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Berlin’s gay and lesbian Muslims

Our 10 best features series continues online – from critical to hysterical to heart-breaking. For two weeks we'll dust off the archives, starting with one from our very first issue.

Image for Berlin's gay and lesbian Muslims
Daniel Pashe

Originally published in issue #1 (series 1), June 20-July 3, 2002.

Ipek, Hakan, Tansel, Murat and Meenum all live in Berlin. They’re all Muslim. And they’re gay. Despite stereotypes, they’re surviving to find their own place between conflicting identities.

Yellow and red lights sweep across the room. Huge pieces of fabric with painted camels and long-eye-lashed women hang from the ceiling. Once a month, the SO36 club in Kreuzberg turns into a modern oriental temple. Men and women dance with abandon to Turkish, Arab and Hebrew pop and house music. Some men whistle, their hips sway and their bellies undulate with the music. They are Muslim men, enjoying the music – and each other.

Tonight is Gayhane – “the house of gays” in Turkish. And tonight, anything goes: Hetero and homo, Muslim and homo, Muslim and non-Muslims are dancing, driven on by DJ Ipek Ipekcioglu. The 30-year-old woman stands behind the turntables and snaps her fingers. “This song is great,” she smiles. “It says: My skin longs for a dark-haired woman.”

Ipek is a Turkish lesbian, a social education worker and tonight, the DJ. Ipek lives openly as a lesbian with her German girlfriend. Once a year, both of them travel to Turkey to visit Ipek’s grandparents. The old couple is proud of their successful, independent granddaughter. They believe Ipek’s girlfriend knows more about Turkish customs than Ipek herself.

“If I brought a husband home with me one day my grandparents would have a heart attack,” Ipek says with a smile. Ipek’s grandparents are an exception and so is her mother. When Ipek, who was born in Munich in 1972, told her she was gay, she reacted with a  tolerant: “Just be happy my daughter.”

But many Turkish gays and lesbians do not have such liberal families. Ipek has a lot of friends, who like her, have decided to live outside the closet. But: “When they told their families that they were homosexual their parents asked: “Are you Turkish or are you homosexual? Homosexual? Then you are German,” she says. Such instant categorisation spares the Turkish community of any in-depth analysis of gender roles and sexuality.

To be both homosexual and Muslim in Germany today remains a problem. Many Muslim gays have to deal with strong resistance from within their families and community, in which social control is tight. To most Muslims, homosexuality is a sin: you can’t be Muslim and gay. Ironically, some non-Muslims react with similar prejudice: “They say: ‘But if you’re a lesbian, you’re not Turkish anymore, you’re a German,’” Ipek recalls.

Ipek, like many Muslim homosexuals, finds herself trapped between two group identities. “Does a real Turkish woman look like me?” she asks challengingly. Her demeanour, self-confidence, short hair and piercings, all obviously defy the traditional picture of the average Muslim. Still, in Ipek’s everyday life Islam plays its part. Even though she does not pray five times a day, she believes in Allah and calls upon her God whenever she needs help or comfort.

Ipek says she has learned to find a balance between different groups, Muslims, non-Muslims, homo and hetero. Early in the morning, after spinning records at SO36, Ipek and her girlfriend Anke usually end their night out with a cup of soup at a Turkish restaurant. “Last time when Anke was out for a second, I ordered soup for her. For ‘my wife,’ I said. The Turkish shop owner just smiled.”

Manno-Meter, a café and advice centre for gays in Schöneberg, is a local hangout where members of Gays and Lesbians from Turkey, or GLADT, meet every week. Tonight, ‘Islam and homosexuality’ is on their agenda. Eleven men sit around a table, their ages range from 17 to 38. They all have different stories to tell. Most of them believe in Allah. Four are practicing Muslims and regularly go to mosque.

Tansel grew up in Turkey and came to Germany nine years ago. He is 32 and has his own clear understanding of Islam. “The Koran is a very personal book. Every Imam gives his own interpretation. In Islam there is no need for a mediator, like a priest. It’s something just between myself and God.” Everybody around the table agrees: The Koran is open to interpretation and there is no clear ban of homosexuality, there’s no question it’s possible to create your own personal religion.

