Imam Daayiee Abdullah was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan by Southern Baptist parents. Abdullah, a Law graduate, is a highly revered human rights activist. In this interview with Rainbow Gazette’s Bunmi Johnson, Imam Daayiee Abdullah talks about his childhood, his coming-out story, religion, and life as an openly-gay Imam.
RG: Growing up in Detroit and raised by Southern Baptist parents, how did this impact your outlook in life?
Imam Daayiee Abdullah: I was born on the 11th of January 1954, the same year that the Brown v. Board of Education happened. So by the time I started school, I went to a non-segregated school. Detroit being a major center of industry was one of the first places apart from Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles where they made initial changes. More importantly, my parents were very much about education – I did not necessarily have to go to a library to find an encyclopedia or resources to study because my parents had those things at home.
Also, growing up with several siblings meant that every night at the dinner table when my father was home, he would always ask us questions about what was going on with school, what was happening in the world, the civil rights movement…We all had an opportunity to discuss how we saw the world at the time. This was part of the education that kept me inquisitive about the world. In relation to my religious upbringing, my parents were Southern Baptist but because of their level of education they also understood when I was spoke to them about the fact that that particular faith was not something that was satisfying to me.
I had a quest to learn more about other faiths in the world, and my parents understood that it’s not the religion that you practice, but the one that you feel comfortable with especially in times of human need.
“At 29, I went back to school to re-educate myself in Chinese, Arabic Languages and Literature and wound up going to China where I was introduced to Islam”
I went to a Jewish temple a couple of times, I went to various Christian congregations, Buddhist temples, and the mosque, but nothing struck a bell. Nothing grabbed my attention until I was around 15 when I discovered metaphysics, science of the mind, and Christian science. And it was at that time that my understanding of the world, and understanding of Creation was based on not giving it a name, but knowing that it was an existence that I could call upon in my own mind. This lasted for a good number of years until my 20s when I started to study Buddhism again. Then at 29, I went back to school to re-educate myself in Chinese, Arabic Languages and Literature and wound up going to China where I was introduced to Islam through some of my Chinese classmates at Beijing University. Getting exposed to Islam in China was a much softer, kinder formulation of Islam that was very different than Islam that I came to know much later when I began studying Arabic in the Middle East a couple of years later.
What was it like coming out to your parents at 15?
Oh, that was easy. The gay rights movement had just started in June 1969 – I knew long before then that I was uniquely different and that I had always been a boy-loving-boy. It was not a problem coming out to my parents because they were always involved in their children’s lives and they had certain standards for us. We had an agreement that we would always tell our parents the truth no matter the situation. We were known as responsible kids. Also, we had this ritual in our house where we proffered our high school diplomas to our father. At that point, you’re considered your own man as long as you lived in the house and abided by the rules – then how you want to develop your life was up to you at that point. When I came out, my father said to me, “Well, you have always abided by the rules and regulations, and you have always been a good son so you’re always welcome home”. With that, I knew that my parents honored me because I had honored them by being the kind of child that they wanted.
Did your parents ask you if they had done anything wrong when you came out to them?
That was what my mother said: “Is there something wrong that we did wrong?”. I was like “No, you’re the best people in the world”. I went out into the world and met other gay men, and women who had parents who were very similar. They didn’t grow up in that religious atmosphere where you were denounced, berated or shamed. It was totally the opposite and I noticed that all of us who didn’t have that kind of treatment were strong individuals in our lives versus those who had been berated and shamed. We were actually able to help them feel better about themselves and come to understand themselves better.
Who’s your first love?
When I was 12, in junior high school, I met a boy Otis who was my first love. He was a black ginger boy. We started hanging out because we had similar interests – eventually, we fell in love. He was about 3 years older than me. We started spending time together… I think the following year we had sexual discovery with each other. We later went to different high schools because of the regentrification that was going on. We would spend time together at the public library. We would visit each other at home. In my senior year of high school, Otis lost his mother and he became a little depressed. My parents being Scout leaders and community activists reached out to him and told him that if he needed anything to let them know. Otis and I were very close and loving but my parents didn’t know that we were together.
Then something bad happened – that October, Otis committed suicide. My parents knew we were very close friends, so I took a couple of days off school. I was in my senior year of school and Otis committed suicide on Tuesday and then Saturday was his funeral, so I was off school Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. My Mother called the school and told them I had lost a friend, so they gave me some time off. I went to his funeral on Saturday and then that Monday I went back to school. Then I graduated that December and wssent off to college in January. Till today, 50 years later, I don’t know why Otis committed suicide.
“When I came out, my father said to me, “Well, you have always abided by the rules and regulations, and you have always been a good son so you’re always welcome home”.”
Would you say that coming out was a seminal moment in your life?
