I was always aware that I was uniquely different from the very early age of four. I was attracted to other boys. I never felt that I was a girl or wanted to be a girl. When I entered junior high school, I met a boy a couple of years older by the name of Otis, who lived in the neighborhood a couple of blocks from where I lived. We became closer and began spending a lot of time together, and over that year we fell in love. This love affair lasted for several years until my senior year of high school when Otis committed suicide.
I have my idea, and I’m sure the loss of his mother may have been one of the triggers, but I will never truly know why he took his own life.
As I grew older I realized that he might not have been happy because of what society did to people who were gay—society would berate, shame and shun you—and like today, some young people take their lives because of social pressures.
This was 1960s America.
A lot of us were under some type of pressure.
That experience, for sure, did thrust me into activism. I decided to move to San Francisco – the “Gay Mecca” – and began participating in efforts to move LGBT Rights forwards. I’m proud to say I was there when Harvey Milk became the first openly gay elected official and the satisfying experiences in seeing one of our own come to power.
Later, I would move to the Nation’s Capital and continue my efforts. This time, my efforts were narrowed down to a community who looked like me: the gay black community. It was there I first met Barney Frank, who became the first openly gay congressman in the early 1980s. It was indeed another satisfying experience.
The 1980s, with its horrifying AIDS epidemic, was certainly a time that tested all of us. It was also a time of openness, as we Americans were growing into the global market. I ended up in China, learning Chinese. In the process, I came across a faith that spoke to me in a deep, personal way. This faith was Islam, which I was familiar with back home in the form of Nation of Islam.
“No, we are different,” my Chinese Muslim friends told me.
They sure were!
The encounter with a kinder, gentler Islam led me to a path of spiritual growth. I ended up studying the faith, in the Arab World – in Egypt, in Jordan, and in Saudi Arabia. Although I was very happy with my new faith, I didn’t know that I would be going back to activism, as the Muslims I met were culturally homophobic and heavily used the faith as reasoning.
Of course, I knew I couldn’t be a gay activist in the Middle East, even though I had great progressive ideas, because I was American. I decided to go home and do what I could there.
That is how I eventually ended becoming the “first openly gay imam” (a term used by the media to identify me and my experience).
Eventually, I started MECCA Institute—to help expand progressive Islamic theology through education and research, partner with other organizations, and support an inclusive Muslim community. For far too long the LGBT Muslim community has experienced intolerance, ridicule, abuse, and even physical harm. At MECCA Institute we are working to make sure that Muslims understand LGBT issues.
Recently, my life as an activist came in a full circle when I witnessed the “first openly gay governor.” That we are still having “first openly” something shows you we are continuously evolving. As I celebrated Governor Jared Polis’s inauguration in Denver, I was so happy to have run into my old friend Barney Frank.
So, here was the first openly gay imam meeting the first openly gay congressman at the inaugurational celebration of the first openly gay governor.
What a blessing!