In this file photo, Imam Daayiee Abdullah and Reverend Dwayne Johnson discuss LGBT rights in the U.S. and reconciling those rights with religious beliefs.(Photo via Flickr user East-West Center via Creative Commons license)
In this file photo, Imam Daayiee Abdullah and Reverend Dwayne Johnson discuss LGBT rights in the U.S. and reconciling those rights with religious beliefs.(Photo via Flickr user East-West Center via Creative Commons license)

For Daayiee Abdullah, the past weekend compressed, in sharp relief, both the good and the bad of what it means to be Muslim, black and gay in America.

Friday marked the celebratory funeral of boxing champion and civil rights fighter Muhammad Ali, "a black American Muslim hero." On Saturday, Abdullah performed "a marriage for an interfaith couple: a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man, which many imams will not do." And on Sunday, he woke to a phone ringing with news of a horrendous attack in which a gunman claiming loyalty to the Islamic State group killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

"The volcanic eruption now overcomes the goodwill" toward Muslims generated by remembrances of Ali, Abdullah said, grieving for that and for the lives lost.  

Abdullah for days has been in relentless demand for his perspective as a gay imam — a rarity in a faith that, as with some other religions, generally has been intolerant.

“But that is evolving,” said Abdullah, 62, who led the progressive Light of Reform mosque in Washington for several years before closing it in 2015 for financial reasons. He also was the only imam willing to conduct a funeral for a Muslim man who’d died in 2002 of complications from AIDS.

Positive response to horror

If the Orlando attack has any bright spot, Abdullah said, it’s that the public response refutes "the supposed division between Muslims and the gay community. As opposed to 15, 20 years ago, both the Muslim community and LGBT community work in unison to deal with the various prejudices and biases that they each face."

Hundreds of community members line up outside a cl
Hundreds of community members line up outside a clinic to donate blood after the shooting attack at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., June 12, 2016.

After Sunday’s shooting, for instance, the secular Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Florida chapter encouraged local Muslims to participate in a blood drive aiding the shooting victims. (LGBT activists and supporters, for their part, have decried any attempts to vilify Muslims. And a wide array of supporters, in Orlando and far beyond, also have shown solidarity with the mostly Latino victims and their respective communities.)

"Muslim organizations making these statements publicly [are] a real godsend," Abdullah said, later calling it "moving forward… in solidarity against the hatred."

The Muslim community too often has kept silent about homophobia, he said. "There’s been some evolution, but it’s not far enough. Now it’s time to have more conversations, not dictates, about where we stand living in America or in the West."

Abdullah added that, as a sexual minority in the Muslim community, "in the past, I have been ignored, dismissed and in some instances very rudely treated." So he was heartened when CAIR’s Washington office invited him to join in a public response to the attack, though he couldn’t because of a scheduling conflict.  

Dueling messages

When it comes to homosexuality, the Muslim world largely observes a policy of don’t ask, don’t tell, said M.A. Muqtedar Khan, a University of Delaware associate professor of Islam and global affairs.

"The Quran is very clear. It says, 'How can you lie with a man as you would with a woman?' But there’s disagreement about what should be the punishment," Khan said.

Imam Azhar Subedar, left, speaks during a special
Imam Azhar Subedar, left, speaks during a special interfaith prayer service at the American Muslim Community Center in Longwood, Florida, June 13, 2016, to support the Orlando shooting victims.

Muslim leaders send mixed messages, with some clerics putting out YouTube videos railing against homosexuals while others publicly endorse tolerance, he added. "They can’t go and ask Americans to fight Islamophobia and then preach homophobia… teach hatred and intolerance for one community while demanding better treatment for the other."   

Khan tweeted Monday that "Islam teaches to respond to evil with good."

Dealing with prejudice

Investigators still are trying to determine what motivated the gunman: religious extremism, homophobia, self-loathing, ethnic hatred, mental illness or something else.

Prejudice was familiar enough to the former Sidney Thompson, who grew up black and gay in a Southern Baptist family in Detroit, Michigan. But he also experienced plenty of acceptance.

At 15, he came out to his parents, who "were very accepting of me at that time. They told me that I had upheld the ethics of the family" and "because of that, there was nothing wrong with me," he recalled. "… They were very far ahead of the curve."

When he converted to Islam at age 29, while studying with Uighurs in China, they embraced that, too.

Abdullah, who has a law degree and speaks some Arabic and Mandarin, worked in import-export law, then switched to refugee work. He said his background in the U.S. legal system and Islamic law enabled his helping Muslims and gays seek refugee status.

Now Abdullah’s developing the Muslim Education Center for Creative Academics (MECCA) Institute, an online seminary promoting progressive theology that he hopes to open in autumn 2017. He said he has enlisted progressive Muslim leaders from four continents to join him in teaching.

People, including those of Muslim faith, "have to reevaluate what they’ve been taught or told," Abdullah said. They have to "better understand that sexual diversity is a blessing in our community and not a curse or any negative."