LGBT Muslim-Americans And Their Multi-Layered Struggle

“When I heard about the Orlando shooting, my first thought was ‘Oh my God! Who am I right now in this situation? Someone who looks like me and supposedly shares my faith just killed a bunch of people who are (like) me. Am I the perpetrator or the victim here,’ ” said Ramy Eletreby, a 35-year-old gay Muslim-American from Los Angeles.


Eletreby’s Muslim instinct to feel guilty on behalf of his faith and grief for the attack on his LGBT community is part and parcel of his multi-layered identity. These feelings are shared by LGBT Muslim-Americans across the country after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history unfolded in Orlando when Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old Afghan-American, opened fire in a gay bar killing 49 people and injuring 53.


For better or for worse, the Orlando mass shooting has brought the struggles of LGBT Muslim-Americans center stage. While organizations like Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) and Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD) have been tirelessly picking up those who are bruised by their faith’s hard stance and choked by their country’s Islamophobic fumes, LGBT Muslim-Americans want their struggles to be heard widely.


Every Muslim I know is tired of repeating that acts of terror, such as Orlando, are not done in our name, nor in the spirit of our faith. Muslims feel enough remorse to take every sarcastic “yeah right Islam is a religion of peace” comment personally. After the shooting, my Facebook page was brimming with teary posts and comments of solidarity while I sat there staring at my blank screen with shame and guilt bubbling in my heart. The gunman was a Muslim. I am a Muslim. I can’t shake off that common factor. Then I thought of an Afghan-American LGBT activist Nemat Sadat that I had interviewed for a story last fall and wondered what he was going through.


“Orlando massacre really hit close to home. I resent the fact that Omar Mateen shares so much with me. We are both gay, Afghan, American, and from a Muslim background,” Sadat wrote to me after it was reported that Mateen was quite possibly a closeted gay.


“It could very well be that a combination of Omar Mateen’s bipolar disorder was aggravated by the indoctrination he received…coupled with the repression of not being able to reconcile his sexuality with his faith that triggered him to act out on his rage,” Sadat further added.


Omar Sarwar, Retreat Planning Co-Chair of Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD), and a student at Columbia University explained why pro-LGBT laws in the U.S. do not help the case of LGBT Muslim-Americans.


“There are plenty of things which are legal for people of faith to engage in – consensual sex, alcohol, etc. but they are often afraid to act on those desires because of their conservative upbringing, which enshrouds these activities in an aura of shame. In the case of LGBT Muslims, they just don’t have to contend with their internalized shame, but sometimes also with threats to their physical safety. Many are simply not ready to tell their parents or immediate families because they fear strong negative judgment or social exile,” Sarwar wrote to me.


Sadat had told me in a previous interview how out of fear of social expulsion in his hometown Irvine, California, he was ready to lead a heterosexual life. He had even dated a woman for 15 months. But when he felt the first flutters of courage to accept his sexuality while studying at Harvard and then at Columbia, his Muslim identity created a roadblock.


“The minute people knew about my Muslim background, that was it, it was a conversation killer.  Nobody wanted to know anything else,” Sadat had said.


Sadat said he understood the reasons behind this pattern.


“A lot of LGBT people have faced a lifetime of persecution and repression,” Sadat had said to me.  “The last thing they need is to be associated with someone who is a double or triple minority. It’s more baggage they don’t want to deal with.”


Like many LGBT Muslim-Americans, Sadat faced homophobia from his own family and faith (his father used to call him “kuni” a derogatory word for gay) when he was growing up and Islamophobia outside his community.


“As a minority within a minority, I struggled to integrate into mainstream society, especially in a post-9/11 world when my gay, Afghan, American, and Muslim identities clashed and it was hard for me to reconcile between creating a meaningful life,” Sadat wrote to me.


Omar Sarwar knew instantly that the Orlando shooting would be used as a political tool. For those who take a tragedy and turn it into fear, Orlando massacre was nothing but yet another opportunity to marginalize a whole sect of American population.


“My first thought was that the shooting was going to provide ample fodder for the Right in America to continue their racist, Islamophobic saber-rattling,” Sarwar wrote to me.


Within hours of the Orlando shooting, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump literally congratulated himself as he tweeted, “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.”


Trump in his Atlanta rally on Wednesday reiterated his stance to close U.S. borders to Muslim “on a temporary basis at least.”


Aaminah Shakur a queer Muslim artist from Grand Rapids, Michigan, has battled hard and long for her rights in her local community and mosque.


“I am not giving up being a Muslim yet, mainly to keep challenging Islamophobia and people’s limited definition of who can call themselves a Muslim.”




First published in on June 16, 2016:

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