A Minority within a Minority: The Unique Position of Being Gay and Muslim in Amsterdam

June 28, 2010

On a late Monday evening in Central Amsterdam, a man drinking by himself amongst the regulars at Café De Heuvel, (an old, typically Dutch bar that attracts few tourists, but several loyal locals) perks up at the mention of a topic that he has clearly given thought.

“What is being gay? What is being Muslim? If you’re a Muslim, you’re a Muslim. You cannot combine the two.”

Poria, an Iranian-born Dutch man, prides himself on having read the entire Koran, although he does not consider himself to be Muslim. So, he is neither gay nor Muslim, but expresses strong sentiment on the issue because he is, indeed, Dutch.

“Muslim and Gay?” he repeats, eyebrows raised and voice inflected a few octaves, before he pauses, and then shakes his head no dramatically.

Being gay and being Muslim in the Netherlands blurs the boundaries of tolerance for a country that prides itself on being at the forefront of accepting diverse lifestyles. This layered identity positions individuals in a particularly vulnerable space—that of being a minority within a minority, and living a lifestyle that contradicts literal religious teachings. Poria’s view may be oversimplified, but it represents the ambiguity felt by (an otherwise) tolerant public in Amsterdam.

Beyond learning more about public perceptions on this issue, we set out to discover what organizations and government policies were actively addressing the challenges of being gay and Muslim in Amsterdam. Perhaps more importantly, we wanted to know whether the gay-Muslim community, itself, felt that its needs and challenges were being met. How do individuals with this dual identity reconcile their seemingly conflicted positions? Must one negotiate differently with the gay community than with the Muslim community? What is the quality of life among this population in Amsterdam? And, what challenges remain for them?

Our questions propelled us to several organizations that exist in Amsterdam to support the unique positions of gay Muslims in society. As it turns out, Poria is mistaken. People are increasingly finding ways “to combine the two,” and this is confirmed by various efforts throughout the Netherlands. From psychological services to health centers, public bars to open dialogues, and government initiatives spearheaded by outspoken politicians, being gay and Muslim is a hot issue in Amsterdam that involves many different stories and faces.

Living a life in both gay and Muslim communities presents a double set of issues—one concerning culture and religion, and one concerning sexual identity. The intersection of these concerns, and the conflicts that often result, creates various levels and forms of introspection on the part of each of these individuals.

Being Muslim and gay in Amsterdam

Salim (he preferred to use a pseudonym), a twenty-something Dutch man of Islamic descent, makes it clear that being gay in a world of Islam is difficult, to say the least. He came out to his family just over a year ago, and although his relationship with his mother has begun to heal, his father no longer speaks to him. He explains that fathers often play a huge role in the pressure placed on Muslims to suppress gay feelings. Islam’s cultural norms strongly reinforce a traditional family structure; as a result, Salim observes, being gay and Muslim in Amsterdam usually plays out in one of a few ways. These individuals tend to: (1) renounce their practice of Islam and embrace their identity as being gay; (2) declare that they’re both gay and Muslim, and either continue to practice Islam, or only identify as culturally Muslim; (3) become very orthodox and decide not to be gay, or at least not “practice” being gay; or (4) embrace both gay and Muslim identities, but to conceal the former from the Muslim community, including their own family. Salim makes clear that not every individual can be placed cleanly in one of these categories, but the need to reconcile this dual identity usually takes one of these forms. He reiterates more than once throughout our conversation that it is, in fact, impossible to sum up the experience of the “Muslim gay,” which as a universal experience does not exist.

When Salim is asked about his own experience in negotiating this layered identity among the different communities to which he belongs, he responds that at the time he had many native Dutch friends, who accepted his coming out easily since homosexuality is widely accepted in Dutch society. For him, this Dutch influence was an advantage in that regard. He elaborates, “I think my situation is unusual. I was with one leg in the Dutch community and one in the Muslim community.” Although it was still not easy for him, reconciling the two might be even more difficult for boys and girls who do not have such a group of native Dutch friends, which is often the case in Amsterdam’s most multicultural neighborhoods.

If Salim found coming to terms with these seemingly contradictory lifestyles to be made easier by his awareness of mainstream Dutch attitudes of tolerance, in contrast, he regards religion as very personal and not so easily defined in terms of its relationship to homosexuality. Because different cultures practice different forms of Islam, there is no way to draw exhaustive conclusions as to what the “Muslim community” thinks of being gay. “Besides,” Salim explains, “every religion says you can’t be gay, not just Muslims. It’s no different.”

