Pride: Unable to truly embrace his identity because of faith and fear


For a young Muslim gay man in Sydney, Pride Month is a 'Western thing' he can't connect with.

Saeed* has known he was gay since he was 16 years old. “My hardest challenge was knowing I was different and struggling to accept that.” This truth about himself would cast a long shadow over his life. “I felt the only option was to deny it."

Living in Lakemba, a heavily-concentrated Muslim area, Saeed, who asked his identity be concealed, struggled day-to-day, walking with a sense of inner conflict. The confusion would spiral into a personal crisis one night when Khan woke up covered in sweat, paralysed by the fear that Allah would punish him for his thoughts. “I remember searching, ‘Is it haram to be gay? Will God still love me?’ on the internet. I was overwhelmed with fear that God would hate me for even searching this up."

Growing up, Saeed's understanding of homosexuality was clouded by religious teachings and cultural attitudes. His mother, who at the time was an Islamic teacher, ran a class called "LGBT, a hidden monster in disguise”, Saeed recalls, a tear rolling down his cheek. “For the first time, I felt ashamed of who I was.

“Growing up, you’re taught that being gay is not OK. But this made me so sad because that was my mum.” He described feeling as as if he had been stripped naked and thrown into the street. He felt violated in the sanctity of his home.


Being the only child of first-generation immigrant parents, who come from a country where same-sex relationships are seen as a sin, punishable by death, Saeed found it difficult to accept who he was. He explained how in his country you are taught that being gay is unnatural. "It’s not something they question. Asking questions is frowned upon. So, they [parents] are not able to form their own opinions, this carries on to the present and is passed though generations. A lot of the homophobia that's associated with Islam is less to do with the religion itself and more cultural beliefs that are justified using religion."

In Pakistan, 90 per cent of Muslims say homosexual behaviour is morally wrong, according to the Pew Research Centre.

“I could not go back Pakistan. Definitely not. It would ruin my relationship with my whole family. This thing that I can’t control dictates how people view me. For the longest time I have felt alone in the Muslim community,” Saeed says. “There’s no one I know that is Muslim and queer.”

Those who are, live a closeted existence for fear of being ostracised or disowned. The statistics are scarce, data collection is affected due to layers of complexity. During his first year of university, Saeed joined a Muslim Association group chat, only to read homophobic comments like "Allah will punish those who are gay", pushing the pervasive belief that homosexuality and faith cannot coexist. The result? Turning people away from Islam. As he struggles to maintain a close relationship with God, Saeed now does not feel safe going to pray on campus at his university.

The increase in religious violence has become a disturbing trend. In recent months across the world, attacks on the queer community in Muslim counties have worsened. The queer community have long been under threat from jihadist violence. “I would be exiled if I went to my home country,” says Saeed, a fear faced by many, where the threat of persecution looms.

He tells me how he feels pressure to live up to his family expectations both as a man and as a Muslim. He is now 21 and unable to truly embrace his identity, because of his faith and fear.

While there are and have been overt displays of Islamic homophobia reported by the media, it’s important to understand how much remains hidden. This secrecy often leads to the breakdown of families and inflicts psychological harm.

The cultural stigma surrounding homosexuality persists and is worsened by the Muslim community's reluctance to confront homophobic rhetoric from Muslim figures of authority. This complicity contributes to the marginalisation of LGBTQI+ individuals, leaving them isolated as they struggle to find a space within a religious community, to which they still may feel attached.

'This thing that I can’t control dictates how people view me. For the longest time I have felt alone in the Muslim community. There’s no one I know that is Muslim and queer.'

I visited Blacktown Mosque, in Sydney's west, where I met a local Muslim man, who did not want to be identified by name. He and his friend snickered when I posed the question: Can you be gay and Muslim?

