For most of my friends, I’m the only gay guy they know with any experience with Islam. While my mother is a Wisconsin-born Catholic (and it’s reflected in my complexion), my Palestinian-American father is a practicing Muslim. And so my friends have looked to me for reactions to the tragedy in Orlando.
Because too much of what is being said is being screamed, absent of thoughtfulness, I’m happy to answer questions. I always aspire to first consider the victims: 49 innocent LGBT people or allies who were gunned down in an act of terrorism. And then I consider that I can only weigh-in on what I have experienced and what I know to be empirically true.
I know that Islam is practiced by over one billion people across hundreds of geographies, and it comprises multiple sects and groups with varied interpretations of the Qur’an. Very few of those interpretations condone violence.
But I am not and have never been a practicing Muslim. For just one smart, nuanced reaction from a Muslim, read Bilal Qureshi’s piece in The New York Times.
As the son of a Muslim, today I’m thinking about a video I filmed a year ago in which I talked about coming out to him. I told him I was gay when I was 27, nearly 10 years after I told the rest of my family and my friends. I waited out of fear of his reaction, but I also recognized that I needed a certain maturity to empathize with how hard it would be for him to accept my gayness. When it happened, through tears and some very hurtful words, I never doubted that he loved me. He never made me believe he didn’t.
The reaction to my video was positive. Strangers in comments and emails applauded my ability to empathize and thought it commendable that rather than see his reaction as wholly negative, I related his struggle to mine.
In the weeks that followed, as the view count ticked past 50,000, I received messages—almost daily—from Muslim youth around the world. They thanked me for being brave enough to share my story and they shared theirs—stories threaded with optimism but without happy endings. The messages were heartbreaking, punctuated by struggles with suicidal thoughts and cast in overwhelming loneliness.
Many of the notes ended the same: Thank you, and I hope to one day live as freely as you.
I read and replied to every message but always fixated on the “thank you” and the word “hope.” The lens through which I read the notes was not quite self-congratulatory, but too assured that things were getting better and someday would.
Today, reflecting again on these notes as debate wages around me, I realize my impact has been too insignificant. I realize the uniqueness of my story is not that my dad is Muslim and I grew up in small town Iowa, it’s that I came out with the luxury of time and allies in the form of friends and siblings.
The Muslims that write me are mostly in their 20s, some are in their 30s. They have lived decades thinking their sexuality is a weight to carry, and they live not in shadows but in darkness. One wrote, “I myself am a devout Muslim. I am also gay, closeted, and struggle with what I bear everyday. It’s a burden that could destroy me, destroy the happiness my family has, and destroy my relationship with them.”
Another young man wrote me to say my video is the first time he heard the words “gay," “Muslim,” and “Palestinian” from the same mouth. He thanked me for making him feel so not alone. What initially made me feel good now makes me feel sick: It’s not acceptable that an agonistic, 30-something, New Yorker who works in advertising is one of a handful of people this young gay Muslim can look to for hope. We need more visibility urgently.
The Muslim community—and the LGBT people that exist within it—must be more vocal, not only in their rejection of intolerance, but also in demonstrating their existence. Just as it’s fallen on my generation to move the needle on marriage equality, young Muslims are especially responsible for changing today’s reality.
And it’s incumbent on people like me—people who sometimes convince themselves that the progress we have made is enough—to remember that our stories, no matter how personal, are a powerful tool. We must remember that when it comes to progress, there is no finality.
When I spoke with my dad briefly on Sunday night we mutually expressed grief and disgust, but our conversation was limited to the literal act of terrorism, the tragic loss of life, and the horrific ease of getting a gun. Any mention of the LGBT victims was noticeably absent from our chat.
We love each other, we accept one another, but we don’t confront his discomfort with my gayness. He doesn’t ask me who I am dating, and I don't tell him because I’m uncomfortable, too. Even passiveness on such a small scale can no longer go unchecked.
I am committing to doing better. I am committing to speaking out more and encouraging those around me (and in my peripheral, like my many young Muslim cousins I’m not in regular touch with) to do the same.
We must keep talking—if not more loudly, more clearly.
Khalid El Khatib is currently writing his first book, a memoir on his youth in Iowa, his twenties in New York, and how being gay and half Middle Eastern impacted the two. He is a regular contributor to Hello Mr. and PAPER magazine and runs marketing for a New York-based company.