The Hidden People: Courage and Brotherhood Bring the Muslim Community Into the Light

With the heavy emphasis currently placed on the Christian response to HIV/AIDS, especially in the black community, the subject of how the Muslim community has dealt with it is intriguing, if not compelling. At the U.S. Conference on AIDS in Chicago in November, a workshop entitled "The Homophobia and Stigma Endured with being Gay, Muslim, and Living with HIV" addressed this very issue.

The three presenters, Shadeed Sadeeq Jenkins, Imaad Hafiz Boyd, and Karim Ishmael Rush, were dressed in, as one attendee put it, "full Muslim gear" -- the izar, an oversized, tube-style waist cloth, and the kufi, a knit cap. They met with Positively Aware before their workshop to talk about their experiences being gay and Muslim. Their soft-spoken articulateness and gentle smiles lent credence to their stories of struggle, unity, and commitment to both their religion and to finding a way to spread the message of acceptance within their somewhat rigid faith community.

Leading a Double Life

The rules and expectations placed on a devout Muslim are daunting and, just as with other religions, are often unrealistic and unattainable by the average human being. Boyd admitted that he "needs help" with the restriction on cursing and foul language. But that is nothing compared to "avoid yawning in a gathering as much as possible," "mix with people and put up with their insults" or "check customs and habits against Islamic standards." And then there is the praying or salah. As obligatory and complicated as Catholic mass can be, salah has many more rules and ritual procedures, including the requirement to pray at certain times of the day. Being Muslim is not easy to begin with -- being gay makes it even harder.

When asked to speak about how their faith has affected them as gay and/or HIV-positive men, Karim Rush began with the simple truth that "Being gay and Muslim is ... difficult." It was like leading a "double life," and he felt uncomfortable going to his masjid (mosque) until he found someone else who was going through the same thing, which is how he met Shadeed Jenkins. "It's been a lot easier since then," said Rush.

"I was raised Muslim," explained Jenkins, the only one of the three who was raised in a Muslim family (the others converted from Christianity) and who is HIV-positive. "From an early age, it [homosexuality] wasn't condoned." The internal battle that raged within him between his faith and his Truth led Jenkins to fall away from practicing his religion and get caught in a downward spiral of drug addiction. Like Rush, he has greatly benefitted by having his gay "brothers in faith" around him who can identify with his struggles and who know the feeling of being surrounded by people and still feeling lonely. And he has encountered people in the Muslim community who've found out about his sexuality and actually told him "there is no such thing as a gay Muslim," a common experience he and his friends have helped each other through.

Speaking Out

This was not the first presentation the three have given at an HIV conference. Their friend, Don Ransom, originally encouraged Jenkins to submit an abstract for such a presentation so the HIV community would be aware of the challenges that Muslim gay men face. He spoke about the reaction at other conferences when people saw "those three Muslim brothers" walking around and wondered what they were doing at a conference having to do with gay men and HIV. "I realized then that we as black, gay men had excluded the Muslim community," said Ransom. Evidently their presence caused enough curiosity because their first workshop and those that followed have been great successes. Certainly, the engagement and enthusiasm of the audience later that day was evidence that, though Muslims are hardly ever mentioned in either the HIV community in general or in any of the goals set by agencies to reach out to "communities of color," the time is right for their presence and their message to be acknowledged.

Have they started a movement? They all laughed, but then mentioned that there is a movement already going on with such organizations as Muslims for Progressive Values, with an LGBT outreach program led by Daayiee Abdullah, an openly gay imam (religious leader) in Washington, D.C. Like any movement for social change, progress is not quick to happen.

It's an uphill battle against an entrenched attitude that makes open discussion about homosexuality taboo among most Muslims. In fact, almost the same words of condemnation that appear in the Bible also appear in the Quran. Boyd acknowledges that the judgment and rejection can be "really psychologically damaging." Just having someone with whom to talk about it openly is a great relief. Ransom, who is an HIV counselor and sees Muslims totally closed off and resistant coming into his agency to get tested, said, "As soon as I'd show them into a counseling room and shut the door, they'd open up and start telling me about their struggles."

Jenkins, who has come out to his Muslim parents, said that while they didn't take it well at first ("My mother cried and my father asked me if I was going to start wearing dresses."), now they've learned that just because he's gay doesn't mean he's a different person than the son they know. Unfortunately, his sexuality remains a taboo subject among some other family members and even his parents don't discuss it with other members of their religious community.

