Deniz, a 20-year-old observant Muslim who lives in Istanbul, works as a sign language translator and is studying gastronomy in his spare time.
But Deniz, who prefers to use the pronoun “they”, also identifies as genderless and pansexual. This means that gender and sex are not determining factors in romantic or sexual attraction.
Although Deniz sees no contradiction between devotion to Islam and sexual identity, others are not as tolerant.
“As soon as I declare myself to be a Muslim, I begin receiving insults from the LGBTI / queer community because of my faith,” Deniz said. “I am accused either of bigotry, or of having a low IQ. Therefore, I usually keep my faith to myself.
“The question I hear most often is ‘How can you believe in something that makes you suffer?’”
Unlike in many other predominantly Muslim countries, in Turkey being LGBTI+ is not against the law. However, amid growing conservatism, individuals face stigma and even violence.
While many in the religious community claim that being gay contradicts the fundamental tenets of Islam, members of the LGBTI+ community who are deeply religious argue that faith and sexual orientation are not mutually exclusive.
From the age of ten until he left school, Deniz shared a dormitory with more than 100 other boys.
“I was exposed to physical and psychological violence there. After that, I became more introvert, and more engaged in religion. At that time, I also discovered my true sexual identity, Deniz said.
One of Deniz’s most traumatic memories was being picked on by other boys for what was perceived as his femininity.
“I would then read about the people of Lot mentioned in the Quran [an ancient tribe punished by God because of homosexual acts]. I would cry myself to sleep, praying to be healed every night,” Deniz said.
But as a young adult, after years of religious study, Islam was where Deniz eventually found comfort.
“It is never a sin to love in Islam. Therefore, I’m not in conflict anymore,” he said. “Allah is an inclusionary creator who cares for everyone equally. What is discriminatory is our society.”
For Deniz, most prejudice has come from secular intellectuals and LGBTI+ individuals who tend to be judgmental about religious beliefs. Others say that prejudice comes from all angles.
Ali Korkmaz is a 22 year-old student who lives in the city of Adana in southern Turkey. As a bisexual man raised in a conservative family bound by strict, traditional values, Korkmaz concealed his sexual orientation from his family and others for a long time.
However, he too claims to have found peace through his Islamic faith, which he describes as the “religion of love”, despite facing intolerance from secular and religious alike.
“I am harassed because I dare question some norms imposed by religion, although I myself am a Muslim,” Korkmaz said. “Many LGBTI+ persons reject religion completely, any religion, not just Islam. But whether you are a believer or not, being homosexual in Turkey is difficult. You are constantly marginalised, denigrated and exposed to sexual violence,” he concluded.
Korkmaz also stayed in a dormitory while he studied theology and Quran. Just like Deniz, he was bullied by other boys in his dormitory for being different but found comfort in religion.
“I was exposed to psychological and physical violence many times due to my ‘feminine’ attitudes. But that made me read more about religion and I came up with my own ideas. I don’t believe that God is stationary and unchanging,” Korkmaz said, adding, “God is everywhere. A part of the universe, the universe itself.
“All that we feel is God. Our religion teaches us that we should love every creature because they are God’s creatures.”
Nonetheless, being both bisexual and religious was difficult, he continued, mainly because of stereotypes associated with each group.
“[Conservative Muslims] don’t believe that I’m a religious person when they see the way I live,” Korkmaz said. “On the other hand, members of the LGBTI+ community are taken aback when they first hear of my faith. I always hear comments from them such as ‘Why do you believe in something that doesn’t recognise you, that sees you as a deviant?’”
Korkmaz points out that most LGBTI+ individuals shun religion because they believe that all faiths – not just Islam – condemn homosexuality.
However, some progressive scholars claim that religious texts are often wrongly interpreted and that monotheistic religions, including Islam, do not forbid homosexuality per se.
They include Paris-based scholar Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, the founder of Europe’s first inclusive mosque, who has written that “there is no authentic Islam tradition or text that certainly judges homosexuality”.
In 2016, he wrote alternative readings of the Quran for Kaos GL, a prominent Turkish LGBTI NGO, which emphasised a feminist and gay-friendly approach that challenged established Islamic dogma.
E.A., another deeply religious LGBTI+ individual who asked to remain anonymous, agrees that religious texts could be interpreted in multiple ways.
“Ayat al-Kursi [a key verse in the Quran] starts with a phrase that talks about how unique and capable-of-all God is. My own envisagement of God is exactly the uniqueness mentioned there,” said the 32-year-old, who works in social media.
Having grown up in İstanbul before moving to Germany, E. said that he had personally never felt any contradiction between being an observant Muslim and a gay man.
“The idea that God would punish someone because of their sexual or emotional closeness to someone of the same sex is non-existent in our religion. The verses in Qur’an usually referred to when punishment of homosexuals wants to be legitimised are taken out of context and wrongly interpreted.”
According to E. the religious elite that interpreted orthodox Islam for centuries caused the erroneous information to be institutionalised “as if those were the original words of the Qur’an”. Change was slow but it would come, he continued.
“One day, religion and sexual orientation of LGBTI+ community will be reconciled,” E. concluded. “We just need to be patient.”