From working in Jordan’s Ministry of Awqaf to becoming a gay asylum seeker threatened with murder. Our interview with Khalaf Yousef.
By Musa Al-Shadeedi
Translations by Mohammad Altamimi
Even to bear the title “a former sheikh” is a serious and unforgivable crime in the eyes of our society. As a human rights activist, I think it’s difficult not to listen to the story of Khalaf Yousef: not because he’s a former sheikh or because he’s openly gay , but because with his story, he summarizes what we want to say and what we do not want to admit.
Life has lead Khalaf to become one of the most enthusiastic human rights activists. I interviewed him in the past, but this time it was different; maybe because it is the first after his migration from the Arab world, maybe because we rebel differently as time passes by. His discussion with MyKali is recorded here.
Could you tell us about your childhood? How you were raised and the environment you grew up in?
I grew up in a religious, Bedouin, middle class family. I was the spoiled kid among my siblings; especially by my father. Generally, I had a quiet childhood, but I was bullied sometimes by my older brother, because I liked to hang out with girls. For that I used to — and still do — get upset if someone calls me a girl. Not because I belittle women, absolutely not, but because I accept my gender as a male and fully accept my physical body.
A religious family, you say. Do you think that growing up in a religious environment affects the child’s sexual orientation, as people believe? Do you think that growing up in a non-Islamic environment is a cause for homosexuality?
I say the following to those who claim that homosexuality is caused by raising your kids in a non-Islamic or non-religious environment: your attraction to women is not a choice you have made. It’s not about being good at attracting women either. Sexual attraction has nothing to do with religion, for homosexual attraction is found among other species too. Can you say that homosexual male giraffes are as they are because they are nonreligious or not abiding to the laws of religion? We must compare all factors of sexual orientation to other species.
I would also like to add important words said by Ibn Kathir in his book The Beginning and The End, part nine in the biography of Al-Walid ibn Abd al-Malik , as he was declared innocent from homosexuality. Ibn Kathir said: “He claimed himself innocent from this ugly attribute; this reprehensible obscenity, for which Allah has tortured committers with various punishments never used before. This obscenity is sodomy; many kings, princes, merchants, teachers, jurists, judges and many of the public have been afflicted with this sin.” This is what Ibn Katheer said about nine centuries ago. Yet, I am very reserved when I say “sodomy” in his texts. This is Ibn Kathir speaking about homosexuality that was found among most kings and princes — and jurists and judges — at the time. Does this mean that jurists and judges did not know what was allowed and forbidden, and where homosexuality stands in religion? Are those jurists and judges homosexual because they are nonreligious? And the other judges and jurists; are they not homosexual because they are religious? Absolutely not.
How did you discover your sexual orientation and how did you deal with it?
It was a feeling I had since I can remember. When I was about three or four years old, I used to get attached to handsome men. I would keep thinking of any well-dressed man I saw. This feeling lingered and grew with me, and I did not know what it meant. I thought I was the only one in the world who felt this way. Then, I started watching foreign movies and series that were never broadcast on Arabic channels that had homosexuals, transgender people and bisexuals. I used to search the words they used and translate them into Arabic. I discovered that all explanations of the word “homosexual” applied to me. This is where I figured out my sexual orientation and what it was called.
What was your first love experience like? How did it start and end?
My first love went to school with me, his name was Ghazi*. It was a wonderful and mature relationship from both sides. At the time, I did not understand the attraction and feelings I had. I used to compare myself to my peers when they talk about girls and would feel alienated. Yet, my feelings of love for him made me forget those odd feelings. Unfortunately, our relationship started dying down in mid-nineties. I am the reason first and foremost, because I became religious. I would bail out on him to avoid any sexual action that might happen between us since it is forbidden, as things are believed among most Muslims. I officially broke up with him in 2010 and I have not known anything about him since then.
“I was surprised when he reached his hand out to mine and started to kiss me. Honestly, I did not fight back or stop him, and we ended up having sexual intercourse…”
Did you consider re-communicating with him lately?
I attempted to contact him four years ago, but failed. I think he found a new life partner. Ghazi to me now is past.
Did you try to go to a sheikh to protect you or ‘heal’ you — as it is popular in our countries — and what happened?
Ever since I became religious, I tried to get rid of this feeling in all ways possible. One of my first attempts was with a famous sheikh in Jordan in the beginning of the nineties. This sheikh was a math teacher and I was one of his students. I went to him and told him about my sexual tendencies after the sunset prayer and his lecture. His reaction was defensive and he told me to stay in the mosque and keep praying. After the night prayer, the sheikh told the Muezzin — the person who calls for prayer — to give me the keys to the mosque so I can stay there overnight. After the worshipers went home and while I was finishing up my last prayer I was surprised to see a guy sitting to my right. He came closer to me and I recognized him. I had known him for a short while and liked him. He started talking to me and told me that the sheikh had told him about my situation and that he was there to help and advise me about my situation and how to get rid of it. He started by asking me questions, like how I felt when I saw a guy and what I would do if a sexual action took place between us. He was asking me for details and it was obvious he was getting aroused. The first hour passed, and then another, until four hours went by. Our conversation was developing as time was passing and it ended up being a completely sexual conversation. I was surprised when he reached his hand out to mine and started to kiss me. Honestly, I did not fight back or stop him, and we ended up having sexual intercourse in the mosque. I am not saying this because I am proud. On the contrary, if I went back in time, I would not do it.
