A Third of Young People Don’t Identify As Straight, According to U.K. Survey

A third of young people between the ages of 16 and 22 identify as something other than straight, according to a newly published report.

A BBC poll conducted by Ipsos Mori found that just two-thirds of Britons in this age group claimed to be exclusively heterosexual. Nine percent of the young people polled said that they were equally attracted to members of both sexes, while 14 percent reported being primarily attracted to the opposite gender.

Compare this to Baby Boomers, 88 percent of whom claimed to be totally straight. Just one percent of people between the ages of 52 and 71 identified as bisexual.

The survey showed that the younger respondents were, the more likely they were to be sexually fluid. While just eight percent of Gen-Xers (ages 38 to 51) claim to be attracted to members of both sexes, more than twice as many millennials identified as bisexual in the BBC reportat 18 percent.

The polling group tapped 3,000 U.K. residents for the survey.

These findings, which were published Tuesday, are just the most recent report showing that today’s youth are the gayest generation. A 2015 poll from YouGov found that nearly half of Brits in the 18-24 age bracketor 49 percentclaimed that they weren’t totally straight.

Although surveys show that increasing numbers of people are coming out as bisexual, this population also faces extraordinary challenges.

Despite being the largest segment of the LGBTQ community, bisexuals face a high rate of mental health issues due to the lingering stigma around sexual fluidity. Bisexual women, for instance, were twice as likely as their heterosexual counterparts to experience mood disorders. A 2013 study from the University of Pittsburgh found that 15 percent of people don’t believe bisexuality exists.

Meet the Queer Magazine That’s Just Being “Honest”

To look at the cover of the first twelve issues of Elska Magazine is to get a kaleidoscopic glimpse at queer men from around the globe.

A bespectacled young man in a tee with a loud floral print stares at us while blurred Welsh flags hang in the background. A tattooed guy in just his swim shorts is framed by windows that look out onto the Toronto skyline. A mustachioed man in just a white t-shirt, jeans, and a backwards cap stands in the middle of a busy cross street in Taipei. Each cover suggests the plurality inherent in the most utopian ideas of what a global queer community can look like.

Celebrating two years this month, Elska magazine is kind of travelogue for the Instagram age. It was founded and is run by Liam Campbell, whose previous job as a flight attendant is what first gave him the idea for what Elska has become.

“I had this idea to make a book,” he told INTO. “To travel somewhere, shoot a bunch of guys in the country and then write a book. You know, with some stories, but just a lot of pictures of the local people. Then, I thought, if I do a book that’s kind of like a one-time thing. But if I call it a magazine I could do lots of thema new one every couple of months.”

With twelve issues under his belt and with his magazine stocked in over 50 shops around the world, Campbell has found there’s a clear interest in these roving looks at men. Browsing through any issue of Elska, whether the one in Reykjavik, which Campbell loves, or the one in Providence, where he’s now based out of, is to get a glimpse of the “average men” that you are a click away on any given dating app; the ones you’d meet at a local coffee spot or find yourself catching late night at a gay bar.

And while some of the spreads skirt the line of propriety, suggesting and creating a vibrant queer intimacy, there’s no hard and fast rule about nudity or provocation. It all depends on the comfort level of those Campbell collaborates with. He recruits subjects and writers on the spot, often using social media to arrange photo shoots. He’s not looking for models. His motto is, “Anybody is welcome to take part. Whoever wants to.”
“You wear what you want. We shoot outside, inside, whatever you’d like. We can do nudity. But it’s up to you!” he tells the men who, as he recounts, have all too generously donated their time and bodies to Elska’s pages.

The results, just like the types of guys he’s met these past two years, have varied from city to city. Thus, while those in Istanbul were all too comfortable dropping trouin contrast, surprisingly, to those in BerlinCampbell found the men in Israel, from an upcoming issue set in one of its cities, to be the horniest he’d met yet.

There’s a sense of discovery in the mag’s pages that mirrors Campbell’s own journey in making each issue. That’s due not just to the sensuous photo spreads that make up the glossy mag, but to the casual writings that litter its pages.

“Most of these guys aren’t experienced with writing,” he admits. But he’s found that their raw, near-unedited voices are what make each issue feel so authentic.

“Some are brilliant writers and have been super creative. And others are a little bit boring. But I do like this documentary aspect to it” even if he’s sure it might be “off-putting for a casual reader who picks it up off the shelf and happens to flip to an article that’s kind of dull. But once you understand what the concept is you just realize it’s about real people that you might meet and appreciate the honesty of it.”

Concerns about readership and, in turn, profitability don’t faze him. After all, if he wanted to chase after what sells, he’d be sticking a blond, white guy on the cover every chance he got.

“It’s just like on an Instagram page. If I have some white guy with his shirt off,” he told INTO, “it’s always gonna get like three times more likes than a chubby Indian guy. Always. It’s like science.”

He witnessed that firsthand when he published the first non-European issue of Elska set in Taipei. That run, he found out, became the lowest-selling one in Western countries and earned him plenty of tone-deaf responses.

“You know, I hope you don’t do this again. Because I’m just not into Asians,” one subscriber wrote. As disappointing as such interactions were, Campbell feels vindicated by the fact that Taipei eventually became the second best-selling issue worldwide.

Rather than shy away from embracing the full breadth of the queer global experience, Campbell has since also traveled to India (Mumbai), Japan (Yokohama), and hopes to shoot the first issue below the equator sometime soon. He wouldn’t mind heading down south to Buenos Aires or Sydney, but he’s most eager to travel to Africa. Not Capetown, which would be too obvious, but maybe Dakar, Senegal or Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

“I’ve tried to set issues there, but the people I talked to, there were some that wanted to do it, but others told me ‘I think this is dangerous. Not for me, but for others to be published in this type of publication,” he says. “And as much as I’d love to put a spotlight on an African gay community, it may not be ethically the best thing to do.”
In the meantime, Campbell is happy to be celebrating this two-year milestone and glad to take stock on how his pipe dream of an idea has since evolved into a globe-trotting project.

Looking back at the many men who opened their doors to him, and let him photograph them in their bedrooms, their bathrooms, out on the streets, in the nude or in their skivvies, he can’t help but beam with pride and remind himself what Elska is all about. It’s always been about shining a light on local communities for a global audience.

“I’m just trying to be honest about it. Show different places,” and if that happens to show readers what a diverse and inclusive gay media company can look like, so be it. As he puts it, “The people I meet are the people I meet.”

LGBTQ-friendly traffic lights promote diversity, cause controversy in Europe

On the corner of Knipstraat and Daalsesingel in Utrecht, the Netherlands’ fourth largest city, a cluster of pedestrians waits to cross the street. When the time comes, the traffic light on the other side of the Knipstraat will turn green, indicating that it’s safe to cross.

