Australia's only openly gay imam starts the country's first LGBTQ mosque.

It's a difficult to be gay anywhere, even in a country where marriage equality was just legalized. But for a lot of gay Muslims who already face xenophobia all over the world, it gets a lot harder.

An imam in Australia is trying to change that by opening the country's first mosque for LGBTQ Muslims.

The proposed mosque, announced this week, is the brainchild of Nur Warsame, the only openly gay imam (worship leader) in the country. As a mentor to young people in his community, he's received heartbreaking daily calls for years from young LGBTQ Muslims seeking help — and often protection from their family and community members.


He knew he had to do something. “If you come out you will be ­excommunicated, you will be ostracized, you risk losing even your life, at times, in different parts of the world,” he said in a 2016 video interview with Australia's television program "The Project."

Warsame's solution is an entirely new kind of mosque, set to be established in Melbourne, that can serve as a safe space for young LGBTQ Muslims — a second home, where they can find support and resources along with a place to worship. The site is also in close proximity to Prahran Market Clinic, an LGBTQ-dedicated medical center, another hospital, and a police station.

“One of the most essential things that our young people need is safe, affordable housing,” Warsame told Australia’s ABC network. “For young people to transition safely they cannot be in the environment that is causing them trauma.”

Image by Alisdare Hickson/Flickr.

Warsame ought to know: He's frequently opened the doors of his modest apartment to LGBTQ Muslims who don't feel safe staying with their own families.

In more conservative schools of thought, homosexuality is considered a sin against Islam. A lot of Islamic scholars also believe that homosexuality is incompatible with Islam, often citing the story of Lot found in both the Quran and the Old Testament. The story claims that God destroyed Lot's tribe for allegedly engaging in gay sex.

But that's only one interpretation. Another reading of Lot's story claims that God destroyed the tribe because the people of Sodom and Gomorrah failed to help the poor and needy and refused to stop inflicting sexual assault (of all kinds, not just homosexual) upon each other.

Some of these beliefs are incorporated into certain Muslim-majority countries. For example, in Morocco and Egypt, homosexual acts are illegal. In some theocracies like Saudi Arabia, homosexual acts are even punishable by death.

It's important to note that not all countries that criminalize gay relationships are Muslim-majority. However, in countries like Jordan, Turkey, and Indonesia— which is the most Muslim country in the world — there is no (official) crime in being gay.

Unfortunately, some of these hard-line views on homosexuality seep into the family dynamic. There are horror stories of children disowned by their parents after coming out to their parents or fleeing their homes to escape domestic violence. These experiences often leave young LGBTQ Muslims without a home or a place for shelter.

That's where Warsame steps in.

“I had seven people housed at my one-bedroom apartment [...] because it was life or death for them,” Warsame added. “They had to leave [their family home] that day, then and there.”

Warsame told ABC in Australia that he is collaborating with local police to ensure that his new mosque and the community worshipping there is established in a safe and secure area.

Image by Jpl.me/Flickr.

Warsame is all too familiar with what it’s like to be outcast as an LGBTQ Muslim.

The Somali-born imam led one of Melbourne’s largest mosques and has been an imam for about 13 years. He is the one of two Australian Muslim leaders to gain the hard-earned title "hafiz." (An hafiz, which translates to “guardian” in Arabic, is someone who memorized the entire Quran.)

Things all changed in 2010 when Warsame first publicly came out as gay. The Muslim clergy in the country severed ties with him as a result. The imam also said that he receives death threats from people who believe homosexuality is against or incompatible with Islam.

“It's disgusting, because you suffer from Islamophobia, from both the mainstream non-Muslim community and even some in the LGBT community, and homophobia from both,” he told The Project.

Warsame believes LGBTQ Muslims have it hard considering that, in addition to homophobia, they also have to endure Islamophobia as Muslims in Australia.

Image by "ABC Australia."

The mosque announcement comes on the heels of a rapidly growing global movement dedicated to creating safe and inclusive mosques for LGBTQ Muslims and women.

In Germany, where burqas are banned, a “progressive” mosque dedicated to welcoming LGBTQ Muslims and offering mixed-gender prayer services opened in June 2017. In November 2012, Europe’s first “gay-friendly” mosque opened in Paris.

In the United States, non-profit organizations like Muslims for Progressive Values are creating LGBTQ-friendly mosques across the country. And in Washington, D.C., Daayiee Abdullah — the U.S.’s first openly gay imam — marries same-sex Muslim couples in the Islamic tradition and also offers funeral services for gay Muslims who died from AIDS.

The fight for LGBTQ rights and inclusivity goes well beyond the mosque.

For example, Islamic scholars like Reza Aslan have written in support of gay rights. Pakistan, a Muslim-majority country, legalized marriage licenses for transgender people in 2016 and officially recognized “transgender” as a third gender for passports — something the U.S. has yet to do.

And while homophobia is certainly an issue within some of the more conservative and fundamentalist communities, Muslims aren’t universally anti-gay, either. For instance, according to Imam Dayiee, the Islamic Ottoman Empire decriminalized homosexuality in 1858 — about 100 years before any Western country did.

If the world was ready then, we should find it within ourselves to push for progress now.

Watch Nur Warsame talk about his experiences of being an openly gay imam below:

Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

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Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

Keep Reading Show less
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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."