How Central Florida’s Middle Eastern and Muslim LGBTQ community has found their voice post-Pulse

By : Holly V. Kapherr
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Recall two seminal moments from our recent history: Most—if not all—of us nearing our mid-thirties and beyond remember where we were on Sept. 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center fell to the ground. Similarly, thousands will never forget the morning they woke up and heard about the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12, 2016.

For many, these two events may share very little in common: the scope of the terror, the size of the cities in which they occurred, the generality or specificity of their victims, how removed or close-to-home the impact.

But in one community, LGBTQ individuals of Muslim heritage or Middle Eastern background, both acts of terror share an unfortunate common thread—the nationality and religion of the perpetrators. The Sept. 11 attacks were orchestrated by the radical Muslim group al-Qaeda and its leader at the time, Osama bin Laden. The man who murdered 49 and wounded 53 at Pulse was Omar Mir Seddique, also known as Omar Mateen, the son of immigrants from Afghanistan. Mateen also had strong ties to radical Islam.

In the weeks following Pulse, national attention turned to the Muslim stance on homosexuality and gay issues. Simply put, it’s more complex than you might think.

An NBC News article that ran on June 19, 2016, read, “Orlando Highlights Islam’s Complicated Relationship With Homosexuality.” Two days earlier, USAToday published the headline, “Muslim attitudes about LGBT are complex, far from universally anti-gay.”

In 10 of 18 Middle Eastern countries, homosexuality is illegal—sometimes punishable by death. Other punishments include exile and gay conversion therapy. However, NBC reported that experts cite LGBTQ figures as part of the faith since the days of the Prophet Muhammad. The musician Al Dalal, a contemporary of the Prophet, was also gay, according to most Islamic scholars. Rumi, perhaps the culture’s most celebrated and popular poet, is widely understood to have been inspired by a gay relationship in some homoerotic verses. But homosexuality is a pain point in many mainline conservative religions.

“Religion has lumped a lot of things into the basket of sin, including homosexuality,” says Father Victor Ray, who helms the St. Francis Ecumenical Catholic Church in Largo, “but its lumped in homosexuality from a psychological perspective when they were developing religious theology.”

Ray—who recently led a panel discussion on the intersection of spirituality and homosexuality—says what’s happening today is that we’re learning that sexual orientation is more than a decision for those who come out.

“It’s part of who they are,” Ray says. “There are many misconceptions, so much heartache and so many broken down people, because they could never justify being religious and being homosexual.”

Rizwan Zaman, 45, and Justin Shakeri, 25, are two men in Central Florida who have worked through their identities and have found community in maintaining their Middle Eastern identities and living boldly as gay men at the same time, proving it’s not a contradiction.

Imam Muhammad Musri at a press conference outside a Chipotle in Orlando on June 12, 2016. Photo by Jake Stevens

Growing Up

Zaman lives in Orlando and gave an interview to the BBC following Pulse, bringing international attention to the existence of men and women who identify as both gay and Muslim. He told the BBC, “[Pulse] was a safe haven for allowing me to not feel judged or criticized … I didn’t have to worry about my safety.” Zaman grew up in the South as the child of devout Indian-American parents. “I always felt like an outsider,” he says. “We came to find a better life in America, but my parents were dedicated to preserving our cultural and religious identity.” Zaman’s parents established the mosque and Islamic society where they worshipped. Developing a sense of community was essential in forging their way in their adopted country.

Shakeri, who moved to Florida from Richmond, Virginia, felt similarly as a Middle Eastern child growing up in an area that wasn’t exactly welcoming to foreigners. “It was little Persian-American me among all these very rich Republicans and their white kids. Everyone looked at me and my family like we were different,” he says. “From a young age, I grew up with a sense of being ‘other.’” Shakeri notes that, at the time, there were very few to no Middle Eastern celebrities, so there was no one to look up to. “My parents were spiritual, but not religious, per se,” he says. “My mom would pray to Mecca and we celebrated Persian New Year, Nowruz.” For Shakeri, preserving the Persian heritage—much of which is rooted in Islam—was foremost; religion came second.

Anna Eskamani, another Persian-American, who is currently running as a Democrat for Florida House District 47, is a known LGBTQ ally. She also grew up in a conservative household with her brother and twin sister, fully aware of the traditional mores of Islam, with sprinklings of religious fervor. “Dating wasn’t an acceptable practice in our household,” notes Eskamani, who graduated from University High School. Her mother passed away when she was 13 years old, so not only did she not have access to information about puberty and sexual development from her mother, she also didn’t have access to it because it just “wasn’t talked about.” Eskamani also recalls female roles as key in her family dynamic. “I was taught not to call attention to myself, not to be loud, and not to ‘take up space,’ so to speak,” she says.

The attack on the World Trade Center was pivotal for all of them. Shakeri and Eskamani both relate being called “terrorists” by kids at school more often than they can count. “It was after 9/11 that the shame of being Middle Eastern set in,” says Shakeri, who was in third grade at the time of the attack. Eskamani, who was in sixth grade at the time, agrees, “9/11 was the moment I realized what racism was. Before that, I was proud of being Iranian-American. But Sept. 11 was the first moment that a classmate asked me if I was related to Osama bin Laden.” At that moment, she knew something had changed in the way her classmates and the community saw her and her family.

