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+TALK: HUSSAIN TURK

The following is s transcript of the conversation between Karl Schmid and Hussain Turk.

KARL
Up next, dispelling the myths around being Muslim and living with HIV. Welcome to Plus Talk on Plus Life, where we’re all about turning positive into a plus. My guest today, Hussain Turk is a civil rights attorney, a Muslim and a man living with HIV. Good to see you, sir.

HUSSAIN
Hi Karl, I’m well, how are you?

KARL
I’m good, now you were just in Pakistan and so I kind of want to start with this really. You are an openly gay man. You are open about your HIV status, you’re Muslim and I think a lot of people unfortunately sort of have this idea that if you’re Muslim and you’re HIV positive, doom and gloom, the world hates you and let alone you can’t go to somewhere like Pakistan. Can you just clear some of that up for us?

HUSSAIN
Sure, well, there’s a lot in there that can be cleared up or given some context and I will endeavor to do that ’cause I think it’s important. There’s obviously a diversity and spectrum of experiences for any community, in any place. So there is no singular experience of being gay or gay and Muslim or gay and Muslim and HIV positive in Pakistan, it’s different for different people. Unfortunately, there is this propagandized depiction of that struggle in the Muslim world as completely doom and gloom, as hopeless as criminalized, as at risk of being killed or executed and while all those things are true, to an extent, they have been blown out of proportion and skewed in a way that erases and ignores a lot of successes in a lot of the, I guess, just normalization of different sexual orientations and different experiences in the Muslim world, as if there is a Muslim world to begin with, but in that part of the Muslim world. So for me to go back as a American citizen, as a man, as someone who’s able bodied, as someone who’s educated and has the family wealth that I have, I was very insulated from a lot and I enjoyed a very privileged and kind of particularized experience when I went, but I didn’t have to hide anything about myself and part of that is of course, due to the privileges that I brought with me, but this idea that gay people, gay men in Pakistan have to hide or they’re going to be arrested or worse is largely a myth. There is a criminal law that punishes sodomy, that is written on the books in Pakistan, but it has not been enforced and it has not been enforced for a very long time. So even though it is there on the books, it’s not something that people necessarily fear repercussions from.

KARL
You know, you acknowledge that the privilege that you have and that that insulates you when you go to somewhere like Pakistan, when you see those that don’t have the privilege on the ground in Pakistan, who are living with HIV, how does that make you feel and as a civil rights attorney, is there anything that you do or can do when you’re there to help shift the conversation?

HUSSAIN
First of all, it makes me feel sad because to see anyone suffering or struggling is painful for me. But especially to see someone who I have things in common with that, you know, if my family, if my father didn’t have the privilege to leave and the way that he was able to, that could be me in many respects. So, and I do have friends in Pakistan who are not financially privileged, who don’t have educated parents, with professional jobs and for them, their family honor and their family name is much more jeopardized by something like coming out and being gay. So one of the biggest things that I observe, the biggest injustices that I observe is that a lot of gay men, they are still closeted, and with being in the closet comes a whole host of psychological traumas, right? So it’s not like I’m gonna, you know, go get executed for holding hands with a guy in the streets. That’s not gonna happen. In fact, it’s very common to see men holding hands in the street and kissing in the streets because it’s a very gender segregated culture. So men stick with men and men typically don’t have access to girls or other women for their sexual needs. So there’s a huge culture of release sex, which is sex to just release that sexual need. It’s not sex based on an orientation or a desire. It’s just for the sake of getting off and that happens a lot between boys and men in Pakistan and it’s accepted.

KARL
You can understand, I guess, from your American perspective, how that’s very confusing though, to people in the west, when they especially, you know the gays in places like West Hollywood, where they go, oh please, it means they’re gay. If they’re having sex with men, they’re gay.

