This story was originally published in DNA #212 under the title, Same Stories, Different Faces.
It’s 2018 and here, in Australia, there are gay kids being physically assaulted, abused and made homeless by their own families. Even worse, the LGBTI community is turning a blind eye to their plight. Could it be because these gay kids are also Muslims?
Gay Muslims are suffering in a way that has not touched the mainstream gay community for decades. Imam Nur Warsame, Australia’s only openly gay imam, is standing almost alone on the frontline of a fierce battle against family and institutional homophobia and violence.
So, we won, right? The anti-gay laws throughout Australia are decades behind us; there are openly gay folk everywhere in society; it’s now so easy to come out that many do it at high school; gay bashings and other hate crimes are almost unheard of; Mardi Gras is no longer a protest but a celebration; the concept of gay parenthood barely raises an eyebrow; homophobic statements by the likes of Margaret Court are called out and howled down as the nonsense they are.
In fact, we’ve come so far that the Victorian Government has even allocated $15 million for the construction of Australia’s first Pride Centre, which will be bigger than San Francisco’s. The war is over and we were victorious, weren’t we? All that remains is the inevitable victory lap of same-sex marriage. Right?
That’s what I thought but, sadly, it’s not true. Imam Nur Warsame, Australia’s first and only openly gay imam, says there is a significant group of gay people still suffering in the way that we all once did. Gay Muslims in Australia are still being expelled from their families and made homeless, vilified by their religious leaders and assaulted by their former friends. Most alarming is that the rest of the gay community is doing almost nothing to help them. The warriors for equality, it seems, have laid down their arms to enjoy the fruits of victory, forgetting the solidarity that brought us this far. Today you can call yourself a gay activist by whining on social media that straight people still have it better, while ignoring the fact there are gay people among us fighting for the right to simply exist.
And that battle is intense, a fact I realised very quickly upon meeting Imam Nur in Melbourne recently. My intent in interviewing him was to gain a better understanding of homophobic crimes in Muslim communities overseas, such as the flogging of gay men in Indonesia, but we barely spoke of such issues. Instead, I discovered there is a more urgent story unfolding far closer to home.
Imam Nur challenges many of the stereotypes about Muslim religious leaders I have been fed by the mainstream media, arriving for our interview wearing a baseball cap and comfortable fleece jacket. I would never have guessed he was an imam if I didn’t already know. His lifestyle also defies my preconception of imams, as he likes to drink alcohol and owned a large American bulldog that shared his bed until its recent death. His favourite program on television is Judge Judy and he has adopted one of her sayings that he repeats a number of times: “Always the same stories, just different faces.”
One of the most surprising things to learn about Imam Nur is his age. He is only 34 but seems significantly older, and not just because of the grey beard hairs that have evaded his efforts at colouring. There is a world-weariness to his face and voice that is only ever found among those who carry the troubles of many. Speaking to him feels like being transported back to the early days of the gay rights movement, when the leaders were standing almost entirely alone against seemingly insurmountable odds.
“Two young men in a relationship were outed to everybody in both families. As a result, both became homeless. One was assaulted by his brother.”
Imam Nur devotes the majority of his time to helping LGBT members of the Muslim community through the outreach group he founded called Marhaba. He is perfectly placed to help, as he has personally experienced many of the same troubles they face. However, his challenges have not been those you might expect for a Somalian immigrant. For instance, his family was highly placed in the ruling tribe and had no issues with poverty. They left for Egypt seeking better education opportunities before the civil war ripped his native country apart.
They also experienced very little racism when they moved to Australia in 1997 and settled into the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne. Imam Nur says they were something of a novelty in their neighbourhood, as there were few other Africans there but that “we integrated almost immediately because we had the language long before we came”.
The difficulties Imam Nur faced came almost entirely from the conflict between his faith and sexuality. “My father wanted to teach us religious studies forcefully, but along the way I fell in love with it and I became good at it,” he says. “Yet at the same time I was experiencing these issues of attraction to men.”