Pedestrian traffic lights in the Netherlands take the form of a red male figure viewed head-on for “stop,” and a green male figure shown in profile with one leg raised for “go.” But in early March of 2016, three of Utrecht’s pedestrian lights underwent a radical makeover.

At the intersection of Knipstraat and Daalsesingel, the lone male figure was replaced by two females, holding hands and surrounded by hearts. In the opposite direction are two additional regenboogverkeerslichten, or rainbow traffic lights. One depicts a gay couple, the other, a heterosexual one.

City alderman Kees Geldorf, who was on hand for the March 8th unveiling, told Dutch news broadcaster Nos that the lights are a reflection of Utrecht’s diversity. “Each time you come upon one of these lights is an opportunity to reflect on that,” he said.

Utrecht is the most recent of a growing number of European cities to install the rainbow traffic lights. In May of 2015, the first lights appeared in Vienna, Austria in preparation for the Life Ball AIDS charity fundraiser and the city’s stint as Eurovision Song Contest host.

Originally intended to be temporary, the Ampelpärchen, or traffic light couples, were made permanent due to public pressure. A Facebook page calling for the preservation of the lights accumulated more than 4,000 Likes in a matter of hours. The lights even received international attention, scoring mentions in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The BBC, and TIME among others.

Soon after, the Austrian cities of Linz and Salzburg adopted the design, followed by Cologne, Munich, and Hamburg in Germany. Last fall, Helmond and Arnhem in the Netherlands followed suit. Lucerne, Switzerland is debating jumping on the bandwagon as well.

“Being inclusive of LGBTQ+ people in public-works is something that helps eliminate stigma and hate by making sure that they are visible, making sure that diversity is represented,” said Victoria Rodriguez-Roldan, Trans/Gender Non-Conforming Justice Project Director at the National LGBTQ Task Force, headquartered in Washington, DC.

That’s why the all-inclusive nature of the traffic lights is so important, according to Pepijn Zwanenberg, the Utrecht City Councilmember behind the implementation of the traffic lights. The goal is “to show diversity, not single one group out from the rest,” Zwanenberg said.

“If you’re from [somewhere less tolerant] and you hear about this or you see this and you’re gay or lesbian or transgender, I think it can be very powerful,” Zwanenberg added. The lights send a message of welcome and the validity of love of all kinds, while at the same time helping normalize LGBTQ+ people.

Reactions to the lights have been mostly positive, according to Zwanenberg and Dutch gay rights group COC Midden Nederland. But not everyone is on board. Comments on Twitter, Facebook, and the Dutch news organizations reporting on the development are overwhelmingly negative.

The most common accusation is that the lights are guilty of the very thing they are purported to be fighting – discrimination – by singling out the gay community and excluding heterosexuals. Since the media frequently bills the lights as “gay traffic lights,” most critics are unaware that a heterosexual couple is included.

Most infuriating to detractors is the cost of the project, which set the city of Utrecht back €1,200 (roughly $1,350 USD). A waste of money, one commenter argued, for what amounts to little more than a “photo op for tourists.”

The well-intentioned traffic lights were met with similar criticism in Austria. In Linz, city traffic official Markus Hein had the lights taken down just five months after their debut. “Traffic lights are for traffic and should not be misused to impart advice on how to live your life,” Hein, a member of the right-wing Freedom Partytold the Kurier. The city council voted in January 2016 to restore the lights.

In Vienna, The Freedom Party filed a criminal complaint against deputy mayor and traffic official Maria Vassilakou, who initiated the placement of the lights at 120 pedestrian crossings throughout the city. The Freedom Party claimed that the lights were a waste of taxpayers’ money and a violation of traffic codes.

The complaint ultimately proved unfounded and was subsequently dropped. City spokesman Andreas Baur told INTO that, in addition to complying with Austria’s road traffic requirements, “the diversity-themed symbols on the traffic lights [are] part of a road safety campaign” the city is pursuing to reduce the number of fatal traffic accidents.

Pedestrian safety is a major concern in the Austrian capital, where, in 2012, 16 pedestrians were killed and more than 1,000 were injured, according to Statistics Austria. Twenty-two of those injured at pedestrian crossings in 2014 were children. To draw attention to the often-ignored traffic lights and motivate pedestrians to adhere to their signals, the city of Vienna replaced the traditional symbol with the unique, more visible Ampelpärchen.

Vienna is not the only city to experiment with this concept. In Augsburg, Germany, city officials moved to embed traffic signals in sidewalks, where Smartphone users would be more likely to see them. Smart, the company best known for its self-titled mini car, designed a dancing traffic signal for a crosswalk in Lisbon, Portugal. Passersby slip into a booth in a nearby square to bust a move, which is then mimicked in real time by the red figure in the traffic light. Smart reported that 81% more people stopped for the red light when it was dancing.

Many European cities have their own unique traffic light designs, of which city dwellers are fiercely proud. Berlin, Germany, for example, has its Ampelmännchen; behatted cartoon men implemented in East Germany in 1969 and saved from extinction by the public after the reunification of Germany in 1989. It’s entirely possible that the rainbow traffic lights will become part of the local identity of the cities that adopted them.

When asked if a similar initiative might be possible in the United States, a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) spokesperson explained that, although the FHWA does have a set of nationwide standards to avoid confusion for road users, it’s ultimately up to local officials to decide which images to display on their traffic signs and signals.

West Hollywood, CA Councilmember John Duran, who sponsored the city’s rainbow crosswalks, expressed an interest in exploring the idea in WeHo. Seattle traffic engineer Dongho Chang said the City of Seattle would also be “open” to experimenting with modified pedestrian traffic lights. Once approved, they could be tested “at locations that have ‘all-way’ walks, where all vehicular traffic is stopped before pedestrians are provided the signal to cross,” he said.

Obviously, cost would be a major deciding factor, as well as location and public receptiveness. “It might look trivial and it might sound trivial – most people don’t spend their days thinking about crosswalk lights,” said Rodriguez-Roldan. “The point is, even that is a way to show inclusion.”

Though traffic lights alone won’t guarantee acceptance and equality for the LGBTQ+ community, they just might be a step in the right direction.

LGBTQ-friendly traffic lights promote diversity, cause controversy in Europe

On the corner of Knipstraat and Daalsesingel in Utrecht, the Netherlands’ fourth largest city, a cluster of pedestrians waits to cross the street. When the time comes, the traffic light on the other side of the Knipstraat will turn green, indicating that it’s safe to cross.

Pedestrian traffic lights in the Netherlands take the form of a red male figure viewed head-on for “stop,” and a green male figure shown in profile with one leg raised for “go.” But in early March of 2016, three of Utrecht’s pedestrian lights underwent a radical makeover.