Not really, it was a part of my life that was important. It was another prospect in being truthful with myself, and my parents. I don’t think it was that monumental per se. I will say that if it was not for the gay movement starting in 1969, I don’t know when I would have properly coming out to my parents. But from that conversation that I had with them, I was able to go forward and be the man-loving-man I needed to be without shame
How did you end up leaving Detroit for San Francisco, then Washington DC?
After I graduated from high school, I went off to college– after my first year, I told my parents that I wanted to come back home. I was doing okay with my studies with a 3.6 GPA in my first year of school, but I didn’t feel socially comfortable in that atmosphere as a 16-year-old. I returned home and continued to study, going to school at night but I also went out and got a full-time job which allowed me to bring in the kind of income I needed to start my travel. Then, I started travelling more throughout the US.
In 1974, a couple of years after I graduated from college, a good friend of mine named Elaine, who was one of my neighbors had just finished school and she had her first internship in San Francisco. I was going to visit her that Christmas season, and her Mom wanted me to take some gifts out to her, so I did. I spent 2 weeks in San Francisco and a few days in Los Angeles because I wanted to find a new place to live as Detroit was on decline and I was not challenged intellectually. I sought California out, and so my visit to San Francisco, not only did it help me in terms of finding it different being the financial center of the West Coast, it was also an intellectual hub of the world. Being gay as well, San Francisco allowed me to go into a milieu that satisfied many of my needs and interests. Three weeks after I came back from my visit, I quit my job and moved to San Francisco which I fondly refer to as ‘San Fran-sissy’.
On relocating there, I met a number of Black and Latino gay men, older gay men, who were very supportive and became my mentors. They advised me not to get involved in white gay society there, so they helped me make my entrance in the black gay community in the San Francisco area which I found to be much more diverse. I will always be thankful to them because they kept me out of that cesspool of white gaydom.
” Being gay as well, San Francisco allowed me to go into a milieu that satisfied many of my needs and interests.”
What was the dating scene like for you in San Francisco at the time?
I had my first adult male-male relationship there with a black fellow, and we were in a partnership, what today would be called marriage. We were together for about 4 and a half years, and it was a great experience. I was 21 or 22 when I met him, so we met in like October the first year that I was there, and then 4 years later in November 1979, I moved to Washington DC.
How did you end up in Washington DC?
As an activist, I was part of the establishing contingent for the National March at Washington DC. At that time, I was working at Governor Jerry Brown’s office and they gave me two weeks off to go for the March. I ended up staying in Washington DC for three and a half weeks because I had some vacation time. During my stay, I realized that Washington DC was a black gay Mecca. While there, I got introduced to a number of black gay activists who I had heard of but had never met, and I had an opportunity to attend a black gay and lesbian conference at Howard University Hotel. It was great to participate and meet all of the Black, Latino, Asian, South East Asian, and Caribbean gay/lesbian folks. This blew my whole mind open and that was the year that I moved to Washington DC.
What inspired your conversion from Christianity to Islam? Was it a general dissatisfaction with your Christian life?
The real difference was the form of prayer. As a Christian I always felt I was always supplicating, whereas in Islam I felt that I was in the process of being in sujood when I lay my head on the floor in recognition knowing that at that point I released all of my questions to God. That process always left me, and my heart, open. So, when I would sit back, I was now open to receiving inspiration that was made available to me. Sometimes it would be an immediate response and other times it wouldn’t be but I was left so open and I had such inner peace inside of me; I was patient and I could wait until the right answer came. And that for me, was the opening up of me that other faiths did not provide.
“As a Christian I always felt I was always supplicating, whereas in Islam I felt that I was in the process of being in sujood.”
Who introduced you to Islam ?
My Chinese friend Ma introduced me to Islam while I was in Beijing University – he also showed me how to do the wudoo. I didn’t understand Arabic at the time, and when my friends who were mostly Chinese attended the khutbah in Arabic, and Chinese, it started to make sense. Ma’s family had been Muslim for over 1300 years. He asked me if I knew about Islam and I said I know about the nation of Islam, and Saudi Arabia; he said “No. The real Islam”. And I said, “The real Islam? What is that?” This was how I got introduced to understanding Islam in a number of ways. I asked him about a person being sexually-diverse and he said there was not a problem with that because in China they had already had people from The Empress down to the common people who were obviously gender-variant at that time. About a month later, Ma gave me my first Quran which was in Arabic and Chinese. This was in 1984. I did not get my certificate until 1988. I knew if I was going to study Arabic and go to the Middle East, I wanted to have the opportunity to go to Hajjs if that was possible. So, I did go while in DC to get my official papers. I then went for Hajj in 1996/1997.
What inspired your name Daayiee, and what does it mean?
