Being wrongly perceived as having an innate biological flaw by your community can give you the strength necessary to overcome worst fears and to position yourself as a defining leader for your people. Either subconsciously, or through a self-fulfilling prophecy, this is what happened to me. I was born gay and Muslim in 1979 in Afghanistan, and in 1984, my family resettled amongst southern California’s Afghan Diaspora. Growing up, I struggled to assimilate into mainstream America and simultaneously felt alienated by the parochialism of Islam. Pursuing higher education was my only worthwhile outlet.
After completing my graduate studies in the United States, I returned in 2012 to my birthplace, Kabul, and worked as a professor of political science at American University of Afghanistan (AUAF). During my time away from the AUAF campus, I mobilized an underground gay movement, spending a year campaigning for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons’ rights across social media. Eventually, the Afghan government deemed me a national security threat, forced me to resign from my post, and threatened to put me on trial and give me a life sentence in prison or the death penalty. All of this occurred with no regard to my status as a naturalized U.S. citizen. My alleged crime was being gay and spreading fasad, which effectively translates to spreading mischief in a Muslim land by expressing oneself in indecent, immoral ways that disrupt the social order of Islam.
I left Afghanistan in the summer of 2013 and continued my advocacy in New York City. On August 22, 2013, I became Afghanistan’s first public figure to come out of the closet, an act that went viral in Afghanistan and with the Afghan Diaspora worldwide. I received numerous threats from Afghans, Pakistanis, and other Muslims. Opponents dismissed my gay rights campaigning as a power struggle. But my family was formerly part of Afghanistan’s ruling elite, and I had more to lose than the average person. I could have repressed my sexuality and lived a double life, like so many of Afghanistan’s closeted homosexuals. Instead, I risked everything to champion for Afghanistan’s LGBTI community – the most vulnerable segment of Afghan society excluded from Islam.
Much discrepancy exists among scholars as to whether Islam permits homosexuality. From my own experience and observation, there is zero tolerance for LGBTI persons, even in mainstream Muslim society. Due to a culture of homophobia, entrenched in the beliefs of traditionalists who regard homosexuality as an illness and a sin, the LGBTI community faces an uphill battle. This remains true even in the five Muslim-majority countries that legalized same-sex activity. Last June in Istanbul, theoretically the Muslim world’s most liberal, secular, and democratic city, police ambushed an LGBT pride parade, dispersing the crowds with rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons. Gay Muslims living in Islamic States that have codified Sharia into law face a litany of difficulties. Excluding the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), ten Islamic states have actually legally authorized the murder of homosexuals.
Across the Muslim World, LGBTI persons risk falling victim to militia squads and mob violence, honor killings, and state-sanctioned capital punishment. They live in a society where the laws call for their deaths. Even if a gay or lesbian escapes an honor killing, imprisonment, or suicide, they are often forced into exile or marriages where they endure a lifetime of rape. The most unfortunate end up on the streets, living under bridges and dumpsters, and only survive by begging, dealing drugs, or prostituting themselves. The hardship facing the LGBTI community in Afghanistan is a microcosm of the broader persecution that minorities across the Muslim world face. The global community must wake up to to this ongoing crime against humanity, as put forth by a U.S. federal judge in a 2013 Alien Torts Statute in the Sexual Minorities Uganda vs. Scott Lively case.
The only path to freedom and equality, and the only way LGBTI persons can ever be accepted, is for Islamic states to dismantle the institutions — the madrassas and mosques that incubate terrorist organizations and maintain puritanical societies — that perpetuate narrow, intolerant views. Eventually Islamic states must evolve and adopt constitutions and laws based on humanistic and liberal values. Some may find these measures extreme, but for centuries the slavery and segregation of African Americans in the U.S. was justified through biblical scriptures. Like an African American born during the Transatlantic Slave trade faced bondage, or the inequality brought forth by segregation under the Jim Crow laws, today, a gay, lesbian, or transgender born in the Muslim world can suffer a lifetime of oppression in captivity and criminalization, with no emancipation in sight. How can we let LGBTI persons, living under the religious and political jurisdiction of Islam, suffer from an equally punishing fate?
Change is on the horizon, though. Now that the legal battle over gay culture is all but over in the West, the East is ripe to be the new frontier in the gay rights movement. Homosexuality brings the existence and rationality of Allah into question, leading the staunchest proponents of Islam to fiercely resist LGBTI rights. Well-established LGBTI activists and organizations can empower queer Muslims to connect with global networks and join the discourse. Ultimately, given the resources and attention needed, the Muslim world’s LGBT communities can help progress the thinking in their own communities.
Of all the countries in the Muslim world, Afghanistan — with its nascent civil society and transitional democracy — is the ideal laboratory for a thriving LGBT community. It’s poised to help the region move beyond radicalism. If we can bring light to the most obscure corner in the oppressive tunnel that is the Muslim world, then we illuminate it all. The ongoing U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, alongside the State Department’s creation of the Global Equality Fund and partnerships with LGBTI rights activists abroad, creates space for dialogue. Influential figures like Randy Berry, the United States Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons, can be integral in laying the foundation for the decriminalization of homosexuality at the diplomatic level by engaging President Ashraf Ghani’s administration and the Afghan Parliament. Grassroots efforts can also empower LGBTI activists to establish community centers and non-governmental organizations that work exclusively toward the economic and social empowerment of sexual minorities.
In the post-9/11 world, I have endured years of prejudice for being Afghan and Muslim. I have been persecuted for trying to make peace with myself by publicizing my sexuality and renouncing Islam. My family and nation have disowned me and I have suffered from homelessness and poverty. A fatwa issued against me puts me in danger every time I speak in public. Yet, I am compelled to continue my activism in the Muslim World. I live with survivor’s guilt, having had the chance to flee to America as my fellow LGBTI compatriots continue to suffer silently. We must protect LGBTI persons in Afghanistan and across the Muslim world. The only way we can live in a world where LGBTI persons are free from persecution is if we dismantle the institutions propagating intolerance and segregation that perpetuate the tyranny and hatred in the first place.