At the intersection of Knipstraat and Daalsesingel, the lone male figure was replaced by two females, holding hands and surrounded by hearts. In the opposite direction are two additional regenboogverkeerslichten, or rainbow traffic lights. One depicts a gay couple, the other, a heterosexual one.

City alderman Kees Geldorf, who was on hand for the March 8th unveiling, told Dutch news broadcaster Nos that the lights are a reflection of Utrecht’s diversity. “Each time you come upon one of these lights is an opportunity to reflect on that,” he said.

Utrecht is the most recent of a growing number of European cities to install the rainbow traffic lights. In May of 2015, the first lights appeared in Vienna, Austria in preparation for the Life Ball AIDS charity fundraiser and the city’s stint as Eurovision Song Contest host.

Originally intended to be temporary, the Ampelpärchen, or traffic light couples, were made permanent due to public pressure. A Facebook page calling for the preservation of the lights accumulated more than 4,000 Likes in a matter of hours. The lights even received international attention, scoring mentions in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The BBC, and TIME among others.

Soon after, the Austrian cities of Linz and Salzburg adopted the design, followed by Cologne, Munich, and Hamburg in Germany. Last fall, Helmond and Arnhem in the Netherlands followed suit. Lucerne, Switzerland is debating jumping on the bandwagon as well.

“Being inclusive of LGBTQ+ people in public-works is something that helps eliminate stigma and hate by making sure that they are visible, making sure that diversity is represented,” said Victoria Rodriguez-Roldan, Trans/Gender Non-Conforming Justice Project Director at the National LGBTQ Task Force, headquartered in Washington, DC.

That’s why the all-inclusive nature of the traffic lights is so important, according to Pepijn Zwanenberg, the Utrecht City Councilmember behind the implementation of the traffic lights. The goal is “to show diversity, not single one group out from the rest,” Zwanenberg said.

“If you’re from [somewhere less tolerant] and you hear about this or you see this and you’re gay or lesbian or transgender, I think it can be very powerful,” Zwanenberg added. The lights send a message of welcome and the validity of love of all kinds, while at the same time helping normalize LGBTQ+ people.

Reactions to the lights have been mostly positive, according to Zwanenberg and Dutch gay rights group COC Midden Nederland. But not everyone is on board. Comments on Twitter, Facebook, and the Dutch news organizations reporting on the development are overwhelmingly negative.

The most common accusation is that the lights are guilty of the very thing they are purported to be fighting – discrimination – by singling out the gay community and excluding heterosexuals. Since the media frequently bills the lights as “gay traffic lights,” most critics are unaware that a heterosexual couple is included.

Most infuriating to detractors is the cost of the project, which set the city of Utrecht back €1,200 (roughly $1,350 USD). A waste of money, one commenter argued, for what amounts to little more than a “photo op for tourists.”

The well-intentioned traffic lights were met with similar criticism in Austria. In Linz, city traffic official Markus Hein had the lights taken down just five months after their debut. “Traffic lights are for traffic and should not be misused to impart advice on how to live your life,” Hein, a member of the right-wing Freedom Partytold the Kurier. The city council voted in January 2016 to restore the lights.

In Vienna, The Freedom Party filed a criminal complaint against deputy mayor and traffic official Maria Vassilakou, who initiated the placement of the lights at 120 pedestrian crossings throughout the city. The Freedom Party claimed that the lights were a waste of taxpayers’ money and a violation of traffic codes.

The complaint ultimately proved unfounded and was subsequently dropped. City spokesman Andreas Baur told INTO that, in addition to complying with Austria’s road traffic requirements, “the diversity-themed symbols on the traffic lights [are] part of a road safety campaign” the city is pursuing to reduce the number of fatal traffic accidents.

Pedestrian safety is a major concern in the Austrian capital, where, in 2012, 16 pedestrians were killed and more than 1,000 were injured, according to Statistics Austria. Twenty-two of those injured at pedestrian crossings in 2014 were children. To draw attention to the often-ignored traffic lights and motivate pedestrians to adhere to their signals, the city of Vienna replaced the traditional symbol with the unique, more visible Ampelpärchen.

Vienna is not the only city to experiment with this concept. In Augsburg, Germany, city officials moved to embed traffic signals in sidewalks, where Smartphone users would be more likely to see them. Smart, the company best known for its self-titled mini car, designed a dancing traffic signal for a crosswalk in Lisbon, Portugal. Passersby slip into a booth in a nearby square to bust a move, which is then mimicked in real time by the red figure in the traffic light. Smart reported that 81% more people stopped for the red light when it was dancing.

Many European cities have their own unique traffic light designs, of which city dwellers are fiercely proud. Berlin, Germany, for example, has its Ampelmännchen; behatted cartoon men implemented in East Germany in 1969 and saved from extinction by the public after the reunification of Germany in 1989. It’s entirely possible that the rainbow traffic lights will become part of the local identity of the cities that adopted them.

When asked if a similar initiative might be possible in the United States, a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) spokesperson explained that, although the FHWA does have a set of nationwide standards to avoid confusion for road users, it’s ultimately up to local officials to decide which images to display on their traffic signs and signals.

West Hollywood, CA Councilmember John Duran, who sponsored the city’s rainbow crosswalks, expressed an interest in exploring the idea in WeHo. Seattle traffic engineer Dongho Chang said the City of Seattle would also be “open” to experimenting with modified pedestrian traffic lights. Once approved, they could be tested “at locations that have ‘all-way’ walks, where all vehicular traffic is stopped before pedestrians are provided the signal to cross,” he said.

Obviously, cost would be a major deciding factor, as well as location and public receptiveness. “It might look trivial and it might sound trivial – most people don’t spend their days thinking about crosswalk lights,” said Rodriguez-Roldan. “The point is, even that is a way to show inclusion.”

Though traffic lights alone won’t guarantee acceptance and equality for the LGBTQ+ community, they just might be a step in the right direction.

The Impact of a Queer Prime Minister?

When Ireland’s governing political party, Fine Gael, elected Leo Varadkar as its leader andeffectively appointed the first openly gay Taoiseach(Irish prime minister) in early June, it was widely seen as a major milestone for the country’s LGBTQ community. This onceCatholic-dominated countryhad joined the ranks of Iceland, Belgium, andLuxembourg, as the only nations to have had a gay or lesbian head of government.

While Varadkar’s election demonstrates how progressive Ireland is on LGBTQ issues, this is hardly a new development. In the 24 years since homosexuality was decriminalizedin Ireland, virtually all political and legal barriers to equal rights have been eliminated, leaving little legislative progress to be made on LGBTQ rights in the country.

But can a gay prime minister help change attitudes in a country lacking basic rights and protections for LGBTQ people?