Those issues did not fade, even as he became a highly successful imam, responsible for his own mosque and well-known among the Muslim community throughout Australia and the Pacific region. “On Fridays at the mosque we would have up to 1,500 people and I would be the main imam there, a young man who was having this conflict within myself.”
That struggle reached a new level when Imam Nur’s father pulled him aside one day for a stern conversation, telling him that he must get married to complete his faith. “My father said, ‘Either you choose a wife or it will be chosen for you.’ Then he clicked his Rolex watch and said, ‘Your time starts now.’ I thought, ‘Wow, where do you go? K-Mart? Coles?’”
Imam Nur did eventually choose his own wife, a young woman he had been friends with for several years, and they were married in 2005. The deep regret in his voice is profound as he describes the situation: “She deeply loved me and I did love her, but I was not authentic in my love. I brought an innocent girl into a web of lies. I was saying, ‘If I get married it will just disappear.’ But it never disappeared, it somehow got worse. I was trying to bury my soul, but you cannot do that because it always manifests in different ways.”
The breaking point came just one year into the marriage, in June 2006 when their daughter was born. It’s impossible not to feel Imam Nur’s pain as he describes helplessly weeping when he held his child for the first time. “It was both tears of joy at the new life that we had both been part of bringing into this world, but it was also tears of sadness because I thought, ‘What have I done? I have brought an innocent child into my web of lies.’”
Three months later he came out to his wife and says, “I did not care how she was going to respond, she could have shot me if she wanted and she would have been justified.” There was no violence, but she did leave him and took their baby daughter with her. She also began telling everybody he was gay. Most people did not believe it at first but eventually Imam Nur came to lose everything else that was precious to him including his family, his congregation and many of his friends. At one point the pain became so great he tried to commit suicide with an overdose of medication. “I said, ‘I have no way out other than through this.’”
One of the most troubling aspects of Imam Nur’s story is its familiarity. It is a tale I have been told many times in Australia, but never by somebody so young. It is what I expect to hear from a gay man who came of age in the 1980s or earlier, somebody who once copped all kinds of abuse but has long since made peace with mainstream society and even reunited with his family.
Alarmingly, Imam Nur’s experience is by no means isolated. Rather, it is the norm for the vast majority of LGBT Muslims in Australia today. When he realised this himself – and discovered there is very little help available for them – Imam Nur set about creating the support group Marhaba. His primary goal is to accompany LGBT Muslims on the same difficult journey he completed, hoping to see them safely through to the other side. “There are a lot of LGBT men and women in Muslim environments who actually go through with the process of suicide,” he says. “Some don’t make it like I did so, for me, it was a question of how do you minimise the harm.”
Imam Nur started Marhaba in 2013 when a 16-year-old girl was referred to him by the counsellor at an Islamic school. In the beginning he was working entirely alone and on seven separate occasions he even took a person into his own home, a one-bedroom apartment, after they were evicted by their families. “I would go around to the refuges and I appealed for help, but it came to nothing,” he says. “They were facing life and death situations, so I let them have my bedroom.”
“$15 million is being spent on the Pride Centre. There are people dying here and across the country. Do you know what our group could do with that money?”
It is not easy listening to Imam Nur’s stories about the troubles faced by young LGBT people in the Muslim community. At the end of each one I can only shake my head, dumbfounded that this is still happening in Australia and we hear so little about it.
Recently, for example, Imam Nur has been dealing with the case of two young men in a relationship. One of them came out to a member of his family who then outed him to everybody in both families. As a result, both young men became homeless. One of the pair was physically assaulted by his brother, but he refused to report it to the police. “I can’t do that to my family,” he said.
In another case, a young Arab man was referred to Imam Nur by the suicide line, suffering severe mental health issues due to the conflict between his faith and sexuality. Because he is not an Australian resident he was charged significant fees for his visits to the doctor and psychologist. Marhaba covered the payment of those, but he refused to go back. “He said he did not want to burden us,” Imam Nur says.
