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At Muslim LGBTQ retreat, attendees try to reconcile their faith and sexuality

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There was speed dating, a talent show and a baby naming.

But there was also a locked Facebook page. And a strict rule: Attendees should not disclose the retreat’s exact location.

That’s because the 85 people who gathered in the Pennsylvania woods over Memorial Day weekend had come from 19 states and three countries for a somewhat surprising event: a three-day LGBTQ Muslim and Partners Retreat.

Some wore T-shirts that read, “Muslim + Gay = Fabulous.” They prayed. They attended workshops about pioneering progressive Muslims. Ever heard of Isabelle Eberhardt, a.k.a. Mahmoud Saadi, a convert to Islam who challenged gender norms at the turn of the 20th century?

And they held discussions on struggling to reconcile their faith with their sexuality, and their sexuality with their faith. (Many folks said that they face Islamophobia from inside the mainstream LGBTQ community.)

At the retreat, women and men prayed side by side, rather than in separate quarters as is customary. Some people found potential partners. Others wept in workshops when they talked about their family’s reactions.

Under a blue sky, the final prayer took place on Monday. A woman was allowed to lead both the call to the prayer and the prayer itself.

“At the end of the retreat, many people spoke of feeling like they were finally home, among family,” said Tynan Power, 42, a co-chair of the retreat.

This was the third such retreat, and it was sponsored this year by the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity, founded in January to address the needs of LGBTQ Muslims. Another sponsor was Muslims for Progressive Values, a Los Angeles-based group formed in 2007 that parallels, to some extent, Unitarian Universalism and Judaism’s reform movement, and which has nine chapters across the country and abroad.

The Washington Post was invited to attend — the first media organization to be given access.

The question of where to pray

Bre Campbell

Bre Campbell sat rail-straight in a red and gray flowing skirt, pushing her long red and brown dreadlocks off her neck. She’s 27, lives in Detroit and is a convert to Islam. She also identifies as transgender, male to female. Campbell talked about how it’s often hard to be transgender at a mosque, which segregates men and women.

A few gossipy women at her place of worship have tried to figure her out. “Bre, you know, you shouldn’t pray at the mosque when you have your period, right?” she recalled some of them asking.

Yes, she would answer, she understands.

She didn’t want to tell them that she was transgender, partly because it was personal and partly because she realized they might ask to her to pray on the male side of the mosque.

“Not everybody is willing to have that conversation,” she said. “But I feel, God doesn’t make mistakes. I can be myself and keep my faith.”

She converted to Islam last year because she felt that the Baptist religion in which she was raised was anti-gay marriage and anti-gay in general.

“I would go to the church, looking for solace, and I would come back feeling even more hurt,” she said.

She realizes that some Muslims aren’t comfortable with gay and transgender people.

Sometimes, she said, she feels like she’s leading a double life. By day, she’s a well-known LGBTQ advocate, who counsels the African-American gay community about HIV testing at Wayne State University.

But at the mosque, she at times feels “forced back into the closet.”

Still, she liked that Islam focused more on God and that she could cover her hair and wear modest clothes and not be ogled for being different.

“I could just be a human being,” she said. “I could just be Bre.”

The Immigrant Experience

Kaamila Mohamed

Over a lunch of corn on the cob and barbecued tofu, 23-year-old Kaamila Mohamed recalled how her family fled Somalia’s civil war to neighboring Kenya.

They moved to Fairfax County and she attended Brandeis University as a sociology major. That’s where she first was able to express what she couldn’t put into words during her childhood.

“I am bisexual and queer,” said Mohamed, who has a lip ring and a bow tie under her giant puffy crown of hair and works in Boston with the Theater Offensive, an LGBTQ creative organization. “I was able to find the language to talk about what I was feeling.”

She told some of her family about her sexuality soon after college. Almost immediately, she felt pushed away by the Somali community, especially those who deny that there is even such a thing as being Somali and gay.

“To be a refu­gee is incredibly hard, and sometimes immigrant communities tend to cling to the most conservative aspects of their tradition and culture back home because they feel those traditions may be lost,” she said. “But what surprised me was that some people rejected me so fully. For a while, I felt like I was the only queer Somali.”

When she came to the retreat last year, Mohamed was in a deep depression and felt completely alone. But she connected with both older and younger LGBTQ Muslims.

“I was meeting all my Internet heroes in person,” she said. “I was really needing the support of this particular family at a time when I was feeling alienated from my own blood family. The retreat made me realize that I really wasn’t the only bisexual, queer Muslim.”

When she went back to Boston, she kept up with the people she met at the retreat. They started to meet every month for pot-luck dinners and formed Q-Mob, or Queer Muslims of Boston.

“Sometimes,” she said, “you have to create your own family.”