Two weeks after Varadkar took office, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučićappointed openly gay Ana Brnabić to the position of prime minister. Serbia may have legalized same-sex sexual activity just a year after Ireland, but homophobia is endemic in this Balkan country, with pride marches in the country’s capital of Belgrade being mired by violent attacks and same-sex marriage banned by the Constitution. LGBTQ progress in this Baltic state is an uphill battle, with Brnabić doing relatively little to change the dire situation.

Predrag Azdejkovic, editor-in-chief of Serbian gay magazineOptimist, is concerned the government will use Brnabić as a distraction and an excuse for not doing anything regarding LGBTQ rights. “They always can say that having a lesbian prime minister is enough for the LGBTQ population in Serbia. Before that we had a similar excuse, ‘you have a Pride parade in Belgrade, that’s enough,’” he says.

In an interview soon after her appointment, Brnabić told Vice Serbia: “I’m not a spokesperson for the LGBT communityI don’t want to be branded as a gay minister.” The American and British-educated Prime Minister not only has limited interest in pushing forward equality laws but her political power and influence are also somewhat lacking. Although President Vučić’s position is supposed to be largely ceremonial, he wields great control in the country and has been cracking down on press freedom as he moves Serbia closer to autocracy.

Critics view Brnabić as a virtual puppet for Vučić. “It’s pinkwashing,” says Azdejkovic. “Like the Putin and Medvedev scenario, all the power is still in Vučić’s hands. Vučić’s government gave a promise to Serbia’s LGBTQ population that they will regulate same-sex partnerships and address trans issues by the end of 2017, but there is no evidence this will happen,” he adds.

Nominating a lesbian prime minister may have been a calculated move by Vučić, but this is not to say Brnabić will have no impact on how LGBTQ people are perceived in Serbia. “The most important thing about the first lesbian prime minister is visibility. Everyone in Serbia now knows that she is a lesbian, and they see her every day on television and in the newspapers. On a symbolic level, we can say that we have a lesbian in the most important position in the country,” Azdejkovic tells INTO.

The landlocked WesternEuropean nation of Luxembourg, on the other hand, has no issue with LGBTQ visibility. Home to less than 600,000 people, Luxembourg made history by having both a gay prime minister and deputy prime minister. The coalition government, led by openly gay prime minister Xavier Bettel pledged to introduce legislation to equalize marriage for gay couples in late 2013 and just over a year later, gay marriage was legalized.

In such a tiny country like Luxembourg, regardless of the fact if someone is officially out or not, being gay and having a public profile means sexuality is often an open secret. Much like Serbia’s Brnabić, Bettel doesn’t believe his sexuality is anything to do with how he governs, telling Buzzfeed News: “I’m not a gay minister – my sexual orientation is no reason whether I’m elected or not elected.People don’t care what you do at the end of the day.”

Roby Antony of Luxembourg City-based Centre d’Information GAy et LEsbien (CIGALE), agrees. “These ‘details’ regarding their personal life don’t seem to be of any major interest to the Luxembourgish population in general. This might be different elsewhere, probably even very different. Here I feel this doesn’t really matter at all. Sexual orientation just doesn’t play a role in being competent.”

Gay prime ministers also get the opportunity to interact with foreign political leaders and use their position to campaign for LGBTQ issues. Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar recently attended gay pride celebrations in Northern Ireland’s capital, Belfast, using his profile to push for equal marriage rights in the only country in the UK not to offer gay marriage.

Not all forays on the international stage turn out as expected with some countries not being as forward-thinking on gay prime ministers. Gauthier Destenay, the husband of Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, saw his name omitted from a caption of a photograph of NATO leaders’ spouses by the White House. Althougha White House spokesperson said the exclusion was merely an “oversight” and corrected the caption, some saw this as an example of casual homophobia.

(Photo by Turkish Presidency / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Money matters

Financial factors can play a significant role in how LGBTQ people are treated, at least on a social level. Luxembourg’s status as an economically prosperous country is probably anextremely decisive elementin this discussion, according to Antony.

“In a daily world where most people don’t have to worry about existential problems, it is definitely easier to not care about what your neighbor is or does. Just look around you, whenever safety and the general well-being of a society is threatened and endangered, there is social unrest and riots. And guess who’s being targeted first? Women’s rights, ethnic minority’s rights, and LGBTQ rights.So yes, money does matter in a way,” he says.

In this regard, a gay prime minister can improve the living conditions of LGBTQ people in the same way a heterosexual one can; by increasing prosperity for all their citizens. While this is hardly groundbreaking news, it underlines the fact that LGBTQ rights don’t just progress in a vacuum, with political leaders only being able to influence change to a limited degree.

Voters in Luxembourg may not care about a politician’s sexuality, but this is not the case elsewhere. A 2012 UNDP survey found that 48% of Serbs believe homosexuality to be an illness, with almost 80% minding if an LGBTQ person was part of their family.

A country like Serbia, which is one of the poorest in Europe, is impacted by a weak economy in potentially unexpected ways. Poor job prospects mean a majority of LGBTQ people, regardless of their age, still live with their parents, and studies indicate poverty and employment are the biggest issues for LGBTQ Serbs.

“Because of these problems, the majority of LGBTQ people in Serbian want to leave the country, as they don’t see the situation changing in the near future,” adds Azdejkovic. “That’s the reason why we don’t have enough LGBTQ activists, nor out LGBTQ people. They don’t want to risk nor to invest in the country that they want to leave.”

Meet The Dallas Leather Bar Owner Running For Governor Of Texas

Texas’ anti-LGBTQ governor may face off against the unlikeliest of opponents in next year’s race: a leather bar owner. Jeffrey Payne, who became the sole owner of the Dallas Eagle in 2015, threw his hat in the ring in July to challenge Gov. Greg Abbott.

If he becomes the Democratic nominee in 2018, Payne would become the first openly gay man to be a gubernatorial candidate for a major party in Texas’ historyand certainly the first in a same-sex marriage. He faces a steep uphill battle to get there: A Democrat hasn’t occupied the governor’s mansion in over 25 years. In addition, the Republican-dominated state has faced harsh anti-gay backlash in 2017with more than 20 bills targeting the LGBTQ community introduced in the legislature.

“I’ve seen more divisiveness in the past few years than I care to comment on,” Payne tells INTO in a phone interview. “We need someone in the governor’s mansion who cares more about bringing people together than dividing them.”

Payne might seem like a long-shot, but he says he’s been beating the odds his whole life.

The 48-year-old spent his childhood in an orphanage after his mother passed away when he was just three years old. Payne would enter the foster care system when he was 15, attending 14 different schools before he graduated high school. His upbringing wasn’t easy, Payne says, but he learned not to take things for granted. His house parents in the orphanage impressed upon him the value of studying and work hard from a young age. Ms. Lonnie, a cook who came in “every day except Christmas,” taught him how to make his own meals.