HUSSAIN
No, this is another thing. I mean, the way that we in the west experience sexual orientation is a very like historically in context specific way of experiencing sexual orientation or sexual identity. Sexual identity wasn’t even like an identity in the way that we experience it now for a very long time, until like enlightenment era, when you know, different identities around sex, sexuality and gender started to really congeal and become salient. But the way that we identify around our sexuality here in the west is like, I am attracted to men, so that makes me gay, which means I’m gonna sleep with other men, it’s not as linear in other places. There’s much more gray area. There’s much more secrecy or confusion, or just, I don’t wanna say erasure, but maybe different visibilities for different things and so in, for example, in Pakistan, you walk around seeing men holding hands, kissing. It’s not gay. It just that’s the culture. To come out and like have a pride parade and hang rainbow flags, like that’s not accepted and it’s a problem that it’s not accepted and there’s a multitude of factors that have kept Pakistan and gay people in Pakistan from progressing and having similar rights to what we have here in the west. But it’s also not the doom and gloom, like we need to go invade these Muslim countries and save these poor gay people and women from the oppressive Taliban that is portrayed on CNN or Fox.

KARL
Right on the news, what about though, let’s talk about how this relates to HIV infection though and again, whether it’s, you know, men who identify as gay, or whether it’s men who have sex with men, is there not a concern that when these things aren’t sort of talked about because it’s not a big deal, that the rates of HIV climb, because well that’s a gay man’s thing, it’s got nothing to do with us. So have I got it completely wrong?

HUSSAIN
No, you’ve got it right. There’s definitely an epidemic of, I mean there’s a global epidemic of HIV among men who have sex with men, then that is not news and Pakistan is not immune to that, right. So it exists there too. Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of organizations providing services to at risk populations. There is virtually no conversation around PrEP. I talked to a lot of guys that didn’t even know what it was. I did talk to a lot of guys too that did know what PrEP was, which is not dissimilar to the situation here in the US. I mean, if you go to parts of LA, South LA, East LA that are predominantly black and brown, the access to PrEP is very limited.

KARL
Yeah, not just here in LA, I mean we know that, especially in the south, here in the states, HIV infections continue to rise and more so now amongst our heterosexual allies and friends. So in your position of privilege and you know, being an American citizen, when you do go back to places like your home country, Pakistan, do people sort of look at you or look to you for advice when it comes to how one lives happily and thrives with HIV?

HUSSAIN
I don’t think so because my situation is so different from the situation there, like who am I to, you know, fly across the world and give advice to people about how to live, when I don’t live that life. I can give advice to American gay men of color who are newly diagnosed and what to do and I do that often, but my primary, I guess, responsibility as a traveler is to observe and be humble and learn, but also to speak truthfully about my experience, which is why I talked a lot on TikTok about how I’m not being harassed. I’m not being arrested, I’m not being persecuted for being gay because I simply wasn’t. So why am I going to perpetuate this lie or this very stereotyped myth about my culture when it’s simply not happening to me. The problem is that people don’t really have the capacity to have this nuanced, complicated understanding of something. People want it to all be homophobic and to all be violent and to all be oppressive, when it’s simply not that way. Just in the way that living in West Hollywood isn’t all gay liberation and it’s all, not all like pride, like we have a lot of homophobia in West Hollywood and there are a lot of issues impacting the gay male community, that impact us because we are gay. Take, for example, this case of Ed Buck and Gemmel Moore, it took years for the police to do what they were supposed to do, which is protect vulnerable black gay men in West Hollywood and it took many deaths, many near death experiences and a lot of pushing from the community just to get the police to do something, which was to protect us.

KARL
Yeah and I should point out for those who don’t know, Ed Buck was a prominent figure here in the Los Angeles area and an association with crystal meth and black men dying while in his company and other accusations and it took a long time because this man was a white man of privilege, to sort of get any traction, that’s what Hussain is referencing there. Hussain Turk, thank you so much for your time. Thank you for all the great work you do. That is gonna do it for this episode of Plus Talk. Remember you can find out more by visiting the website pluslifemedia.com and be sure to follow us across social media platforms, we are @pluslifemedia. Until next time, take care of each other. Be nice to one another, we’ll see you soon.

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