What it's like to be gay and Muslim

Story highlights

  • Lia Darjes photographed people in various countries who are both gay and Muslim
  • Among those she interviewed were openly gay imams in Europe and the United States

(CNN)Lia Darjes spent some time taking photos in the blissfully lilac bedroom of El-Farouk and his husband, Troy, in Toronto. The men, both Muslim, are naturally lit in a peaceful aura of domesticity, sunken into a comfortable bed with their black cat.

But as with many gay Muslims she interviewed and photographed, unsettling inner dialogues are taking place beneath the surface.
    "I could tell you where I am now and it would sound rather a happy place," El-Farouk told Darjes. "But the journey to that place has not been an easy one."
    He told the photographer that many people like him have suffered "spiritual violence, where you are being told that there is something profoundly and deeply wrong with you.
    "As a result, a lot of queer people end up leaving religion or stepping out of religion or having a very unhealthy relationship with religion."
    Photographer Lia Darjes
    Over time, El-Farouk has managed to reconcile his spirituality with his sexuality.
    "I started with the notion that it was sinful (to be gay) and that those who practiced it were problematic at best," he said. "But that didn't quite sort of seem right in the larger construct of the Quran and the Prophet that I believed to be true. ... In verse 49.13, Allah says, 'I created you to different nations and tribes and you may know and learn from each other.' I just see queer folk as one of those nations or tribes."
    Darjes wanted to learn more about gay Muslims and their personal struggles. So she visited several cities in Europe and North America, hoping to gain people's confidence for her photo project "Being Queer. Feeling Muslim." It wasn't easy.
    "You are asking about their religion and their sexuality, the most two private things for most people. You really have to convince them," she said. "I am not gay and I am not Muslim, and I come as an outsider."

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    In Paris, Darjes spent time with Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, an openly gay imam who opened the city's first gay-friendly mosque.
    "The reactions were quite vehement," he told her. "Being Muslim, Arabic and gay and thus a member of several minority groups opened my eyes: Minorities are being discriminated against, particularly in times of economic crisis. We have to know more about Islam, and we have to understand who we actually are in order to fight homophobia."
    Darjes attended prayer sessions at the mosque, which is perched in a Muslim neighborhood.
    "I just sat there in a corner during the sessions when I met this woman who was, for the first time since coming out, able to attend prayer without feeling guilty," Darjes said. The woman was also "feeling relieved to be in a community again."
    The United States proved to be Darjes' first major challenge, the photographer said.
    "There were no events, and people were being extremely private," she said.
    That was until she met openly gay imam Daayiee Abdullah, a former Southern Baptist turned Muslim who studied the Quran in Beijing and opened a gay mosque in Washington.
    "As an inclusive imam who is also gay," Abdullah told Darjes, "I understand the turmoil of homosexual Muslims. When I converted to Islam 34 years ago, I wasn't speaking Arabic yet. I was studying at Beijing University, and the first Quran I read was in Mandarin. That was a blessing for me. To get to know Islam in the Near East and the West, living there to continue forming my understanding that Islam is not monolithic, was necessary.
    "It is not only a religion or belief; it is also a formulation that depends upon the culture it enters. Allah demonstrates there is a great diversity already in creation. The question is: Do we respect that?"
    Interpretations abound in the constant debate on whether it is acceptable to be gay in the Islamic faith. Some Muslim-majority nations are more tolerant toward the issue and accepting of the LGBT community. But there are also countries where homosexuality may be a capital crime.
    "I am from a country where it is punishable by death to be gay," said Samira, one of Darjes' subjects who was born in Iran. "In 1979, when the Islamic Revolution began, my family immigrated to Canada, where I grew up pretty secular."
    Darjes said the LGBT communities she worked with were "very positive" and more defiant than ever. Her resulting photographs, naturally lit, often carry discreet hues of blue, a spiritual color that also creates an atmosphere of serenity in the individuals portrayed.
    "I rarely got the feeling I was going to work with traumatized people," she said. "You had a feeling they had arrived at something, that they had found something good in these associations and meetings."