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.