By Kilian Colin
When I started protesting the Muslim ban, a lot of people told me that I was blind, especially given that I’m an LGBTQ Muslim myself. The far right trolled my tweets with pictures of gay people being thrown from buildings and stoned to death in areas that ISIS controlled.
I had to spend a lot of time explaining to these people that ISIS controlled only a few villages in Iraq and Syria and not the whole Muslim world. I also had to explain that the number of ISIS fighters only total a few thousand, whereas the global Muslim population is 1.5 billion.
Despite being an uphill battle, I’ve been able to make friends with many people who originally thought that Muslims come here for the sole purpose of killing Americans. One of those friends is a white female who lives in Lebanon, Missouri. She had never met a gay, a Muslim, or a refugee in her life. After being friends on Facebook for a few months, she told me she regretted her vote for Donald Trump in 2016.
As an LGBTQ Muslim, I find it easier to explain myself to the far right than I do to American Muslims. Don’t get me wrong, the Muslim community is more tolerant to the LGBTQ community than Christian conservative Americans. However, they still don’t accept Muslims who are also LGBTQ.
I’ve never lived in the closet. In fact, I was very open about being a genderfluid person. I grew up in extremely conservative cultures both in Iraq and Syria. People were always curious about my open mentality, and about being what people consider a soft male compared to the extremely masculine culture of the Middle East. People in Iraq and Syria have a certain amount of tolerance toward the LGBTQ community, which is not to be confused with acceptance by any means. In some regions, it could be dangerous to identify as an LGBTQ person.
In Syria, I didn’t tell anyone that I was straight. Many people questioned my masculinity, but a lot of Syrian people loved me as I was. Only a few hated me because of my questionable sexuality. Many females were more comfortable talking to me than to their male colleagues because, of course, I can listen to them for hours. I also had a boyfriend for eight months before leaving Syria to come to the U.S. We frequently held hands in public and posted our pictures together on social media.
After the Syrian Civil War started, I was stopped at a government militia security checkpoint. They asked me to show my passport and they questioned my tight jeans and my sexuality. These militia members were from extremely conservative parts of the country and they were very uneducated. They took me to a basement near their checkpoint where they sexually harassed me and severely beat me. Surviving this incident made me even more determined to explore my sexuality and advocate for gender-neutral rights.
In 2011, I came to the U.S. as a refugee and worked at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in San Diego as a refugees’ caseworker. I met with many Iraqi LGBTQ refugees who were proud of their sexuality and excited to start a new life in the U.S. My Iraqi and other Muslim coworkers would gossip about these gay couples behind their back. They made discriminatory statements against them. When I came out to them, some started discriminating against me. I raised my issues with the managers and the HR department, but they ignored me and advised me to keep my sexuality in the closet.
I quit my job at the IRC and started working at Wells Fargo, under a manager who ended up being a conservative white Christian. He wasn’t happy about an LGBTQ person joining his team. I and a lesbian coworker were underpaid and overworked. I also have reasons to believe we didn’t get the promotions we were promised because of our sexual orientation. The Wells Fargo sales system was so corrupt that I decided to become a whistleblower in the Wells Fargo Shady Accounts scandal and later filed a lawsuit against Wells Fargo for discrimination. The company was later exposed to the public and fined with the biggest fine in U.S. history by the federal government.
Thanks to Trump, I have become not only a labor rights advocate but an advocate for refugees, LGBTQ, and minorities. I’ve spoken at many anti-Trump rallies in San Diego, Chicago, and around the country. I testified in the Senate last year in D.C. and lobbied senators for labor rights. I spoke at the NEXGEN17 Conference — the biggest union conference in the world — in Sydney, Australia, about my Wells Fargo experience. I was also the first American worker to speak publicly in an open hearing to the Australian Parliament. I have hundreds of followers on social media. I am also a full-time Chemical Engineering student at the University of California. Despite these achievements, I am totally ignored by mainstream American Muslim organizations.
I have a good relationship with many Muslim activists in San Diego County and beyond. At the first Muslim ban protest in Los Angeles, I met Linda Sarsour, the co-chair of the Women’s March. After introducing myself as an LGBTQ Muslim activist, she gave me a hug and invited me to speak to the protesters at LAX.
I have many Muslim activists as friends on Facebook, including some CAIR San Diego members. CAIR is the Council on American-Islamic Relations. However, when I post something on Facebook regarding the gay Muslim community issues, it’s never acknowledged by my Muslim friends. I also tend to get ignored when big events sponsored by CAIR take place in San Diego. CAIR invited and gave awards to non-Muslim gay candidates for public offices in San Diego, even when those candidates or activists have never contributed to the Muslim community.
Last year I emailed CAIR San Diego asking them if they have any programs that help LGBTQ Muslim children living in intolerant Muslim households, and received no response. When I posted on social media talking about this email, my post was trolled by some CAIR members, and I was called a hater and accused of insulting them by questioning their legitimacy.
It breaks my heart that my own community, who I fight for every day, pretends I don’t exist. Sometimes I feel like I am advocating for nothing and that my life and energy will never be appreciated by the Muslim community.
But I always remind myself that I became an activist not because I was looking for publicity or personal gain; instead, I became an activist because I believe in justice and liberty for all. I became an activist because my Muslim religion demands that I give a voice to the voiceless. I became an activist because Islam is the first feminist religion to give women their rights. I became an activist because the first believers in Islam were minorities like me — women and slaves. I became an activist because I want to see change in my society and communities around the world. I became an activist because I don’t want to see any more LGBTQ Muslim children left behind. I became an activist because civil rights activists are the ones who made American great.
Despite the backlash I got from CAIR members, I was overwhelmed by positive messages from members of The Resistance in the San Diego community. Many of my Muslim and non-Muslim friends sent me private messages thanking me for speaking up not only just against CAIR, but also for bringing awareness to the abuse that LGBTQ teens and children can face under their parents’ rule. Since my post was public, many LGBTQ Muslims sent me messages from around the globe to thank me for speaking up for their rights. These messages didn’t just encourage me to move forward with my advocacy for the Muslim LGBTQ community, but also to look for solutions and programs that can help them within their own communities.
I recently went to Google and started researching Muslim community centers in San Diego County. I was able to get a hold of a local Imam from an Islamic Center in San Diego. Initially, he voiced a willingness to speak with me about bringing awareness of LGBTQ issues to the Muslim community, but then stated in our face-to-face meeting that he wouldn’t acknowledge the potential for the abuse of LGBTQ Muslims given that the “religion doesn’t accept homosexuality.”
As disappointing as that interaction was, I continue to look to the future. I’ve been invited to speak with one prominent female Muslim activist in North San Diego County. As I keep moving forward I hope to see a day where my American LGBTQ Muslim community is free of discrimination.