“It made me who I am,” Payne argues. “As an orphan, you understand that life is not always going to be a bed of roses. You learn to depend on yourself.”

Those lessons became very real in 2005 when Payne’s house was destroyed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He owned a home in Gentilly, a middle-class neighborhood located near the New Orleans fairgrounds, with his two dogs. That day, he remembers that there was no news about what was happeningno radios or televisions. But Payne knew something was wrong when the water “started coming up from the manholes rather than going down.”

Gentilly’s was the last levee to break, the flood destroying his home, his car, and everything he worked for. FEMA wouldn’t allow Payne back into his house for two weeks. But when he finally returned to survey the damage, Payne knew he was one of the fortunate ones.

“When I looked around the neighborhood, I saw those big X’s on the doors, and those X’s told a story,” he says. “The National Guard came in and wrote how many people they found, how many people didn’t make it, and the date they were there. This neighborhood where people would leave the door open on a Sunday and the neighbors would walk by, say hello, and share a glass of wine, suddenly it’s all gone.”

Payne relocated to Dallas in 2005 with nothing but his dogs and $2,000 to his name.

But since then, Payne has worked tirelessly to rebuild. He started five businesses, including a court reporting firm and a landholding company. Payne’s charity work is extensive: The entrepreneur founded the Sharon St. Cyr organization, named for his mother, to assist low-income people with disabilities to purchase hearing aid equipment. Payne, who is hard of hearing himself, says that cochlear devices can cost between $5,000 and $7,000. It’s a steep price for those on a fixed income.

Payne’s philanthropic spirit, he says, is also what attracted him to Dallas’ leather scene, which helped him find a community in a new place.

“What originally attracted me was the inclusiveness of the leather crowd,” claims Payne, who became a shareholder in the local Eagle franchise before buying out his partners two years ago. “I was gay, but I didn’t feel like I belonged to a certain niche. I loved the fact that the community did a lot of fundraising. They took care of other people. There was a sense of belonging.”

Payne would have the opportunity to represent the leather community in 2009 when he bested 52 other contestants to win the title of International Mr. Leather. He says he was “the last person on stage” he thought would win. But the unexpected victory gave him the opportunity to travel the world, using his platform to raise money for HIV/AIDS organizations in the United States, Europe, Africa, and Australia.

“My message was about celebrating who we are as individuals,” he says. “Learn to like or love yourself, because when that happens, you allow other people to love you as well.”

That message, while undoubtedly inspiring, may not go over so well in one of the nation’s most conservative states. In 2017, Gov. Abbott pushed an anti-trans bathroom bill, known as Senate Bill 6, that would force transgender people to use public restrooms that correspond with the gender listed on their birth certificate. When the discriminatory legislation failed to pass before the end of the 2017-2018 session, Abbott reconvened the General Assembly in July to force it through. SB 6 failed a second time.

Payne spoke with INTO just days after the special session wrapped, but he wasn’t hopeful that Texas would survive another anti-LGBTQ assault.

One of the major forces stopping the bathroom bill’s enactment was House Speaker Joe Straus, who broke party ranks by coming out against the legislation. The Republican politician claimed that a bill targeting the trans community would be “bad for business.” Straus told the Texas Tribune that legalizing discrimination would send “the wrong signal” about what the state stands for.

But Straus has powerful foes: Abbott claimed in June that he was keeping a “list” of people who don’t support his agenda, which could hurt the speaker’s reelection chances. Next time around, Payne says LGBTQ Texans may not have such a strong gatekeeper in the General Assembly.

“Just because the bill died here does not mean that it’s not going to rear its head again,” Payne says. “We need as many people as possible who are willing to stand in this bill’s way.”

The Democratic hopeful says that where trans people go to the bathroom is a “non-issue.” Instead, he would like to see Texas lawmakers focus on what’s importantreforming the state’s health care and public school system. A 2016 survey from Education Week ranked Texas schools 43rd in the nation, just above Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alabama. A damning report published the same year found that the Lone Star State has the highest mortality rate for expectant mothers in the developed world.

Payne calls bills like SB 6 nothing but a “distraction,” one that allows far-right conservatives to play to their base. It’s about getting votes, not doing what’s best for Texas.

What separates his candidacy, Payne claims, is that he’s not a politician. Because he’s an outsider and not a career bureaucrat, Payne isn’t worried about his reelection campaign. He’s motivated by what the people want. That statement, while a nice sentiment, isn’t entirely accurate: Payne was the director of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission through the Department of Labor before Katrina hit. The department was subsequently downsized due to funding cuts.

But whether or not Payne is a true outsider, the real question about Payne’s bid for governor will be whether someone who made his name as a businessman is suited to lead a state of 27 million. Texas is the nation’s second most populous state. Our Oval Office is currently occupied by Donald Trumpwho claimed that his corporate experience would make him a suitable Commander-in-Chief.

Given the president’s plummeting poll numbers, it seems a growing number of Americans disagree with that statement.

What separates Payne’s candidacy from Trump, he says, is his record. As a business leader in the Dallas community for 12 years, Payne claims that he has a history of bringing people together, instead of dividing them. After taking over the Eagle in 2015, he started the ILSb-ICBB. That unwieldy acronym represents the non-profit arm of the Dallas leather community, one which serves to raise money for local charity groups.

“I have proven who I am,” Payne says. “That’s what you’re going to get when you’re in the governor’s mansion. You can fake it for a couple of months while you’re running for office. You can’t fake it for 48 years.”

Hooking Up In Antarctica

When people ask me what it’s like to travel to Antarctica, I tell them “It’s as if time stopped and I went to Narnia.” Even words like “vast” come up short when detailing the epic size, the icy endlessness, and extraordinary wildlife.

The only way to come close to conveying how special Antarctica is, one needs to describe it in terms relative to IMAX 3D or Virtual Reality. In this case, virtual being the operative word. Regardless of natural beauty, previous experience led me to believe that it was a place where gays simply didn’t go. But that was before the age of expensive satellite wifi.

“Who are you chatting with?” I asked my travel buddy David as we pitched and waned in heavy seas, on the way past Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of Argentina, headed for the Antarctic Peninsula. Turns out, the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic regions are just as disparate in sexual identity as they are in biodiversity.

“You’d be amazed,” David said, flashing his phone at me. “There are gays on this ship.”

Like many, I go through app cleanses and have to delete all social media in order to have peace of mind. I did not want to voyage all the way to Narnia only to bury my face in my phone. But with the advice of David, I re-downloaded Grindr and some other apps. Sure enough, there were LGBTQs all over the place: on our ship, on other ships, and on international research stations.

Opening up apps like Grindr in strange places is nothing new, especially where queer culture is so DL. “Oh the first thing I did when I went to the Vatican” one friend tells me or “You’d be amazed at how many closeted Mormons chat me up in Salt Lake,” says another. It’s almost as if it’s the first thing we do when we hit the tarmac (or in this case ice flow).