Hakan came out when he was 17. Since then, his father hasn’t spoken to him. In 1992, he became the first Turkish gay to fight for acceptance of homosexual marriages. “There have been improvements. But it’s still up to us to act,” he says.

For sure, society has changed. Again everybody agrees: the so-called third generation of Turkish immigrants developed a much more liberal understanding of sexuality compared to their parents or their grandparents. Nevertheless, some stereotypes have survived and they’ve all heard about the attacks against homosexuals carried out by young Turks or Arabs, for whom male homosexuality means, above all, feminine behaviour. Just another assumption that turns their picture of masculinity upside down and creates unbearable uncertainty.

Berlin is home to 126,000 Turkish citizens and approximately 203,400 Muslims. But there is no exact figure for Muslim homosexuals.

Many gay Muslims cannot escape the social pressure of traditional Muslim life. For them, coming out is not an option. Murat is 30. Like many other gay Turks and Arabs, he leads a double life. Born in Palestine, he came to Germany as a teenager. Now he feels trapped between his family, religion and sexual orientation. When asked whether homosexuality is a sin, he has no clear answer. A few years ago, his parents arranged a marriage to a Palestinian woman. Murat knew there was no way he could fit into such a reality. He cancelled the celebrations.

Since then his parents have constantly asked him, when is he going to marry. Murat says he would lose all his family if he told them the truth. Even one of his closest friends cut off all contact after Murat told him about his sexuality.

“I’m not happy about being gay,” says Murat, a muscular and apparently self-confident man. “There’s no way to combine Islam and homosexuality. But, well, I do accept myself. It’s Allah who created me this way.”

Meenum, a young Turkish man, interrupts: “your satisfaction should be your religion. You have to create your own circle.” After a few seconds, Meenum smiles: “Sometimes I hope I’ll wake up and be asexual. But we’re not part of a game-show called: ‘What’s your wish?’”

Is homosexuality a question of personal freedom? To the majority within the Muslim community, the Koran is not open to personal interpretation. Who’s right though? Professor Rainer Kabielek has no definite answer. Born in Thüringen, he grew up with Arab relatives and learnt to speak perfect Arabic while his German mates played football. Today, he is a medical historian who specialises in Arabic medicine, and is also an expert on Islam and Arabic culture. “All this is my profession,” he smiles.

Kabielek places a pamphlet onto the table. It is written in Arabic. “A professor at the university in Cairo handed it out to her students in 1997. It’s a religious legitimisation to kill homosexuals. Here, the reason they give is it would put an end to AIDS.” Yet, according to Kabielek, homosexual behaviour is no sin in and of itself.

“Regarding the male homosexual behaviour in the Turkish and Arab societies it is very important to differentiate between the one who penetrates and the one who is penetrated. The latter is excluded from society, but the former is by no means considered a homosexual.” He pleads for an understanding of the Koran in its historical context.

“Today, we have a modern understanding of homosexuality as partnership and even as marriage.” In classical Arab literature one can easily find homoerotic passages, Kabielek goes on. In his understanding, the Koran is not definitive but open to interpretation. Therefore, different schools of Islam co-exist. Nevertheless, he adds, hardliners will always find ways to interpret homosexuality as a sin.

Until now, most of the Muslim community has been against homosexuality. The Central Council of Muslims in Germany represents around 19 Muslim organisations and hundreds of mosques. Dr. Nadeem Elyas, a gynaecologist, has been president of the Council since its foundation in 1996. Different interpretations of the Koran? His view is clear: “It is not possible for everybody to just create his own religion. Islam defines itself.” In his opinion, homosexuality is a sin and goes beyond acceptable social limits.

Elyas was born in Saudi Arabia in 1945 and came to Germany when he was 20. He lives with his family near Aachen. How would he act if one of his four children told him that he or she was gay?

“At that point they’d already have strayed off the straight and narrow path of good education…” Elyas believes he gave his children the right upbringing to preserve them from such deviance. He also believe homosexuality is curable. “Some people think there is no opportunity and homosexuality belongs to their nature. But it depends on your will.”