I tell myself Allah—God—is watching and guiding my life. I used to talk to Him when I was teenager, before I had a name for Him. I talked to Him before I came out of the closet as a gay man in my early 20s. I talked to Him when I went back in the closet several years later, believing my sexuality would keep me from getting closer to Him on my newfound path as a Muslim. And I talked to Him again last year, when, after nearly 30 years, I finally realized that, for better or worse, it was time to fully own who I am and come back out again.
The question was, and is, can I really do that and still hang onto my Muslim faith?
Sometimes after I talk to Him, Allah responds. It’s not always right away. The response comes in subtle ways, through a moment or a sign. He’ll show me something I need to see, or answer a long-held question, or clarify something that’s bothered me for years. One of those moments happened recently, while I was attending for the first time a retreat for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Muslims.
To be openly gay and Muslim in 21st century America is, to say the least, to be part of a pretty select group. LGBT Muslims are among the most rejected and least understood minorities on the planet. We are shunned by our mainstream Muslim brothers and sisters, who condemn our authentic expressions of sexuality. And we are met with blank stares by friends and allies in the LGBT community, who cannot understand why we would hold onto a religion with such a violent history of intolerance against us. That’s why the safe space afforded by the annual Retreat for LGBT Muslims and Their Partners, organized by the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD) and now in its seventh year, is so precious.
Experiencing this space for the first time, as I did one Saturday in October outside Philadelphia, was profound. It was a gathering like none I’d ever attended: a blend of tradition and edge, youth and maturity, freedom and devotion, all with a distinctly Islamic feel. My fellow participants were black, white, Hispanic, Asian, male, female, and everything else in between and beyond. Brothers walked arm in arm, sisters held hands, same sex couples embraced on outdoor benches scattered throughout the park-like grounds. Some heads were covered and some were not, hairstyles were all shapes and colors, tattoos were written in Arabic on legs, chests, and bulging biceps, and body piercings were everywhere.
There were workshops and plenaries, delicious meals and communal prayers. We prayed in an old Christian chapel where the long, wooden pews were pushed aside to make room for thick, plush prayer rugs. The prayers themselves were traditional. But men and women prayed side by side instead of in separate sections, and women alternated with men leading those prayers, something that never happens in mainstream mosques. Circling up afterward, we offered spontaneous duas – supplications asking Allah’s blessings. Some were in Arabic, some in English, some traditional, others simply from the heart. It was real and raw and human: a community asking for Allah’s help as it works to claim its space by affirming things the rest of the Muslim world has rejected. It was the most vibrant celebration of love, devotion, diversity and support I’ve ever been part of in connection with my chosen faith.
I found my own spiritual path more than two dozen years ago, after I’d become disillusioned with the gay life I’d embraced in college. Coming out in the early 1980s was a joyous, exuberant experience, but the supportive gay community that meant so much to me broke apart after we all graduated. I felt increasingly alone and adrift trying to connect with the larger gay community, which at that time was preoccupied with increasingly strident political activism and coping with the AIDS epidemic. The bar scene was no longer working for me, there were no dating apps like Grindr or OkCupid back then, and I lacked the social skills to meet the overwhelming need I felt for nurturing and connection. I began looking elsewhere as the next chapter of my life unfolded.
I’d long searched for a spiritual teaching that fit for me. The Protestantism I was raised with always felt bland and generic; it failed to help me understand more deeply the Power I felt inside me. In college I studied Zen Buddhism, devoured the mystical writings of Carlos Castaneda, and read books by psychics who claimed to channel spirits from the beyond. After school I checked out a cult whose leader, though later discredited, based his approach on well-respected Hindu teachings. But it wasn’t until I found a community whose teacher preached a clear, practical form of Sufism—the centuries-old mystical tradition that flowered in and around Islam—that I felt like I’d come home. In that community and through those teachings, I found the connection to God and the sense of shared values and safety I craved.
The one price of admission was the free expression of my sexuality. Not all Sufi teachers frown on homosexuality, but this one did. It was not a hellfire-and-brimstone, gays-should-be-killed kind of thing. But the guidance was clear: a person seeking God won’t engage in this. In my state of disillusionment with gay life, this seemed like a small price to pay for what I got in return: a brand new life in a welcoming community. I let go of the few gay friends I had left, wrapped up life where I was living, found a job near this community, and started over. I immersed myself in Sufi teachings, learned to pray as a Muslim, made the pilgrimage to Mecca, and became an enthusiastic participant in my new life. I struggled in the beginning to put away my gay identity. There were lonely, late-night drives through the gay areas of my new city, and I wrestled with ongoing attractions to other guys. While the yearning never went away, the acceptance and sense of belonging I found in my new community eventually helped ease the pain. I became comfortable with a new identity, which, while less authentic, allowed me to walk a new path for the next two dozen years.
During Saturday morning breakfast at the retreat, I sat in on an informal “Converts’ Caucus” then made my way across the wooded campus to attend the Prayer 101 workshop. It was held in a large meeting space and billed as a class for Muslims who, due to discomfort or shaming in their communities, may not have learned salat. Salat is the formal prayer Muslims everywhere perform each day, standing, bowing, and prostrating as we face the Kaaba, God’s House, located in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Before addressing specifics, the Progressive Muslim scholar leading the workshop had us talk about the different varieties of Islamic prayer. I was struck by the diversity of traditions in the room. There were Sunni Muslims, who pray the way I learned; Shia Muslims, who have a slightly different approach; Ismaili Muslims, who pray three times a day instead of five; and a few Sufis, who, like me, supplement their formal prayers with a form of meditation on God called zikr.
