Both of my parents converted to Islam in the early 1970s, so I was born and raised as an African-American Muslim in the US. When I was younger, my connection to Islam, spirituality, and Allah was tenuous at times. I wouldn’t understand faith and spirituality in a deep way until I left home for college. This is the way for many people who were raised in religious households – some of us figure out our faith as we grow older; some of us leave it all together.
Finding my queerness was a very different process. It just was. I don’t have a particular coming out story. I don’t have a moment when things clicked for me. I have been queer as long as I can remember, and I have never isolated this part of my identity from my Muslim identity. This doesn’t mean that I’ve been free from all of the internalized fear and homophobia that so many queer folks with religious backgrounds have experienced. I’m also not immune to the general erasure of queer Muslim folks from the cultural imaginary of both the Muslim and the queer community. I spent the vast majority of my queer life believing that queer Muslims didn’t exist, and that I was some kind of outlying anomaly.
This year, Ramadan fell right in the middle of Pride. For many Muslims, Ramadan is a holy month full of forgiveness, fasting, sacrifice, and reflection. It is a time when Allah draws closest to us; it is a time when we consider our privileges and those less fortunate than we are. I love this Islamic month. For me, Pride is a month when I remember the queer and trans women of color who started the Stonewall riots and all of the radical queer and trans people of color who struggled before me and created the world I exist in now. Pride is celebration, but it’s also a time to honor, reflect, and carry the struggle forward. The intersection of Pride and Ramadan created a space for me to consider what being a queer Muslim has taught me.
You do exist.
I have been told – no lie – that I can’t be queer and be Muslim. I’ve been told that being queer and Muslims doesn’t make any sense. When people doubt my Muslimness or my queerness, it always feels like I’m existing in a sci-fi or an existential moment. In the realm of sci-fi: Do I only exist in my imaginative space? Or do I only exist because I dreamed myself into being? In the realm of the existential: Is being Muslim inherently antithetical to being queer? Who am I…really? Being queer and Muslim is like an impossible Venn diagram.
There is a general perception that Islam, as a whole, is homophobic, transphobic, and queerphobic. This perception isn’t completely unfounded, of course. We all know that most conservative contingents in any Judeo-Christian religion harbor deep homophobia – homophobia in Islam is not a unique phenomenon in the religious world. But in the US, our cultural imaginary is so focused on casting Islam and Muslims as a monolith of close minded and bigoted people that we can’t imagine a Muslim who is anything but heterosexual. And yet, here we are. (For Pride month, Dylan Marron released a series of interviews called “Extremely Queer Muslims,” and the comments on the video illustrate all of the ways that people see Islam as being incompatible with queerness).
You are worthy of love.
I think of myself as a confident and resilient person who remains unapologetic, always. But, if I’m real with myself, I know that I can’t say that I’m immune to the homophobia embedded in religious messages, cultures, and texts. Cognitively, I know and believe that Allah sees human beings as more than just our actions. In my heart, I know and believe that Allah loves all of us, especially those who seek Him out, regardless of gender and sexual orientation. But, in the past, there was doubt in my heart about how Allah regarded me as a queer person. Back then, in the times when I felt less worthy as a person and I questioned whether or not I was a good Muslim, some of the first evidence that I used to pile up against myself was always related to my sexuality and my sexual expression. What helped me eventually move through these moments was realizing that I didn’t hold other queer people to that standard – only myself. I didn’t imagine that Allah saw other queer people as being unworthy of love and mercy – only myself. I realized that my lack of self-worth in those moments wasn’t specific to my sexuality and my faith, it was universal. It wasn’t about failing as a Muslim, I felt like I was failing as a person. Understanding that piece helped me shift my internal dialogue. Working on establishing my worth as a person helped those negative thoughts about my faith fade.
You will find Islamophobia (or just general weirdness about Islam) in your queer romantic relationships.