However, as I started chatting with all the men below 65 degrees latitude, the reasons for being on apps like Grindr became increasingly not what I expected.

“I use it predominantly NOT for hookups but travel tips.” Mark, fellow polar enthusiast explains. Mark’s been to Antarctica numerous times and is even slated to work for The National Science Foundation at their various research facilities, most likely McMurdo, the largest research facility on Ross Island (New Zealand side). “It’s a great way to meet the locals and explore a region like a local. Get off the beaten track and go where the real people go.”

What’s cool about going to Antarctica is that it falls under two genres of travel: expedition tourism or scientific research. In my particular case, I was aboard a Lindblad/National Geographic collaboration, which is not a typical cruise. It’s more like a floating classroom. Armed with guides and lecturers who are off duty scientists at the top of their field, and a strange continent teeming with biodiversity, guests are there to learn, phones off and stowed away. But when you’re alone in your cabin, with the phone onthe learning doesn’t stop.

“It’s like a gigantic nerd-gasm on here,” I told David one midnight, the sun was still up. “No one is hooking up, as much as they are blabbing about their experiences.” At that very moment, I was literally chatting about seals with a Ukrainian researcher at Vernadsky Station. But it wasn’t like we were going to dock there.

By the very nature of traveling to a continent that’s double the size of Australia and covered in glaciers is that, although dudes are on Grindr it doesn’t mean they are accessible in person. “I landed at Esperanza, an Argentine base and they had an open wifi network,” Mark tells me of his last trip, where he circumnavigated the continent. “And when I turned on Grindr the closest person was 740 miles from me.” So we are all closeyet so far away from each other.

And it’s all about the wifi, which can be spotty at bestif it’s even available. Obviously, there’s no cell service in Antarctica so you either pay for pricey satellite (which can require a line of sight) or, like Mark, pray for open networks when you go ashore.

When it comes to McMurdo, or other NSF stations, which are staffed by Raytheon; you might not get anything at all. Due to the sensitivity of some science equipment (like say, a Neutrino Observatory or something) and loads of top secret NDAs the internet is locked down. In which case, gays might have to meet each other the old-old fashioned way.

“I hear down near the power plant at McMurdo is super old-school cruisy,” Mark lets me know. And don’t forget the time of year. Austral summer is warm enough for the ships to come through and for the research stations to have their “summer camps.” Otherwise, it’s about eight months worth of darkness and subzero isolation for the brave scientists and support staff.

“Christmas Holidays are always the best time,” says Andy, who works on my ship. Andy has been coming to Antarctica for nine seasons and spends the off time in Oregon with his husband. “It’s when all the families with college kids who can take time off come, and the snow is still white and not covered in Penguin guano.”

“Ten years ago, my friends would ask me why I go to Antarctica,” says Mark. “But now, they ask me how I go to Antarctica.” As the wifi situation slowly changes as it has over the years, perhaps more gays will come.

To steal Mark’s line, maybe we can lure them by telling them: “It’s the ultimate White Party.”

Freedom, sex, and youth in São Paulo’s nightlife

The sand, the beach, and guys wearing Speedos might just be your favorite version of what summer should be, but it’s not the only one. In the city, a hot summer finds room in every crowded dance floor and the perky flirtation that goes with it.

For Gianfranco Briceño, a Peruvian photographer who lives in Brazil, that scenario became the new subject of what he defines as raw photography. São Paulo’s nightlife runs wild every season, but it was during summer that Gianfranco decided to capture the intense vibration that inhabits part of the gay youth reality and works as an expression of their freedom.

“São Paulo is burning,” says the slogan on a crowdfunding website: that’s how KCT Private Club, the name of his annual photo fanzine, came to life. Currently in the second issue, the project is an intimate depiction of the hypersexuality that surrounds part of the young gay community in one of the most culturally diverse cities in Brazil. The initials “KCT” work as a jokewhen pronounced, they create the sound of the word cacete, slang for dick in Portuguese.

Prior to this, he worked with a lighter version of male nude photography, called Snaps Fanzine, a five-issue publication that ended in 2015. Sold throughout countries in Europe, Snaps is still one of the few independent publications dedicated to the LGBTQ universe in Brazil. We spoke with Gianfranco about both of his fanzines, São Paulo’s city life, his creative process, and his relation to the boys he photographed:

How did the idea for Snaps first come up?

I’m a fashion photographer, and I started taking pictures of some of my friends in my spare time, trying more intimate anglesa style I became very fond of. And people would always tell me that I should do something with those photos, so in 2013 I decided to create a fanzine based on male nude photography. Back then, there were very few independent publications being published in Brazil, probably not a single one dedicated to this universe I wanted to explore with Snaps.

What was Snaps’ main concept when you released the first issue?

I had no great ambitions: I invited some guys for photo shoots and then printed a small number of copies, about 300, that I’d give to my friends or add it to my portfolio. I ended up using a crowdfunding platform since a lot of people were interested in the project, and for the following issues, I raised the number of copies, ranging from 800 to 1,000. But Snaps was basically a male nude fanzine built with a naturalistic look, instead of embodying those dramatic, conventional poses.

 

Were all models from Brazil?

Yes. At first, I had only invited people I already knew, friends who understood how things were going to work out and who trusted me enough to, well, take off their clothes. As the fanzine’s popularity started to grow, I invited other guys, sometimes from Facebook or Instagram, or people I met at parties. For KCT, the new project that followed Snaps’ five issues, my approach to these models flowed even more organically.

And why did you decide to end the fanzine and start KCT’s annual project?

I worked with Snaps for two years and it was great, but I got a bit tired of this candid, romantic image that is clearly what Snaps is all about. My interest in that perspective had come to an end. I was interested in creating something bolder, and for that, I took my main sources of inspiration: the city, the night, and the youth. I turned my eyes to São Paulo’s nightlife and realized there was an effervescent movement of young men deeply connected to their sexuality and expressing themselves a lot more freely, with no taboos. So KCT is a record of that point when youth, sex, and night come together.


Is KCT an evolution of Snaps?

It is, absolutely. And the whole experience I’ve had shooting pictures of nude people turned out to be a good background for doing something different. Now, this a project I really like, because it is daring and it allows me to portray this setting in many forms, using collages and other shapes that work well in print. I’ve always wanted the pages to have more movement, packed with different subjects and little details that almost pop out of the page. I wanted more graphic intervention. Sometimes, I cut photos by hand, picking up scissors and paper, in order to get that effectI’m able to create more in this process.

Which aspects of São Paulo’s nightlife work as a source of inspiration for your photos?

