“I think we’re at the start of a movement: a more inclusive Islam in America,” says Abdullah, who runs Washington’s Light of Reform mosque and is thought to be the only publicly gay Muslim leader in the Western Hemisphere.
“So if you have any same-sex marriages,” he says with a soft smile and a shrug, “I’m available.”
Some young Muslims in attendance mumble, “Wow!” and “Seriously?”
As more states legalize same-sex marriage, it’s easy to forget that segments of society, particularly in immigrant communities, regard homosexuality as a potentially deadly secret — one rarely revealed to relatives in places like Sudan or Saudi Arabia, where being gay can be punishable by death.
For many gay immigrants, the values of their adopted and native countries are at odds. The gay Muslim Americans who live relatively public lives in the Washington area are a case in point. They date openly, and are often out at work, but when it comes to getting married, they don’t dare share the news with family back home, who could become targets of abuse or economic boycotts — and even jailed — if it became common knowledge.
Abdullah, an African American convert to Islam who is part of a national network of progressive Muslims, is the keeper of their secrets. He quietly helps gay Muslim couples get married, counseling them beforehand and keeping the ceremonies low-profile.
“We had to ask all our guests to do a social-media blackout of our wedding. No Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram,” said M.Q., 35, a Muslim married to his partner, J.C., 40, a Quaker. “Our relatives could be killed, their homes destroyed back in the Middle East if our wedding was on the Internet.”
An uncommon perspective
A tall, heavyset man with a trim salt-and-pepper beard, Abdullah often wears a rainbow pride pin on his lapel. He is regarded as something of a folk hero among gay Muslims in Washington.
“He’s like the Harvey Milk of gay Muslim leaders in America,” says Abdelilah Bouasria, an American University adjunct professor of Arab sociology, who recently developed a syllabus for a proposed class called “Forbidden Middle East.” “It’s important Americans know that there are many progressive Muslims.”
Faisal Alam, a Muslim activist formerly based in D.C. and now on the steering committee of the recently formed Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity, said Abdullah has been “immensely helpful for individuals who are trying to reconcile our sexuality with our faith.”
Abdullah has plenty of detractors. Local imams who “refuse to say ‘Salaam’ [hello and peace] to me,” he says. Not to mention the voices of the Internet, where he is called “twisted and perverted,” a trafficker in ideas “clearly forbidden in Islam.”