Imam Daayiee Abdullah arrives by bus, sweaty and lugging a green bag stuffed with a Koran, two books of poetry by Persian mystic Rumi and three Islamic prayer rugs. Tonight, he’s speaking to a room full of young, gay activists and progressives after a screening of the documentary “I Am Gay and Muslim” at the Human Rights Campaign’s bright white Equality Center in downtown Washington.
But when the openly gay imam takes the stage, he stuns even this audience.
“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.”
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.”
Although there is a range of Muslim opinion on homosexuality, the mainstream view is that sex is only for couples who are married and marriage is only between two people of the opposite sex, says Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, executive committee member for the Council of Muslim Organizations in Greater Washington.
“I disagree with Imam Daayiee’s interpretation of the Koran,” he said, adding that he does, however, think all communities need spiritual leadership. “So I challenge him to take care of those who follow him.”
Abdullah is part of a larger progressive Muslim movement gaining followers nationwide. It parallels, to some extent, Unitarian Universalism and Judaism’s reform movement, said Ani Zonneveld, president of Muslims for Progressive Values, a Los Angeles-based group founded in 2007. MPV has nine chapters across the country and abroad.
Like reform Judaism, MPV’s mosques allow women to lead services, and they welcome interfaith and same-sex couples. MPV sponsors an annual retreat for LGBTQ Muslims.
“We asked: ‘Aren’t there any Muslims who are for women’s reproductive rights, for LGBTQ rights, for the separation of religion and state?’ ” said Zonneveld, originally from Malaysia. “There were, but many progressive Muslims felt they were being left out of their own faith.”
Abdullah’s first act as an imam was performing Muslim funeral rites for a gay Middle Eastern American in Washington who died of complications from AIDS. No other Muslim leader in the area would perform the ceremony, Abdullah said. “I thought, there’s really need a here, especially among those who have been brutalized for being gay,” he said.
Now 59, with a weak knee and a bus pass, Abdullah travels up and down the East Coast, giving talks at universities — most recently Princeton — and counseling gay Muslims who are depressed, suicidal or just confused.
Long before he was known as the “gay imam,” Abdullah grew up as Sid Thompson in Detroit, where he and seven siblings worshiped at Southern Baptist churches. Shortly before his 16th birthday, he came out to his mother, a teacher, and his father, a postman. They were both active in the civil rights movement and were accepting, he said.
In 1979, Abdullah came to Washington for the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights as one of the event’s coordinators. “D.C. was my mecca,” he said. “There were so many black gay men here, and many of them were out.” Soon after, he moved to the District, where he worked as a court stenographer.
Abdullah found Islam in 1984 in an unlikely place. When he was studying Chinese language and literature at Beijing University, he met a large community of Chinese Muslims who invited him to their mosque. He became a Muslim soon after, came back to Washington and embarked upon years of study in Arabic and Islamic law. In 1995, he earned a degree from the University of the District of Columbia law school.
Today, Abdullah operates his mosque and pursues his activism on a small budget that comes mostly from MPV donations. Earlier this month, he spoke at a panel in front of the United Nations titled “Sex, Love and Violence,” about attacks against LGBTQ communities in such places as Iraq and Iran. He took a Megabus.
On an unseasonably muggy spring Friday, Abdullah tapes a tiny, slightly rumpled paper sign — “Light of Reform Mosque” — to the tulip-flanked front door of the Friends Meeting of Washington room where he leads prayers.
“I hope people come,” he says, wiping sweat from his brow — he took two buses to get here from his home in Shaw. “Sometimes, they don’t. Sometimes, it’s 10 people. Either way, I will be here.”
Abdullah is wearing circular glasses and a cream-colored Muslim prayer cap with a traditional long tunic and big black shoes. He’s a little nervous, pacing as he lays out his prayer rugs and waits for the sound of the door opening downstairs.
“Our mosque is just different,” he says. “I have a slightly different vision of Islam, and it may take a while for the world to catch up.”
He had a crisis last year when he went three weeks without anyone showing up. “I said, ‘God, what do I do?’ ” The next night he heard a voice telling him to patient, he says. “But the next week and the week after that no one showed up.” The following week, as he was serving food for Iftar, the evening meal at which Muslims break their fast during the month of Ramadan, 32 people showed up.
Part of the problem is that Abdullah’s target audience has often left the faith, said Urooj Arshad, 37, a Pakistani American and member of the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity. Arshad sees herself as a cultural and secular Muslim.
“But he’s our one and only, and there’s no one else in the U.S. who does the work that he does,” said Arshad, who works in Washington on LGBTQ rights.
Tonight, as Abdullah sings the call to prayer, only one person shows up. He leaves quickly, after the first prayer, head down as he thanks the imam.
There’s one place where Abdullah is always celebrated: at the home of the Muslim and Quaker couple for whom he performed a reading. The couple met nine years ago in the Middle East, ended up moving to Washington and were married in a Washington ceremony with 300 guests. They now have a 10-month-old daughter.
A wedding certificate in Arabic script hangs in their living room. On it is a gender-neutral verse from the Koran that reads: “He created for you spouses from among yourselves, in order to have tranquility and contentment with each other, and He placed in your hearts love and care towards your spouses.” In accordance with Quaker tradition, all the witnesses to the wedding signed the certificate.
“His presence at our wedding was really inspiring. He opened a lot of people’s eyes to the possibility of being gay and being Muslim and being out,” said J.C., a lawyer. His partner, M.Q., a graphic designer, said meeting Abdullah helped him reconnect with a faith he thought would never accept him. Because of the imam, their wedding became larger than themselves, they said.
“At first, even I thought, ‘Wow, can there be a gay Muslim imam?’ ” said M.Q. “Imam Daayiee gives a lot of people hope.”