On June 12, 2016, 49 people lost their lives and dozens more were injured in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. The shooter's use of religion to justify massacring people who were gathered to celebrate and relax at a gay bar in Orlando, FL, has led many around the world to equate Islam with an intolerance of LGBTQ people.
It's an assumption that Khader Abu-Seif, a 28-year-old gay Palestinian Muslim, wants to change. Abu-Seif is one of three gay Muslim men whose lives are explored in a new documentary film, Oriented. Directed and produced by Jake Witzenfeld, Oriented follows friends Khader, Fadi, and Naeem as they navigate life, love, identity, and the violence of the Israeli-Gaza conflict in 2014.
Abu-Seif spoke with Refinery29 from his home in Jaffa, part of Tel Aviv, about how he feels about the Orlando shooting and what he wants the world to know about the Muslim LGBT community.
We are not one unit, we are not all the same. You cannot judge us all by a little group of crazy people.
"I describe myself as a Palestinian, even though I live in the state of Israel, because my grandmother and grandfather grew up as Palestinians before Israel became a state. I am a gay, out-of-the-closet activist for LGBT rights inside of my country and inside of my city."
What it like to be a gay Palestinian man living in Israel?
"There is a lot of racism. The racism is not coming because I am gay, it is coming because I am Arab, because I am Palestinian. We don’t have any rights, but that does not mean we will sit quietly and wait for the rights to come to us. It’s a tough life, but we try to make the best of it. The only thing I can think to say is that it’s like two fights: in front of your community, the Arabs and the Palestinians, about your being gay and LGBT. Then, there is a fight about your nationalism: who you are and where you come from as an Arab and a Palestinian."
"I think that when you watch movies about it or when you don’t know this world so much, you think that all gays in the Arab world are victimised; all the gays in the Arab world are crucified or everyone wants to kill them or punish them. But that’s not the truth. The truth is that in the Arab world, there are a lot of countries. When you talk about Muslim gays, people in Tunisia, people in Turkey, those are places that have LGBT parades. You have Beirut, Lebanon, and Jordan, where you can be gay there and that doesn’t mean they will kill you or that they are going to get rid of you.
"I think that a lot of people, when you tell them that you are Arab and that you are gay, they think: Oh, they didn’t kill you yet. But it’s sad to think this way. The whole world is looking at the Arabs and the Muslims as a super-violent culture and a super-violent religion. It’s not the truth. What people see in the media and what people see in the newspapers, it’s not all of us. We are not one unit, we are not all the same. You cannot judge us all by a little group of crazy people."
Of course we can be gay and of course there is a huge population of gay Muslims.
"Yes, of course there is. I am not a religious person, but I say that I am Muslim because I want to prove that we are not all super-religious and we are not all against LGBT people. The thing about Arabs and Islam is that you have people who are liberal and open-minded and actually don’t mind if their son or daughter is lesbian or gay. But no one will show you that, because everyone wants to focus on the fact that Arabs will kill you; Arabs will treat you not nicely.
"To be LGBT in this community, a lot of times, you need to raise your voice and say: 'I’m coming from this culture. I am coming from Islam, I am coming from the Arab community, and it’s not all of us, it’s not true.' I am sure that there are a lot of people who are having a tough life. But if someone would give me a pen and a paper and I were to travel to some places in America or Britain, I could get you a lot of stories about gays that cannot come out of the closet in those countries. The fact that the focus is on us is because we are the underdog of this community.”
"First of all, the Muslims and Arab gays who are out of the closet and talking about it openly are completely against this attack. You need to acknowledge and know that. We didn’t deny it or not talk about it, we all talked about it and we all stand up for the gay community. We are gays and also minorities.
"But to see all the hate coming out from a lot of corners, that was super sad. Because automatically, people forgot that the Arab community is a huge world and you cannot say all of them want to kill us and all of them hate us. Because inside of the Arab world, there are gays and there are women and children. Not all of us are trying to kill you, not all of us are trying to kidnap you. Not all of us want to kill the gays, because a huge number of us are gay. So, it’s crazy to hear that, and to see that. It’s crazy to see how people use these things for their election. It’s crazy how the right wing in America is trying to use that. It’s so sad to see that."
One thing that was sad that came out of Orlando was that people were saying that because the shooter was perhaps gay and not accepted, that the Muslim community does not accept gays. What do you think about that?
“It’s super sad and upsetting. It’s also rubbish and it’s bullshit. Of course we can be gay and of course there is a huge population of gay Muslims. If you think that all of the gay Muslims also want to kill you or that you cannot be gay and Muslim, that’s bullshit. It’s like saying to people: ‘You can’t be a gay Christian,’ or, ‘You can’t be Jewish and be gay.’ It’s stupid.”
When you love somebody, you can come through everything...when you love somebody, you cannot fight about stupid things like politics.
"I think the most affecting example that I could give is that when I leave to visit other countries. In the airport, immediately when they read my name, even though I have an Israeli passport, it’s a series of questions. Every five minutes, they switch out and someone else comes to interrogate me. Sometimes, they take me to a private room and ask me to take my clothes off. This is how you feel when you grow up and feel you don’t belong to this country, they will never really make you feel at home."
What is it like dating as a gay Palestinian man in Israel?
"In Tel Aviv, people are more open-minded, they are not going to judge you because you’re an Arab or Jew or Christian. There are people who will judge you on your religion outside of Tel Aviv. I love Tel Aviv, it is my city. Of course I have dated Jewish guys and I am now dating a Jewish guy. I cannot say Tel Aviv is racist. I would like Tel Aviv to be an example for the rest of Israel."
As gay Muslims, give us the chance to show you that we will grow and be a big part of this community.
"When you love somebody, you can come through everything. I think the politics is very important, and we talk a lot about politics, but we don’t mix it in our relationship. If something happens politically, we will talk about it, but it doesn’t mean we will fight with each other. Because it’s politics; when you love somebody, you cannot fight about stupid things like politics."
What is your partner’s name and what’s your favourite thing about him?
"(Laughs) His name is Aviv and my favourite thing about him is that — well, there is so much to love about him it would be a shame to pick just one thing."
How long have you been together?
Do you live together?
"Not yet. It’s too early."
If you could let the world know one thing about what it’s like to be a gay Palestinian man, what would it be?
"Don’t hate what you don’t know. Don’t hate something that is different from you. I would never hate Christians because of the KKK and I would never hate Germans because of the Nazis. As gay Muslims, give us the chance to show you that we will grow and be a big part of this community."
What is your advice for young people?
"If you have a dream and you think you can make it, and if you live in a place that treats you unfairly or discriminates against you, don’t be afraid. Just stand up and change your reality. Do whatever you can to show the world that you are better than that and you deserve better than that."