'Two closets': Coming out as queer and Muslim in the wake of Orlando

After Orlando, many LGBT Muslims bear the simultaneous pain of grieving for a shocking loss of life and of bracing for a backlash from those who would paint all Muslims with the brush of intolerance. And they're finding themselves pressed to answer for how they could possibly be both.

How Orlando became a coming out moment born of tragedy for LGBT Musilms

In the hours following Orlando, a 27-year-old gay Toronto man, who asked to be called Zayn, took to Facebook to express a pain he thought few would understand. This is some of what he wrote in that letter. (The Canadian Press)

Zayn awoke to the news like so many others: gutted that some 50 people just like him, dancing and laughing moments earlier, were massacred in cold blood. But when the Toronto-area man, who is not only gay but also Muslim, learned that the gunman in the Orlando nightclub had professed his allegiance to ISIS, he says he collapsed in disbelief.

Hours later, still reeling and heartsick, the 27-year-old, who spoke to CBC News on condition that his real name not be used, took to Facebook to express a pain he thought few would understand.

"I want to scream but I feel like I'm in a vacuum," he wrote in a letter shared with friends. "As a gay male and a Muslim, I have never felt so personally affected … So empty and void of all feeling yet full of emotion at the same time."

It was supposed to be a time of love, of celebration, and of peace, he wrote. But instead both Pride month and Ramadan were marred by a single act of hatred.

"These are two of the most significant months in my small queer Muslim community's lives," he wrote. "Someone thinks he can take that away … Someone who takes love and turns it into something violent. And then affiliates it with my faith, my faith? You kill my people in the name of my faith during a holy month?"

A minority within a minority

Rahim Thawer is a Toronto-based registered social worker with experience working with LGBTQ, newcomer, and racialized groups. He identifies personally as gay, Muslim and a person of colour. (Rahim Thawer)

As a gay man, Zayn says he has always felt marginalized. But being both LGBT and Muslim, he says he's part of a minority within a minority. 

One that has found itself grieving a shocking loss of life, all the while bracing for a backlash from those who would paint all Muslims as both violent and extremists. 

'It's notIslamophobia. They actually want to kill us.'- Slogan on a t-shirt Lali Mohamed says he saw a man wearing the day after Orlando

And, after Orlando, LGBT Muslims like Zayn are finding themselves called on to answer about how they could possibly be both, he says

It's a different kind of coming out moment, Zayn says.

"We need to show that we're here, and I think we've been trying to do that for a long time," Zayn said. "Maybe that's a good thing from this tragedy — that people might change their outlook."

'Homophobia knows no boundaries'

But for a lot of people, the words "queer" and "Muslim" simply don't go together.

"We see them as impossible," Lali Mohamed told CBC News.

Just how impossible became clear to Mohamed the day after the Orlando shooting when he was walking in Toronto's gay village at Church and Wellesley streets.

It's normally a safe space for those who, like him, identify as LGBT. But that day, Mohamed says he saw a man wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a different kind of hatred.

"It's not Islamophobia. They actually want to kill us," the T-shirt read.

It's that kind of xenophobia that Mohamed worries will run rampant after Orlando. He worries, too, that the larger problem of hate against the LGBT community will be overshadowed by the focus on the shooter's specific beliefs.

"The assumption is that homophobia and transphobia is somehow exceptional to Islam or to Muslim communities and we know that is just absolutely false," he said. "Homophobia knows no boundaries, no borders, no religion."

Equally worrying is the impact that focus will have on LGBT Muslims feeling safe to express their identities, he said.

"We're talking about two closets," Mohamed said. "There's the closet of coming out as Muslim, which is a scary thing because we live in an Islamophobic world, and then there's the closet of coming out as queer because we live in a homophobic world."

It's a concern Toronto social worker Rahim Thawer shares.

"I think we have to challenge the focus on homophobia in the Muslim community alone," said Thawer, who identifies as gay, Muslim and a person of colour.

"It does exist, but in the larger society I don't think we are done with homophobia."

'Why are we afraid of saying that?'

Samira Moyheddin is an Iranian-born Muslim lesbian living and working in Toronto. She says she attended her first Pride march in 1998, where she was shocked to see a group of Iranians like herself getting set to march together. That image has remained with her ever since. (Samira Mohyeddin)

Samira Mohyeddin knows the "two closets" all too well.

"I think a lot of queer Muslims have either been closeted Muslims or closeted queers at different times in their lives," Mohyeddin, an Iranian-born Muslim lesbian living in Toronto, told CBC News. "We've sort of had to learn to swim with both of these things at once."

But despite many LGBT Muslims having come to terms with their identities privately, Mohyeddin, who works occasionally for CBC Radio, says she was dismayed to hear many around her say after Orlando: 'It doesn't matter that Omar Mateen was Muslim."

To her it matters very much indeed.

"No, we shouldn't as Muslims have to apologize constantly when some nutbar does something. But let's call him out for what he is. He is a Muslim nutbar. Why are we afraid of saying that? I think the reason is that it'll somehow come back on us even though it shouldn't." 

A coming out moment

Nevertheless, she hopes Orlando will serve as a kind of coming out moment for LGBT Muslims.

Mohyeddin opened the Persian restaurant Banu, located on Queen Street West, as a space LGBT people could gather safely, hold hands and share a meal without judgement. It hasn’t always turned out the way, she told CBC News, adding that she never hesitates to turn away people if they make hateful remarks. (Samira Mohyeddin)

That won't be easy, she says.

Mohyeddin remembers feeling terrified of being seen during her first Pride march in 1998.

But when she got there, she saw something she never expected to find: a group of Iranians getting set to march together. Years later, that image — of people who share her country of birth, where homosexuality is punishable by death — keeps Mohyeddin marching. 

"I felt it necessary to march almost on behalf of them," she said.

Hours after the mass shooting, Toronto city councilor Kristyn Wong-Tam stood in front of hundreds at a candle-light vigil, publicly introducing her LGBT Muslim partner.

"This is Farrah Khan," Wong-Tam said. "Farrah is my queer Muslim fiance."

It's that moment and others like it, while born of the tragedy, that Mohyeddin hopes will help younger queer Muslims feel safe to express their identities in the open.

City councilor Kristyn Wong-Tam introduces her "queer Muslim fiancee" at Toronto's candle-light vigil for Orlando

7 years ago
Duration 1:19
Featured VideoHours after a mass shooting that saw some 50 nightclub-goers in Orlando massacred, Toronto city councilor Kristyn Wong-Tam stood in front of hundreds at a candle-light vigil, publicly introducing her LGBT Muslim partner, Farrah Khan.

For his part, Zayn is more determined than ever to march in Toronto's Pride parade.

"This year more than any other we need strong support, not even just to come out and show who were are but to feel validated ourselves because I think we're feeling extremely vulnerable, extremely fragmented," he said.

"But I'm not going to let that fear take over."