Aliyah Bacchus is a Muslim who left an arranged marriage in Queens, N.Y., before coming to understand her sexuality as a lesbian
Reporting from New York — All she has left of the person she used to be is contained in a 5-by-7 photo album with “Aliyah Bacchus” written in blue pen on its cover, each picture inside tucked beneath a slip of clear plastic.
There she is at 17, barely 90 pounds, smiling sourly on her wedding day in Queens, N.Y., dressed in hijab — a pearl-toned princess bridal gown shimmering with beads, her slender hands dipped in sleek white gloves, a veil attached to a white qimar, or head scarf, fastened snugly around her face. The man her father chose for her stands behind Aliyah wearing a black bow tie, his hands resting on her bony shoulders.
That was before. Before she walked out on the marriage. Before her Guyana-born Muslim family discovered she was gay. Before she fled.
Aliyah is 22 now, still hovering at 90 pounds, the dark skin of her Indian roots hugging bone, a boyishly feminine lesbian with cropped black hair gelled into a tussle atop her head, long eyelashes and sharp cheekbones.
She has traded her abaya, which she wore throughout middle and high school, for an ankle-length black trench coat and sunglasses with metallic frames. She has one piercing in her left ear, four in her right, a metal rod bridging the cartilage in the ear’s upper rim, a ring in her bellybutton, another in her nose.
Aliyah is Muslim. It’s a part of her identity she can’t shed, like her sexuality, like her last name — Bacchus, as in the Roman god of wine and merriment — and like her ink-stained flesh: the angel tattooed between her shoulder blades, the dark dragons on her lower back, the polar bear on her stomach, the dying rose on her right wrist.
She knows that in some Muslim sects, homosexuality is considered a crime punishable by death. But Aliyah lives in America, raised in low-income housing projects 20 miles from Manhattan’s West Village, where police raided the Stonewall Inn in 1969, setting off riots that sparked the beginning of a national gay rights movement.
In America, Aliyah knows, it is acceptable to be gay. But how, she wonders, can she be true to who she is while also adhering to her family’s faith? How does she reconcile both sides of her existence?
Unable to raise three children alone in the Guyanese town of La Bonne Intention, Aliyah’s father turned child-rearing duties over to his sister, an Islamic studies teacher married to an imam. Aliyah came to love her aunt as she would have loved her mother. In her aunt’s household, Aliyah became immersed in Islamic tradition, learning to read and write in Arabic and memorizing portions of the Koran.
Her father remarried. Aliyah split her time living with her father’s new family on a chicken farm, and at her aunt’s home. When she was 10, her father decided to relocate the family to New York. Her aunt moved here too.
In Queens, her father ordered her to dress in hijab every time she went in public. She enrolled in IS 53, an intermediate school, as the only abaya-wearing Indian student in her class, on a campus of black and Latino students. After school and on weekends, Aliyah taught the principles of Islam to her Muslim peers in the community.
By 13, suitors began coming to her father’s door, asking for Aliyah’s hand in marriage. When Aliyah argued with her father, he threatened to make her marry and drop out of school. Aliyah stopped paying attention in class. What was the point if her life was destined for marriage and kids, with no hopes for college or a career?
During Aliyah’s senior year, she enrolled in a yearbook class. The teacher was young and full of idealism. Aliyah daydreamed about her and spent lunch periods in her classroom. Aliyah would not admit it to herself until years later, but she had a crush on her teacher. She pushed her romantic thoughts aside.
Aliyah’s father suffered from heart problems and wanted his daughter to be taken care of after his death. He gave his blessing for her to marry a 23-year-old Guyanese Muslim.
She met him in June 2002. They were married in a religious ceremony in August, after her high school graduation. They took wedding pictures in the rain in a botanical garden in Queens, before heading to the reception in his family’s backyard. That night, she lay beside her husband, thinking: What the hell am I doing?
She quarreled with her husband. She chopped her waist-length black hair into a bob. She started seeing a therapist recommended by a former high school counselor.
One night, Aliyah became agitated after missing a therapy session. She needed someone to talk to. Instead, Aliyah argued with her husband, and this time he grabbed her. She pushed back, jabbing her elbow into his throat. After that, he left her alone.
