In the media, being queer and Muslim often seems to amount to being a victim. In articles on violence against LGBTQ people in Muslim-majority countries, or pieces on the challenges of coming out, the queer person’s connection to Islam is often used to imply that these cultures are especially intolerant. With this narrow focus on tragedy, it can be hard to understand the day-to-day lived experiences of queer people who identify religiously or culturally with Islam—particularly the difficulty they face in trying to find communities that embrace their multiple identities.
Even within the gay community, “I am markedly different in these spaces and unable to hide the difference that I wear on my body: My brownness, my hijab, my not drinking are lightbeams signaling my otherness,” writes one queer South Asian writer in an essay for the online magazine Black Girl Dangerous. She describes feeling “saved” by groups like the NYC queer Muslim book club, where she does not have to make compromises. “I think it’s less about a similarity of experience and more about supporting each other,” she said in an interview. “To be able to talk about these things without feeling defensive or without feeling like I need to explain things ... was really important to me. To have space to talk ... without feeling ‘too Muslim for the queers’ or ‘too queer for the Muslims.’”
Across the country, queer Muslims have formed groups, trying to offset feelings of isolation and provide support to those who don’t “fit” into other communities. Participants share some parts of their identities, but come from different races, cultures, and class backgrounds; they’re of all ages, and some are longtime Americans, while others are immigrants. People also vary in their relationship to Islam. They may come for communal iftars (the fast-breaking meal at the end of each day of Ramadan), to study the Koran, or to take part in secular gatherings about everything from family violence to the latest gender-studies books.
One of the largest spaces for queer and trans Muslims is the LGBTQ Muslim Retreat. Once a year for the past five years, the retreat has hosted Muslims and their partners in Pennsylvania. 2015 was the largest gathering yet, with more than 100 people attending from multiple countries and states. For some attendees, these retreats are the first time they’ve met another queer Muslim. “The programming tries to address identities, emerging issues within the community, and questions of theology,” said Urooj Arshad, a 2011 retreat organizer, “with some talent/no talent [shows], flower making, etc. thrown in there.”
The retreat also challenges some more conservative Muslim practices, such as gender-segregated prayer spaces. “Mixed-gender congregational prayer is another aspect of the retreat that revolutionizes people’s practice of Islam,” Arshad said. This experience is especially significant for trans and genderqueer Muslims who have to navigate gender-segregated mosques—it can be stressful to choose where and when they pray, whether to wear hijab, and how to observe other customs. As one woman of trans experience, who writes under the pen name Mahdia Lynn, wrote in an essay for the website MuslimGirl.net: “Sisters from the masjid (the very same women who invited me into their homes and shared in iftars that Ramadan) talked about how disgusting these men-who-want-to-be-women are, swearing they’d never be allowed in our prayer spaces ... Suddenly it became apparent that all that love and security I felt was entirely conditional.” At times, communities reject trans worshippers outright—as in recent cases in Arizona and the U.K.
Many regional groups try to offer a sense of safety and belonging beyond this annual meet-up. Kaamila Mohamed, a black, queer woman who cofounded the group Queer Muslims of Boston, said her organization isn’t just for traditionally practicing Muslims. “For some folks it means, ‘I feel safe praying again, within this space.’ For other folks, it can mean, ‘It's okay for me not to pray. This is a space in which I can be Muslim in the way that I am Muslim.’ And for other people, it’s a place to process relationships with family or with other Muslim spaces.” She said the group also welcomes converts and reverts, or people who may not have a family or cultural history with Islam but have felt it was always their spiritual path.
Most queer Muslim groups in the U.S. are run on a small scale; very few receive funding from major LGBT or Muslim organizations. Most local groups operate out of people’s homes, which builds intimacy and protects members’ safety and privacy. But finding one another when groups are local and small can be a challenge. While Queer Muslims of Boston has a presence on social media and members regularly attend public events, other groups choose to limit their visibility. Contact is still often made through word of mouth, although the Internet has made it easier for those who are geographically isolated.
One cofounder of the Michigan Arab Queer Collective said it was a challenge to find a community as a refugee in the U.S. after she left Beirut and Meem, a Lebanese group of more than 300 women and trans people. “When I left to the States as a refugee, I assumed that I would just immediately find a constituency of people who shared similar struggles with me,” she said. “Little did I know that relocating to Dearborn was as sensitive as being a queer Muslim woman in Lebanon.”
Many of these groups struggle with a lack of financial and organizational resources. Lynn, who cofounded the online group Transgender Muslim Support Network, started her organization because “we felt a marked absence of resources, information and basic support for trans Muslims,” she said. “There seemed to be no other option than to just make it ourselves.”
Race also affects how these communities are formed. The cofounder of Third Coast Queer Muslims of Chicago and the Upper Midwest, who writes under the pen name Zaynab Shahar, said black American Muslims are often sidelined, even in groups designed to be welcoming. “Much of the narrative on what it means to be an LGBTQ Muslim in the United States focuses on immigration and the process of identity reconciliation ... Just because many of us were born in this country doesn’t mean there aren’t [unique] in-group cultural expectations [to navigate],” she said.
Most of these groups want to create spaces for queer Muslims, rather than replace more conservative Muslim communities. “I do not buy into the myth that all non-queer Muslims are homophobic,” said Mohamed of Queer Muslims of Boston. But these and other organizations, such as Noor in Seattle and El-Tawhid Juma Circle in Toronto, are filling a long-ambiguous space within Muslim communities. As Shahar said, “I’m over people within the LGBTQ Muslim movement telling me the movement is young and therefore we need to wait a little bit longer before rolling up our sleeves and helping folks among us.”