At one point a woman in the group started talking about the “stone” she uses when she prays. At first this didn’t make sense to me, because I had never heard of stones used in connection with daily prayers. But as she was speaking, it suddenly occurred to me that I may have seen one of these things before. I asked if she had one with her. She did, and as she passed it across the room, a shock of recognition flushed through my body.
The “stone” was smooth and round and felt soft to the touch, as if it had been lying at the bottom of a stream for centuries. I later learned it wasn’t actually a stone at all. It’s called a Turbah, and it’s made of clay taken from the ancient city of Karbala, located in modern-day Iraq, which Shia Muslims consider a holy place. Shias place them on the ground in front of them when they pray so their heads touch a piece of sacred earth when they prostrate before God. Turbahs are often stamped with some kind of prayer or inscription in Arabic.
I didn’t know any of this as I held the inscribed disc in my hand. What I DID know—and what that shock of recognition was about—was that I had not only seen one of these before, I actually owned one. And the story of how I got it—where it came from, who gave it to me, and how I’d always wondered what it was—was suddenly connecting two very different parts of my life in a way I could never have imagined.
There’s a woman I’ve known at work for more than 20 years. I’ll call her Shelley. We were assigned to work together, and at some point we got to talking. And for whatever reason, in the course of that conversation, she came out to me as lesbian. She had no idea at the time that I been out as a gay man earlier in my life. No one at work did. But for some reason, something in her trusted me enough that she decided to share this part of herself. We never discussed it further, but somewhere inside, it always bothered me that I’d never reciprocated by opening up about my past.
A number of years went by, and Shelley and I moved into different jobs at the same company. One evening she came over to my desk and explained she was at a festival recently where there was a Muslim table and she thought of me and picked something up. She said she had no idea what it was—she herself was not Muslim—but she knew it was a Muslim thing, and something told her I was meant to have it. She handed me this smooth, round object with Arabic script stamped into it.
I was taken aback at first, because I didn’t remember ever discussing my faith with her. And I had no idea what she was giving me. It was clearly outside the Sunni tradition I follow. I recognized the name of Allah on it, so I accepted it and thanked her. But it held little meaning for me. It sat gathering dust on my desk for years. Eventually I relegated it to a bottom drawer and forgot about it.
Well, my friend had given me a Turbah. But it wasn’t just any friend, it was my GAY friend: one of the only openly gay people I let into my world at a time when I went out of my way to avoid gay people, and one of the only people at work who had discovered I am Muslim. This friend, who had trusted me with a deeply personal part of herself, a part I had long since rejected in myself—THIS was the friend who delivered a mysterious, faith-related gift without even knowing what it was. It was as if she was a vehicle for getting it to me on behalf of someone or something else. How interesting it was that only now, years later—only AFTER I decided to come out again, only AFTER I resolved to welcome back my gay self—would I finally come to know what this object is. That’s all I could think about as I sat holding that Turbah in my hand during our Prayer 101 class at the retreat.
Allah was speaking to me again.
I gave up my gay identity in my youth because I accepted a version of Islam that said I couldn’t find Allah and be gay at the same time. With the devotional fervor of a new believer, I created not just a closet but a dungeon for my gay self. And in doing so, I missed an important point: accepting someone else’s teaching about God is not the same as hearing what God Himself, through my own heart, might actually be saying.
I spent years brushing off uninvited crushes on male co-workers, hiding romantic impulses toward male friends, and fighting off the happier memories of my gay past before I finally woke up to the fact that, despite all the work I’d done, the gay self I’d locked up had never died or gone away. He’d been alive all that time, living underground alongside my well-intended Muslim self and the rest of me. By avoiding and denying him, I’d arrived at the doorstep of middle age with a life half-lived. I finally realized it was time to stop pretending and welcome him back. For better or worse, I told myself, Allah will understand.
I tell myself the story of the prayer stone, my Turbah, is a sign that He not only will understand, He has understood all along. At a time when my heart was still divided, when I told myself and the world I was no longer gay, He sent a gay friend to come out to me, reminding me gently of my own truth. A few years later, He sent the same friend back with a gift, a reminder that, as much as I had learned about my faith, there was even more I didn’t know. And finally, as my heart opened again on the inside, He opened a door on the outside, in the form of this retreat, and, it seems, delivered a message:
“I’ve been watching and waiting for years for you to see the completeness of who you are. You can’t return to Me divided. Walk your path fully now, live your truth as the man I created you to be. I’ve always been here and never left. In the end, it will work out okay.”
Along with that message came example after example—the brothers and sisters I met at the retreat—of how my chosen spiritual path CAN co-mingle with my gay identity. It’s now up to me to choose what that will look like in my own life. And as that work gets underway, my prayer stone has returned to its original place on my desk, infused now with new meaning: a sweet reminder of what was, what is and what always will be.
NOTE: Khabir Cory uses a pen name to protect the privacy of those who didn’t ask to be part of his unusual journey.
Image By: Khabir Cory