Ten weeks into her marriage, Aliyah moved in with family and told her father the marriage was over.
Her therapist gave her information about the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in Manhattan. Aliyah had never met a lesbian. She showed up at the center to attend a meeting, and immediately the other women adopted her like a little sister. She began attending dance and movie nights, and weekly meetings and seminars.
It all made sense, Aliyah thought. Her infatuation with her high school teacher, her lack of interest in men: She was gay.
“It wasn’t an epiphany,” Aliyah remembered. “It was more like, ‘OK, time for me to grow up, time for me to face reality.’ It’s either that, or you live your life lying to yourself.”
Inside, Aliyah felt relief. But she knew her family would never accept her as a lesbian. She decided she would live two separate lives, one as a lesbian, the other as a devout Muslim daughter.
‘It firmly states in the Koran: ‘Ye without faults will be replaced. But those that commit sin, repent,’ ” says Aliyah, sitting on a shaded patch of grass in Manhattan’s Union Square one afternoon. It is her day off as a security guard. Since returning to New York in September 2007, she has been living meagerly.
“Allah doesn’t want you to be perfect,” she continues, pulling on blades of grass. “He doesn’t want you to be without faults, he doesn’t want you to be without sin, he just wants you to repent. And if you are without sin, you will be replaced by someone who commits sin.”
But is homosexuality a sin?
Here’s an older article on homosexuality and Islam:
Muslim Gays Seek Lesbians For Wives
On a Web site for gay South Asians, 27-year-old Syed Mansoor uploaded the following message last summer:
“Hi, I am looking for a lesbian girl for marriage. I am gay but I would like to get married because of pressure from parents and society. I would like this marriage to be a ‘normal’ marriage except for the sex part, please don’t expect any sexual relationship from me.
“Being an Indian gay person, I believe it is so much worth it to give up sex and have a nice otherwise normal family. We can be good friends and don’t have to repent all our life for being gay/lesbian.”
Across the globe and especially in America, hundreds of other gay Muslims have started to pursue marriages of convenience–or MOC, as they are known– in which gay Muslims seek out lesbian Muslims, and vice versa, for appearances’ sake.
Mansoor is also part of a burgeoning trend of gay Muslims adopting marriages of convenience. Hard statistics are hard to come by, but on a single Web site for South Asian gays and lesbians seeking such marriages, almost 400 requests had been uploaded.
They ranged from a desperate plea from Atlanta (“I just finished medical school, and the pressure for me to get married is becoming ridiculous. I can’t have a conversation with my parents without them pressuring me”) to a straightforward one from Texas (“I will not object to her having sex with other women”).
Mansoor credits the Internet for making these marriages a real possibility for gay Muslims. Gay activists agree and say that in recent years they have seen a rise in such marriages among Muslims.
Jack Fertig, a co-coordinator for al-Fatiha, a national advocacy group for gay Muslims, says he comes across at least one such e-mail request every month.
“It’s obvious that this is becoming a viable option,” he said. “People are seeking, looking and trying to make connections that could develop into such marriages.”
Other activists say gay Muslims are resorting to these unions for reasons of self-preservation.
“Marriages of convenience are the result of gay Muslims wanting to avoid emotional and physical harm to themselves,” says Muhammed Ali, a board member of Homan, a Los Angeles-based support group for gay Iranians.
Homosexuality is a crime punishable by death in much of the Islamic world.
Though gay Muslims in America don’t have such fears, they still seek out marriages of convenience as a way of staying in the closet. Many of them worry about being ostracized from their families if their secret is revealed.
A marriage of convenience is the perfect solution, Mansoor said. “It’s a great option,” he said. “I get married to a lesbian, we sleep in different rooms and remain friends. Meanwhile, I can have a boyfriend.”
Muslim authorities around the world have repeatedly emphasized that homosexuality is not permissible. Muzammil Siddiqi of the Islamic Society of North America said there is no flexibility on this topic.
“Homosexuality is a moral disorder. It is a moral disease, a sin and corruption. . . . No person is born homosexual, just like no one is born a thief, a liar or murderer,” he said. “People acquire these evil habits due to a lack of proper guidance and education.”
Mainstream Islamic scholars also take an unfavorable view of MOCs.