Six years ago, when I first started living here, I would go to all these different partiescollective parties, mostly, the ones that play techno in big sheds or garages with people dancing all night long. As the nightlife became more familiar to me, I realized people in these places are much looser, and night itself is inherently connected to sex. Dating apps or the expectation of having an after-party also play a role in this, of course. That’s what gave me the directions for KCT’s photos, so I just started asking myself: how do these boys like to express themselves?

Do you try to build a relationship with the models before taking pictures of them?

Usually, I put some music on and they like to drink something before we start. I try to create an environment that is pleasing to them. Some of them might be shy, so we keep talking for a while in order to create intimacy and make them more comfortable. Maybe I’m just lucky, but the boys I choose are usually okay with the idea of being naked.Most of them are very cute about all this.

For KCT, more important than considering their bodies or their looks, I go for those who seem to have more attitude. That might be useful for the moment I start taking pictures.

Is that attitude perceptible in the final result?

Oh yes. But it’s still a very natural result, and maybe that’s an aspect both of my fanzines share. I’m not a huge fan of meticulously planned things. I never tell these boys what to do or ask them to put their hands like this and act in a certain way. The best pictures are born when I don’t intervene.

Are these pictures an accurate translation of the boys’ attitudes towards sex or are they closer to your own version of this reality?

A combination of both, I guess, but I don’t follow them all the time to be sure, of course [laughs]. It’s one thing being alone with a guy in a room, free and unrestrained, but it’s quite another when someone’s there pressing the shutter button and taking pictures of you having sex. But in the end, I’m always the creator of these images, and when you photograph two guys hooking up, you create a combination of what happened and what you were able to notice. Nevertheless, these boys live in connection with their freedom and I believe today’s youth is remarkably hypersexual. Their relation with sex starts developing much earlier.

A Queer Weekend in Baltimore: Pink Flamingoes & A Divine 10-Foot Drag Queen

Hey listen, I never thought I would take a trip to Baltimore (on purpose), and actually like it. It’s not that I had a preconceived notion about the city, but it just was never on my radar.

But with its close proximity to cities we love (NYC, D.C., Philly), a weekend escape to Baltimore is actually worth exploring. What once was a city tarnished with a bad reputation of being crime ridden, Charm City has cleaned itself up and is quickly rebranding itself as a more visitor friendly destination.

My first stop on my Charm City tour was the American Visionary Art Museum, a most odd collection of absurd art. The official museum description says, “the museum specializes in the preservation and display of outsider art,” with outsider being the key takeaway from that statement.

It’s one of those places that one can get lost in while easily questioning what they are actually seeing. In one of the exhibition rooms, I found myself surrounded by a larger than life works of art. The one that caught my eye in particular, was a 10-foot statue of the famous Drag Queen: Divine. “Divine” has a permanent home now at the AVAM, and is a showstopper, to say the least.

The gift shop was also a great time waster, as it’s filled with nothing but treasures and upstairs, in the main building is Encantada, a gem of a restaurant that focuses heavy on healthy eating, so expect lots of veggies and vegan/vegetarian options, although they do also serve more traditional options as well.

When traveling through domestic cities, I always try and find the best barbershop, since they are so on trend and it’s always fun to compare different shops around the country. I remember asking around and each time I did, I would always get the same referral, so I decided to carve out some time for a visit.

Opened in 2005 as a four-chair grooming shop, and reimagined in 2015 and reopening as a one-stop destination for those who appreciate the finer things in life, the QG can easily fill up an afternoon. The 6-floor classic department store includes a barbershop, tailor, clothing retail for both men and women, a cigar shop, spa and even an unpublicized speakeasy on the top floor with a food menu to pair with the extensive bar list. Of course I started my experience at the bar, with a stiff drink, while I waited for my barber.

When it was my turn, I was so pleased to see that that my barber was a female. This (besides the bar) was a good indication that this was a more progressive barbershop. After gabbing about our favorite pop songs currently on the radio and once my fade was beyond fixed, we made plans to meet up later that night, as she revealed to me that she was a lesbian and also moonlights as a bartender, so it was a match made in heavenas I love drinks and lesbians.

Needless to say, that evening was a success, as she was able to show off her barbering skills to her friends at the bar, while I enjoyed deeply discounted cocktails.

A visit to Baltimore wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Hampden neighborhood, which once was a blue-collar mill town that has since risen as the epicenter of Baltimore hipsters. Made famous for its starring role in John Waters’ films and known as the place where everybody calls you “hon,” the centerpiece of Hampden is 36th Street, where you will find original shops, cafes and lots of randomness.

Café Hon is must and easy to spot, just look for the massive pink flamingo. For some really cool gift shopping, head to Brightside Boutique, it’s the kind of place where all the knickknacks sold will somehow speak to you, as they are all really kitschbut it also has stylish on-trend clothing. And if you have ever written fan mail to John Waters, you know that all his fan mail goes directly to Atomic Books, a much needed and iconic bookstore with a bar in the back.

During my time in the city, I noticed that a lot of people had the same tote bag, it was a stylish one, so of course, I had to have one. Turns out, the bag is a local favorite and is also locally made. Inspired by their hometown of Baltimore and their surroundings, the owners sought out to create a product that could carry the goods of the traveling craftsman, made strong enough for delicate iPads to heavy hand tools.

The Treason Toting Company has expanded beyond the tote bag, and now has a storefront, making it convenient to see their products and spend some money. My bag has traveled the world with me and always gets me some compliments, so I’m definitely happy with my purchase. I’m currently saving up for the matching backpack.

Where I Stayed: The main reason I decided to head to Baltimore was to check out the new Sagamore Pendry Baltimore, which recently opened (late March 2017), and is part of a new luxury brand that comes from Montage International. This is their second hotel in the new collection and it’s a much-welcomed addition to Baltimore. What once was a dilapidated pier and community center is now a beautifully restored masterpiece, and the hottest ticket in town, for both rooms and dinner reservations.

The 128-room property is just stunning, and the finishing details and artwork will have you mesmerized. The handsome décor is paired with a well-trained, top-notch, 5-star staff, which are always all smiles and eager to ensure everyone is having a great stay. The Rec Pier Chop House is the centerpiece of the hotel, and offers a progressive, seasonally focused menu. Additionally, the hotel has The Cannon Room, an American whiskey bar.

The hotel’s outdoor pool has cabanas, a restaurant/bar and is set right on the waterfront on the Inner Harbor, offering panoramic views of the harbor, marina and city skyline.

The Complicated Family Lives of Gay Muslims

In early July, Jahed Choudhury married his partner at a registry office in the West Midlands. It was christened the “first gay Muslim wedding” by the British tabloid press.

Dressed in golden South Asian attire, the men embraced in front of smiling guests and eager photographers. Jahed’s family was noticeably missing in images and videos circulated online. Within days, the couple’s post-nuptial celebration was abruptly cut short as they received acid attack threats.

