This post first appeared The Good Men Project.
How one man navigates his Muslim faith and sexual orientation.
Jareem sat across the table from me at a café in Davis, California, the first time we met. It was early fall and he had just started another year of college. A mutual friend connected us. I had written a book about coming out of the closet as an evangelical Christian, and Jareem, a Muslim-American, had just come out to his parents. Our friend had given him my book.
I knew nothing of Islam, let alone anything about Muslims and homosexuality. “I have a confession to make,” I told Jareem, “I’m so ignorant about Muslims I don’t even know what you people eat.” His eyes lit up as he laughed.
Like most Americans, I got my news from TV. ISIS, and the barbaric practice of throwing gay men from the roofs of tall buildings, had been all over the news that summer. All I could imagine for Jareem is that he must have had a few rough months during the school break at home with his parents.
Jareem’s parents migrated to Los Angeles, California from Pakistan in the 1980s, after his dad’s brothers and sisters moved to the states. “Until age of 10, my family wasn’t too religious,” he said. But my mother prayed five times a day and my dad only prayed once in a while.” He described his formative years of growing up in a “semi-conservative household.”
When Jareem was around the age of 11, his mother got involved in a well-established American-Islamic organization. Jareem said there is a saying in Arabic that translates to mean, “Mothers are the gateway to religious behaviors in the household.” His family was no exception.
He noticed he was drawn to other boys around the age of nine. “When it dawned on me, I would talk about it [to my mother] vaguely. Her opinion was law,” he said. He would test the waters to see what kind of reaction she would give, and it wasn’t a positive one. “Being Gay meant you didn’t want to take on the responsibility of building a home and a family”At 22, Jareem is a highly articulate, introspective and intelligent young man. So it was no surprise to hear that he and his mother attended academic lectures, learning about the faith and Koran when he was just 11-years old. “That jump-started a change in my narrative,” he said. By the time he was 14, he was heavily involved in the Islamic community and gaining notoriety and stature among the leadership because of his commitment to the faith and the unusually eloquent way he communicated as a boy. He found himself preaching in front of crowds of hundreds and leading prayers in the mosque. But Jareem felt something wasn’t quite right.
As Jareem hit his stride in the Muslim community, in his early teens, he also became fully aware of his “same sex attraction,” as he refers to it. “It was around high school when my friends were having relationships with their significant others that I started realizing what was going on,” he said. “That’s when I realized there was a divide.”
Yet, as a leader, Jareem said, “You have to act differently.” So he internalized his struggle and looked for answers within his faith. Between the ages of 18 and 20, “I finally started to revive myself,” he said. “Not just look at religion in the text, but the meaning behind the text. [That] is the spirit of religion. That is the key to understanding what God intends for us.” That epiphany was when Jareem said he became more calm and found peace within his religion.He described those years as the dark period of his life. “I remember being in the bathroom one day crying my heart out and questioning if God even existed. I went through a phase looking at Judaism and Christianity and eventually back to Islam, wondering if religion was something I should accept,” he confessed. He described the pain of questioning his faith as if it was ripping out something that was buried deep inside of him. “I wondered if I would ever find love. Would I ever find the right person?” He said. That question, for a brief period, pushed him to the point of believing there was no God.
Several months after our first meeting, I talked with Jareem again and asked how things were going at home. His parents, particularly his mother, blamed his friends and the school for making him gay. When they sent him back to school they took away his car. Jareem has since come out to his closest friends at school, who had no idea he was gay.
What I found especially curious, as I talked with Jareem, was his continued use of the words “same sex attraction.” Those are familiar words, frequently used by conversion and reparative therapy practitioners and “ex-gays.” I asked him how he would describe his sexual orientation.“My mentors and friends have accepted me,” he said, “but have told me I should remain abstinent for the rest of my life to prevent any sinful actions” His mom, who took him to a Muslim psychologist upon his confession, told him he has to change. “My parents believe that I can and will change,” he said. “She tries to crush my self esteem to make me a better person.” Even though he knows the intentions behind her words, it doesn’t make her words any less painful.
He wonders if he will ever find someone with whom he can display his affection. He is continually researching and asking scholars for their thoughts and opinions on the issue of homosexuality, which is as divisive among Muslim scholars as it is Christian scholars.“I’m continuously trying to figure out whether or not it’s permissible for me to act upon my sexuality,” he said. “However, I don’t think of problems involving just myself, but I’m constantly worried about other Muslims.” Jareem said he prayed that God would just let it be his problem so that no one else would experience what he’s been through.
Yet, Jareem believes in his heart, “There is no fair God who would ever program someone to feel a certain way, but tell them, ‘You can’t have love on earth.’ It’s not God-like,” he said.
At the same time, he holds on to the feeling that perhaps there is a possibility he will find that one special woman to whom he will be attracted and marry. “Being gay or straight is not wrong,” he adds. “It’s what you feel and what makes you happy in life. I wouldn’t go out of my way to marry straight, but if I found the right person, I would marry her.”
Jareem says he is not a fan of labels because they are divisive, and points to the dissension between Shiites and Sunnis to make his point. He sees himself as a visionary, someone who sees far off into the future and sees what it will be like 20 years from now. “That gives me hope and trust in God,” he said. “I haven’t found the answer yet to know if I need to remain celibate, but my trust in God will not be demolished.”
Photo – Getty Images