When Faisal Alam e-mailed thousands of Muslim students six years ago, asking if any among them were gay, he unknowingly lit a flare that illuminated a community largely hidden in the shadows.
A trickle of responses soon became a deluge, leading to this weekend's first Canadian-sponsored conference on homosexuality and Islam. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Muslims from Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and South Africa will gather in Toronto for three days of exploring how they can reconcile their sexuality with a faith understood by many to forbid same-sex relationships.
"A lot of what happens to Muslims is that they reject the faith because they don't think they'll find a place for themselves in it," said Asif, a member of Salaam Toronto, one of North America's first associations of gay Muslims.
Muslims who remain committed to their faith and sexuality often face estrangement from their family, expulsion from their mosques and, in some cases, the risk of physical abuse.
"People have their own interpretation of what Islam says on homosexuality," said Asif, 30, who did not want his last name used. "I say: God made me the way I am."
This weekend's conference is organized in conjunction with the Washington, D.C. group Al-Fatiha, started by Alam after his now legendary e-mail. While it is the group's fourth international conference, it is the first held in Canada.
Al-Fatiha means "the opening," and is the title of the first chapter of the Qur'an.
Entitled Liberating Tradition, Celebrating Culture, the conference reflects the growing numbers of Muslims demanding a more liberal interpretation of their faith.
Islam's perceived prohibition on homosexuality is derived from a story in the Qur'an, the Islamic text that lays down the fundamentals of Islam.
The story is that of Lut, known in the Judeo-Christian tradition as Lot, the resident of a town in which men were found engaging in sex with each other. Allah is said to have destroyed the town as punishment for those sexual acts.
According to Imam Abdullah, one of the very few gay imams in North America, the people of Lut's town were not condemned for their sexual acts, but their acts of violence.
The passage, he said, and others which deal with sex outside of marriage, must be re-examined in order to convey the true spirit of Islam.
"Allah is inclusive. Human beings are exclusive," said Imam Abdullah, who works from Washington, D.C.
"In order for the Qur'an, Allah's message and guide, to be available to all of humankind for all time, it has to have an inclusive aspect because all of humankind has not come yet."
Traditional Muslims maintain that the Qur'an is not open for re-interpretation.
"There is no need to revise the Qur'an or the teaching of Islam on the issue of homosexuality," said Mohamed Elmasry, president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.
"It is clear that homosexuality is forbidden and if someone wants to insist on doing it, that is their personal decision. They will be held accountable in the end."
Jewish and Christian denominations have been tackling the conflict between faith and sexuality since the 1970s, and some of the more progressive branches have ordained gay priests and rabbis and run gay congregations.
Elmasry said that most Islamic communities in Canada disagree with the way other religious denominations interact with their gay and lesbian congregants.
"Churches in this country did a disservice to homosexuals by going to two extremes," he said. "One on extreme they closed their doors to them, and on the other they accepted them entirely. We think that these two extremes are not an option."
Imam Abdullah completed his training last year, and while he does counsel some gay and lesbian Muslims, as well as perform same-sex marriages, he said that his outreach is mostly online.
Members of Salaam Canada say that the gay Muslim community here is more spiritual than religious, although talks have started on establishing a progressive mosque. At this weekend's conference, men and women will stand side-by-side, leading prayers.
"We understand that a lot of the faith we have learned comes through our culture and not our faith itself," said Alam. "The roots of Islam are peace, love and justice. If those three concepts are really used to look at this issue, we will understand that accepting our sexuality is a small part of our faith. There are a lot of larger issues to deal with."
Issues such as the image of Islam in the post-9/11 climate. Conference organizers are concerned that delegates from the United States and overseas will have difficulty re-entering their home countries after travelling abroad.
"The anti-Muslim feel is everywhere," said Asif. "On top of dealing with being gay, we have to deal with being Muslim too. It's a challenge."