* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.Being bisexual and Muslim is often seen as problematic - but the two sides of someone's character can co-exist happily
“I thought you were, I found the stash of your Qur’ans”
This was my coming out story. Not in the traditional sense of coming out of the closet. I had done that when I was 18, as a proud bisexual man. This time, I was coming out as a Muslim.
I was born in an ex-mining town in Northumberland that was largely white, not particularly religious and where people are proud and the sense of being in a community was always there as I grew up.
After studying sociology at university, I became a secondary school teacher specialising in religious education (RE), a job I loved.
At the time, I taught in a school in a community similar to the one where I had grown up, except for one distinction – a mosque. When teaching RE, it was my job to educate the children of the surrounding neighbourhood so that they could counteract some of the narratives and hate speech that they encountered.
My problem was that Islam was not a religion I understood well. I made it my aim to find out more as we introduced it into the curriculum. This was the starting point of my fascination, albeit a fledgling academic interest at this point.
Two years ago, I stepped off a plane on my way back from speaking at a conference. I found out by text that my best friend had died. The loss that I felt cannot be explained. He was an inspiration to me and I had always sought his counsel.
My crisis of faith had led me to ask deeper questions about my place in the world until a chance encounter with Muslim friends and discussions of faith started me re-thinking about Islam. One thing led to another and I said the Shahada (the Islamic declaration of faith) a year later and now I am a practising Muslim.
This may seem antithetical to many people, especially a great number of LGBT+ people as well as many Muslims, who often condense all discussions of sexuality into a stock phrase, which is “haram” or forbidden.
Yet on both sides we are failing our LGBT+ people of faith. The faith communities (with some notable exceptions, such as the Quakers) stigmatise LGBT+ people and in some cases, do much worse. In contrast to this, there are very few spaces to be open about faith in the LGBT+ community, without receiving ridicule or criticism from a community who feel (in many cases quite rightly) that religious institutions oppress them and so, therefore, you are part of the problem.
But these narratives help nobody – whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim – who is in the middle. The choice given is either, stay with your faith or stay with your sexuality – both cannot be reconciled. Yet faith is part of your identity, it is not easy to give up and obviously, neither is sexuality.
Sadly, I have seen many Muslims who have had to do this, as they feel deeply torn and so they are begrudgingly compelled to leave Islam as they feel (and see) that their own Islamic community does not accept them.
We have created a forgotten middle and it is time to reconcile faith and sexuality. If mainstream religious institutions are slow to do this, then we must make our own spaces in the meantime and help to push for social change.
This is where Hidayah comes in. We offer safe spaces and meeting groups for LGBT+ Muslims, whether practising or not. We highlight that you can be both Muslim and LGBT+. We make an invisible minority, within a minority, visible again.
I am at a point in my life where I am comfortable in my sexuality, and I am now comfortable in my Islam. So much so, that I joined Hidayah and become chair of the organisation so I could help others who struggle and hide their sexuality, as I once did with my faith.
Drew Dalton is chair of Hidayah, a British organisation that supports LGBT+ Muslims, and a senior lecturer at the University of Sunderland