Sameer* was born and brought up in Pakistan to become an Imam or Muslim preacher in a mosque. He always knew he was gay, but social pressure prevented him from revealing his sexuality. When his secret was exposed, he faced threats to his life and was forced to seek refuge in several countries, but to no avail.
I was born in Pakistan and grew up there. Ever since I was a child, I knew I was different. I was never interested in girls. I always imagined myself being with a man and having a baby together. I didn't feel like a woman or a transgender. That is just how I felt.
My father directed me towards Islamic Studies for my bachelors' and I also learned the Quran. This was a good decision, because I found that neither the Quran nor any Hadith said that I was on the wrong path [that homosexuality was wrong], because I am a creation of God and I am how he made me. And if I am wrong, then does it mean that God made a mistake? God doesn’t make mistakes and I say this because I am a believer.
After my studies I moved out of Pakistan to another country and began working in the local television there. I hosted a show every weekend and also had a business running alongside. Life was good. My parents lived with me. They also got me married… actually I was forcibly married twice.
'I never lived for myself'
I divorced my first wife three months after the wedding in Pakistan and then I decided to move abroad and started a business there in the early 2000s. My dad came and because I was the eldest son in the family, forced me to marry again. Being a Pakistani, I shuddered to think of what would happen if I were to come out as a gay person. So I ended up saying yes to whatever my family asked me to do.
I got married and I managed to keep it going for eight years. We also had two children. I had sporadic sexual relations with my wife. I would buy her a lot of presents – a gold ring or a necklace or earrings to pacify her. I used to manage not getting close for three to four months at a time. In 2013 however, my wife found out from my laptop that I was visiting homosexual websites. We had an Islamic divorce the same day. I did want to have relations with men, but my appearance – because I was an Imam and I had a beard – was a big hindrance to my personal desires. I always lived for my family and my children, but I never really lived for myself.
Once my wife knew I was homosexual, she asked me to leave and said she didn’t want my children – a boy and a girl – to be affected by my presence. She said she would never forgive me. Because I was an Imam at the mosque and also a television personality in the conservative country I lived in, I would have had to face terrible consequences had I revealed I was gay.
Escape to safer pastures
I left the country in 2014 under a lot of pressure and threats from my wife. She said she would tell everyone, including the local Islamist group, the Hezbollah, that I was gay. My wife told her parents, who informed the extremist group and my colleagues, my family. In the end, everyone knew that I was homosexual.
I managed to escape to the UK because I didn’t need a visa to stay there for six months, but I still kept getting threatening emails from my wife, warning me against going back to the country. She said the extremists were waiting there to kill me. By this time, my parents and brothers in Pakistan had found out and they wanted to kill me too, just because they found out I was gay. Their argument was: "How can you teach Islam; you are insulting the religion."
Although I was living in the UK during this time, I was emotionally and financially drained. I was completely destroyed. This was 2014. I thought I could get some peace by going for a Hajj to Saudi Arabia [Muslim religious pilgrimage]. But then I thought, these people are even more conservative and extremist. If they find out that I am gay, I will be finished. The Islamist group in the country I used to live in before had close links with Saudi Arabian religious leaders and they believed in enforcing the Sharia. I decided not to go there.
Back to the grind
Meanwhile, my visa for the UK was going to expire, so I spoke to lawyers and applied for asylum. I shaved off my beard and got in touch with local LGBT communities and organizations. Once I applied, the UK authorities detained me and said I would be in detention until the application was processed. That took six months. My asylum was rejected because the country where I lived in before was considered safe. I tried to convince the courts, saying I had left Pakistan because of my sexuality and then another country for the same reason, but they did not listen. I was deported to the country where I came from and accompanied by three police officers. This was in mid-2015.
I had already got in touch with LGBT groups in the country and one of them came to receive me at the airport. We went to the police station and said I needed protection. But in that country, homosexuality is neither legal nor illegal. A homosexual act is illegal and you can be sent to prison for five years. The police said they couldn’t protect me; rather they would take action against me and arrest me if someone complained about my homosexuality. I left and decided to stay in a hotel for some time. I had no money left, because I had spent all of it in the UK and the rest had been taken by the detention officials there. In the meantime, I kept in touch with a gay volunteer in the UK.
During the time I was staying in the guest house, I went out for lunch one day. I didn’t know then that one of my distant relatives had started a fast food outlet close by. When I entered, he recognized me. He asked me in the local language, "You are here?" and used an insulting Urdu word that people often call gays. "You are Sameer," he said. I said," You are making a mistake. I am not Sameer, I am a visitor from Pakistan." He told me I was a fool to think he wouldn’t recognize me without a beard. He called my brother in law and told him I was back.
Read: Part 2 of Sameer's story
*Name changed to protect identity