"You have to understand," said Jenkins, "Some of the mentality and the retaliation within the Islamic community can be really barbaric at times." The "double-barrel blast" of being Muslim in the U.S. post-9/11, as well as being marginalized in one's own community, has led to an even heavier burden for many.

"It's a whole deeper level of discrimination," said Jenkins, "I've talked to them a lot, gotten a lot of backlash -- I'm kind of in the forefront ..."

"Forefront? He's kicking down doors and taking New Jersey by storm!" Boyd interjects.

Jenkins continues with a sad smile, "I've actually questioned not going back to serve houses of worship because of the retaliation and not feeling comfortable."

Boyd spoke up to share his experience of converting from Christianity and finding that Muslim women had no problem with his sexuality. "They were willing to have more discussions with me, to talk about issues with me more so than the men."

Rush has had the opposite experience, though. "We don't cross the rules. It's not even permissible to talk to the females where I go, everything's totally separated."

When speaking about the "bigger picture" of their work, Jenkins says that it's not just about an alternative lifestyle or a religion, but that their hope is also to get people to take a look at themselves, and take an "inventory" of their own perceptions and reactions. All three talk about the automatic wall that goes up when people see them, whether they're in an airport or an HIV/AIDS agency. From what Jenkins says, it's not just the knee-jerk reaction of bigotry, but there's a stigma attached to him even before people know he's HIV-positive. And such a reaction causes distrust and resistance to seeking help from Muslims who may experience it at places they go to for services. "It goes both ways, though," said Jenkins, acknowledging that, in many cases, Muslims themselves create negative situations by seeming unapproachable or defensive. According to Boyd, "When you walk into an agency, you walk in with your defenses already up, because you know you're being instantly judged."

Muslims have no resources within their insular community -- no Muslim health clinics, certainly no HIV testing and treatment centers, no programs run for Muslims by Muslims, so the importance of feeling welcomed by non-Muslim service providers is key to any prevention or treatment effort.

During their presentation, which was to a full house, they rightly called out the HIV community, asking them to "open eyes, ears, minds, and hearts to the reality that there is a population within the MSM/HIV-positive community that is being ignored, abused, and not shown the same respect as other MSM," as well as to "better understand how their own biases and treatment affect this population mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually." Boyd says care providers, "underestimate themselves and the impact they can have on the community."

Hidden in Plain Sight

No statistics are available about the HIV infection rate among Muslims. Boyd points out that many men convert to Islam while in prison and may not be aware of their infection, and thus take the virus with them back to the community where they may transmit HIV to their partners, both male and female. In this case, silence does indeed equal death.

At the presentation, a social worker asked what could be done to open up lines of communication to the Muslim community regarding MSM and HIV/AIDS education and prevention. All three of the men shook their heads and said, "Nothing." But then Jenkins theorized that perhaps one way to get a foot in the door would be to frame HIV and other STDs in terms of health disparities, minimizing the association with sex. People might respond better if they thought about it as a fight for health care equality.

The workshop was indeed the actively engaged, sometimes boisterous, experience that Rush had predicted. "There's always lots of questions -- honestly, if we didn't have a curriculum and just did a Q&A session, it'd be almost endless." There were several people in the audience who were Muslim and thanked the three men for their efforts to educate people and advocate for a population that remains, for the most part, hidden.

One woman admitted being cynical, perhaps, but what she said was true -- that until Muslims become a "targeted population," the way African Americans and Hispanics are now, programs aimed at them will not be funded and until there's money involved, not much attention will be paid. Ironically, since many Muslim MSM are black, they could already fit into programs created for that population, but as long as they feel threatened by the prospect of being outed or by possible negative reactions from agencies, they will stay hidden.

Rush says there are always other Muslims who identify themselves during or after their presentation and are grateful that the presentation is bringing their story to the forefront. "I think it's good," he says. "I think it's a good thing that people are starting to talk and step up a little bit more, because that just means that the message is continuing to grow and more and more people are going to begin to be more open and comfortable."

There is still plenty of work to be done by these brave young men. No doubt they will be familiar faces at future HIV conferences, including the World AIDS conference in Washington next year. In the words of Mohammed, "A Muslim who meets with others and shares their burdens is better than one who lives a life of seclusion and contemplation."