You'd be hard-pressed to find two groups of people more reviled in modern America than homosexuals and Muslims. While the Christian right believes that gays are out to destroy the American family, many conservatives and nonconservatives worry that Muslims are out to destroy Americans. Imagine for a moment living in this dual reality of hatred and suspicion; that's where Mohammed Itani lives. Itani, an out-and-proud gay Muslim who stays in the United States because, according to his website, www.reflectionsorlando.com, "I cannot live an openly gay life in the Arabic world."
In the Middle East, homosexuality is forbidden in the Muslim world, and in some places it's punishable by death.
Itani, 30, was born in Ocala, but moved with his family to Kuwait when he was 5. He says he was sexually abused, his father was physically abusive and, as the only American in his Kuwaiti school, he was verbally berated as well. His family was on vacation in the United States when the first Gulf War broke out. After the war ended, Itani's family moved back to Kuwait. Itani stayed. He was 18.
In time he began to accept his sexual orientation, though he spent the next few years of his life as a recluse. His family, to this day, believes his homosexuality is a phase.
In the late 1990s he had a lucrative job in the banking industry, but that ended after the Sept. 11 attacks. He was on vacation in Denver the week of the attacks, and says that when he returned for work the next week, he was fired on the spot. He sued for discrimination; his lawsuit was dismissed in 2004.
Itani was unemployed for a year; he eventually found another job, but took a hefty pay cut. During his year off, however, he founded Reflections, a group of gay 20- and 30-somethings who meet each Wednesday at the Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Community Center on Mills Avenue. It is, he proudly notes, the GLBCC's largest group.
Orlando Weekly spoke with Itani on what it means to be gay and Muslim in America.
OW: You had a pretty tumultuous upbringing, Tell us a little about it.
Itani: My parents are Lebanese. I was born in Ocala, Florida. Basically, when I was 5 years old, they decided to go back to Kuwait. … I grew up there all the way until I was 15 years old. … [M]y first language was Arabic. [W]e were on vacation here during the [U.S.] invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and we were stuck here. Luckily, we had the American citizenship, so we stayed here. … [Eventually] my father decided to take the family back, and I decided to stay. So I have been on my own in the States since I was 18 years old. … [As a child in Kuwait] I was the only American citizen in the school. … I went to a private school because the public school was all Kuwaiti-based everybody in there was Kuwaiti. At the time, you know, there were a lot of political conflicts. A lot of people based things on where you come from and what your origin is, and I was very vocal about being an American citizen. So in the public schools, my father couldn't put me there because he knew I would experience a lot of problems. … The private schools were mainly for the minorities the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Lebanese, the Egyptians, all kinds of other cultures, their children would go to the private schools, and basically every time something would happen politically you know how America is very pro-Israel so every time America supports Israel, it's like people get very vocal and sometimes they get very passionate and aggressive about certain things … .
OW: Tell us about your decision to come out as a gay man.
Itani: In Kuwait, I always felt like there was something different [about me]. Plus, I did experience a lot of sexual abuse, because the thing about it over there is that people are exposed to that kind of thing at a young age because … it's not like over here where schools are mixed and you know, people are open with their sexuality. … Over there, there wasn't access to female contact, so when you're growing up, it's like using the next best thing. So you go to an Arabic school, you go to an all-male school, the guys hang out with each other in school, they hang out after school, on the weekends they hang out with their buddies, and there's a lot of male bonding there. So it's kind of like because there wasn't access to females, guys are exposed to sexuality or sexual behavior at a young age. And a lot of people fall victim to that kind of abuse, especially by it can be their cousins, it can be people who are older than they are and they don't know better. So I did fall into that. There was a lot of that, but at the same time I always felt, even when I was young, that I was different than other guys. Because you know, people experience sexual abuse when they are young, but when they grow up, they get married or whatever. I always felt like I was not like everybody else, even when the abuse was going on. So I want to separate that. I don't want people to say, he was abused so that's why he's gay. No, that's not the case … .
Of course, I did come out to my parents, and it was the biggest mistake. I wish I could change that because it didn't go very well and we don't speak about this. It has turned some family members against me. … They wonder why I am so distant and why I live thousands of miles away. … [T]hey're religious and they're Muslim, and in Islam, this is like the ultimate sin. … When people say, "When did you come out?," I really base it on the year 1998. That's when I decided there was more to life than just working 18 hours a day and not doing anything else than work. So I actually picked up a Watermark and I was looking through it and I was like, let me see if there are any other outlets out there … .
OW: What has been your experience as a gay Muslim?
Itani: It's kind of like, well, I'm a triple minority. I'm of Arabic descent, I am Muslim, and I'm gay, so it's like I'm definitely not the boy next door. And you have to explain to people the whole Muslim thing, because people are just really confused about it, and then you add on it the whole gay thing. And they're like, "Isn't that really the ultimate sin?" And you're like, "Yeah, this is worse than changing your religion."
[A]fter 9/11 there were a lot of stereotypes and discrimination. And I never thought that this would happen, but I would go to a restaurant and people would [do a double-take] the minute I [gave] my name. … After 9/11, I was unemployed for a whole year, and there were people that were telling me, "You need to change your name on your résumé because people might consider you more, or be inclined more to have you come in for an interview."
When 9/11 happened, I was in my apartment for, like, three weeks. I didn't go out because I was scared to go out. I would see the hate crimes on TV and all the specials and I was like, "Oh my God, what's happening?" I couldn't go back to Kuwait because of all the things I experienced when I was young, I was an outcast. Now I'm in my own country and I'm treated this way here. … I went on my first-ever paid vacation the week the [9/11] attacks took place. I left on Monday. On Tuesday, they took place, and I was trapped just like everybody else in Denver, Colorado. And Denver, Colorado, is far away from New York. But the thing is, the minute I returned, I had three big people waiting for me, and they let me go, and it was apparent and very obvious that there was nothing I could say or do to change their mind … .
OW: How has your sexual orientation affected your faith?
Itani: When you grow up in Kuwait, it's enforced that you take religion class every year. And when you take the religion class, they teach you all these things, and they translate the Qu'ran for you. One of the things that stuck with me ever since I was growing up, it's kind of let me put it to you this way: If somebody is a serial killer, he goes out there and he kills people, but then he comes home and he's a good father and he prays every day … whatever he's doing good doesn't really count because he's out there killing people, which is an ultimate sin. … It's kind of like I can fast, I can pray, I can do a lot of good, but if I'm committing the ultimate sin, it doesn't count because I'm doing something so horrendous it outweighs what I'm doing that is good. … I can be the best Muslim I can be, but if I am living my life like this, where I am a disgrace … also, my name is Mohammed; I'm supposed to be an example. I'm supposed to carry the name. …
But I am [gay] and there's nothing I can do about that. … That kind of pressure … kind of distanced me from Islam. But at the same time, there are things that I grew up with that I'll always have. It's one of those things, where I have it on hold until I figure out a way to connect with God and to connect with my faith. It doesn't mean that I want to change it, because I cannot change being Muslim. I cannot say, "Oh, I'm going to be Christian tomorrow." I can't do that. Once you're a Muslim you're always a Muslim. At the same time, you have to find a way, and I think that comes with age, to have a relationship with God and finally have peace. I am not there yet, because of all the things I grew up with and all the things that I know inside of me.