Salim is confident when he responds to this question. His story, indeed, is not typical. But what story is? Our discussions with several individuals within or familiar with the Muslim-gay community in Amsterdam fortified our understanding of the nuances in these experiences. In one instance, a Muslim man and woman were married with their families present and still live together, while keeping secret the reality that they are both gay. Each has a lover outside of their marriage. Getting married as a heterosexual was a way out, a way to love their partners without the scrutiny of a watchful family and the traditional framework of culture and religion.

Another gay Muslim man, part Syrian, part Turkish, was profiled in the 2009 Dutch documentary, Believe in Love. He was forced by his Dutch lover to speak openly to his family about his homosexuality. The consequences? His family does not speak with him anymore. In one tearful scene, the man wonders aloud, “I don’t understand why my mother doesn’t want to know where I live, what I eat, where I sleep.”

In contrast, we were told about another gay Muslim couple who confessed that, although they live together and feel as though they are a couple, do not speak about their relationship openly. They remain close with their families and friends, but are certain that disclosing the true nature of their relationship would quickly end those longstanding relationships. Through this don’t ask, don’t tell lifestyle, the couple is able to remain together, keep the support of family, and continue to attend Mosque.

Reconciliation of identities, it appears, can become a black and white choice: either to openly identify with both identities, or to choose one (namely, the religious or cultural identity), while keeping the other (homosexuality), a secret. Among European countries the Netherlands is the most accepting of homosexuality, with only 9 percent of the population holding negative views towards gays and lesbian lifestyles, according to a recent study by the Dutch Social Cultural Planning Agency. This high level of public tolerance, paradoxically coupled with the prevailing feeling of not being tolerated among those that are gay and Muslim, begs the question: what is being done on a political or organizational level to support gay and lesbian Muslims in Amsterdam?

Government and non-profit support

The Dutch government’s policy objective is to ensure that people can be Simply Gay (the title of their most recent policy report on homosexuality in the Netherlands), meaning that gays and lesbians enjoy equal status and safety in Dutch society. The government financially supports educational programs, gay organizations and gay-straight alliances. As for efforts to reach the gay-Muslim population, it has financially supported several ongoing initiatives that were born out of several such gay organizations.

One place where Muslim and gay individuals can receive support is Respect To Love, a website funded by the Dutch government, that was initiated by an alliance between the COC (a Dutch organization for homosexuals), several progressive immigrant organizations, and a variety of small, ethnic and gay support organizations. The colorful website hosts four, flashy headlines: Coming out; Homo, Lesbian and Bi; Sex and Relationships; and Culture and Religion. Youth from various non-Western backgrounds share stories of their experiences with being gay in the context of their traditional cultures or religions. The website provides a forum for mutual support among this vulnerable group. Importantly, individuals can choose to remain anonymous, so some people turn to the website confidentially if they believe that their feelings cannot be discussed with their family or friends.

Several other organizations have sprung up over the past few years to support the unique niche for Muslim gays and lesbians in the Netherlands. Malaica, Secret Garden and Nafar, although separate organizations, all purport to manage similar issues: opening up dialogue, organizing discussion groups, offering psychological support and counseling, and organizing social events to encourage gays and lesbians of non-Dutch backgrounds to meet each other. In 2005, Schorer, a large health organization for homosexuals in the Netherlands, started a new and unique branch of services known as Safe Harbor, a place where Muslim youth are able to meet other people who struggle with similar issues related to reconciling culture or religion with their sexuality.

We were able to speak with an employee of Safe Harbor. He smiles and jokes when recounting the irony of the organization’s beginnings. “Safe Harbor started off for Muslim youngsters because many people were having problems being gay and Muslim. But that was only the idea—that it was that group that had the biggest problem,” he grins, and explains that the first client that walked in the door was, in fact, a Protestant boy from the Dutch bible belt who fled his intolerant community in search of support. This called for a broadening of Safe Harbor’s scope and mission, which is now focused on helping everyone struggling to reconcile homosexuality and orthodox religion—Muslim or otherwise.

This “individual focus” is especially important for Safe Harbor. Most Dutch counselors tend to give Western-based advice to these individuals—that they should “come out of the closet” to fully reconcile their identities. However, working with a demographic in which “coming out” can result in complete rejection from family, friends and community signifies that a new approach is needed. One policy does not necessarily fit all. In the past year, Safe Harbor’s clientele has grown from 43 to 105 youth.