Overcoming suicidal thoughts

Thouheen Alam

Wearing black pants, a black shirt and a black tie, Thouheen Alam draws cheers from those attending as he walks through the wooded trails.

“When I first came to the retreat two years ago, I was really insecure. I barely talked to anyone,” said Alam, a 20-year-old college student who lives in Somerville, Mass., and is a Bangladeshi-American.

This year, Alam is able to share his story.

By the time he was in the second grade, Alam knew he was gay and suffered from intense shame and anxiety about his feelings.

Then the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks happened, and his classmates started hectoring him about being Muslim.

“Friend of Osama,” the children taunted.

He also feared that Muslims in the community would find out he was gay and judge him.

“On the one hand, I was bullied at school for being a Muslim,” said Alam. “On the other, I was worried my parents and other Muslims wouldn’t accept me for being gay.”

By the time he was in the seventh grade, he was contemplating suicide. One year later, he said, he sought help at Cambridge Hospital.

“I had a fight with my sister. She knew I was gay and I thought she would out me,” he said. “I had all these thoughts that my parents would deport me or call the imam. I was completely isolated. I wasn’t in touch with any other gay Muslims. I was too scared to go and look on the Internet.”

He eventually met a therapist who set him up with a mentor. The mentor, also a gay male, told him about the LGBTQ Muslim retreat.

“I had found a real sense of community,” he said.

The Role Models

El-Farouk Khaki and Troy Jackson

On a bench amid the retreat’s forested trails of maple and gum trees sit the Elders. The younger gay Muslims flock to them, affectionately calling them “uncles and aunties.”

They’ve lived through the early years of the gay movement, when people worried about being out, Muslim or not.

El-Farouk Khaki — 49 and born into a Tanzanian family — now lives in Toronto and works as an immigration lawyer specializing in expanding Canada’s refugee protections on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender. His partner is Troy Jackson, 43, who is a professional singer and also assists Khaki in his law office. The couple spent hours talking with the younger Muslims.

“We felt like many of the young people who were kicked out of their homes, felt abandoned and they took us on as their family,” Jackson said, recalling the conversations. “There was almost this big sigh of relief, since at the retreat there is no one there to judge them.”

Many also expressed a stomach-churning fear that upon returning home, “they would have to go back into the closet.”

At the retreat, Khaki functioned as a “raqueeb,” which in Arabic means a traveling companion, serving as a mentor, available to talk to anyone at any time.

“A lot of people at the retreat live very isolated lives. These kinds of spaces are about creating healing,” said Khaki, who is studying at the University of Toronto to be a Muslim chaplain.

About 20 years ago, Khaki recalls, way before social media and the popularity of the Internet, he founded Salaam, a support group for gay Muslims in Canada. He gathered a phone list of 100 LGBTQ Muslims, including some in the United States.

He shut down the group when he got a death threat from a Muslim organization after he wrote about being gay and Muslim in an article for a University of Toronto newspaper.

“A lot of people were interested in joining the group, but they weren’t able to do anything,” he said. “I thought, ‘One person does not a movement make.’ So when I got the death threat, I just thought maybe it was not the right time.”

Ten years later, another iteration of Salaam was born, and in 2003, Khaki organized a Canadian version of the Pennsylvania retreat. In 2009, he helped start the Toronto Unity Mosque along with Muslim activist Laury Silvers. The mosque allows women and men to pray side by side.

“Shame is so passe,” said Khaki. “For me, its really going back to the spirit of Islam. I tell young people and everyone, Islam is organic, it’s dynamic and breathes into you and you breathe into it.”

The Artist

Yusef Bornacelli

With his thick black-rimmed glasses and Spider-Man bow tie, 22-year-old Yusef Bornacelli likes to describe himself as “a dapper, artsy-type guy.” He is originally from Venezuela, now lives in Northampton, Mass., and is transgender, female to male.

A Muslim with a mohawk, he laughs as he doodles a swirly arabesque logo for the retreat, just for fun, on one of the workshop’s giant sheets of white butcher’s paper.

“A transgender Muslim male and unapologetic,” he adds.

While some of those at the retreat are shy, Bornacelli is all about using his art and poetry to spotlight his identity.

The retreat inspired him, he says, to start the process to become — perhaps — the world’s first transgender Muslim prayer leader.

“I thought I was the only transgender Muslim out there,” he told some of those he met before taking the stage at the talent show to perform his slam poetry:

“I have a kuffi on my head and steel-toe boots on

I have holes in my face, I want tattoos, I smoke cigarettes, I drink beer, I pray Fajr and forget to say Bismillah at times when it’s best to be said

I blast music from my headphones that’s just guitars wailing and men shouting in Arabic ’bout the wrongs they’re facing in a country that’s not theirs to call home anymore

I am a Muslim man by no standard definition and am in fact a deviation.”

© The Washington Post Company