Suhail AbualSameed looked calm, yet he was shaking inside. He was seated before a row of ulama, distinguished Islamic scholars, from Afghanistan to Yemen at the International Consultation on Islam and HIV/AIDS, organised by the charity, Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW), in Johannesburg, South Africa, last week.
The previous day, several of them had denounced homosexuality as un-Islamic and evil. Today, AbualSameed had something to tell them. "As a gay Muslim, I feel unsafe, unloved and unrespected in this space," he said. "Were I to become HIV-positive, the first thing I would lose is my Muslim community. I couldn't come to you guys for support."
You could cut the tension the room with a knife. AbualSameed continued: "I wish you did not refer to gays with the (Arabic) words 'shaz' and 'luti' - perverts and rapists - because we are not." Two men in keffiyas, the gingham headcloth worn by men in many Muslim countries, waved their arms to silence him but the chairman nodded for him to continue.
Spellbound, the audience listened as AbualSameed, a Jordanian living in Canada, did the unthinkable: outing himself.
The groundbreaking consultation brought together Muslim community leaders, academics, doctors, relief workers and HIV-positive activists to rethink the Islamic response to HIV and AIDS. One key issue was HIV prevention among hard-to-reach vulnerable groups like sex workers, street children, injecting drug users, and men who have sex with men.
Jaffer Inamdar, the HIV-positive founder and programme manager of the Positive Lives Foundation in Goa, India, told IRIN/PlusNews: "Lots of sex, drugs and gay activity take place during the high season from September to April in this popular tourist destination. Harsh, condemning language make them [gays] run away, hide and continue to spread HIV."
Homosexuality is forbidden and considered a crime in most Islamic countries. Six officially Islamic countries (Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and the 12 northern states of Nigeria) invoke sharia - Islamic religious law - and maintain the death penalty for consensual same-sex sex, according to human rights watchdog Amnesty International.
Other countries punish homosexuality with fines, jail or lashes, coupled with social stigma and blaming Western culture for introducing gay lifestyles.
Not surprisingly, AbualSameed was fearful: "I saw their gaze, their body attitude, and my memory told me there could be a physical reaction." But he had nothing to fear. "Afterwards, veiled women, bearded men, the most religious types, came to me and apologised if they had said something offensive, if they had made me feel unloved or unsafe."
Each friendly gesture signalled belonging. "This is us: our culture is intimate, warm, based on relationships. When I outed to my family, they did not turn on me," a relieved AbualSameed told IRIN/PlusNews.
The following morning, the ulama had a surprise. Conference spokesperson and IRW head of policy Willem van Eekelen read their collective statement, saying that although Islam does not accept homosexuality, Islamic leaders would try to help create an environment in which gay people could approach social workers and find help against AIDS without feeling unsafe.
"This first time ever that a high-level religious forum has talked, acknowledged and accepted gays," said AbualSameed. "This will open the door to talks with the Muslim gay community and help other gay Muslims to come out in a safer space."
To see theologians from Egyptian and Syrian universities, and imams - Muslim community leaders - from India, Sudan and Pakistan defy official Islamic homophobia is "definitively a first", said sheikh Abul Kalam Azad, chairman of the Masjid (mosque) Council for Community Advancement, in Bangladesh. "Homosexuality is a sin but we should not be cruel. They [gays] suffer a lot in the Muslim world."
Inamdar welcomed the statement. "There are many gays in my group [in Goa]. Islam says it is a sin and we have to follow Islamic rulings, but we are all human and deserve respect."
An unlikely ally for gay rights turned out to be Sudanese sheikh Mohamed Hashim Alhakim, dressed in a white robe with gold trimmings and a white turban, and his wife, clad in a black hijab, with their baby just behind him. Alkahim runs the S-Smart Training and Consultancy Centre in Khartoum, which also runs AIDS awareness programmes.
"I used to be very hard against homosexuals and sex workers," he said. "But I learned to respect their humanity. I advise them to change, but if they are going to continue they must practice safe sex so they don't harm themselves and their partners."
During the weeklong consultation, AbualSameed, who is coordinator of the Newcomer/Immigrant Youth Programme at the Sherbourne Health Centre in Toronto, had endured homophobic statements. Just the day before, one scholar had ranked homosexuality with bestiality and adultery as evils to avoid.
"The harshness of the comments made me passionate; I had to do something for my own identity and dignity, and of other gay Muslims," said AbualSameed. His decision to speak out was nurtured in his conference working group, made up of Muslims from Iran, Kenya, South Africa and Tanzania.
South African psychologist Sabra Desai spoke about care and solidarity, and recalled the Prophet's words: "'If one part of my body hurts, my whole body hurts'," she said. "I take this to mean that if one member of my community hurts, we all hurt."
Then she squeezed AbualSameed’s hand under the table and passed him the microphone.
Slowly, he started: "As a Gay Muslim…" And with every word, the doors of tolerance opened wider.