Across the world and nearly simultaneously, there was another wedding involving a Muslim family and their gay son. In a reception hall in Vancouver, a Muslim mother, Siddika, stood by her son, Ali Reza, smiling widely as he wed his beloved a man named Paul. In contrast to Jahed, who said his family found his wedding “too embarrassing” to attend, Ali Reza stood shoulder-to-shoulder with his parents.

Over the next week, photos from the happy day swept around the world to condemnation from within the close-knit community of Khoja Muslims, an ethnic group within the minority Shi‘a sect of Islam. They fiercely objected to the family’s apparent unrepentant joy.

One leader in the Khoja community wrote, “…it is the duty of every committed Muslim to condemn this despicable deed” in a viral message on WhatsApp. Within days, the 53-year-old mother, whose last name we are withholding for safety reasons, sent community members a two-page letter, saying she was “forced to resign” as secretary general of the North American Shia Ithna-Asheri Muslim Communities Organization, an Ontario-based organization that represents American and Canadian Muslims of Khoja heritage.

In the poignant letter expressing support for her son, the mother wrote, “My stance today is not just as a devoted mother, but as a human being who has painfully observed how the community has usurped the rights of God’s creation in the name of Islam and passed judgement.”

The controversy over this marriage showcases how Muslim communities are grappling with social issues as they assimilate in the West.

A Geography of Taboo

Homosexuality remains taboo in most Muslim communities, with a 2013 Pew global survey on Muslim views chronicling overwhelming disapproval of homosexuality in all Muslim-majority countries and territories surveyed. However, Siddika’s story also reveals the dichotomy between the rigid views of many Muslim leaders and the complex, diverse and nuanced perspectives of ordinary Muslims, especially those living in the West.

The family’s ordeal highlights the unique challenges, but complex circumstances, many Muslims face when they come out as gay or are perceived as gay. Ten countries currently have death penalty provisions for homosexual activity all of them are Muslim-majority. Still, a 2014 Pew survey found that a higher percentage of American Muslims support same-sex marriage, than did respondents who identified as evangelical Christian, Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness.

Zahra Khakoo, a 24-year-old Khoja in Australia, said the incident shines an uncomfortable light on an intergenerational and geographic clash of values that goes beyond views on homosexuality.

“The idea that most people in the community have is that you cannot be a person of your own,” she said. One’s “shameful” actions reflect first on the parents, then the jamaat, or community, and eventually the entire worldwide Khoja community, she said. “I think [Siddika] did the right thing. I think what she did is most defiantly Islamic. She did her job as a mother to support her son.”

Ani Zonneveld is the founder and president of Muslims for Progressive Values, an LGBTQ-affirming, faith-based human rights organization. She believes the Vancouver story shows the need for organizations like PFLAG, formerly known as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, to support Muslim families who suffer from heteronormative religious interpretations that she called “un-Islamic” in spirit.

Usama Hasan, a London-based imam and theological scholar who argues that homosexuality is not explicitly condemned in Islamic tradition, said, “Whatever one’s views and interpretations, we should applaud the brave and compassionate voice of the mother who correctly reminded us that mercy is the essential teaching of the Qur’an.”

The journey of Siddika’s family from arriving in Canada to celebrating the wedding of her eldest son is emblematic of the challenges and triumphs of integration and assimilation. In the 1980s, Siddika and her husband, both born in East Africa of Khoja stock, arrived in Canada from England. Soon after, Siddika gave birth to her first-born child, her son, Ali Reza. Khojas are an ethnoreligious group of Muslims with ancestral roots in India, totaling several hundred thousand worldwide today, who settled in East Africa in the 19th century. In recent decades, many have immigrated to Europe, North America, and Australia.

In her resignation letter obtained by INTO, Siddika wrote she was “shocked, devastated, and heartbroken” when Ali Reza came out ten years ago, at the age of 20, as gay. “He said he had known about it since the age of 16 and that he had spent countless hours praying to God to change this feeling in him because this was not a life he wanted for himself,” she wrote. “I went through everything from ‘why me’ to countless hours of prayers, going to all the ziyarats [pilgrimages], consultation with alims [theologians] to see the light and get guidance from Him.”

Siddika said the family grew to support Ali Reza.

“For us, this is about standing up for Ali’s God-given right to live a life that would not be filled with the burden of religious guilt and compounded by communal scorn and societal shame,” Siddika’s statement continued. “In moments of darkness, I realized that the only way for Ali to live an authentic life and not have to hide and fear rejection was to give him space to reach his human potential as God’s creation.”

With this embrace of her son, Siddika stood beside Ali Reza, 30, on July 2, as he married his partner Paul, 27, in a civil ceremony at a local university hall in Vancouver. Siddika and her family declined to be interviewed.

In Instagram photos, the newly-wed couple beam as they pose happily with their family and friends, sharing their first dance and cutting a two-tier cake.

The Happiness and Backlash

A week later, an anonymous WhatsApp user spread news of the wedding in the Khoja community, with the mother’s title in leadership. A backlash ensued. Many writers cited stories and verses from the Qur’an to condemn homosexuality. Other WhatsApp messages excoriated the family and called for the mother to be immediately removed from leadership. Some demanded that Siddika and her family even be declared non-Muslims, or apostates.

Khoja organizations and mosques around the world heaped further humiliation on the family, issuing condemnations against the family. Khoja organizations and leaders based in Africa and South Asia issued the strongest condemnations while ones based in the West used softer or more neutral language. This division parallels the Anglican church’s struggle in reconciling the ongoing opposition to homosexuality sustained by many member churches in developing nations.

The Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheri Jamaat of Dar es Salaam, a mosque based in Tanzania, wrote that it “vehemently condemns this disgusting act to its fullest,” noting that the family members should be “willingly or forcefully” removed from leadership.

Ten days after the wedding, an anonymous user posted an online campaign on ipetitions.com, calling for the resignation of the Khoja North American community organization’s leadership. It garnered hundreds of signatures. The next day, Siddika sent her resignation letter to the president of the Khoja community organization.

In the statement’s concluding paragraph, Siddika asks, “If Ali Reza was your son, what would you do?”

Three days later, the World Federation of Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheri Muslim Communities, a U.N.-recognized non-profit organization, issued a statement that called regional groups to “select and elect leaders who believe and practice in the values” of Islam. The Khoja organizations did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

While many have criticized and even cursed the Muslim mother who stood by her gay son in his happiest moments, others, particularly young Khojas in the West, continue to support the family in private. Their support reflects currents of social change in the community who have settled across four continents over the last two centuries.

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Andy Ngo is a graduate student in political science at Portland State University, studying Islamism and its intersection with women’s issues. Follow him on Twitter here.