Zaman, who was a bit older on 9/11, looks back, saying, “After 9/11 began a long period of defensive education to society about the hateful rhetoric sprouted by self-proclaimed ‘leaders’ professing to be Muslim.” For Zaman, he always found this radical rhetoric to be contradictory to the building blocks he was always taught in the religion. “When you look through a pure lens,” he says, “you see through the hate.”

Anna Eskamani marches in the 2017 Come Out With Pride parade in downtown Orlando. Photo by Thi Ngyuen

Finding Their Way

For Shakeri and Zaman, coming out as gay meant reconciling their Middle Eastern and Muslim upbringing with their sexual identity. Both men spent more time in the closet than they probably would have had their religion and ethnicity not played a factor. Islam is certainly not the only religion that prescribes against the “sin” of homosexuality, and many LGBTQ individuals who grapple with coming out are also in the process of evolving their religious values and family traditions. Bobby Berk, who currently serves as the design expert on Netflix’s latest iteration of “Queer Eye,” has spoken, at length in both interviews and on the show, about his religious upbringing as a major obstacle to his coming out as gay.

For Shakeri, coming out to his parents was the hardest part. “It was the darkest point in my life,” he says. “They didn’t believe me. They thought I was confused and didn’t know any better. They tried to put me in conversion therapy. I begged my mom not to tell anyone, but of course, she told everyone in our family.” Shakeri was surprised by the reaction of his aunts and uncles, who were relatively unfazed by the news. “They felt bad for me because they knew my parents would react badly,” he says. “It all came down to the Middle Eastern idea that ‘this is your firstborn son, your pride and joy, and now he’s damaged.’”

Ray counsels many people who are struggling with their religious upbringing and reconciling that with their sexual orientation. Parents are an especially difficult subject for many of those who come to him. “When parents first find out about their child being gay, they’re upset because being gay is a hard life decision,” he says. Ray encourages individuals, “Sometimes there’s going to be hurt, but sometimes the only way for someone to grow is for there to be hurt. Our lives, and the lives of our families, will be greater for it.”

Shakeri remained in Richmond for college until his parents pulled him out of school. “They wanted to control me,” he says. “I was going to be a doctor, because when you’re a Middle Eastern man, that’s what you do. But as soon as my parents saw that I wasn’t putting in any effort, they pulled me right out.”

Shakeri later attended a drag pageant in Richmond where some of Orlando’s local talent performed, including Ginger Minj and The Minx. They invited Shakeri to come down to Orlando and he promptly bee-lined for the Sunshine State. “I had no theater experience, but one day, the performer who was supposed to sing ‘Under the Sea’ from ‘The Little Mermaid’ was out, and I happened to know all the words,” he says. “From that day, you couldn’t keep me off the stage.” Shakeri is now one of the producers for Broadway Brunch at Hamburger Mary’s in downtown Orlando.

Zaman feels that, though many might say he came out “late,” the time was right for him. He wanted to make sure he felt a level of courage as well as support from an embracing community. This happened for him when he was 38 years old. He came out to his immediate family two years later, in 2013.

“Their initial reaction wasn’t what I expected,” he says, “but I suspect they needed time to understand, just as I needed time to process it myself.” The BBC interview he taped just after Pulse was the way he came out to the rest of the community. Over 200 million people saw the interview, which aired every hour during Pride weekend, and the reaction was mixed.

“I received many supportive messages, and some challenging ones as well,” he says. “I see each as an opportunity and responsibility to educate and expose society to a topic which they would have otherwise brushed under the rug.”

While Shakeri never truly identified himself with Islam, Zaman still finds himself committed to the Muslim faith and community, though he admits that the community as a whole may need time to process the idea of a gay Muslim man.

“Through my struggle to accept myself, my only connection was God and his reason for creating me,” he says. Zaman cites a central tenet of the Muslim faith that many other faiths share: God created each human exactly how they were intended to be and with a purpose. “This belief continually fueled me. It actually kept me alive,” he says. “With that in mind, I try to lead a purposeful life as a Muslim who also happens to be gay.”

An Arab woman with an Equality Florida sign at the Pulse vigil at the Dr. Philips Center. Photo by JD Casto

A Unique Perspective

When the identity of the gunman at Pulse was made public, reactions varied widely, especially among the Middle Eastern community. Prominent Muslim voices in Central Florida sprang into action, including Imam Muhammad Musri, who co-hosts the “Three Wise Guys” program on WMFE 90.7 FM in Orlando. He was among the first to acknowledge the work of law enforcement and express his condolences to victims and their families. He said at a press conference, “We condemn the person who did this, whatever ideology he had. No lives should be lost because of anger and hate.”

Eskamani, who was at the time senior director at the Orlando chapter of Planned Parenthood, was asked to speak during a press conference that was held at The LGBT+ Center of Central Florida.

