After coming out three times, you’d think it would get easier. The first time was in 2002, deep in the U.S.’s post–9-11 miasma. My brown skin worked as camouflage; on my mother’s advice I’d allowed people to assume I was from some more palatable latitude. For six months I was from Mexico or Brazil, a rude fiction that I nonetheless let continue because I believed it was a matter of survival. But eventually the lying became too much to bear, and at twelve years old I began quietly correcting people: I’m Saudi Arabian and Muslim (“yes, like Osama”).
The second time I came out was in two parts, separated by five years. The first installment was in 2005, when I whispered to my friend Amy in the library during tenth-grade study hall that I was gay, or maybe “just bi” (scared lying is a hard habit to give up). Part two was on Thanksgiving break from college in 2010, when my sister dragooned me into telling our parents. Amy was cool; my parents were cool. After all, my sister said, this was a new millennium, and “gay marriage seems like it’ll probably happen, right?” It was her way of telling me I was safe.
In the early morning hours of June 12, 2016, a 29-year-old man entered Pulse, an Orlando gay club hosting an “Upscale Latin Saturday” dance party, and shot 49 people to death. A few months earlier, said his father in the aftermath, the man had seen two men kissing in Miami; he believed his son’s anger at the sight might have led to the shooting, now the deadliest in American history. By mid-morning Sunday, we knew the man’s name: Omar Mateen. That was it. The narrative had its requisite Muslim.
But the narrative couldn’t find room for me. The day after the shooting, already sick of the ooga-booga headlines, I saw a tweet from Chicago-based shock jock Joe Walsh — “Islam hates #LGBT. Muslims hate gays. If you are gay, Islam wants you dead.” — and I knew I was about to out myself one more time: “As a gay muslim,” I responded, “I very much beg to differ.”
The tweet went viral; unbidden opinions flooded my mentions at superluminal speeds. Goodly liberals and conservative usual suspects united in smugness, horrified that I would defend and identify with a religion that so clearly wants to kill me. “Ok, just disregard all the gays they hang and throw off roofs in the middle East…moron !!”; “GO TO SAUDI ARABIA AND COME OUT.” To them Islam, ISIS, Arabs, and violence were coextensive. There were also visitations from Muslims whose homophobia didn’t seem murderous but was nevertheless putrid. “Gay Muslim? life of deceit. Change your ways before it’s too late,” wrote @hola2hamid. “I’m just going to say this right now as a Muslim myself: how is a gay Muslim possible?” pondered @BeerStix.
The truth is, I ought to have expected this reaction. On the one hand, there is a very real homophobia problem inside Islamic countries. A 2013 Pew Research Center poll on attitudes toward homosexuality found that even in Egypt and Jordan — the only two Muslim countries where gay sex is legal — 94 percent and 96 percent of respondents, respectively, viewed homosexuality as morally wrong. But those figures are about on par with the rest of the developing world, and anyone who’s ever seen a Super Bowl commercial knows homophobia is rampant in this country, too. Not to mention, Christian and Islamic scripture both justify the persecution of queer people with the story of Lot (“Lut,” in Arabic), in which God levels Sodom and Gomorrah to punish the residents’ promiscuity.
But never mind that, because ISIS. Muslim religious leaders have roundly disavowed Daesh’s atrocities, and yet they’ve been laid at all Muslims’ doors. ISIS claimed responsibility for the Orlando attack, despite there being no evidence yet that the murders were the plot of anybody but this lone loser.
The American LGBTQ community seems not to have figured out that we’ve been conscripted into the country’s Middle Eastern wars, thanks to the liberation narrative that’s clotted LGBTQ political narratives in the wake of marriage equality. It did get better — thanks to Uncle Sam — and now, it seems, we owe him. So when he asks for support for drone strikes in Syria, or a blithe military alliance with Israel (one of whose expansion stratagems is to pitch Tel Aviv as a gay mecca reclaimed from the gay-murdering Palestinians), he’s also sure to remind us of the “human rights violations” in whatever Muslim state he wants to bomb next. It’s called “pink-washing,” and it gets liberals to consent to intervention after intervention in the names of queer people.
What’s more, Muslims have themselves been sold a bill of goods. While it is true I could be whipped or even beheaded for being gay in my mother’s native country, it was not always so. Islam’s golden medieval age generated tomes full of homoerotic literature, and the Ottoman Empire, at one point one of the most powerful of the British Empire’s competitors, decriminalized gay sex in 1858, nearly 150 years before the U.S. As imperial European powers metastasized across the region in the nineteenth century, they spread laws that recriminalized homosexuality; that legal regime is still apparent in many Arab countries’ penal codes and social mores. Perversely, over time it was homosexuality, rather than homophobia, that came to be seen in some parts of the region as an unwelcome import from the West — a decadence, a corruption to be isolated or just flat-out ignored.
None of which excuses individual acts of homophobic violence — far from it. Rather, the Twitter interrogation by @BeerStix and others had less to do with Islam in the abstract than it did with the version they apparently were raised with.
What results from this noxious brew of misread history and flawed assumptions — liberal self-congratulation, LGBTQ political complacency, past and present colonial statecraft — is Orlando: People like me were massacred for who they were, and people like me get blamed for it because of who they are. Neither side realizes it’s being played against the other.
There was a third group of people who found me amid the social-media fracas. Other gay Muslims filled my inbox with all sorts of feeling: thanks, profound sadness, gratitude for the “bravery” of my tweet, if that’s a possible thing. But mostly, they felt stuck. How does one mourn dozens killed for their sexuality while asserting the fundamental humanity of the man who killed them?
But barzakh, purgatory, doesn’t last forever. In the hours just after the shooting, the D.C.-based activist group Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity released the following statement: “Tragedies often lead people to seek someone or something to blame, but we ask our friends to resist this temptation…. We ask our straight Muslim allies, many of whom have stood in solidarity with us, to build support for LGBTQ people and in opposing homophobia and transphobia in whatever guise it presents itself. We ask our non-Muslim allies, especially within the LGBTQ community, to stand with us against Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry, while we work to end homophobia and transphobia. And to all peace-loving people everywhere, we ask for your compassion and your support at this very difficult time for our communities.”
Listen to Raillan Brooks talk about his essay on On The Media: