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Gay And Muslim: Living Between Worlds

Photo by Angela Carone / KPBS

Above: Rehana Faruqi plays guitar in her room. Music is a comforting to this young Muslim lesbian as she tries to reconcile the different, sometimes opposing sides of her identity.

Rehana Faruqi sits on her bed on a summer afternoon, playing her guitar and rehearsing a song she’s just learned. It's a cover of "Searching for the Ghost" by the indie rock band Heartless Bastards.

She wears a T-shirt that says "Music is the Literature of the Heart." She’s 18 and bright and prone to saying things like "Leo Tolstoy says if you want to be happy, just be. And that’s kind of the philosophy I live by."

However, it’s not always easy for Faruqi to just “be.” In fact, Rehana Faruqi isn't her real name. She asked to use a pseudonym for fear of retribution.

She lives between worlds. Her mother is Indian and her father Pakistani. She was raised Muslim. And she’s gay. "I remember in 6th grade my friend told me she kissed a girl and my jaw dropped," Faruqi said. "I was like, 'Does this even happen?'"

Faruqi realized she was attracted to girls around the same time. "It was earth-shattering to me, because I was this conservative, hijab-wearing little kid," Faruqi recalled. "I used to wear a head scarf. It really changed everything for me."

Faruqi and I talked in my car at a park a few blocks from her Mira Mesa home. She didn’t feel comfortable talking at her house. Her parents know she’s gay, but it’s not discussed. They don’t ask her about it, and she doesn’t tell them about it.

Huma Ahmed-Ghosh said that kind of denial is not uncommon. She's a professor at San Diego State University and is working on a book about Muslim lesbians. "It's not just Muslims, many parents think it's a phase," explained Ahmed-Ghosh. "The first step is denial, and the second is acceptance, but acceptance as a phase they’ll get over."

Faruqi's parents did not want to be interviewed for this story.

Faruqi may be young, but she's able to empathize with her parents' struggle to accept her sexuality. "I wish it wasn’t, but it's a lot to ask of someone to accept something that they believe to be morally wrong," Faruqi explained. "That society has told them was morally wrong all their lives."

Homosexuality is considered a sin in Islam. Faruqi's family is religious but not conservative. They are like most Muslims in the U.S. They mix Muslim cultural traditions with mainstream American attitudes. They observe Islamic practices to varying degrees. What is important is to be a "good Muslim." What that means often makes for lively discussion within the community.

Like a lot of immigrant groups, the community is close knit. If parents struggle with their child’s sexual orientation at home, out in the world, they have to face members of their community. "You walk into the mosque somewhere and suddenly the room falls silent," Ahmed-Ghosh explained. "So it can be very uncomfortable for the family."

Faruqi feels the weight of that pressure. She comes to tears as she describes her relationship with her mother. "I’ve never seen anyone give so much love to someone when it is so hard. It’s so hard for her because of what everyone else thinks, because of society, because of our community. Despite of all of that, she loves me," Faruqi said.

Faruqi stopped wearing her headscarf in grade school because she was teased. Classmates called her "terrorist" and "Osama Bin Laden’s sister." Munir Shaikh is a professor of Islamic Studies at Bayan Claremont, a graduate program at Claremont Lincoln University that trains Islamic leaders and scholars. He said gay Muslims can feel discrimination from all sides. "In a sense they are subject to both Islamophobia by others, as well as by feelings of outcast or loneliness within the Muslim community itself."

Family ties are strong in Muslim communities. In fact, it goes against Islamic teachings to break those ties. Faruqi's family is large; she has siblings and many cousins. The family gathers regularly for birthdays and weddings. "You take different classes, different friends come and go, but family is no matter what," Faruqi noted. "You’re linked to them by blood."

But when the family gathers, Faruqi hides her sexuality, never talking about romantic crushes or her own future wedding.

Still, she is adamant she won't reconcile any parts of her life. "I’m never going to give up my family. I don’t care what I have to do," Faruqi declared. However, she also wants the freedom to love who she wants, adding "I’m never going to give up loving people I love. That’s a lonely life."

Americans' acceptance of gays and lesbians has grown over the past decade. While there may be more gays and lesbians on televisions shows and in the public sphere than ever before, not everyone shares the spotlight.

"There’s this bright light on gay marriage and things like that," Faruqi said. "But there’s a shadow where I am."

She remains hopeful things will change.

Wednesday, we’ll meet a Muslim man who walks the tightrope of a religiously observant life and a gay lifestyle.


EDITOR'S NOTE: In a previous version of this story, photos and the real name of Rehana Faruqi were published. Out of fear of retribution, both have been changed.

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