Image of Tugay SaracTugay Sarac / BBC Three

'My LGBT-friendly mosque saved me from being radicalised'

When Tugay realised he was gay, he tried to erase his sexuality with an extreme form of his religion

Tugay Sarac

Sitting in my bedroom alone, a wave of fear washed over me. I was 12 years old, confused, and scared – I was beginning to realise I was gay. My dad was watching TV in the living room, and all I could think about was how disappointed he’d be if he ever found out.

I grew up in a Turkish neighbourhood in Berlin. My family are conservative Muslims and my dad was always pretty strict. But we were still close and would play football in the street together almost every day. He was football mad, and even named me after a famous Turkish player, but I could never bring myself to tell him I didn’t actually like the sport.

My dad had a different side to him, though, that I struggled with. He was the one who first made me feel like being gay wasn’t acceptable. He didn’t outright tell me I couldn’t be gay - it was more like he had just never considered it as a possibility for his child.

Dad grew up in Turkey where, according to the Rainbow Europe index, attitudes towards LGBTQI+ people lag significantly behind European nations like Germany and the UK (it was ranked 47th out of the 49 surveyed countries). Since 2015, Istanbul’s Pride event has been banned by the government.

I remember being out with my dad one time, and my little sister was in her buggy. I grabbed the handles to push it, but he slapped my hand away and told me it "looked gay". I wasn’t even 10 at the time and all I could think was that 'gay' must be something bad if it sparked that reaction.

My dad’s attitude wasn’t the only thing that made me feel like I needed to hide my sexuality. I was also frightened of what people in my community would say. I had overheard people saying bad things about gay people on TV. But I knew I wasn’t like the guys at my school, who’d talk about dating girls. I was attracted to boys and it made me feel guilty and ashamed.

I didn’t want people to think I wasn’t a real man, or a real Muslim.

Tugay with his dadTugay Sarac / BBC Three
An old photo of Turgay with his dad

Then when I was 13, I lost my dad to stomach cancer. He’d been ill for about a year, but his death still came as a shock. The grief hit me hard. Religion became my way of coping – it gave me a sense of security. My inner turmoil about my sexuality and the loss of my father led me to sink into depression.

My family was conservative but not particularly religious, but back then I was desperately searching for something to stop myself being gay. I thought that if I devoted myself to my faith, I could forget about my sexuality. I was scared I’d go to hell for being who I was, and thought my religion could save me.

That how I started to follow a more radical form of Islam.

I’d secretly search online for blogs and videos about radical Islam, plugging in my headphones when everyone else was asleep. My searches led me to YouTube videos of ‘online preachers’ giving hate-filled sermons. They mostly adhered to a strict form of Sunni Islam. I watched them as they glared into the camera, saying gay people would burn in hell, and I convinced myself that I must make that part of me go away.

While other kids my age were watching their favourite gamers or vloggers, I was binge-watching videos of these radical preachers. They talked about things like how there shouldn’t be equality between men and women, and that anyone who believed in a different god should be killed.

They were so charismatic in the way they presented these views that I could feel myself being sucked in. I felt my personality changing. For about two years, I watched the videos in secret. By the time I was about 15, I started feeling like I wanted to be around other people who shared the views I saw onscreen.

A school friend introduced me to a group of fellow Muslims, and I started hanging out with them in a local Turkish cafe. We’d have conversations where we insulted non-Muslims, talking about how they’d go to hell for being disbelievers. We were hearing more and more about the rise of the so-called Islamic State and we’d talk about joining them. I was naive - I mistakenly saw IS as a force for good, bringing Muslims together from all over the world to live under Islamic rule and take back 'our' lands.

These other kids were, like me, feeling isolated for various reasons and were looking for something to give them purpose. We all thought devoting ourselves to radical Islam was the answer.

Radical phaseTugay Sarac / BBC Three
Tugay sought out new friends who shared his views

While talk of joining the extremist group didn’t go any further, I was changing inside and out. I grew a beard and stopped being affectionate to my family. When I was little, my mum’s nickname for me was 'Kuschelbär' – that’s German for 'Cuddle Bear'. She said it was because I was a soft and gentle person. One day, I got home from school and went to my bedroom without talking to anyone. My mum followed me and said, "Tugay, I’m scared of what you’ve become. You’re no longer my Cuddle Bear."