Beyond support services, several projects have arisen in the name of curbing intolerance through educational services. The Dialogue is a large project run by an alliance between the COC (Holland’s largest gay support organization), the multicultural Malaica Foundation, and the Humanistisch Verbond (Dutch Humanist Ethical Society) which is one of the major Dutch humanist organizations. Sharon Polak, the director and founder of the independent diversity consulting firm, Dander, is managing The Dialogue on behalf of the Humanistisch Verbond, . It mainly concerns itself with philosophical and ethical questions relating to human beings and their place in society. The Dialogue, a project which brings together different groups of people to discuss topics related to religion and homosexuality, was started by the Humanistisch Verbond after the 2001 incident in which Rotterdam’s imam, El-Moumni, argued on national television that homosexuality was an illness which threatened reproduction, and therefore society in general.

Polak took time to meet with us, and spoke excitedly about The Dialogue. She describes the goals of the project as being to “open up the dialogue” between different groups of individuals in an effort to postpone judgment. The focus is on people with religious and ethnic backgrounds, as the Social Cultural Planning Agency has found that it is this demographic, together with poorly-educated people and the elderly, who display the lowest levels of tolerance towards homosexuality. “It is very typical of Dutch society to exhibit covert discrimination, so we want to create an awareness in the larger public, changing a few minds at a time,” Polak says of the program. Several dialogues have been held between religious and community leaders, as well as ordinary individuals within different neighborhoods. The project began in 2002, and will run at least until 2011. Polak says that participants in the dialogues report the experience to have opened up their horizons, enabling them to meet people sharing different convictions in a respectful atmosphere. “It’s hard to measure the real success of the program,” Polak explains, “but I don’t see an alternative.”

Yet another education-focused project is run out of the COC by Krzysztof Dobrowolski-Onclin, the Coordinator of Education on Acceptance of the COC Amsterdam. This program focuses on a younger generation, educating 13 to 16-year-olds about homosexuality in the school setting. Although the project’s focus is on homosexuality, Krzysztof explains that every lesson he teaches has involved a question about religion. “Religion is a big part of the discussion on homosexuality for these kids,” he explains.

In ten years, the number of volunteers for the program has increased from six to forty, and lesson plans have grown from 30 to 350 lessons per year. These lessons prove insightful not only for the children, but for the educators themselves. Krzysztof recalls a powerful experience in which a young Muslim girl raised her hand to explain that if she ever had a gay child, she would simply pray and raise her child not to be gay. “In Dutch society, you can be straight or you can be gay. And both are okay,” Krzysztof declares, “Those kids are being raised with the idea that you’re either straight, or you’re being killed. So, of course those children don’t want to be gay. We try to explain that in Dutch society, the options are different.” Reflecting Sharon’s vision, Krzysztof makes his attitude clear: “I don’t pretend that I can change someone’s mind within 45 minutes. I view that having a discussion or dialogue about it can be a goal within itself.”

Such efforts are not only originating from government-funded non-profits. The self-proclaimed “only Arab/Moroccan gay bar in the world” is located in the heart of Amsterdam. Habibi Ana, (Arabic for my darling) was opened in 2001 by Atef Salib, a homosexual Christian man with an Egyptian background. Salib has explained in previous interviews with the press that “the most commonly heard sentence in this bar is ‘I’m just here for the Arabic music.’ The same often tough-looking young men carefully start talking to me about their doubts and concerns after some visits. Again a few visits later, the same men would come to Habibi Ana to celebrate their homosexuality.” It appears that the bar has played a role in making homosexuality among Muslims more visible. After nine years, however, it is still the only one of its kind.

Where are we now?

The public debate over homosexuality and Islam has heightened over the past ten years. September 11th made salient the distinction between Islamic and non-Islamic inhabitants of the United States and Western Europe. The openly gay, Dutch right-wing politician, Pim Fortuyn, connected the debate over integration in Holland to the Dutch liberties relating to the emancipation of women and gays. This revisionist view of mass immigration from the Islamic world depicted it as a threat to Dutch culture and values. Fortuyn argued that the Netherlands would go back fifty years in time, due to the increasing Muslim influence in the country. He identified the central problem of Islam as the taboo of homosexuality, going so far as to repeatedly declare that he had secret sex with Moroccan boys. He used these sexual escapades to make a point—the Moroccan boys were leading a hypocritical lifestyle. After his death and the later death of Theo van Gogh, an outspoken critic of Muslim immigrants, the debate on the role of Islam within Dutch society heated up. During the run-up to the elections held here last month, the increasingly negative public sentiment towards non-Western immigration intensified further. The radical, right-wing Dutch politician, Geert Wilders, campaigned on the strength of his rhetoric of “protecting our gay community against Islam.” His party gained more votes than any other party in comparison to the previous elections in 2006, taking nearly 17 percent of the seats in Parliament. It is now the third largest party in the Netherlands.