Anyway, after we were done, we went downstairs to the restrooms: we were out of breath and our hearts were beating loudly out of fear and guilt. We then went back upstairs to the main hall and sat in separate corners and stayed up until the morning. The muezzin came and called for the Morning Prayer and we prayed with other worshipers. After prayer, the muezzin asked me how last night went, and if I benefited from the sheikh that stayed with me. I asked him what he meant and he told me that the sheikh told him about my situation. Until this day, I do not know why the sheikh told him about my situation.
Let’s not prolong this story. After we left the mosque, the guy from the previous night came to me and told me he suffers from the same situation. He had previously asked the sheikh, and he’d advised him to get married, to be close to Allah and to avoid anything that might trigger his homosexual feelings. So he did get married to avoid any rumors and to convince the sheikh and other people that he had stopped his homosexual feelings; that he was normal now. In reality, though, nothing had changed. He apologized and asked if we could keep the incident a secret between us. I am telling you the story now, because it has been a long time and nobody remembers anymore. They do not remember me personally, and so there is no need to worry about him.
What is your opinion on getting married in order to avoid homosexual feelings? Is this a fruitful approach?
Because of pressure on me from my family, friends and the sheikh, I decided to get married. First the engagement happened and then marriage. I knew I could not live with a woman under one roof. The first night was hell, worse than hell, because I could not have a sexual interaction with her since I am not attracted to women. I started making up excuses until more than seven months had passed. I could not have any sexual interaction with her during that time. My last resort was telling her that I wasn’t sexually capable of being with any female. Her reaction was very hostile; she cussed and I was not able to answer, because she had every right to be angry.
After a few days of thinking I decided to break it off, under the excuse that I was “sexually incapable”. I shared my thoughts with her. At first, she did not agree, but then she went through with it so she could get rid of me. The first step was for her to leave my home, then to go back to her parent’s home and tell them that she refused to live with me, that her life with me was hell, and so on. Her father called me and asked to see me. I went to their house and sat with him. He asked about the problem between me her and I. I was silent and worried, but then I told him that I was unable to have sexual interaction with her. He answered me brutally and was condescending. I do not wish to repeat what he said to me. He accused me of lying. I said I would not lie about such a thing; why would I? He asked what I wanted to tell him exactly, and so I said: “I am sexually incapable, which makes me unable to perform any sexual action with any girl. I am ready to tell people that the problem is me, and not your daughter. She will be innocent in everyone’s eyes.” He got very upset and started cussing at me. Then, he asked me to leave and stay home until he called me back.
It was less than a day when he called me again and asked me to come over. When I arrived to their house, his brothers were there and they all knew what had happened. They told me they were ready to end the marriage under one condition; that we met in the Diwan of the family to tell everyone that the problem was me, not his daughter, and that she was still a virgin. They had me sign documents to bide me to this condition. I agreed to everything. The day came and more than four hundred people were in the Diwan. Her father stood up and told everyone that Sheikh Khalaf is going to divorce his daughter and is about to share the reason. He signaled to me to stand up and tell them. I had prepared a short, yet direct speech to communicate the idea. I started with the Quranic verse: “or those male attendants having no physical desire”, I explained the verse and then told them that I was one of those men mentioned in the verse, that I had not been able have a sexual relationship with my wife for the past seven months, that the girl was still a virgin and was innocent of this whole ordeal.
My heart was about to burst out of my chest, my knees were shaking like an earthquake had erupted in them and my mouth was very dry with nervousness. After my speech, I sat down and the hall was completely silent. I looked at her father’s face and he looked very happy and satisfied, so I asked to leave. I rushed out of the hall and found some trees where I stood and cried. After I calmed down, I walked home. Her father then called me again and asked me to come on Sunday to the juristic court so we could finalize the divorce papers. I did so and I did not have to pay her any dowry. That was my first marriage experience.
Nine months after my first marriage, my father along with everyone else was trying to convince me that I was under a magic spell and that my healing was in the Quran, prayer, charms and all that nonsense. They convinced me that I would be fine. Unfortunately, after those nine months, I listened to them and got married again. This time I used medical help, and so I was able to have sexual intercourse on the first night. We fell asleep; then my whole pillow was soaking in blood because my nose had started bleeding. I ran to the bathroom and tried to stop it. I looked in the mirror and saw that dried blood was in my eye. I was rushed to the ER, where they ran tests and I told the doctor what had happened. He said I was forbidden from using this kind of medication for life: that is how the hope of me living with a female without denying her physical rights flew out of the window for life. Honestly though, even if I were able to take that medication I would not have been able to give any woman her marital rights; and I do not mean sexual rights only.