“I remember the moment I heard about Mateen,” she says. “When they announced his identity, I felt a lot of shame. It was instant. Because there are so many stereotypes about Muslims, I just felt like this wasn’t helpful, to say the very least.” She also felt that the judgment and stigma that further divide populations would be used against Muslims, “I felt a responsibility as an Iranian-American to demonstrate solidarity with the LGBTQ community. Our struggles are tied together.”

Planned Parenthood was no stranger to gun violence. The Colorado Springs location had suffered a mass shooting that resulted in three deaths just seven months prior. “I felt compelled to take action immediately after Pulse,” she says. “I went to The Center, where there were at least 30 press outlets. I wasn’t expecting to speak, but I was asked to say a few words. I wanted to demonstrate not only solidarity as a nonprofit organization that understands terrorism firsthand, but also as an Iranian-American and as someone with close ties to the Muslim community. I wanted to show that we stood together against this kind of violence.”

Since that time, there has been some evidence and speculation about Mateen’s ties to the LGBTQ community, and what might have fueled his actions. Mateen’s ex-wife, Sitora Yusufiy, told TIME magazine that Mateen may have been gay, and was hiding his sexuality from his parents. The article in TIME also referenced several users of the gay-dating platform Jack’d saying that they’d exchanged messages with Mateen, though those claims were never substantiated. Four regular patrons at Pulse reported that they had seen Mateen at Pulse before.

Zaman references all of this when he talks about his reaction after Pulse. “Much of what we read about Mateen and his motives is speculation,” he says, “since he isn’t alive, I can only filter his biases from his horrific actions.”

Zaman says that there is no part of Islam that justifies the slaughter of innocent lives — in fact, the contrary. According to the Quran, taking another life, if not in self-defense, is grounds for excommunication from the religion. “When I heard that he did it in the name of my religion, I categorized him as I have all the other individuals who execute horrific crimes against innocent people and use their faith as a shield for arrogance, ignorance and insecurity.”

Citing the “toe-tapping” incident at the Minneapolis-St.Paul airport in 2007 that brought down notorious anti-gay Republican Sen. Larry Craig, Ray agrees. “He was conflicted within himself. His confliction was a sign of hate, which led to his downfall. Someone living a double life, who cannot find the connection between his mind and his soul, will never be happy.”

Shakeri lost a friend in the Pulse shooting, and says that while the night will haunt him forever, there was “no reason [Mateen] should have felt as he did.”

“No one will understand this unless you are a gay Middle Easterner who has grown up in an unaccepting environment,” Shakeri continues. “Being persecuted by the people and the culture that is supposed to love and support you does something to you. It breaks my heart to know that he may have felt there was no way out except to kill people that were able to express the part of themselves that he loathed in himself. I know what it is to be Middle Eastern and hate that part of yourself. That was me for 18 years.”

An Arab man holds up a sign condemning attacks in the name of religion at the first Pulse vigil at the Dr. Philips Center. Photo by JD Casto

Moving Forward

“The Pulse massacre took place during a volatile [presidential] election campaign cycle, and [Mateen’s] alleged motives have been used as additional fodder for campaigning on anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ platforms,” says Zaman. “It has been a struggle to feel included in such a polarized environment.” Zaman cites his faith as a source of balance, guidance and patience as the country, state and region figures out what it wants to be with regard to marginalized populations.

If nothing else positive, Eskamani relays a message of solidarity that has emerged between the Muslim community and the LGBTQ community that might not have existed pre-Pulse. “The Muslim ban has created a unity within Arabs,” says Eskamani, “and the LGBTQ community joined us against the Muslim ban by the Trump administration.” She also feels that it is her responsibility to educate her father and others in the older generation about equality, tolerance and acceptance. “It’s hard to change those attitudes, but I deeply feel it is our generation’s responsibility to try.”

Ray sees hope in the next generation of young people who do not see religion and sexual identity as mutually exclusive. “I am not happy with the way conservative mainline religion has affected our American way of thinking,” he says. “I believe that religion is man-made, and the true message of religion is for people to love, and accept and be there for one another. Young people are going to change religion. They don’t care if someone is gay or straight. They care if someone is a good person and is living true to themselves.”

After Pulse, Shakeri was concerned that he’d experience some of the same bullying and ostracizing he felt after 9/11. “But no one gave a single shit that I was Middle Eastern. The amount of love shown after Pulse was incredible. I have never felt that much love before. That was the moment that Orlando stopped being ‘the place where I live,’ and started being ‘home.’” Shakeri feels it’s unfortunate that a tragedy is what brings about feelings of love and unity, but what we need is how he ends the Broadway Brunch show: “We always say that no matter who you are, if we can all get together and have a great time, the world will be a better place.”

Zaman remains hopeful that the more sharing happens within religions, cultures and communities, the more understanding will bridge the gaps. “As a gay Muslim, I have learned so much about myself, my faith and my sexuality in the process of self-acceptance,” he says. “The more we share our collective journeys, the more society will be exposed to experiences they were not aware of, and the less they will fear what they don’t know.”

Justin Shakeri was concerned that after Pulse he may experience bullying but found that “the amount of love shown [to him] after Pulse was incredible. I have never felt that much love before.” Photo by Dylan Todd

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