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Faith, family test gay Muslim

Aliyah Bacchus returns home to offer a choice: Accept her sexuality, or lose her forever.

December 17, 2008|Erika Hayasaki

NEW YORK — All she has left of the person she used to be is contained in a 5-by-7 photo album with "Aliyah Bacchus" written in blue pen on its cover, each picture inside tucked beneath a slip of clear plastic.

There she is at 17, barely 90 pounds, smiling sourly on her wedding day in Queens, N.Y., dressed in hijab -- a pearl-toned princess bridal gown shimmering with beads, her slender hands dipped in sleek white gloves, a veil attached to a white qimar, or head scarf, fastened snugly around her face. The man her father chose for her stands behind Aliyah wearing a black bow tie, his hands resting on her bony shoulders.

That was before. Before she walked out on the marriage. Before her Guyana-born Muslim family discovered she was gay. Before she fled.

Aliyah is 22 now, still hovering at 90 pounds, the dark skin of her Indian roots hugging bone, a boyishly feminine lesbian with cropped black hair gelled into a tussle atop her head, long eyelashes and sharp cheekbones.

She has traded her abaya, which she wore throughout middle and high school, for an ankle-length black trench coat and sunglasses with metallic frames. She has one piercing in her left ear, four in her right, a metal rod bridging the cartilage in the ear's upper rim, a ring in her bellybutton, another in her nose.

Aliyah is Muslim. It's a part of her identity she can't shed, like her sexuality, like her last name -- Bacchus, as in the Roman god of wine and merriment -- and like her ink-stained flesh: the angel tattooed between her shoulder blades, the dark dragons on her lower back, the polar bear on her stomach, the dying rose on her right wrist.

She knows that in some Muslim sects, homosexuality is considered a crime punishable by death. But Aliyah lives in America, raised in low-income housing projects 20 miles from Manhattan's West Village, where police raided the Stonewall Inn in 1969, setting off riots that sparked the beginning of a national gay rights movement.

In America, Aliyah knows, it is acceptable to be gay. But how, she wonders, can she be true to who she is while also adhering to her family's faith? How does she reconcile both sides of her existence?

The pictures, faded and fragile, show Aliyah hugging her little sister, standing next to her father, laughing with her brother -- a smiling tribe living in the Far Rockaway neighborhood of Queens. The photographs remind Aliyah that she used to belong to a family.

On an evening this spring, the sun sets as Aliyah sits on a park bench in the West Village, police sirens blaring around her. Police show up to break up two drunken men fist-fighting a few steps away. Aliyah is calm, nearly oblivious to the urban chaos around her.

Sneezing and stuffy with a cold, she is lost in thought, eating a piece of raw chocolate. Aliyah fell in love recently, and the woman accepts her as she is. "For at least one person," Aliyah says, "I seem to be enough."

It is enough to convince Aliyah to go home for the first time in over two years. She will tell her family to accept that she is gay, or lose her forever.

The angel is rising out of flames.

The tattoo represents Aliyah's mother who, at 15, had an arranged marriage. She was 19 when she gave birth to Aliyah, her third child after two boys. She died in a fire two months later.

Unable to raise three children alone in the Guyanese town of La Bonne Intention, Aliyah's father turned child-rearing duties over to his sister, an Islamic studies teacher married to an imam. Aliyah came to love her aunt as she would have loved her mother. In her aunt's household, Aliyah became immersed in Islamic tradition, learning to read and write in Arabic and memorizing portions of the Koran.

Her father remarried. Aliyah split her time living with her father's new family on a chicken farm, and at her aunt's home. When she was 10, her father decided to relocate the family to New York. Her aunt moved here too.

In Queens, her father ordered her to dress in hijab every time she went in public. She enrolled in IS 53, an intermediate school, as the only abaya-wearing Indian student in her class, on a campus of black and Latino students. After school and on weekends, Aliyah taught the principles of Islam to her Muslim peers in the community.

By 13, suitors began coming to her father's door, asking for Aliyah's hand in marriage. When Aliyah argued with her father, he threatened to make her marry and drop out of school. Aliyah stopped paying attention in class. What was the point if her life was destined for marriage and kids, with no hopes for college or a career?

Aliyah was 16 when Muslim terrorists attacked New York in 2001. From her 19th-floor apartment windows, she watched smoke billow from the burning towers. In the weeks that followed, she continued to wear the ankle-length abaya to school. A Muslim friend asked her to stop, saying it was unsafe. She kept wearing it, as if daring the world to take her on.

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