Where are we heading?

The rise of a public dialogue, the increasing number of gay-Muslim organizations, and the success of the first Muslim gay bar have no doubt made it easier for gay Muslims in Amsterdam to feel accepted. But can we safely say that it is now easier for a young Muslim to reveal that he or she is gay? How large is the group of people that chooses not to use these support organizations, instead remaining at home with a secret? These questions remain difficult to answer.

Efforts to reach this population should be strengthened. An important player in the debate on Islam and homosexuality in Amsterdam is Ahmed Marcouch, a local labor politician from Moroccan descent who was recently elected to the Dutch Parliament. Marcouch is one of the most vocal advocates within the Moroccan community for tolerance towards homosexuality. In his city district of Amsterdam West, he has led several discussions between Muslims and gays, organized a soccer match between a team of Moroccan youth and homosexuals, participated in some of the Dialogue discussions, and even lobbied to open the city’s second gay-Muslim bar in the Slotervaart neighborhood in Amsterdam.

Fatima Elatik, another politician of Moroccan descent, advocates more tolerance of homosexuality within the Muslim community. She prides herself on being the only known Muslim woman to have presided over the marriage of a gay couple. Other noteworthy politicians in this discussion are the Mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, and former Secretary of State, Nebahat Albayrak, who come from Islamic backgrounds and currently advocate for gay rights within Muslim circles. Although these advocates are essential to the current debate, one glaring flaw is the absence of public figures who are openly gay and Muslim. Right now, there is no such person. The rise of gay Muslims in this public sphere may lead to greater acceptance, and ultimately emancipation, for this group..

Also important to consider is the relatively low number of women found among the gay-Muslim individuals that seek support. Men are better represented in this discussion because women are often less visible in traditional Muslim culture; they represent a minority within a minority within a minority. Because their roles are frequently subservient to those of men, gay women rarely have the liberty or means to find support from these existing organizations. It could therefore be argued that any true emancipation of homosexuals within Muslim traditional culture must occur alongside the emancipation of women.

We must remind ourselves that being gay and Muslim in Amsterdam cannot be placed in a box; it is not one identity. In the end, those people are much more than gay Muslims in Amsterdam. At some point during our incessant and dramatic questioning about the reconciliation of identities, Salim sighed, grinned, and reminded us: “Everyone has problems in their lives. Sometimes you worry about other things, like how much money you make. It’s not always about being gay and Muslim.” In short, Poria had oversimplified the issue in Café De Heuvel that late Monday evening. The conversation is not simply about “combining” being Muslim and gay. It’s about growing and developing into one’s own complicated, ever-evolving identity, and respecting that same process in other human beings – gay, Muslim, or otherwise.

References

Interviews

Dobrowolski-Onclin, Krzysztof. Coordinator of Education on Acceptance, COC Amsterdam. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 24, 2010.

Polak, Sharon. Director and Founder, Dander Consulting Firm. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 24, 2010.

Poria. Dutch citizen. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 21, 2010.

Salib, Atef. Owner, Habibi Ana. Amsterdam, Netherlands.

“Salim.” Dutch citizen. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 22, 2010.

Veenis, Els. Policy Officer at the Ministry for Education, Culture and Science. Interview by email. June 22, 2010.

Schorer. Employee, Schorer’s Safe Harbor. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 22, 2010.

Websites

The Dialogue. http://www.dedialoog.nl

“Respect to Love”. http://www.respect2love.nl

Safe Harbor: Veilige-Haven.nl

Other

Ministry of Education, Culture and Research. Simply Gay: Dutch Government's LGBT Policy Report. 2008 – 2011. The Hague:2007.

Social Cultural Planning Agency (SCP). Gewoon Anders. The Hague:June 2010.

Social Cultural Planning Agency (SCP). Monitoring Acceptance of Homosexuality in the Netherlands. The Hague: March 2010.

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