‘‘You’re straight, aren’t you?” one of the group I’m with asks me as we walk through the gates of Regent’s Park in London. When I confirm that I am, his response is quick: “That’s a shame.” I’m tagging along with members of Imaan, a support group for LGBT Muslims, who are celebrating the end of a four-day conference in Soho.
Once inside the park, I’m introduced to dozens of Muslim men and women – some are playing football while others are relaxing, enjoying the sun. The mood is palpably friendly. Looking around, there are young, middle-aged, introvert and extrovert Muslims in the gathering; it is also multi-ethnic. Lying down with his head on his jacket is 43-year-old Scott Kugle – a white American convert to Islam and the author of Homosexuality in Islam. I wonder what a gay American would see in Islam – isn’t the religion often perceived as homophobic and intolerant? He sits up: “I didn’t embrace Islam as a gay Muslim,” he says calmly, “I embraced Islam as a human being.”
As we continue our discussion, boys and girls are mixing freely, a few hugging and kissing, actions anathema to traditional Muslim gatherings. For many LGBT Muslims, however, religion is mostly about love – everything else is subsidiary. While Islamic scripture is often used to condemn homosexuality, the LGBT Muslims I speak to offer an alternative, more inclusive, interpretation.
This doesn’t mean that LGBT Muslims neglect their religious practices. One of the first things they did at the park was perform Asr, the mid-afternoon prayer. Yusef Gojikian, 28, is of Palestinian-Lebanese heritage, he’s a social worker for Imaan and is wearing a green traditional Muslim cap. He doesn’t see why – apart from his sexual orientation – he’s different from any other Muslim. “I pray five times a day and I read the Quran,” he says.
I also speak to a young, south Asian lesbian, who prefers not to be named because she hasn’t yet come out to her parents. She’s wearing a green jilbab, the long, loose-fitting garment that covers the entire body. “Nobody forces me to wear this. It’s completely my choice,” she says.
As the sun sets and everyone begins to depart, I get the chance to carry on speaking to Kugle, who is excited about recent global developments. “The public solidarity from the Arab spring is going to create many alliances. Some Arab spring activists are gay and lesbian and are finding a way to speak out.” It doesn’t end there. “In South Africa, there’s a real media presence and the discourse is being changed about LGBT Muslims,” he says.
Unlike many of the civil rights movements from the 1960s, LGBT Muslims are not hitting the streets demanding change. But open meetings like this are significant nonetheless. While the issue of homosexual marriage in the Christian Church has been fiercely debated in Britain recently, the discussion has yet to permeate mainstream Islamic discourse, partly because many Muslims believe the prohibition of homosexuality is immutable.
But Islam, too, is now having to confront the realities of everyday life.
Omar Shahid is politics editor of the youth magazine “Live” (live-magazine.co.uk) imaanlondon.wordpress.com