 to anonymise an individual by using a pseudonym.

By Homa Khaleeli

Wed 29 Jul 2009 - The Guardian



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