Sheraz Salahuddin and Andrew Sheranian in NYC last week.[/caption]
Gay Muslim Meets Gay Mormon
It was a very cold night in January, 2011 when Sheraz Salahuddin and Andrew Sheranian met at the popular DBar in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. They spent that first night, and every other night that week, together. Each immediately felt that this relationship was something different.
Sheraz and Andrew were raised about as far apart geographically as is possible: Sheraz as a Muslim in Lahore, Pakistan, Andrew as a Mormon in Utah. “In some way you can’t get any more different than those two religions, but in other ways they are almost identical,” Sheraz told Towleroad.
Both he and Andrew describe very loving families, the need to get away, and the similar religious upbringings were part of what brought them together. “On a flight back from Salt Lake City, where I met Andrew ‘s family for the first time, I knew I wanted to get married to him…I proposed to Andrew three years into the relationship, but the truth is neither of us were ready to get married at that point. We had a long engagement of three years,” Sheraz said.
It was the Pulse nightclub attack that ultimately sparked them to tie the knot. “The shooting in Orlando was a turning point for Andrew, who suddenly suggested we get married. He felt strongly that fear must not have any power over our lives.”
“We eloped because we knew if we waited to plan a big wedding, it would perhaps not have happened for a long time.” The ceremony was June 30th, and the shadow of Donald Trump in the presidential election also played a role in their decision. “Trump’s rise to power in the Republican Party was in all honesty a factor, albeit a minor one, in our decision to get married in June, before the election. But I really don’t think he’s going to win, so it’s not a major concern of mine, especially now that I’m married to a US citizen and will enjoy those protections now.”
Sheraz was closeted and, “was not actively gay when living in Pakistan.” He says, “I was living a dual life: one for friends, and one for family and the wider public. Gays met each other back then by way of an [dial-up bulletin board] mIRC called ‘Gay Pakistani’, a chat room online. Only other gay friends that I had knew that I was gay back then.”
That changed when he moved to the US on a student visa at age 23. Four years later he met Andrew, a professional classical musician specializing in organ, piano, and conducting, educated at the New England Conservatory of Music and Yale University. Sheraz has since graduated with an MBA and is a data analyst at a natural foods distribution company.
In all it’s been 10 years since he was home. That’s a significant amount of time, but also significant because it’s how long Pakistani passports are valid. Needing to get Sheraz’s passport renewed, Sheraz and Andrew thought nothing of turning a required visit to the Pakistani consulate in NYC into a fun weekend trip.
But in the process, Sheraz would be confronted with an unexpected question from an official representing the homophobic, oppressive government he left 10 years ago.
He would only have a split second to decide what it would mean for himself, his family and others if the Pakistani government were to know that he was legally married to another man.
A few days ago, Sheraz posted to the couple’s Facebook friends:
“This morning I entered the Consulate of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in NYC to renew my passport. After getting fingerprinted and photographed, the employee asked me if I was married. My heart began to race as I looked around the room, filled with women (wearing burqas), and their husbands, and I asked myself “How do I answer this question in this place?”. Then I realized the truth was the only option. “Yes, I am married.” He then asked for the name of my spouse. I told him the name of my spouse and he asked me to clarify, and I said, “Yes, I have a male spouse.” To say I was freaking out inside would be an understatement, but I did not let fear hold me back. He simply entered the information in the form, handed it to me, and called for the next person waiting for help.
Point is: Let yourself be seen, be proud, be honest. Today I hope that I have set an example for my fellow gay Pakistanis out there: if I can do it you can do it too. We all deserve to be happy and live freely!
As of today, even the Islamic Republic of Pakistan has issued a document acknowledging same sex marriage!”
When asked about why he shared his story on Facebook — Sheraz’s post has been liked and commented on by more than 700 people in the couple’s circle — Sheraz said, “My take on what happened with me is: if there is any way I can make a difference in the lives of the Gay Muslim community as well as changing the way how people perceive Muslims in this country then I am doing my best to spread awareness and help educate others.”
And it turns out that the act of declaring his gay union could be a more radical act in Pakistan than the act of being gay.
87% of the people in Pakistan oppose legalization of homosexuality (Pew) and the 2016 ILGA “Global Attitudes Survey” ranked Pakistan as having the third most homophobic attitude, following Nigeria and Ghana and just slightly less homophobic than….Uganda.
Unlike those others, however, Pakistan has a real gay culture, particularly in Karachi. In fact, the Abdullah Shah-Ghazi shrine, in honor of a revered Sufi saint from the 8th century, actually serves as Karachi’s principal “cruising ground.” And “In Pakistan men are discouraged from having girlfriends and so often, their first sexual experiences will be with male friends or cousins,” a man named Qasim Iqbal told BBC.
“Homosexuality is derided in public, but it is accepted, provided it remains a secret,” according to Louise Brown, a British author.
Pakistan doesn’t prohibit cohabitation or marriage with laws like DOMA in the US. However, the nation’s sodomy laws are an effective threat that perpetuates the existence of the closet, keeps LGBT people hidden, and, when enforced, punishes offenders with two years to life in prison under civil law and up to 100 lashes or death by stoning under Islamic Sharia law.
And yet, Pakistan leads the world in Google searches for gay sex images, “Pakistan is by volume the world leader for Google searches of the terms ‘she-male sex,’ ‘teen anal sex,’ and ‘man f**king man,'” wrote Alex Park of Mother Jones.
All that said, Sheraz’s childhood mirrored that of most of us who came of age in the last century; the dual life, the fears, some time away to figure ourselves out. “My parents were very loving to me. Very. Very. and I had an amazing childhood. When I left the country about 10 years ago I wanted to start a new life and in order to do that I had to cut off myself from family a little bit to be able to explore myself and find my true self. I had to recreate my own opinions on things instead of just having ones imposed by my parents, what they think.”
These days, Sheraz is in touch with his parents more regularly and he credits them for helping him become “a successful man today.” Still, the relationship is a work in progress. Though Sheraz acknowledges the strides they have made:
“My family is not fully supporting my marriage, but they met Andrew last year, and that’s only my parents. My relationship with my mother has gotten much better. She wants to still love me and be there for me just not accepting of the gay part of my life.”
As for his legal status now that Pakistan knows he’s in a gay marriage, Sheraz says,
“I do not know about how the government will react to something like that. I bet it’s on the records now. Hopefully it will be a non issue but I’m also hoping that my green card arrives soon. That will give me independence to decide what I want to do… I have not gone back In about 10 years since I moved back. Not sure I have much desire to but I do miss my family!”
Just another immigrant who’s escaped religious repression, the potential of persecution and physical harm, found love, and established a family unit with which to pursue happiness. Andrew and Sheraz live in Dorchester with what Sheraz says are “two of the most gorgeous and cuddly cats on the planet.”