He’s gay, HIV-positive, and Muslim, but Hussain Turk he doesn’t think of himself as an underdog. And why should he? He’s smart, well-spoken, handsome, healthy, and on a $120,000 scholarship at the School of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Turk embraces his HIV status: “Before my diagnosis, I had no meaningful relationships with other queer people — I was trapped in a vicious crystal meth addiction. After my diagnosis in 2009, I was immediately linked to care and support. That is where I finally began connecting with other queer people, and specifically gay men, in a compassionate, loving, and sustainable way. That is where my internalized homophobia began to break down.”
The 26-year-old hopes to help other young people who are in his situation but lack the resources he has. “As an HIV-positive, healthy, educated, financially privileged man with U.S. citizenship, I have a responsibility to advocate for others living with HIV not as well-situated as I am,” Turk says. “HIV is still a death sentence in many parts of the world.”
While being gay and HIV-positive are part of who he is, his religion has always been central to his identity — especially since so many others define him by it. “Although I identify as a Muslim before I identify as queer or HIV-positive, the prejudices I experience against each part of my identity are always layered and intersecting in complicated ways,” Turk says. “I always used to complain to my middle school vice principal about getting bullied for being gay. And she always used to ignore me and tell me I just wanted attention. The day after 9/11, my locker was vandalized and all of my belongings stolen. Later on that day, the vice principal called me into her office. A jogger found my muddied school materials in the woods behind the school. I was accused of trashing them for attention — because that’s just what a young Muslim man named Hussain would want the day after 9/11, more attention.”
Since that day, Turk says he’s “been detained, harassed, threatened, and made to feel responsible for things with which I had nothing to do. Even within the gay community, where beauty is everything and where beauty standards are defined by whiteness, Muslims and other people of color are made to feel either exiled or exoticized but rarely ever a part of.”
Instead of letting all the prejudice he’s encountered discourage him, he’s using it as inspiration to change the world. The Kalamazoo, Mich., native says his parents brought him up to be socially conscious, and now he’s going through UCLA Law’s Critical Race Studies program, working as a law clerk at the Los Angeles HIV Law and Policy Project, and helping establish the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity. Turk is also hoping to spend time working in Pakistan with HIV-positive gay and transgender people.
“I would also like to open up my own law firm that specializes in gay divorces,” he says. “I think there are going to be a lot of messy gay divorces with interesting legal issues coming up in the years following federal legislation [on same-sex marriage].”
He adds, “One of the most exciting and rewarding movements I have been a part of is the queer Muslim collective and the recent launch of the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity. Every year we hold a retreat where attendees build community through spiritual exploration, consciousness-raising, art, and political strategizing.”