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A gunman, identified as 29-year-old Omar Mateen, killed 49 people and injured 53 at Pulse, a popular gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida on Sunday, June 12. Mateen, too, was killed after police broke into the building, where he was holding 30 more people hostage for several hours, and shot him. The night is known as the deadliest shooting in modern U.S. history.

North Texas LGBT and Muslim Leaders Talk About Working On Common Ground

Gus Contreras
Cece Cox, CEO of Resource Center in Dallas, and Alia Salem, Executive Director of CAIR-DFW talked about the impact of the Orlando shooting on their communities.

The Orlando shooting hit two groups especially hard. The shooter was Muslim. And most of the victims were gay. Two leaders of the Muslim and gay communities in North Texas talk about how the two groups can work together.

Before Sunday, Alia Salem and Cece Cox had never met.  

Then came a vigil for the Orlando shooting victims.

In the midst of a tragedy, they saw an opportunity.

“I think members of the Muslim community at large have been grappling with, ‘How do we engage with our neighbors who are from the LGBTQ community?’ Salem said. “And while this is not the way we had hoped that it would come about, I think there’s certainly a silver lining…”

Salem, executive director for the DFW chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the two groups have been on the same page before.

“Frankly, the Muslim community in dealing with their issues of discrimination have almost always had allies from the LGBTQ community standing in solidarity with us, and it was really important to many of us leaders in the community to take a stand and stand with them regardless of the person’s identity who opened fire,” Salem said.

Cox, CEO of Resource Center, an LGBT community center in Dallas, said there’s a misperception that Muslims and the gay community don’t understand each other.

“Being LGBT and a person of faith is not mutually exclusive and we hear very very often that those are two completely separate things, but I myself grew up as a Christian,” Cox said. “Almost everyone I know in the LGBT community grew up in some sort of faith community.”

The shooter in Orlando, Omar Mateen, pledged allegiance to the terrorist group ISIS in 911 calls. Reports have emerged that the gunman frequented the Pulse nightclub and used gay dating apps.

What Cox wants to focus on is what the LGBT and Muslim communities share: concerns about gun violence and hate speech.

“For us to be effective and move forward at all, it would be talking about educating various communities about who we are as LGBT people and what that means. And it means that we live in a society that does not fully embrace us. I think that’s probably a commonality that we would have with the Muslim community. They’re not fully embraced.”

Salem said the Muslim community hasn’t openly tackled LGBT issues, so she’s taken to social media to urge Muslim leaders to speak out.

“I felt in the early stages to address the Muslim community…that having differences with anybody, having differences with another group of people does not allow you to be quiet against injustice, does not allow you to be quiet when it comes to murder,” Salem said. “It does not allow you to be quiet when it comes to granting compassion to your neighbors and your fellow neighbor.”

Salem and Cox aren’t sure what steps they’ll take next, but they want to keep talking.

“There’s always room for discussion to try to understand what another person’s reality is,” Cox said. “And I think by doing that, we’re able to engage more deeply and live in a way that’s more loving.”

The ultimate goal, Cox said, conquer fear and discrimination. And, just start a conversation.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.