This may seem elementary on some level. We all know that interpersonal love between people doesn’t supersede institutional oppressions. Love doesn’t magically cause bigots to transcend their bigotry. And while occupying one typically oppressed identity category should give you insight into the oppression of others, we know that isn’t always a given (No Justice, No Pride/Cultural appropriation at Pride). Islamophobia will show up in both overt and covert ways in relationships with queer non-Muslims. And the different angles will be dizzying. Sometimes it’s more benign. For example, in an effort to prove how “understand” and “liberal” they are, the person you’re in a relationship with might blindly accept all of your Islamic practices and traditions without asking about them. Like, ever. At face value, being accepted without question might feel like a relief. On the other hand, a repeated lack of engagement with this part of your identity can end up making you feel invisible. I have been in relationships with queer people who actively disengage with me when I talk about my faith or my practice. At the root of this benign disengagement is, more often than not, deep reservations about Islam or Muslims, and may obscure more damaging feelings about your religious practices. Once, when discussing raising children with a partner (now ex), I was floored to learn that they would never want their female identified child to wear hijab (or cover her hair), because hair was “such an important part of a person’s identity.” I wear hijab and, as you can imagine, this took me by surprise. It made me realize that queer folks – even the ones who claim to love and understand you – still consider Muslim women as something less than liberated.
More Radical Reads: The (Anti) Black A** Roots of America’s Islamophobia
You may feel isolated.
Coming out in mainstream Muslim communities, mosques, and circles might feel like an insurmountable task. One tool of Islamophobia is to cast all Muslims and Islam as being irrevocably in opposition to LGBTQ+ people. Even though many queer Muslims know this to not be true, many of us have still internalized this idea and we enter mainstream Muslims spaces in a wary and cautious way. This is simply self-preservation, I suppose, but it might feel like sacrificing one part of your identity in order to engage another aspect of your identity. It feels like an eclipsing.
My sexual and gender identity was something that I kept hidden from my Muslim friends for years. At this point in my life, I can count on one and a half hands the number of non-queer Muslims I’ve come out to. In general, I don’t eclipse one part of my identity in order to appease others, and when I meet Muslims I know are queer or are “queer friendly,” I don’t have any problem simply expressing my whole self as it is. But when I walk into a masjid or when I’m around a group of Muslims I don’t know, I deftly dodge and evade all of the questions that would reveal my sexual orientation. This is easy for me to do because I’m a Scorpio and being dodgy and enigmatic is my claim to fame, but it keeps me from making deep connections with other Muslims and it keeps me on the outskirts of Muslim community.
More Radical Reads: Not in Our Queer Names: We Must Support Muslim Immigrants and Refugees
You will find beautiful, wonderful queer and trans Muslims everywhere.
I realize that this stands in contradiction to what I just said, but it’s also true. I have recently decided to become more intentional about seeking connections with queer and trans Muslims. When Ramadan rolls around every year, I find myself gripped by a particular kind of loneliness – I want to have iftar (break my fast) with other Muslims; I want to pray with other Muslims; I want to bask in the holiness of the month with other Muslims. Yet I repress these desires because of the concerns I have about not fitting into my local Muslim community.
To combat these feelings of loneliness, I’ve been seeking out Muslims in queer spaces. This past year, I had the opportunity to attend the Creating Change Conference – the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s annual multi-day conference. At the conference, there was a gathering organized for queer and trans Muslims, and I went against my curmudgeonly nature to attend the gathering. I met and prayed with gay Muslims, trans Muslims, queer Muslims, and asexual Muslims, and the sense of relief that I felt during that gathering is indescribable. I was the only black Muslim there, so that created some awkwardness for me, but it was the first time that I’d ever been in a gathering with other Muslims and I didn’t have to hold back my queerness. Meeting this group of Muslims reignited my commitment to attend this year’s Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity retreat in October, and I can’t wait to spend an entire weekend engaging in spiritual practice with queer/trans/asexual Muslims.