I want my American LGBTQ community to see that people like us exist.
O. C. (not his real initials) was raised in Pakistan in a devout Muslim family. By the time he was eight or nine, he knew there was something “wrong” with him from a cultural and religious standpoint. At eighteen he came out, and his home life exploded.
He moved to another city, and some time later began corresponding with a man in the U.S. The correspondence evolved into a long-distance relationship, and after six visits together in Pakistan, O. C. immigrated to the U.S. —for love, he says laughing, and—more seriously—because Pakistan had become dangerous for him as a visible gay man. But living in the U.S. as a gay former Muslim has its own set of issues.
In this interview with psychologist and author Valerie Tarico, he talks about what it’s like to move between two worlds and not fit the orthodoxies of either.
VT: What was it like being gay and out in Pakistan?
OC: There are two very negative aspects of being gay in Pakistan. One is hypocrisy and the second is fear.
In Pakistan there is hypocrisy on every level because we need to pay lip service to Islamic values, and Islam does not permit certain aspects of sexuality. Homosexuality is taboo in Islam and sharia. The religion and law both don’t permit it. The story of Lot in the Bible is the same story that the Quran uses to justify that homosexuality is an unnatural act. There are specific sharia teachings that if you see a man indulging with another man, he is supposed to be killed.
VT: That’s serious pressure to remain silent.
OC: Yes. A lot of men indulge in homosexual acts. They aren’t necessarily gay, but access to women is not allowed. There are realms that are devoted to men and realms that are devoted to women—women in the house and men as breadwinners. That segregation is applied to sexual issues as well. So, with no access to the opposite sex, some people are situational homosexuals. But they would never admit it or talk about it because that would lead to being ostracized.
VT: Tell me a bit more about what happened when you came out.
OC: I made the mistake of coming out to my parents at age 18. I was very naïve and got a severe backlash. My father had such a big problem with my sexuality that I moved to another city. My family is ok with it now, except my father. My mother is a very strict Muslim and she doesn’t talk about it. My brothers and sister are okay with me.
VT: Your home now is NYC. What is that like for you?
OC: Being an exMuslim in NY is more or less accepted. But I was in academia, and in academia, if you critique Islam, then people start distancing from you. For example, during a class one of my professors said, “I don’t care if 4000 people died in the 911 attacks because the attacks were a direct result of America’s bad foreign policies; so they were justified.” I spoke up, disagreeing. I said that there are roots of terrorism in Islamic doctrine itself. But in academia, terrorism stems from bad foreign policy on the part of the West. After that I was called Mr. Fox News, as if I thought people from Islamic countries caused terrorism.
More recently, I used to teach at a college, and I was talking about Raif Badawi, a Saudi Canadian who is a political prisoner in Saudi Arabia because of his secular critique of the government. I was discussing hegemony and government. A Muslim girl in my class complained that I was being Islamophobic. Afterwards, my supervisor talked to me and suggested that I talk about hegemony in an American context. He offered examples and asked, Why don’t you talk about those? I said I would like to talk about the experience that I had and that other exMuslims like me have in Muslim countries. Is that not permitted? The supervisor said, You are permitted to do it, but it’s better if you don’t. Soon afterwards I left the job.
VT: You have said that you bump up against this attitude, this refusal to interrogate Islam even in the LGBTQ community.
OC: I think there is a lack of independence of political thought and opinion in the LGBTQ community. People align across issues with the positions of the far left. That is because the left has supported us, but it leads to odd blind spots. For example, one of the worst mass shootings on American soil was by a Muslim against the LGBT community, but I have never heard members of the American gay community discussing that incident in terms of what Islam may have contributed, what Islam says about homosexuality.
VT: As a former Evangelical I criticize Evangelicalism in strong terms in left-leaning publications—for some of the very same attitudes and teachings you are talking about.
OC: Yeah. It’s not okay on the left to examine Islam like it’s okay to examine Evangelical Christianity.
I do understand that to safeguard minorities on the basis of color and religion is very important. But to critique an ideology is totally different from being bigoted against a group. I critique my ex-religion, but I don’t stop loving my mother and sister, and they don’t stop loving me. Many people say it’s a hopeless situation for gay people in Pakistan, but some Muslims are extremely loving and understanding toward sexual minorities. Not all Muslims are a single stereotype. Critiquing the ideology is totally different from bigotry against people.
VT: You lead ExMuslims of North America in the New York Pride parade on June 30. What do you hope to accomplish?
OC: This march is the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, and I hope to see more Stonewalls happening around the Muslim world. I hope to see the same spirit of fighting for freedom and justice in the Muslim world, that people who are Muslim minorities should achieve the freedom to love whoever one wants to love. As well, I want my American LGBTQ community to see that people like us exist. We exMuslims in the West are nowhere. We can’t be part of the progressive community because we don’t support Islam, and we can’t be part of the conservative community because of discrimination. I would like people to acknowledge us.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.