He told me that the Muslim community shouldn’t be accepting of homosexuality, in the same way it is not accepting of other sins. “The stories of gay individuals may be sad, but it doesn’t make it right to act upon haram desires,” he said. His perspective is not shared by everyone but is propagated by groups and individuals who adhere to misinterpretations and want to establish the LGBTQI+ community as the "other" in society.

Is the Islamic religion to blame? Not all voices within the community share this view. A female scholar at a leading Australian university, who asked not to be named, for fear of backlash, argues that the problem lies not with the religion itself but with a patriarchal interpretation of the Quran.

“There’s a problem with the reading of the Quran because it’s read from the perspective of a patriarchal male. There is no problem with being gay or queer,” the academic tells me. She believes that one of the biggest issues in the Muslim community is a strict reading of the Quran. She stresses the need for a shift in perspective. “We’re losing a whole generation of young people,” she warns. “People are leaving the community because they feel threatened.”

“We need to, as an ummah (community), address our social issues.” The path forward according to she, involves addressing broader issues. She is concerned the extremist mentality of women subjugating to and being dominated by men is taking over.

“Being Muslim is not about how long your beard is or how covered you are,” she says, calling for a return to the core values of inclusivity, equality, and love, that she believes are central to Islam. “It’s young men who have done all the sins in the world and suddenly find god, but then they’ll take one sentence from the Quran and run with it.”

I asked her what the path moving forward looks like, and whether the Muslims of Sydney, to start, should become more accepting of the Queer community.

“Yes. We need to open our minds and our hearts. There’s a miseducation about the religion and that is what we should be focusing on. Being queer is the least of our problems.”


THERE is another layer to this cross-cultural misunderstanding. Westerners visiting Afghanistan or Pakistan for the first time might be surprised by the sight of men holding hands in the street and soldiers with a "smoky eye" makeup look. They are not gay, and it’s less surprising than it seems.

In conservative Muslim countries, strict gender segregation fosters a culture of homosocial behaviour, where men find solace in the company of other men. This creates an environment where placing a hand on another man’s knee is a sign of friendship, not an invitation to sex.

Homosocial behaviour: Newly arrived young Muslim men walk hand-in-hand in Western Sydney. SABREEN NASRI

However, same-sex relationships can transcend beyond a platonic level. Historically, Muslim societies have recognised this and to varying degrees, tolerated it even if they disapproved.

In Afghanistan and the mountainous borderlands of Pakistan, there is a a "tradition" shrouded in secrecy of homosexuality and paedophilia called Bacha Bazi. It can be translated as "dancing boy" but quite literally translates as "boy playing". It revolves around the exploitation of young boys, as young as 10, often from poor, rural areas, who are coerced and trafficked into a life of servitude, forced to entertain the desires of older men. Typically dressed in feminine attire, they become objects, in a world where power and privilege remain supreme.

The irony does not escape me that behind closed doors, many of the men, including warlords and Talib officials, who engage in Bacha Bazi, are gay themselves. Yet societal stigma forces them to conceal their identities, leading to the exploitation of vulnerable boys as substitute for consensual adult relationships.


As the conversation around gay rights progresses globally — Australia legalised marriage equality in 2017, and this month, Thailand became the first country in South-east Asia to legalise same-sex marriage — the challenge for Muslim communities remains.

Saeed describes Pride month as a "Western thing" he is unable to connect with. “It’s all about the progress that has been made but there’s no diversity or acknowledgement for people of colour, or people stuck in religion.” He believes while there is a lot to celebrate, there is also a lot to be done, “especially in breaking down cultural barriers.”

The concern about society is a bigger problem for many Muslims who identify as gay. Despite living in a Western country, the honour culture of Islam operates as a mechanism of social control, employing tactics of shunning and shaming by family members towards those who don’t conform to a strict ruling of Sharia law.

Saeed knows that marriage is one of the most important rituals in the Pakistani and Muslim community. “All mothers wish for their sons to get married," he says, struggling to finish his sentence. "Knowing that I won’t be able to complete my mother’s dreams, that’s the hardest thing.”

* Not his real name.


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