By Gina Cherelus
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Qais Munhazim woke up on Sunday to reports that an Afghan-American gunman had rampaged through a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in an attack apparently motivated by support for militant Islamist groups.
Tearful and disconsolate, Munhazim, a gay Muslim man who is originally from Afghanistan, made plans to attend the University of Minnesota’s vigil the following day for the victims.
The Orlando shooter killed 49 people and injured 53: the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history and also the worst attack in America on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
“The moment I introduced myself to someone who is also part of the (LGBT) community, she asked me what my nationality is and I said I am Afghan,” said Munhazim, a doctoral political science student at the university, on Tuesday.
“Immediately her answer was, ‘this is not the right time or place for you.’ I went there trying to be among my own community, to grieve together with them. Even my grieving was questioned because of my identity.”
Munhazim’s experience illustrates the isolation some Muslims in the LGBT community in the United States are feeling.
“Coming (to America) I found that freedom but at the same time I definitely always found myself marginalized and discriminated because of my faith, because Islamophobia has been propagated by a lot of politicians in the U.S.,” Munhazim said.
This referred to remarks by some politicians, most prominently Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, following the Orlando shootings and previous such attacks, that have cast a shadow of suspicion on Muslims in America.
While Islam has a wide variety of laws and customs across the world’s more than 1.6 billion Muslims, gay sex is illegal in many Muslim-majority countries. In some countries such as Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, homosexual acts can be punishable by death.
According to Hussain Turk, a Pakistani-American Muslim lawyer from Los Angeles, what makes it difficult for Muslims to be both gay and religious is the idea that Islam is a monolithic faith with a single set of rules stemming from the Koran, the religion’s holy book.
But he argues, “What I’ve learned is that Islam is a dynamic religion at its core. Islam wasn’t meant to be this anti-progressive monolith.”
Nonetheless, Turk, a gay Muslim man who also served as editor-in-chief of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Journal of Islamic and Near Eastern Law, said there are Muslims, gay and non-gay, who say Islam’s resistance to change is what gives it its appeal as a religion.
There are about 3.3 million Muslims of all ages living in America, according to a Pew Research Center study in 2015. There are no statistics on how many LGBT Muslims are in the country.
Mona Siam, a Jordanian Muslim woman who is also lesbian, was granted asylum in the United States in 2011 after she said she was hit by a stray bullet fired by police who were attempting to scare off guests at a gay-friendly bar in Beirut, Lebanon.
Despite coming to the United States, Siam said that she still feels some animosity from Americans because of her religion and her sexual orientation.
“I feel conflicted in the U.S. because I came here for safety and I feel like every part of my identity is being attacked,” Siam said on Tuesday.
“We are afraid of being Muslim in public or queer in public in a country where that shouldn’t be happening. It’s open-minded; you have thousand of cultures and identities. It’s America.”
Seeking to help Americans conflicted about their religion and sexuality, the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity has hosted the Retreat for LGBTQ Muslims and Partners annually since 2011, attracting nearly 100 guests for a weekend of spiritual building.
Tynan Power, a representative for MASGD, said that gender identity has had substantial support in both the Sunni and Shi’ite branches of Islam.
“There are Muslims who believe that the Koran forbids homosexuality, just as there are Christians who believe the Bible does,” said Power.
“There are also Muslims who believe that honoring their God-given capacity to love is a form of worship. Ultimately, no one perspective can define a religion for all other people of that faith.”
Garrett Fugate, a Greek Muslim man who identifies as queer – a multi-faceted word that describes Fugate as someone who dates people of various sexual orientations – said that the MASGD Retreat allowed him to find his home as a Muslim.
“When I was coming out I went from being very accepted to being very ostracized from the Muslim community,” said Fugate, a graduate student at Boston University in Boston. “When I think of community I think of that retreat.”
(Story corrects 19th paragraph, deleting erroneous reference to diverse sexual orientation.)
(Reporting by Gina Cherelus; Editing by Frances Kerry)