Female LGBT Muslims are suffering just as much. For instance, a young Arab girl Imam Nur works with was being pressured by her family to return to their country of origin because it was her turn to get married. She finally came out as a lesbian to her mother, who then told her father. The following morning the girl was sitting, nursing her three-year-old nephew, when her father punched her in the face. “When she was referred to me she had black eyes but she would not report it to the police,” Imam Nur says. “Another case of misguided loyalty, I think.”
One of the stories Imam Nur tells is particularly harrowing and genuinely feels like it should have occurred in a different decade. “One of our transgender members was assaulted in a share house they were living in. I appealed, emphasis on the word appealed, for help because there was violence involved,” he says, then shakes his head sadly as he reveals that he could find none. Even the gay and lesbian officers (GLOs) in the police force offered no assistance, while the receptionist at the women’s refuge took one look at the victim and said, “You don’t look like a woman.” Imam Nur sighs and says, “This is the same person who was physically abused twice. So what am I going to do? I said, okay, let us collect some money and pay for the first few months of private rental. I didn’t just call organisations in Victoria, but around the country and even overseas. It all fell on deaf ears.”
Imam Nur’s frustration is palpable as he outlines his trouble finding allies. “What I have found most disappointing and most hurtful, both as an imam and as a person who has been an activist since I started this group, is the lack of support from the mainstream LGBT community. I would talk to these people, who went through similar experiences in the ’70s and are now in positions of power around the country, and they said, ‘Nur, we appreciate your work and you have our sympathy.’ I said, ‘I don’t want your sympathy because we need something tangible to make a difference in our community.’”
And then the frustration in his tone shifts to pure outrage. “Some of them would not only refuse to help, they would then falsely advertise their name next to mine to gain respectability. I was mortified one time to read an interview with a group who said they were giving us money, which was utter…” He trails off, either unwilling to swear or unable to find a word strong enough to express his emotions.
The lack of support led to Imam Nur’s decision last year to come out on national television (SBS) as Australia’s first openly gay imam, appealing to the broader community. The increased publicity has significantly raised the ante for him among the Muslim community. Shortly after it aired, two men appeared on his doorstep trying to threaten him into silence, while screams of “faggot!” now accompany him when walking down the street. “I wear that as a badge of pride,” he says, smiling.
There was a positive effect from the television interview, as the group has since received a small amount of money from the Victorian Government. However, even this had a downside. “It has obstructed me by adding to my work tenfold, as now I have to write progress reports for the bureaucrats to justify the money they have given us.”
Imam Nur is not trusting of politicians in general. “They are like sperm,” he says. “Only one in a million turns out to be human.” He is optimistic that Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews will turn out to be that one-in-a-million, though he is not happy about the $15 million being spent on the Pride Centre. “They’re bragging that it’s going to be bigger than the centre in San Francisco. What is this, a competition? There are people dying here in Melbourne and across the country, but this centre is their priority? Do you know what our group could do with that money?”
Imam Nur is looking forward to an upcoming meeting with Equality Minister Martin Foley and Multicultural Affairs Minister Robin Scott.
“My one question will be, are they waiting for a tragedy like the shooting in Orlando to happen here? I just want to look in their eyes and get some authentic answers.”
The lack of widespread action in helping Australia’s LGBT Muslims is disappointing but, of course, it is not the true problem. Nobody is being beaten or thrown out of their home by misdirected government funding. The victims are being attacked by members of their own Islamic community, which leads to the next obvious question. Nobody is better placed to answer it than Imam Nur, who has actually memorised the entire Koran. He is also trying to memorise the Bible, an incredible undertaking for anybody – let alone a non-Christian whose native language is not English.
I put the question to Imam Nur bluntly. “Is Islam a homophobic religion?”
His answer is emphatic. “No. I always get asked, is Islam a fanatical or extreme religion? I wouldn’t say that about any religion, including Islam. It is a set of teachings that people can interpret in a number of ways.”
Imam Nur says the homophobia within today’s Muslim society comes entirely from a misinterpretation of the words of Mohammed, in the same way the teachings of Jesus Christ are twisted by fundamentalist Christian groups like the Westboro Baptist Church. In fact, he says there are more similarities between the two spiritual leaders than most people realise. “Love thy neighbour was one of the main messages of Jesus. Mohammed said the same thing, that you cannot be a believer if your neighbour is not safe, fed and cared for. Love the poor was another of Mohammed’s teachings.”
