Chicago has long been a center of gay pride. Along a half-mile stretch in the city’s Lakeview neighborhood known as the Legacy Walk, pedestrians can view a series of plaques celebrating the contributions of gay men and women throughout history to politics, science, world affairs, the arts and entertainment.
Acceptance often has come harder in other parts of Illinois. Dave Bentlin is chairman of the Prairie Pride Coalition, a group based in the more conservative, agricultural central part of the state. Even as recently as the late 1990s, Bentlin recalls, only the Unitarian-Universalist Church was willing to openly support the local L.G.B.T. community.
That has changed somewhat over the years. A local Lutheran church swiftly organized an interfaith prayer vigil in the wake of the mass shooting on June 12 at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. When Bentlin stepped inside the sanctuary, he saw something unexpected. In front of an altar lined with candles memorializing the dead about a dozen representatives of the city’s Islamic community had come to pay their respects. For most of the Muslims at the service, it was the first time they had stepped inside a Christian church or attended an event supporting the gay community.
A few days later, Bentlin and Sheheryar Muftee of the Islamic Center of Bloomington—two men who had previously been strangers—agreed to engage in a recorded dialogue at the National Public Radio affiliate I work for in central Illinois. It was a rare opportunity for two communities that traditionally have had few interpersonal contacts to engage with one another.
“I’ll be perfectly honest, I know very little about the Islamic faith,” Bentlin began the conversation, “and what I do know is mostly negative.”
“We are often segregated in our own pockets,” Muftee acknowledged.
Both men spoke of belonging to communities frequently viewed with suspicion. Bentlin said members of the L.G.B.T. community can feel “invisible” in a culture that prizes “hetero-normality.”
Muftee said many American Muslims walk around fearing the broader society might turn against them at any moment. “The first thing I think about when I see something tragic like the Orlando shootings is ‘I hope it’s not a Muslim [who is responsible],’ even though I know Islam does not allow those type of actions,” Muftee said.
Like Catholicism, Islam teaches that sexual relations are appropriate only within the bounds of marriage between a man and a woman. Bentlin wanted to know if a gay or transgender person showed up at the local mosque, would he or she feel comfortable and safe? “I grew up in the Christian faith, as a Methodist,” Bentlin told Muftee. “I was spoon-fed verses from the Old Testament that condemn homosexuality and over the years I had to reconcile those verses with my own sexual orientation.”
“We don’t have a checklist that says, if you were found on some L.B.G.T.Q. forum, you cannot come into the mosque,” Muftee told Bentlin. “Muslims, especially in the United States, have their moral beliefs and verses and commandments, but they don’t really put them on other people. That’s one of the good things about Muslims in the United States, and I hope the rest of the Muslim world will learn from us.”
The conversation ended with Muftee inviting Bentlin to break the Ramadan fast with him and his family the following weekend. He promised the Islamic Center would hold an open house soon for members of the L.G.B.T. community.
Pope Francis, speaking about the Orlando shootings, suggested that the Catholic Church should seek forgiveness from members of the L.G.B.T. community who have felt marginalized. Bentlin and Muftee said their conversation was not so much about seeking forgiveness as finding a way forward for both communities through friendship.
“Just in the conversation we’ve had, I feel ever more strongly that there are areas of commonalities between our two communities. That happens whenever people talk,” Bentlin said.
“Regardless of what the religion says in Islam…we can come closer together based on our humanity, based on being Americans, based on being part of the same community, based on being friends,” Muftee said. “And we can find ways to address some of the things that may be uncomfortable for each other.” The world, Muftee mused, “is not really either black or white. It’s really a shade of gray.”