Daayiee is a derivative of my Chinese name, Tang Da Yi. ‘Tang’ Dynasty in Chinese history was the most peaceful and one of literary development and intellectual expansion.; ‘Da’ means ‘large’, and ‘Yi’ means ‘virtue’. Daayiee means a ‘peaceful man of great virtue’. When I went to study Arabic, I found it was close to Da-i which means “the one who proselytizes.”
How were you ordained an Imam?
It happened not of my own selection. During my Master’s in Shariah Sciences and Quranic Interpretation at Cordoba University in Ashburn , Virginia, there was this gay Muslim fellow who had died from HIV in DC. I got an anonymous email asking me if I would do the jenazah prayer for this man who was in the morgue. They gave me his name, but the person never told me who they were from the email. So, I said sure, and I contacted the morgue and went down to do the prayer. Here I was at school studying, but I had my little book with me about how to do the jenazah prayer, how to do the funeral process, how to wash the body, do the shroud….. The man had been in the morgue for a while that rigor mortis had set in so I couldn’t really do a good job of the shroud but I did the best I could. I was a novice, but I had always believed no matter who you are as a Muslim you have the right to the religious rites. I went down and performed the rites. It was from this funeral that people started calling me Imam. So I was not officially ordained… it was out of necessity. The LGBT community didn’t have anyone they could turn to. I also had a mentor Dr. Taha Jabir Alalwani who guided me towards becoming a sheik. He was like a father to me – he died in 2016.
Following the funeral rites, were you under any kind of threat from people who were homophobic in the Islamic community?
Of course, but there was nothing I took seriously because there are always people who will scream about what I can’t do and shouldn’t do and many of them don’t know anything. There are so many people who do not understand their faith. Just like in Christianity there are people who are of that faith by circumstance. I mean they were born into it, or there is something in their culture or their country and it’s a religion of place, and therefore they never really studied their faith. They really don’t know their faith so they come up with excuses to make themselves feel better.
“People should stop thinking that just because a practice is ancient, it is the answer for everything in the future.”
When they come at me, I ask them a question: “When Muslims are living in outer space, which way is Kaaba?” And they lean forward to get an answer and I tell them, “I don’t know”. But as Muslims in the future, they will have that answer. So, people should stop thinking that just because a practice is ancient, it is the answer for everything in the future. I tell them Islam is a living faith, and as ibn Khaldun said: they should stop living the practices of dead people, because if you do that, then you are living a dead religion. Islam is alive today for all of humankind so they can’t be stuck in the past.
“Daayiee is a derivative of my Chinese name, Tang Da Yi.”
How would you encourage LGBT Muslims trying to find acceptance?
They should read the Quran and look for understanding for themselves because if you do not have an Iqraa as a Muslim, then you have got a lot of issues and you are going to take what other people say as the truth without you knowing your own truth. Everybody should have that moment. I know I had mine and it took my breath away.
What is your own understanding of what the Quran says about homosexuality?
What people trot out as being the understanding of homosexuality is actually a prohibition of homosexuals using sex and rape as a form of oppression and abuse against innocents. Yet other parts of Quran confirm and affirm sexual diversity. They should read Chapter 24 verses 30 through 32. Verse 31 talks about men who have no desire for women – there are only three potential types: older men who have no vigor, and this was before Viagra; then eunuchs; and the third group will be those who have no interest in women, which will be gay men. Verse 32 says to marry the single among you, ‘male and female’ in parentheses. When it says “marry from the single among you”, it means marry anyone else who is single.
What function do you think religion serves in our lives in terms of marriage?
It serves boundaries for us in terms of the commitments and the standards that we have to adhere. I tell LGBT Muslims that “if you are a ho, you are a ho!”. When the Qur’an says “marry from the single among you”, it means marry anyone else who is single. You are not supposed to mess with anybody’s marriage because that breaks their contract. But if you have been married and now you are divorced and single again, then you are eligible to marry again. Just because you are LGBT doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have the standard that you can be committed to one person. You know you can uphold the standards of that society. But when someone says they want to have several husbands or several wives, there are some rules about that. Can you afford to put each of them up in their own household and carry them in the way in which they are accustomed? No? Well then you can’t have them.
“I tell LGBT Muslims that “if you are a ho, you are a ho!”.”
Over the years, how many weddings have you conducted?
Somewhere around 70 of different types – one-third being LGBT weddings and the other two-thirds heterosexual. Some of them have been interfaith; others Muslim/Muslim, Muslim/Christian, Muslim/Jewish. Slightly more than half of the same-sex weddings have been lesbian women. The first wedding I conducted was in Cleveland, Ohio sometime in 2002/2003 – the couple are lesbians, and both Muslims.
Do you have an order of service for weddings you conduct?