To Imam Nur religion is beautiful, but he acknowledges it can also become very ugly. “Initially religion was a good thing,” he says, “but it became adulterated to support greed and power and government.”
Imam Nur insists the Islamic world was not traditionally homophobic and points to the Mughal Empire of India, where there was once an active transgender community. “These individuals were respected to the point where they were appointed as advisors to ministers and judges. They were considered as holy people,” he says. When asked what changed, Imam Nur lays much of the blame at the feet of Western influences. “When the colonial powers came to India they were confused and said, ‘What are these men who look like men and they’re not men?’ The British came up with the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 that rendered these people as criminals. The ramifications of that colonial influence still exist today in places like Pakistan and Bangladesh, where the transgender community are the most traumatised and brutalised of people.”
There is surprisingly little anger or bitterness in Imam Nur’s voice when he talks about the current homophobia within Australia’s Muslim community. He says that little else can be expected from the upbringing of those individuals, comparing it to mainstream Australia pre- the 1970s. He is also confident that Islam is moving in the right direction and will catch up. “There is a shift happening globally,” he says. “One would not have heard of a gay imam in Australia 10 years ago and now you’re sitting with one. I don’t think I would have done it 10 years ago. We are in a contemporary society and Islam was always a religion that moved with the people.”
“Are they waiting for a tragedy like the shooting in Orlando to happen here? I just want to look in their eyes and get some authentic answers.”
Imam Nur experienced a touching sign of the shift towards tolerance when he spoke at a memorial in Federation Square to the victims of the Orlando shootings. “Afterwards all these girls and boys were shaking my hand and introducing themselves. They said, ‘We are straight, we are Muslims and we appreciate what you are doing for our community.’ That night I could not sleep. To have young people give me that support, it was so heart-warming.”
We can all take great solace in the fact that the future looks bright, but that does very little to help the LGBT Muslims who are suffering in Australia right now. Already more than 1,800 have been referred to Imam Nur or have approached him for support and he is struggling under the burden. “These are serious cases, including people who are cutting themselves and attempting suicide. I’m only one man and I’m getting stretched out,” he says, then appeals directly to the general gay community for help. “The widespread injustices have been addressed, but it is all repeating itself among the Muslim community. How can anybody, in the name of morality and basic conscience, turn a blind eye to that?”
As I walk away from the theatre where I met with Imam Nur – his group don’t even have a permanent office – a quote from Martin Luther King runs through my mind: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Oddly, though, it’s Judge Judy’s line that seem the more profound in this situation. “The same stories, only different faces.”
We’ve done all of this before, back when our community was confined to gay ghettos in the major cities and Christian leaders were demanding that sex between men remain a crime. Why are we doing so badly at it this time around? Has nobody noticed it is happening? I certainly didn’t realise the extent of it before speaking to Imam Nur. But then, I am by no means the first person he has told and, still, he is largely alone in helping these young people.
I’d like to think the inaction so far is due largely to political correctness, that gay leaders are hesitant to join our traditional enemies on the far-right wing of politics by harassing the Muslim community. Could you imagine an anti-Muslim Mardi Gras float to the same extent that the Catholic Church has often been mocked? However, I’m not certain that is the main factor. In fact, I’m terrified there is something far more insidious at play. I’ve previously written about the surprising level of racism in the gay community, particularly in regard to the selection of friends and lovers. I once launched a fierce campaign to have a black model on the cover of this magazine and succeeded, only to see sales for that month plummet. But surely none of that would prevent us offering help to a person in need. Would it?
These are the same stories we have heard before, just with different faces. It would be horrifying to discover the inaction this time around is because of the colour of those faces.
MORE: If you would like to contact Imam Nur, either to seek help or offer support, you can visit www.marhaba.org.au or email email@example.com.
This story was originally published in DNA #212 under the title, Same Stories, Different Faces.