Being Gay, Muslim and Syrian in American city politics

Damascus to California, open and proud: Meet America's first gay Muslim politician
10 min read
Washington, D.C.
28 June, 2021
The New Arab Meets: The first openly gay Muslim politician in America, Ahmad Zahra, who feels a responsibility to represent both communities as well as fight for marginalised groups.
Ahmad Zahra's journey to Fullerton City Council is an inspiration for marginalised communities throughout the United States [Photo: Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG]

It wasn’t until after he’d won his race as a council member in Fullerton that Ahmad Zahra learned he was likely the first openly gay Muslim politician in America.

Along with everyone else following the race, he found out from the National Victory Fund, a gay political advocacy group, who sent out a flier announcing he had broken a barrier.

“It’s a very unique sort of intersection. I can say, it really put me in a position where I felt like I had more responsibility,” Zahra tells The New Arab. “I wanted to make sure I was doing the best job I can. I realised I could be a bridge advocating for Muslim and LGBTQ rights.”

Acceptance of the LGBTQ community is steadily growing among Muslims. A 2017 Pew poll found that the majority of American Muslims believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society – 52% compared with 27% in 2007

Zahra, 52, did not have one specific moment when he came out as gay. He always knew he was, but it would be decades until his family would know.

Growing up gay

As a child of Syrian parents in Newcastle in the UK, in the midst of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, he would hear “this and that” about “those people,” so he sensed it was not the right time to say anything.

As a child, he recalls, “I remember thinking if I’m gay I’ll get AIDS. That was a big fear I had. It wasn’t AIDS I was worried about. It was getting AIDS and then people would know I was gay.”

When he was 11, he moved with his family back to Damascus, where his father returned to his medical practice there. Zahra, too, would follow in his father’s footsteps to study and then practice medicine in Syria.

It was when he was at the funeral of a close friend’s father that his friend shared with him an important part of his identity for the first time. Standing on the balcony, Zahra’s friend told him his father would be buried at the Sayda Zeinab shrine. “We’re Shia,” he told Zahra, part of Syria’s majority-Sunni sect.

Zahra was unfazed, responding, “Boy do I have a surprise for you in a couple of years that will make this seem pretty silly.” In fact, when Zahra did finally come out to his friend, he was not entirely surprised, saying, “That explains a lot.” Zahra had never dated girls.

Being gay is illegal in Syria, as it is in most of the Middle East. If caught, punishment can range from prison time in Syria to execution in more conservative countries like Saudi Arabia. Extrajudicial killings of gays exist in areas without formal rule of law, as has been the case in recent years with the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

However, it has been tacitly accepted in Syria for the past couple of decades among many in society, mainly among young urban professionals. Around 15 years ago, gay characters started appearing in Syrian TV shows. Moreover, Zahra says jokingly that given the level of affection among men in Syria – the common habit of holding hands while walking down the street, for example – you could get away with a lot.  

Still, Zahra wanted to live in a place where he could be completely free to be himself. At 26, he moved to America to study film. He made documentaries and fiction, often touching upon his Arab background. In one of his dramas, Three Veils, a character struggles with her sexual identity, a storyline he says was met with mixed reception due to its taboo content.

Making a home, starting a new political career

After settling into southern California, Zahra wanted to be more involved in his adopted community, which had become an important part of his film career. He had come to love and make a home in Fullerton, home to the highest student body of the California State University system, dubbed the education city.

Voices

However, he saw the potential for improvement. The city of 140,000 has long struggled with poverty and inequality, with its haves and have-nots literally divided by the quintessential train tracks.

The largely Hispanic District 5 might seem like an unlikely fit for a Syrian immigrant. But back in Syria Zahra watched Mexican soap operas, and he arrived in California knowing the names of stars, one of the many cultural similarities he found with Fullerton’s Hispanic community.

He ran for Council in 2018, winning at around 33 percent among the five candidates.

“When he won, it was so historic, especially for a place like Orange County, which has been a bedrock of right-wing conservatism,” Tony Hoang, executive director designate at the LBGTQ civil rights organisation Equality California, told The New Arab. “I think electing an LGBTQ Muslim means minorities can win everywhere.”

Before running for city council, Zahra decided to be completely open about his gay identity, though it had already become widely known. As he campaigned, he made himself open to answering whatever questions voters had about who he was.

“Hey remember the guy who’s been working with you for years? There’s a little bit more about me. Now I’m running and need your support,” he recalls telling people.

“Conservative friends were yes, surprised, but also surprisingly accepting. I had to explain certain things. I had to explain a little more about what it means to be gay. Some private conversations were explicit. When it crossed the line, I’d say I don’t ask you about your intimacy. But I tried to be as honest as possible.”

