MARSEILLE — Saïd* carries the dishes to the living room table as guests arrive in dribs and drabs with more food in their arms. The atmosphere is cheerful as greetings, kisses and the latest family news are shared with smiles.

Earlier in this just-concluded holy month of Ramadan, the members of the Homosexual Muslims of France Association (HM2F) had decided to break the fast together in the southern French city of Marseille. "These moments are important because they allow us to gather and — for some of us — to maintain a link with our religion," says Salim, 22, who joined the association in February.

The clock says 9:25 p.m, and the sun has finally set. Ludovic, Karim, Saïd and Salim unroll their prayer rugs on the terrace. In the room next door, the other guests who have not fasted listen closely to the prayers. This association — which has merged with the Progressive Muslims of France (MPF) — allows its members to live their religion as they wish.

"For a long time, I could not practice my religion. Now, things have changed, even though it is still hard to admit I am a Muslim and homosexual at the same time," explains Adil, 42, a Franco-Algerian man who settled in France in 1993. Still today, many gay Muslims feel a split identity, as homosexuality and Islam are widely perceived as incompatible.

The burden of community

Salim, one of the coordinators of the association's Marseille branch, fields calls from troubled young North Africans who fear rejection from the families and friends because of their sexual orientation. Accepting their own homosexuality is indeed extremely complicated in these neighborhoods with strong Arab-Muslims communities. "Individuals are highly reliant on their community," Salim explains. "They acquire an identity thanks to it. To some extent, such communities compensate for immigrants' lack of integration in France."

At Toulouse's Gay Pride parade in southern France — Photo: Guillaume Paumier

To live their sexual orientation without exclusion, gay Muslims often do not tell their whole family about their homosexuality — which make them feel "schyzophrenic," says Karim, 35, whose parents are from Morocco. "For my parents, I am a straight man ready to marry to a Muslim woman," he says. "In reality, I live with a man, and the woman I am supposed to marry is a lesbian. I chose her to be the mother of my child."

After arriving in France, Adil never thought that he would find the same homophobic attitudes and insults as in his native country. "I've been bullied as much here as in my country. At work, some Muslims knew I was gay and asked me to quit my job. I don't want to talk to these kinds of people anymore."

Despite the huge distance between himself and his family, Saïd can't break free from the burden of community. In his prayers, he asks God for forgiveness. "The only reason why I keep practicing my religion is God's mercifulness," he says.

Gay values

According to Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, the Algerian-born imam and anthropologist who founded HM2F, this feeling of guilt is part of the process of Arab-Muslim communities rewriting their history and identity by blaming and ignoring gay people. "They deny their existence, pretending that they come from the West," says Zahed, whose book Le Coran et la chair ("The Koran and the Flesh") was published in 2012.

The first French Muslim man legally married to a man, Zahed carefully cites all of the scientific and historical evidence from researchers concerning Islam's inherent tolerance and appreciation of gay people, in particular during the time of the prophet Muhammad.

Zahed's works highlight the existence of the Mukhanathuns — men with a feminine appearance whom he says the Prophet defended and welcomed in his home among his wife and family. "All of the Muslims forget that patriarchal and macho values emerged because of the colonization and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire," he says.

The Ramadan meal is over. Everybody gathers on the balcony to take in some fresh air. Music resonates and discussions grow more intense. Hichem gets a piece of paper out of his pocket. In a soft voice he announces that he would like to read the letter of the Moroccan writer Abdellah Taïah, penned after the lynching of a homosexual in the Moroccan city of Fez. Silence. "Impossible to shed even a single tear," Hichem reads. "I feel so shocked that everything has stopped living inside of me."

The night is dark in this French port city, but we can see that sorrow has taken over the faces of the gathered friends. "That's it," sighs Saïd, as the reading concludes. From one Mediterranean shore to another, the same curse of amnesia carries on.

*Most of the names have been changed to protect the identities of those interviewed.