CHICAGO — Men and women in conservative dress sat quietly before the start of a what promised to be a typical Pakistani Muslim community gathering, until Ifti Nasim – the gay Pakistani Muslim poet, activist and Chicago radio show host – strode in wearing leather pants, a leather overcoat and pimp hat with feather.
The display elicited smiles, and some eye rolls, from audience members. But most at the gathering for dignitaries and business leaders were captivated when he read poems dealing with being Muslim in a post 9-11 world, with some yelling the Urdu word for "repeat" throughout the performance.
It was a not an uncommon reaction to Nasim, who for most of his life managed to occupy an unusual – and often difficult – space. He lived as an openly gay Muslim man in Chicago’s South Asian enclave, while garnering respect from more conservative Muslims with his volumes of poetry, provocative humor, flamboyant fashion and advocacy for several Chicago organizations.
Nasim died at a Chicago hospital late Friday following a heart attack, his sister Ajaz Nasreen told The Associated Press. He was 64.
"It is a big loss for the community," said longtime friend and business partner Rana Javed, who ran a local South Asian program, "Sargam Radio," and newspaper with Nasim for years.
The respect Nasim earned in the community was evident at his funeral services and burial Saturday, when hundreds packed into a Chicago mosque to pay their respects and read Quran. A religious memorial service was scheduled Sunday and community leaders said public memorials with poetry readings would follow in the coming weeks.
Nasim said he always knew he was gay, but living openly in his native Pakistan wasn’t an option. He remembered first reading magazine articles about being gay in America and developing his love of fashion by flipping through Vogue.
"In Islamic society, gays have no place," he told WBEZ-FM in Chicago. "America sold the gay culture to me back home. They’re living happily ever after in America. That’s my place, I’ve got to go to America. I was sold. Completely sold."
Islam forbids homosexuality. While attitudes toward gays have changed among some in Muslim countries, being gay is still considered widely unacceptable and homosexual acts in some Muslim countries are punishable by whipping or death.
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