Well it depends. I would work with the couple and decide how they would want to blend their marriage ceremony. If they were interfaith then it would be a blending of ceremonies. Sometimes they would do the Christian part and I would do the Muslim part and then they would do a joint thing. The ones that were Muslim/Muslim I would generally follow a Muslim program with the prayer and the family using the Quran, and then they would exchange their vows.
What is the most powerful khutbah you have ever given?
The most powerful one I have ever given would be that if we are true believers, we are successful when we recognize that Allah is Akbar. This means that we cannot outthink the possibilities that our Creator can bring about, and we should humble ourselves in that process. It means that those people who say “this is a sin!” and “that’s wrong” should shut up. I use a flower to explain the diversity of the world to them. If you take a carnation or a miniature, or the standard; they are all three different sizes but if you pull those flowers apart, each one of them has seven hundred petals. Everything else about them… the symmetry, the color, all of that remains the same. It means that Allah is Akbar. Whether you are small of heart, medium or heart, or big of heart, it is based on Allah. A little heart can become a bigger heart through the blessings of Allah. An individual can be of this stature, you can be a poor person with very little, but you can then become a rich person. I thank Allah for having been able to give me the kind of mind to be able to understand those things, and I am forever thankful for that.
“The most powerful one I have ever given would be that if we are true believers, we are successful when we recognize that Allah is Akbar.”
At 66, do you have any regrets? Is there anything you think you would have done differently if given a second chance?
Of course you always look back and say, “Well, I could have done such and such a bit better”, but that would mean that I would change the timeline and I wouldn’t be who I am today. I am very satisfied with who I am today. I wouldn’t have wanted to have different parents or friends. I am even happy for the relationships I have had. One relationship at one time, I was still angry over how the relationship ended. I had a very good friend say to me, “Although I understand what you are saying, the one thing you have to do is remember the good times. There was a lot of good times in that relationship”. That allowed me to stop and sit back and contemplate. It wasn’t all negative. The majority of it was really good but the beautiful thing is that through that process, after the relationship ended, I had an opportunity to continue to be in touch with them and to try to do some counseling with them. Eventually, even though it never worked out again, I was able to get all of the stuff out that I needed to get out. The anger. The disappointment. The misuse of my trust. All of it. I was able to express myself and be whole again.
Are you married or in a relationship?
I’m not married now, but I am open to it. I have not been in a relationship for 6 years now by choice. I just haven’t met the person yet. When my last relationship ended, I needed some space for me to get back to another level of understanding and at peace with myself. Once that happened, I was open to connecting again. The longest I was in a relationship was 13 years. I had a 5 year, a 10 year, and a 13-year relationship; so, about half of my life I have been in long-term relationships.
“When my last relationship ended, I needed some space for me to get back to another level of understanding and at peace with myself. Once that happened, I was open to connecting again.”
What are your ideas on love?
I think love is wonderful and I hope that everybody gets an opportunity to feel love. How people achieve that love is very different. When you are infatuated with someone, I don’t call that love but interest. Have you ever been in a supermarket or a store and you turn the corner and suddenly you see one of the most beautiful people you have ever seen before in your life?
Well that happens to everybody. The key to that is that you have the right to enjoy that person for the moment, but when they pass you or you pass them, you should not turn around because if you do, you can be asking for trouble. The only thing you can say is ‘Masha Allah , by the blessings of God that such a beautiful person exists’. That doesn’t mean that that person is necessarily for you. They may already be spoken for.
How did you meet your partner you were in a 13-year relationship with?
We actually met through a mutual friend on my birthday. I remember that year, my friend Mike called me while I was at work to come hang out with him and some other friends. I met them at a club around 5:30pm and while we were talking, one of the fellows Charles said, “I know that guy over there, let me go and say hi to him. He lives in my neighborhood”. After about 10 minutes he came back and I asked him who the guy is and he said “that is the guy who lives in my neighborhood”, and I said “well, you should tell him I’m interested”. He looked like the kind of guy that I like. Charles said he would be interested in meeting me, so he gave us an introduction and we spent about 10 minutes talking. I invited him over to have a few drinks, then we exchanged numbers. We went on some dates and we had a lot of things in common. It was history after that.
Was he a Muslim?
No, he wasn’t.. A person’s faith is not something that cuts me off from getting to know them as a person. There should be mutual understanding and development – if the person is right for you, then you know it.
What are the mantras you live by?
One is never to assume that a person is bad.. If they are, then they will show it to me. I always presume that a person’s intentions are good, but that doesn’t mean they manifest that. I always give people a fair chance. The last thing is that I don’t want people to misuse my trust. If I have trust in you, then I expect that you will honor that by being open and honest with me, and I will always be truthful and honest.