I knew I was behaving badly towards the people I loved – I was cold and aggressive, and would fight with my sister. But I didn’t feel guilty. I was obsessed with being a 'good Muslim' and following the teachings of the online preachers so that I wouldn't go to hell for being gay.

Two more years passed, and I still knew deep down I was gay. I was becoming exhausted from hiding it. One night, I was speaking to an old friend – not part of the radical crew – and he told me IS were killing innocent people.

I didn’t believe it at first. It was 2015 and until then, all I’d seen online was their propaganda. He sent me a video that changed everything - it was a beheading of a civilian. I felt sick – how could I have got this so wrong?

It was a line from a YouTube news show, The Young Turks, that changed my path. "Why would you believe in a religion or a God if this God hates you, if this God will throw you to hell and let you burn forever?" the presenter asked. That question got me thinking. I hadn’t chosen to be gay, so why would God punish me for it, especially when I’d done everything I could to try and change my sexuality? If I couldn't be gay and Muslim, I wondered, should I be Muslim at all? 

I've since learned this conflict isn't uncommon in the gay Muslim community. Khakan Qureshi is a gay Muslim, and the co-founder of a UK-based support group for LGBTQI+ South Asians. "It's common for young Muslims to feel they are wrong for being gay, and fear going to hell," he says. "Being taught that who you are is an abomination can have a negative impact on people’s mental health. Some LGBTQI+ Muslims end up stepping away from Islam as it doesn't fit in with their personal beliefs."

While having those thoughts was definitely the start of me learning to accept who I was, at first the experience made me feel worse. I was 18 at the time, and trapped in a fog of confusion: I hadn’t fully come to terms with being gay, but at the same time I felt like there was no place for me in Islam.

It was then I heard about a new, liberal mosque in Berlin called Ibn Rushd-Goethe, that was right on my doorstep. It has a female imam, lets Muslims of all genders pray together, and accepts gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslims. It’s caused controversy in the Muslim world, receiving condemnation from Turkish organisations and even a fatwa from Egypt but for me, it was a light in the darkness.

When a gay imam from Marseille, France, visited the mosque and delivered a seminar, my mind was blown – I began to realise that being gay and Muslim at the same time is natural and normal. I’ve met other LGBTQI+ worshippers since then, too.

TugayTugay Sarac / BBC Three

I began attending prayers at the mosque and slowly started feeling comfortable with who I was. For the first time, I saw a way to reconcile my religion with my sexuality. To the more conservative people in my community, this mosque was radical. My old radical friends abandoned me when they found out I was going there, but I felt a freedom I had never felt before. My mental health improved, and I finally found the strength to tell my family about my sexuality.

It was, honestly, the scariest moment of my life.

I decided to do it on Christmas Day 2017. My family didn’t celebrate Christmas but it was a time we were all together. "This will be a gift they never forget," I thought - trying to make myself smile through my nerves. At the dinner table, in front of my mum, sister, and aunt, I said out loud what I’d known since I was 13. There was a pause, and for a few moments, I was terrified, until my aunt broke the silence. "I always thought you were gay, Tugay!" she said. We all burst out laughing. I hugged them all and felt an immense sense of relief wash over me.

Since then, my mum, aunt, and sister have been fully supportive. It means so much to me. Sadly, not everyone feels the same – some family members have said they want nothing to do with me anymore. But the people that matter most are with me.

My mum is happy that the mosque supported me when I really needed it, and now we all go there to pray together. When my old radical mates discovered I’d come out, they started sending me messages of hate. But their words couldn’t pierce my happiness. I regret a lot of the things I did when I was younger, like watching those videos and saying bad things about non-Muslims, but the thing I regret most is not coming out sooner.

Luckily, my story has a happy ending, but others who go the whole way and become fully radicalised go down a very different path. I was 15 when it started happening to me – the same age as Shamima Begum was when she went to Syria. If I hadn't found a place where I could truly be myself, I truly fear what I might have become.

Tugay at prideTugay Sarac / BBC Three
At Berlin Pride with Seyran Ates, founder of the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque

Today, aged 21, my relationship with my family is better than ever, and I’m now at university with a group of friends who fully accept me. I’ve found an inner peace I never knew was possible. The community at my liberal mosque helped me realise I didn’t need to turn my back on religion in order to be gay, and I didn’t need to stop being gay to be Muslim.

As told to Rahil Sheikh

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised, help and advice can be found here.