Written by Rima Zalghout
To the world, my identity as a Muslim woman and a queer woman are at odds with each other.
Yet, I am Muslim and queer.
I did not consciously name myself as queer until I was 19. Before that, I grew up with a solid understanding that I found girls pretty – just as beautiful as I found boys – but wrote it off as finding beauty in all of Allah’s creatures. The first sincere queer thought I remember having was at 7 when, while watching Sailor Moon, Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus were depicted as a lesbian couple. Of course, this was American television in the 1990s, so the sailor scouts became cousins instead—and I was delighted. You see, my mother and father were also cousins, so obviously Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus could be together.
Intermingled with these innocent thoughts, I also grew up listening to my family repeat that they’d rather I take off my hijab than be a lesbian. My mother would come home from work and exclaim in disgust about the gay woman who wanted her partner near her in her time of need, or how she told her manager that she did not want to work with the flamboyant male nursing assistant.
Once, after being caught at a co-ed party, my mother gravely told me that a child being gay was a parent’s worst nightmare, and what I had done at the time came in a close second.
…I am Muslim and queer.
Callous statements like these indirectly made me feel like I couldn’t be Muslim and that I couldn’t be queer. It created in me a separation I still struggle to combine, and a lifetime of guilt and difficulty understanding my religion. It also meant that I never outwardly defended anyone in the LGBT community for fear that someone would figure out I was really talking about myself.
I am forced, like many, to keep my life a secret from my family and community on penalty of condemnation or ostracization. Is this to say that queer Muslims are the first group of people to be religiously persecuted? No, of course not. But many Muslims DO live within collectivist cultures, and if they do not, are often rejected by the mosques that may be their only link to other Muslims in a large radius.
And for queer Muslims, the complexities of being understood and accepted by boarder society are even more difficult.
What does this mean? In American culture, there are no true spaces for me. Daily, I read and hear people ridicule the idea that a person can’t be Muslim and gay (by nature of the fact that Islam is anti-gay), all the while failing to see the double standard as they discuss their Christian lesbian friend who practices faithfully. Therefore, conversations within the LGBT community are rarely inclusive of queer Muslims. While there are Muslims who have no issues going to bars or clubs, many are uncomfortable or unable to go to these spaces for a variety of reasons. This is, at its core, the issue with approaching queer issues without an intersectional lens.
A few years ago, a man in the Gay Pride parade in San Francisco poked fun at ISIS by recreating their flag but with dildos–and managed to isolate, irritate, and push queer Muslims away from the dialogue that was occurring because the ISIS flag has the words “la ilaha illallah muhammadur rasulullah”, or “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger” – AKA the Muslim shahada, or creed. Obviously, no one has any issues with abusing ISIS and what they stand for, but the lack of courtesy towards queer Muslims only creates a larger divide that is not being addressed.
On a more personal note, I was told my opinions as a queer person of color didn’t matter because I was closeted and therefore did not experience being queer as fully as the white gay and out man I was speaking with. The subject? The addition of the black and brown stripes to the pride flag in Philadelphia.
In a private message, I was dismissed and pushed away from the community because I have never had the opportunity to go to Pride or in his so-called LGBTQ spaces, as if I did not create my own spaces in which to have LGBTQ friends, discussions, and develop my sense of self.
I never outwardly defended anyone in the LGBT community for fear that someone would figure out I was really talking about myself.
I was told when I start ‘walking the walk’, then I could throw all the shade I wanted (never mind the blind hypocrisy at using AAVE to dismiss me). I was pissed. The LGBTQ movement might not be a ‘race-based group’, but he was ignoring the standard fact that discrimination does occur in queer circles, content with the fact that if people of all races joined hands at Pride, that must mean that racism didn’t intrude within the LGBTQ movement.
So, I came out on his Facebook wall. Excessive? Maybe. But I refused to let my voice be silenced, especially about a matter that was important to me. It still hurts that I couldn’t come out on my own terms, but as a way to stand up against the white cis hegemony in the LGBT community. What pushed me over the edge was when he responded publicly and implied I was straight, called it his community, and tried to dismiss my thoughts as someone overstepping her boundaries.
How do queer Muslims deal?
We have all heard of Muslims who have come out and things have been OK, but for the vast majority of us the idea of “coming out” is one riddled with violence – physical and emotional. Some Muslims are forthright and simply state their truths, disowned by their families and ostracized by their communities as a result.
This uprooting is emotionally and mentally devastating especially within cultures that put a lot of emphasis on the familial structure and are deeply invested in what the community has to say, such as Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African communities, regardless of the individualistic tendencies of the person.
The vast community of queer Muslims opts to keep their true selves hidden. To the public, they live a heterosexual and romantic life or express no interest in marrying at all. In private, if the opportunity is given, their true selves are expressed. The public image and the private truth are kept painfully, sometimes fearfully, apart. It can lead to a sense of dissociation, and a rejection of culture and Islam.
This is dangerous for the mental and physical health of queer Muslims because we are already marginalized by American society. When the rejection happens within our own communities, unlike white queer Americans, there is no solid place to turn to experience our pain in a safe way. For many queer Muslims, a complete rejection of their culture or religion is the only way they feel acceptance into mainstream queer society.
What needs to be done to help queer Muslims avoid extreme experiences? To answer this question, we need to address two groups: the American LGBTQIA+ community and the Muslim-American community.
To the American LGBTQIA+ community:
Inclusivity is key. The queer liberation cannot just be from a white, cis and male point of view. First and foremost, queer folk cannot use Islamophobic rhetoric as the forefront of their fight against anti-LGBT discrimination. As one of my friends put it, “Not all Muslims are beheading queer folk and perpetuating that stereotype is really damaging to queer Muslims everywhere”. This means introducing more nuanced ideas into what it means to be queer and what the real face of the queer liberation front probably looks like.
It is important to recognize that just because a queer person is not out and proud does not mean that their voices are not as valid. We do not need to ‘put on our rainbow boots’, or be at every event to be able to express valid opinions and be part of the LGBT community, nor should we be looked down on because some of us choose to stay in the closet. This sets a dangerous precedent of making it so there is only “one right kind of gay”, and pushes Muslims out, but also others who can’t access these spaces (such as disabled queer folk).
More effort in creating events that allow Muslims to enter the space and have a voice is essential. Rather than talk over Muslims, pass the mic and listen to what our needs are.
To the Muslim-American community:
Anti-gay rhetoric is widely spread among religious leaders and scholars of Abrahamic faiths. To embrace that footnote ideology is a disservice to countless men, women, and genderqueer folk, including myself.
You MUST end the reoccurring rhetoric of ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’. This is violence. The idea that it is the job of queer Muslims to withhold their own lives for the sake of your bigoted comfort level is ludicrous. Further, you must encourage queer-bashing to end within mosques and be open to dialogue. Muslims are as diverse as the number of Muslims that exist and to deny a weighted part of the population their right to exist and to surround them with hateful and violent rhetoric can only lead to violent hate crimes and “othering”. No person should be forced to choose between being queer and being Muslim.
After all, we are not haram.
No one is haram.