Outcast Gay Arabs Struggle with Backlash in Dearborn

"I'm not afraid. Somebody has to start the conversation," said Chris Ramazzotti, who's Lebanese and agreed to reveal his name while discussing homosexuality among Arabs here.

Other gay Arabs didn't disclose their identities citing safety risks as a reason, and to prevent their families from being criticized by Dearborn's close-knit Arab community.

Ramazzotti is the executive director of Al-Gamea, a group formed in 2006 to address the growing needs of local gay Middle Eastern Americans. In 2009 it became a 501c3 nonprofit organization.

Ramazzotti says the Arab community's progress towards having more tolerant attitudes about lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender (LBGT) people has been slow.

Arab Americans comprise more than 40 percent of Dearborn's population, which according to a 2010 U.S. Census report was 98,153.

Two Arabs from Dearborn said in parts of Beirut, Lebanon it can be less difficult for an Arab to be openly gay than it's here. Lebanon is one of the few Arab countries on the forefront of organizing for LBGT rights.

Ryan, a 23-year-old gay Arab from Dearborn who was kicked out of his house after coming out to his family, says there haven't been any real conversations among community leaders about gay Arabs.

"People are afraid to step up, and then there's people like me who are out and ready to start the conversation, but the question is where do we start? We don't know who supports gay Arabs, and sometimes I am afraid for my safety," Ryan said.

Ramazzotti says a lot of people living in Dearborn follow conservative customs and beliefs they brought with them when emigrating from Arab countries to the United States, making it more difficult for second generation Arab Americans to come out.

He says Dearborn's religious Arab community has got in the way of progressive attitudes about the LBGT community moving forward.

It's hard for Arabs here to be openly gay because they're afraid of being judged, and disowned by their families, neighbors and friends in the community.

Ryan says people who support gay Arabs often fear speaking in support of them publicly because conservative Arabs and Muslims will commit hate crimes, or incite riots against them.

Faisal Alam, a nationally known Muslim gay rights activist spoke at the University of Michigan Dearborn last month where he presented the program, Hidden Voices: The Lives of LBGT Muslims.

The lecture was interrupted by a false alarm, and Alam along with other activists were escorted to their cars by security after their views were challenged.

The program attracted more than 200 people, including several Arab Muslims.

Ramazzotti has been threatened because of his sexual orientation. He says one gay Arab woman from Dearborn had to move out of her house after her brother went through text messages and emails and learned she had a girlfriend. He threatened to kill her. She's in college, and now on her own struggling to make ends meet.

The founders of Al-Gamea also wanted to reach out to Chaldeans, who're Iraqi Catholics, but don't identify as Arabs. Several gay Chaldeans have found refuge in Al-Gamea.

There are more than 120,000 Chaldeans in metro Detroit. The community is very close knit and conservative as well, making the challenges of gay Arabs and Chaldeans parallel.

Al-Gamea hosts weekly gatherings, and every month has an Arabian Night social event where gay Middle Eastern Americans gather.

In 2011 Al-Gamea raised money for eight Arab men and women who were disowned by their families after coming out.

The group provided money, food and shelter to all eight who were from Dearborn except one.

In 2010 the group helped two Arabs who were kicked out of their homes. Ramazzotti says Al-Gamea was able to help more people last year, because the fundraising was more publicized.

Many gay Arabs involved in intimate relationships with their partners live double lives.

"They have to sneak a kiss here and there, or a card. They have to even be cautious about accepting a flower from their lover," Ramazzotti said.

He says people who're secretly gay have to constantly make up stories and lies to their families, and friends.

"A lot of gay Arabs live a double life," said James, a Lebanese college student from Dearborn who's openly gay. "It makes me sad. It's not easy to live a double life. I never wanted to live a double life."

He was never thrown out of his house, and says his family accepts his sexuality.

Although he's openly gay, James didn't use his real name, saying he wanted to protect his mother from becoming the subject of ridicule in the community. "There's a lot of pressure," he said.

He says a lot of gay Arabs date outsidetheir race including him, and he knows two Dearborn Arab women who're romantically involved.

Both James and Ramazzotti say it's much more difficult for women to come out than men. Women face greater challenges because Arab families are more strict on them, and they're expected to remain very conservative.

During the program, Alam discussed what led him to become a prominent voice for LBGT Muslims.

While attending an Islamic school at age 14, he had a two-week course about how Islam condemned homosexuality, with no exceptions.

"It didn't make sense why God would give me these feelings only to send me to hell, it just didn't make sense logically," Alam said.

By 16, Alam had already won several awards from Muslim organizations, and was a youth leader in the community, all while struggling with his sexuality.

"So every aunty and uncle wants his or her child to grow up and become like Faisal," he said. He thought that if he prayed and fasted enough it would go away, but it didn't, and he started living a double life, but not for long.

The pressure of hiding his sexuality gained control of him, he lost 30 pounds in six months and was hospitalized for two weeks.

"I couldn't live like that anymore. I had to figure out how I could be gay and be Muslim. The two have to somehow come together. I didn't want to leave my faith, and I couldn't change my sexuality. I knew I couldn't be the only gay Muslim because I literally thought I was the only gay Muslim on the entire planet," Alam said.

After being hospitalized he vowed to make helping other struggling gay Muslims his life's mission. "I made a promise to God that I would never let what happened to me happen to other young people especially in my community," he said. Alam now tours the country speaking about Islam and homosexuality.

After coming out his mother initially stopped speaking to him, saying she had to pick Allah (God) over her son.

In college Alam started an email list to help and find other gay Muslims. "Several thousand people started to join in minutes, because that's how much silence there is about this issue in the community. That's the level of fear that existed and continues to exist," he said.

Within the last 15 years there's a growing movement of LBGT Muslims who are coming to the forefront and acknowledging their sexuality and saying they can be LBGT and Muslim, with no contradiction between the two identities.

Alam says Islam is going through a reformation, and in five to 10 years a major shift in it towards greater tolerance for LBGT Muslims around the world; Muslim women being allowed to lead prayer at mosques and openly gay Imams being more welcomed is expected.

Alam says there are already several mosques in the United States that are safe and accepting of the LBGT community.

The organization, Muslims for Progressive Values believes women should be allowed to lead prayer. Alam says the first few public prayers led by Muslim women at mosques in the country were controversial.

Gay Imams have also emerged as leading voices for LBGT Muslims, such as Imam Daayiee Abdullah of the Masjid An-Nur Al-Isslah in Washington D.C. Abdullah has been counseling gay Muslims for more than 12 years.

Ramazzotti says people are afraid of being affiliated with Al-Gamea because the community could find out they're gay, and a lot of its board members and volunteers have distanced themselves from the group for that reason.

Ramazzotti was living in Dearborn when he first came out to his family. His brother chased him three blocks after finding out, and tried to attack him. He didn't return home until eight years later.

"Being gay was the last thing I wanted to be, I tried to suppress my feelings and make them go away, but they wouldn't," he said.

Ramazzotti says he's witnessed gay Arab men and women marry the opposite sex, and still struggle with their sexuality.

He's never regretted coming out, or met anyone who has. Over the last decade Ramazzotti says there's been a major shift towards gay Arabs coming out and being more accepted, but there's still a great deal of progress that needs to be made. "It doesn't happen over night, but it's getting there," Ramazzotti said.