Image: British gay Muslims.
Gideon Mendel For MSNBC.com
Members of the British gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Muslim group Imaan wave from atop a float during the EuroPride 06 parade in London, England, on Saturday.
By Jennifer Carlile Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 7/6/2006 10:41:42 AM ET 2006-07-06T14:41:42

LONDON — "Oh my god, I'm a sinner," Ubaid said he once thought of himself.

"I kept praying and wishing I weren't gay, hoping it was a phase, and that if I kept praying I'd be saved," he said.

Ubaid, who asked that his last name not be used, was born in London to a close-knit and devoutly Muslim Pakistani family.

"I have always been passionate about Islam," the 30-year-old said, explaining how he struggled to resolve his religion with his sexuality.

Several years after deciding not to enter into a marriage arranged by his parents, he is now secretary of Imaan, the United Kingdom's only gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender Muslim group.

Imaan's members feel like they are targets of both a wider society that discriminates against Muslims, and a Muslim community that sees homosexuality as a Western disease.

"Now we're dealing with Islamaphobia within the gay community, and Muslims who say gays can't be Muslims," Ubaid said.

Despite discrimination, Ubaid has found away to forge his own path and has reconciled his attraction to men with his love of Islam.

'Not acceptable'
Imaan, which means faith in Arabic, has around 300 members, most of whom have not told their families that they are gay.

While members vary in how rigidly they keep to Islamic practices like praying five times a day and eating halal food, Ubaid said Imaan is for people who believe that they can be gay and Muslim. If they were raised in a Muslim family but have renounced the religion, Imaan probably would not appeal to them.

The group was started in 1998 as a branch of the U.S. gay Muslim group, Al-Fatiha, after its American members visited London. It serves as a support network, and is a meeting place for people to pray together and celebrate Islamic holidays.

Imaan hosts conferences that deal with such topics as culture, Islamaphobia, non-Muslim partners, HIV and Islam, relatives of gay Muslims, and trans-sexual Muslims. And some members take part in gay pride events.

On July 1, around 25 Imaan members rode atop a float in the EuroPride 06 parade in London. With banners reading "Gay Muslims unveiled" and flags of the United Kingdom and from across the Islamic world, they waved cheerfully at the crowd.

While they didn't hide themselves in rainbow burkhas as they did the previous year, most were still reluctant to give their names or be photographed for fear of reprisals.

Although the group's membership is on the rise, gay Muslims are not accepted by the wider Islamic communities of any country.

In fact, Iqbal Sacranie, who served as the Muslim Council of Britain’s general secretary until this June, told the BBC in January that homosexuality is “not acceptable,” and that Britain’s introduction of Civil Partnerships did “not augur well” for building the foundations of society.

In 2001, a fatwa was issued against Al-Fatiha, the U.S. gay Muslim umbrella group by al-Muhajiroun, an international organization that seeks the establishment of an Islamic caliphate.

Marriage plans
"I tried not to be a sinner all my life, and then I thought, here I am, I'm going to go to hell," Ubaid said of when he came to terms with his homosexuality.

"Looking back, I've always been gay, but I didn't realize it until my mid or late teens.

"I'd never had a girlfriend or been attracted to the opposite sex. But, as sex is never talked about (in Muslim circles), it never really occurred to me until I got out of high school."

Ubaid, who has always prayed regularly at the mosque, fasts for Ramadan, and does not drink alcohol, began dating men.

"But, the prospect of marriage kept coming up and my family wanted me to get married," he said.

"I decided that I would get married for their sake," he said, adding that he considered dating men on the side.

"However, when Al-Fatiha (the American Muslim group) came along and I met gay Muslims who'd been married, I realized I just couldn't do it.

"Up to that time, I'd only been thinking of myself, my family, my culture. But, then I started taking into consideration that I'd be destroying someone else's life, making a wife miserable, and possibly the children miserable if I did that," he said.

Coming out
Ubaid began rejecting his parents’ overtures for him to get married. They couldn't understand his resistance and he failed to give them a reason.

If they found out he was gay, "I thought they might lose it, might kick me out of the house, and although my parents have never physically hurt me I thought they might, or I'd be sent to Pakistan and forced into marriage."

After hiding his homosexuality for so long, it came to the surface in an instant.

"They found a (gay) magazine in my bag in my room and they questioned me about it," he said.

"And I came out. I didn't bother to hide it. I said, 'I am gay and this is who I am.'"

Ubaid said his family do not accept his homosexuality and continue to ask him about marriage, but "they still keep me under their wing, and still love and nurture me as they always did before."

'Educating both sides'
Ubaid insisted that his words not be misused to slander Islam as a repressive or hostile religion as he feels very strongly about most aspects of the faith. However, he said he hoped that the Islamic world would become more open to discussions on sexuality and more accepting of those who are not heterosexual.

"Judaism and Christianity have moved on over the years and allow dialogue to take place, but sex isn't talked about full stop (in the Islamic world)," he said, adding that non-Muslim gay men often ask him why he'd be part of a religion that doesn't accept him, and noting a rise in Islamaphobia within the gay community.

"It's a case of educating both sides," he said.

"If the Quran teaches you that everything God created is beautiful, then why would he create a type of person who's always oppressed?"

"We're all equal in the eyes of God."

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