What a gay Muslim taught me about Orlando

This past year, I got to know a Muslim teenager named Kareem* who came to the U.S. as an exchange student from the Middle East. Outgoing, smart, incredibly warm and kind, he privately shared his struggles about homosexuality with me. He had long noticed leanings in that direction growing up, he acknowledged, but he was from a very conservative, religious family and lived in a small, traditional town. His country imprisons anyone who is openly gay.As a devout Muslim, he played an active role in the local mosque and was a youth leader. He shared that Islam taught him that homosexuality was “deviant behavior” and a sin, and of course, socially, it was completely unaccepted. “Homosexuality wasn't a subject we could ever talk about. It’s a taboo like sex. But when it was brought up, people shrugged in disgust and disappointment. Then they would go on about how corrupt darkness is blinding men and destroying their nature. That made me hate myself in a way.” Kareem learned to suppress his emotions and deny his feelings.Coming to the U.S. this past year was his first time out of the country and threw him into shock, as he described it. “My window on the world had been so small and now it is wide open,” he said, flinging his arms out to his side. In his American high school he took classes he had never anticipated, such as the arts, and participated in a wide variety of extracurriculars. He met people who shattered his preconceived notions, including Jews, whom he said he was raised to hate, but now exclaimed, “I love Jews!”As one ironclad belief after another started to fall, he started looking at even deep-seated “truths”, like whether homosexuality were truly evil and, then eventually, even his own faith in Islam. "Here in the U.S., I got slowly used to being myself and accepting what I like. It was easy, calming, reassuring and fun to be who I am." At the same time, he suffered from a shifting sense of identity and felt the ground collapsing beneath his feet. "Everything is in question now—my religion, my orientation, my identity. I’m gay. I’m secular. I can’t even consider myself a Muslim anymore. How will I raise my future kids? What can I believe in? How will I act with my family? I feel like I’ve been brainwashed my entire life.”On the subject of the Orlando attack on a gay nightclub, Kareem was livid, seeing it as the product of an extremist ideology that teaches hatred of homosexuals. In this case, there are reports to suggest that the perpetrator, Omar Mateen, himself was conflicted about his sexual tendencies. He frequented the nightclub he attacked and used a gay dating app. He had allegedly come on to clubgoers. Kareem said he could understand the mindset of someone repressed and self-loathing, and how it could in extreme cases lead to violence. “It’s like you’re a ticking bomb, literally!”We cannot pretend to know what truly motivated Omar to murder the innocent people in the Orlando nightclub a few days ago—(was he a jihadist, anti-gay, closet homosexual, mentally disturbed, misogynist, abusive, violent, bipolar psychopath—or all of the above?) But I bring up Kareem because the attack made me think of the pressure the LGBTQ community is under not just in the U.S. but in so many parts of the world. In Kareem’s home country, to which he has now returned, he is unable to share his beliefs and evolving sense of identity with his family or even closest friends. He shared with me recently: "Back here, I feel like I am being dragged back into a cage. It's like I am going back into a certain closet I suffered in forever. I feel terrible that I can't tell my family or friends about myself, or about the amazing people I met or the great time I had in the U.S. Why? Because all of that is bad and all of that is a sin. It is making me sick to my stomach and I am trying my best not to think about it or let it consume me."There are hate groups in his own community that he has already encountered who stalk suspected homosexuals to report, harass, and abuse them. And yet that is a much better situation than elsewhere in the region, with ISIS throwing gay men off buildings in Homs, Syria, or the some 4,000 gays who have been executed by Iran since its 1979 Islamic Revolution, according to gay activists.. It is an issue, like so many, that highlights how the “Other” is viewed and treated, ranging from execution, murder, abuse, on the extreme end to condemnation and shaming on the other. It is tragic that such a talented, exceptional person such as Kareem is condemned to live a life in the shadows and under threat of attack from extremist ideologies. Indeed, although at potential risk even from this blog post, he was eager to share his story in the hopes that it could help someone like him. This can be a time for thoughtful awareness of the intolerance and injustice towards the LGBTQ community not just at home, but abroad.There have been many touching and uplifting responses to the Orlando attack circulating this past week, which have emphasized our solidarity and unity in the face of hatred. Here are a few I found helpful:Utah Lt. Governor Spencer Cox addressed a vigil for the victims of Orlando: "I grew up in a small town and went to a small rural high school. There were some kids in my class that were different. Sometimes I wasn’t kind to them. I didn’t know it at the time, but I know now that they were gay. I will forever regret not treating them with the kindness, dignity and respect — the love — that they deserved. For that, I sincerely and humbly apologize.Over the intervening years, my heart has changed. It has changed because of you. It has changed because I have gotten to know many of you. You have been patient with me. You helped me learn the right letters of the alphabet in the right order even though you keep adding new ones. You have been kind to me. Jim Dabakis even told me I dressed nice once, even though I know he was lying. You have treated me with the kindness, dignity, and respect — the love — that I very often did NOT deserve. And it has made me love you.Usually when tragedy occurs, we see our nation come together. I was saddened, yesterday to see far too many retreating to their over-worn policy corners and demagoguery. Let me be clear, there are no simple policy answers to this tragedy. Beware of anyone who tells you that they have the easy solution. It doesn’t exist. And I can assure you this — that calling people idiots, communists, fascists or bigots on Facebook is not going to change any hearts or minds. Today we need fewer Republicans and fewer Democrats. Today we need more Americans."_________________Mahmoud, a Muslim-American in Orlando, posted the following on his Facebook page, which went "viral":-Yes my name is Mahmoud a proud Muslim American.-Yes I donated blood even though I can't eat or drink anything cause I'm fasting in our holy month Ramadan just like hundreds of other Muslims who donated today here in Orlando.-Yes I'm angry for what happened last night and all the innocent lives we lost.-Yes I'm sad, frustrated and mad that a crazy guy claim to be a Muslim did that shameful act.-Yes this is the greatest nation on earth watching people from different ages including kids volunteering to give water, juice, food, umbrellas, sun block. Also watching our old veterans coming to donate And next to them Muslim women in hijab carrying food and water to donors standing in line.-Yes together we will stand against hate, terrorism, extremism and racism.-Yes our blood all look the same so get out there and donate blood because our fellow American citizens are injured and need our blood.Yes our community in central Florida is heartbroken but let's put our colors, religions, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political views all aside so we can UNITE against those who are trying to hurt us.__________________________Asking tough question of ourselves after Orlandoby Mark Gerzon in the Christian Science Monitor.“If any place in America is going to be safer tomorrow than it is today, we will have to begin considering unorthodox, transpartisan ideas. We will need to reject ego-driven partisanship and instead embrace a problem-solving patriotism that seeks synergy between the best ideas of the left and the right. Otherwise, we will be stuck right where we are.”_______________________What happened when an Orthodox Jewish congregation went to a gay bar to mourn Orlando."I learned that when a rabbi and members of an Orthodox synagogue walk into a gay African American bar, it is not the opening line of a joke but an opportunity to connect; it is an opportunity to break down barriers and come together as one; it is an opportunity to learn that if we are going to survive, we all need each other." *Name changed for privacy and security. The individual gave me permission to share this story and its details.