When I first came out, I thought I might be the only queer Muslim in the world. I was 19 years old, born and raised in the West. While I had Muslim friends and gay friends, I didn’t know anyone but me who was both.
Rather than being a queer person in Muslim spaces, I could be a Muslim in queer ones.
The idea of coming out to the Muslims in my life—mostly people of my parents’ generation who existed in my mind as a forbidding monolith hushing me at Jummah prayers—was unthinkable. My only option, if I wanted friends around whom I could be my whole self, was a backwards coming-out of sorts. Rather than being a queer person in Muslim spaces, I could be a Muslim in queer ones.
One such space has been the local gay bar in the Louisiana town where I live. I’ve been blessed to have always lived in places where gay bars are relatively safe. But to a queer Muslim, that safety is conditional. When I introduce myself by my real, Arabic name; when someone asks where I’m from and I say my parents are immigrants from Pakistan and Turkey; and when I turn down free shots and explain why I don’t drink, I am reminded by the guarded looks on people’s faces and the way they withdraw from me almost imperceptibly that, to some, my faith will always make me an unwelcome intruder in their spaces.
Islamophobia is rampant among progressives in the West, but it always stings a little more to hear a fellow LGBT person calling my mother a “towelhead” or asking my brothers if they’re carrying bombs under their shirts. I remember reading posts on an internet forum about a photo of me in a hijab juxtaposed against one of me in Western clothes, which had illustrated an article I wrote about Islamic feminism. According to the commenters, the photos proved that I must be faking either my religion or my sexuality. In this and other instances, LGBT Muslims are seen as impostors and our Muslim families and communities as threats.
After events like the tragic shooting in Orlando, Florida, this problem becomes more pronounced. In the hours immediately following the Pulse shooting, I received a great deal of opportunistic hate mail, as I imagine many visibly queer and trans people did. However, most of the hate messages I received online were not about my sexuality or gender, but about my religion. Many came from fellow LGBT people, who asked me how I justified homophobic laws in Muslim countries (I don’t) and demanded that I “disavow” Islam as proof that I really did care about LGBT rights (I won’t, but I do). These attacks left me no space to mourn or deal with the pain of such a blow to the LGBT community, of which I consider myself a part.
So it often is for queer Muslims in the increasingly queer-friendly but Muslim-unfriendly West, in gay bars and beyond. We, like many queer and trans Christians and Jews, exist in the margins of safe spaces that welcome us only in part. Ostracized from or unsafe in our faith communities, we turn to queer spaces for safety and solidarity, only to be shunned by people who see faith as antithetical to queerness.
I have coped with this painful rejection by finding kindred spirits around the world: queer and trans Muslims as near as the American South and as far away as Bangladesh, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. It is immensely comforting to know that others like me do exist, even if we are separated by thousands of miles.
We turn to queer spaces for safety and solidarity, only to be shunned by people who see faith as antithetical to queerness.
But there are times when the comfort of people halfway across the world seems scant at best. Orlando was the most recent in a series of hate crimes targeting LGBT Americans around the country, including in Galveston, Seattle, New Orleans, and other places. In the face of such violence, my global community feels too disparate to form any kind of coherent whole, too scattered to draw strength from. When we attempt to draw strength from local queer communities, however, we’re just as likely to be rebuffed as welcomed.
I understand why the queer community is wary. Many Muslims, just like many other people around the world, are homophobic. It should go without saying that I do not consider someone who commits hate crimes against gay people a partner in faith, no matter how they say their prayers. And I have made it my life’s work to be a resource for others like me. I do not want anyone to feel as alone as I did before I found my own community.
But I am also tired of apologizing for something I didn’t do at a time when I am just as in need of support as those demanding apologies. The victims of the Pulse shooting could have been me, or my partner, or any number of people I loved, in a bar like that, in a city like that, on a night like that. Surely, faith or lack thereof is irrelevant here; the gunman didn’t stop before opening fire to ask who in the building could recite the Shahada—the prayer Muslims use to declare their faith.
With that in mind, isn’t it time for the LGBT community to accept into its ranks the many, many people of faith, Muslim and otherwise, currently dealing with hatred and bigotry on all sides? We are all of us hurt, and we have nothing to lose but our pain. We require the comforts of community and solidarity not just to thrive, but to continue existing.
Some LGBT people have made great strides toward welcoming Muslims into queer and trans spaces—for example, Methodist ministry candidate T.C. Morrow, writer Glenn Greenwald, and Toronto city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam. But not all have been so accommodating. By demanding apologies of us for the hateful actions of others, some LGBT voices have cast queer and trans Muslims as adversaries at a time when the love and support of our communities is more important than ever. Surely, we are no less queer or trans just because we are also Muslim. The creators and gatekeepers of queer spaces should ask what they have to gain by echoing the reactionary “divide and conquer” politics of Donald Trump and his followers.
At a time when conservatives seek to pander to whichever minority group they think might swing votes their way, why do we allow ourselves to be bought off by talk of a patriotic dream that never included us anyway and—if the right gets its way—never will? We are not the Americans politicians are talking about in their paeans to patriotism and family values and Ma’s apple pie. To them, we are barely citizens at all until the people killing us are more hated than we are. As it is, many Republican statements about the Pulse shooting have tried hard to skirt the fact that it was a gay club because caring about gay people dying would disrupt their narrative of us as subhuman.
Rather than placing the blame on Islam, a religion practiced by more than one billion people who did not shoot up gay bars this month, let’s place it where it belongs: on a global culture of toxic and violent masculinity and homophobia that too often ends in death. The time has come—the time is past—to address the root causes of the hatred and to begin along the road to peace and healing together.