A pregnancy happened due to the interaction that happened that night, but it did not last and she miscarried. After that, my wife and I slept in separate bedrooms until I announced my sexual orientation and escaped to Lebanon. She then divorced me; and that is how my second marriage ended.
How did you announce your homosexuality? And how did everyone react?
I announced it through a video that was recorded and went viral on YouTube. The Ministry of Endowment, where I worked at the time, found out about the video and I was told, secretly, that they had seen it and I would be asked for interrogation. I told one of my friends on Facebook that they would interrogate me and he advised me to record it in sound and video. And so they really did interrogate me for sixty minutes, where we argued and yelled at each other and they finally decided to send me to a disciplinary board. I went to the first session but could not go to the next ones, because my family had found out about the video. I faced a lot of hostility; especially from my older brother who planned to kill me. I was able to escape home with the help of some friends; and I decided to go to Lebanon and seek asylum and resettlement.
What was your life like in Lebanon? Is there any difference between the situation of sexual minorities in Jordan and Lebanon?
Lebanon was not much better, because I was not able to find a job. My experience and education were not great, and my age also played a part so I lived in poverty. It is true that I was safe from my family’s danger, but at the same time, I was not able to share my sexual orientation in Lebanon. It’s true that people in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, are more open minded than Jordanians; but people in the other parts of Lebanon are no less violent than Jordanians. I chose Lebanon because I knew a few people there through my friends in Jordan. Generally, my living situation was difficult, especially because I lived in the southern part of Lebanon, where people are religious.
What inspired Khalaf Yousef to liberate and express his sexuality and orientation? (here)
Could someone be homosexual and religious at the same time, in accordance with your religious background?
I lived with feelings of guilt and contradiction all my life because I followed the traditional religious understanding that most people and sheikhs follow. I found Islam talking about Lot’s people (Sodomites) as male rapists and not as homosexuals. Islam also mentions The People of Lot, yet they have not been vilified or denied. We could continue with examples like this for some time.Therefore, the answer is yes; one can be a Muslim homosexual living his life without any contradiction or feelings of guilt, because he is not guilty according to Islamic scriptures.
Homosexuality in the Islamic view has been mentioned in various places — I cannot explain in detail right now, but will try to communicate the main idea:
In the Quran — the first legislator in Islam — one of the verses in surah Al-Nour describes a type of men who are not attracted to women. It reads: “or those male attendants having no physical desire”. This verse talks about men who are sexually not attracted to women. The interpreters explained who these men were; those who are not attracted to women — effeminates– and also they mentioned the idiot who is not attracted to women, or the fool who is also not attracted to women. I do not think that each man that is not attracted to women is an idiot or a fool; they have only been called so because they are not attracted to women. Those effeminates and the idiots and fools would enter the prophet and his companions’ houses and nobody stopped them or called them homosexuals or gay as people today do. Here are seven famous companions of the prophet:
They are all mentioned in the books of biographical evaluation.
As for my personal life, I am trying to develop myself culturally and scientifically. I plan to publish my diaries in a series of books in Canada as a personal achievement; as for a public achievement, I will continue my activities in the field of human rights generally, and specifically in the field of rights for the homosexual and LGBT community.
How is your situation now? What do you do? Explain what your life is like now in Canada.
Life in Canada is fine; I just face linguistic and cultural challenges.
Would you like to send a specific message to the readers of MyKali? What would you like to say to the straight and gay communities?
I would like to communicate two messages the readers of MyKali.
I say to the straight society: You had no choice in being straight; you do not choose to be attracted to the other gender. Religion, morals and how you were raised have nothing to do with it. The same goes to homosexuals. Therefore, anyone out of those around you can be homosexual; it may be the closest person to you; or a doctor that saved your life. Would you return his good deeds by denying him just because he is different? I do not think that ingratitude or ungratefulness is moral or manly.
The homosexual and LGBT society is a part of our society whether we like it or not.
The second message is one I would like to communicate to the LGBTQIA for the first time. Unfortunately, the homosexual’s biggest enemy is homosexuals themselves when they deny their own nature, orientation, and attitudes. A huge responsibility falls on your shoulders from two sides: one is accepting yourself, and that can only happen through the second element which is being educated about it. Educate yourself, read about sexuality, genders and their variations. When it comes to accepting oneself, you must know that the problem is in the people, not yourself. Your sexual orientation is your personal life and it is none of anyone else’s business; that is if we are talking personal freedom and not nature and science. In the end, I wish everyone would have a nice life, a great future and continuous success. I end with my warmest wishes to everyone.
*Names have been changed.