“The one thing that brought me to the US was freedom – on every single level... America has had major problems. It’s a country that has the ability to make change. We can’t stop and be complacent”

Carrying the flag

Once in office, he got to work on the everyday pressing city government issues. He also got to raise the rainbow flag for pride month at City Hall. In 2019, he championed an ordinance to fly the rainbow flag on Harvey Milk Day, May 22, the day honouring the assassinated San Francisco supervisor, the first openly gay elected official in California. It would then remain up through the end of June for Pride Month.

For the first two years, it went according to plan. But this year, the mayor, who had been against the ordinance two years earlier, said the pride flag was lost. This prompted residents to mail rainbow flags to City Hall.

Using one of the donated flags, the city raised the pride flag in front of the building, but not on the same flagpole as the American, Californian and POW MIA (prisoner of war, missing in action) flags, leading some to describe it as separate and unequal. By the end of the first week of June, the rainbow flag joined the others on the pole, where it will continue to fly through the end of this month.

“It was a 3-2 vote to fly the flag. Sure, it was a party split 3-2 Democrat/Republican. Even that took some education and advocacy to my fellow Democrats to explain the importance of flying the flag,” says Zahra. “It will bring hope to so many people. The pride flag has transcended the LGBTQ community. When you see it flying, it becomes a symbol of hope.”

The recent fight to simply raise the pride flag, he says, “symbolizes our struggles are not over. When someone wants to take care of your rights, they’ll try to do it, whether it’s housing or jobs, the struggle for true equality is still out there. We have to keep fighting for true equality.”

The one thing that brought me to the US was freedom – on every single level,” he says. “America has had major problems. It’s a country that has the ability to make a change. We can’t stop and be complacent.”  

But winning over Fullerton voters was not his toughest coming out battle.

The long struggle for parental acceptance

Before running for office, he sponsored his mother for a green card so that she could escape the war in Syria. On his application, he was required to state his marital status. He noted that he was married to a man.

“I guess you could say the US government outed me,” he says jokingly. “I had wanted to shield my parents from this piece of information. I thought it was best for them to stay in denial. Maybe it would give them more peace of mind.”

He recalls, “She didn’t take it well. I still don’t think she has fully accepted it.”

These days, this reluctance in acceptance might seem unusual. But in Zahra’s day, gay children would often feel the need to wait until well into adulthood to come out to their parents.

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“I was well into my forties. It was a very strange conversation to have with my parents,” he says. “My generation can relate to this. People came out late to their families, and to themselves as well. I find myself lucky. I knew – I was aware of my own orientation as a child. A lot of people don’t come to that realisation until later on. I just had society. Either I was wrong, or they were wrong. In my case, I knew I wasn’t wrong.”

Growing inclusivity in the Muslim community

Acceptance of the LGBTQ community is steadily growing among Muslims. A 2017 Pew poll found that the majority of American Muslims believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society – 52 percent compared with 27 percent in 2007.

Acceptance “is absolutely growing. I’m not going to say that it’s where it should be at 100 percent acceptance, but it’s definitely growing,” Mohammed Missouri, executive director of Jetpac, an organisation that encourages and trains Muslims and allies to run for office, where Zahra was a fellow, tells The New Arab.

“We’re seeing a lot of LGBTQ youth who are Muslim coming out. Definitely, it’s still a challenge. When someone like Ahmad Zahra and Mauree Turner (a non-binary Muslim who won in 2020 for Oklahoma state legislator) win, it’s important, especially when we know suicide rates among LGBTQ youths are higher than for other groups.”

He points out that the two Muslim congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar consistently support the LGBTQ+ community, a sign of growing inclusivity.

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“Anyone who tells me I’m not a Muslim is incorrect. It’s a part of my make-up,” says Zahra. I’m Arab, I’m Syrian, I’m an immigrant, and I’m gay.”

He says, “All of those experiences come together. You’ll see me in a rally supporting Muslim rights, and you’ll see me at a rally supporting gay rights. Equality doesn’t differentiate if we are to be true to our fight for equality.”

A role model for other gay Muslims

Zahra sees an opportunity to be a role model.

“Younger Muslims have embraced me. They want to be part of this new day in America in pushing civil rights to where they should be,” says Zahra. “I’ve been happy to see that – not just about gays, but about issues like jobs, housing and all discrimination. They’re banding together as minorities and becoming part of the tapestry that’s America."

Growing up, Zahra didn’t have someone to show him that his path was possible. When he started his film career, and again when he was running for office, he was told that someone with his name couldn’t make it. Now that he’s proven them wrong, those who come after him will have at least one example to follow.

“I had one Facebook message from a young Muslim gay man on the east coast,” says Zahra. “It was after the announcement by the Victory Fund. He was thanking me for running, saying he was inspired to do the same. It was a wonderful message. If I can give hope to others, have achieved what I want to do.”

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business and culture.

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews