The Complicated Pain of America's Queer Muslims

In the midst of a post-Orlando debate that pits Islamophobia against homophobia, LGBT members of the Islamic community find themselves trying to balance multiple identities.

A woman marches in the 2012 Toronto Gay Pride parade. (Mark Blinch / Reuters)

After the massacre in Orlando, Mirna Haidar decided to go to a solidarity rally Sunday evening at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, the gay-rights landmark. It wasn’t quite the uplifting experience she’d hoped for.

“Someone started shouting, ‘Muslims are the problem,’” said Haidar, a gender non-conforming social-justice activist in New York. “That’s really traumatizing for someone like me.”

Haidar is one of the people struggling to balance several identities in the aftermath of the Orlando shooting, especially her identities as both queer and Muslim. The discussion about the shooting has become in part a shouting match between two competing narratives, one about Islamophobia and one about homophobia. Because Omar Mateen killed 49 people at a gay club, saying he was acting in the name of Islam, these narratives are presumed to be mutually exclusive. For LGBTQ Muslims, however, experiencing both forms of discrimination simultaneously isn’t just possible; it’s familiar. They are the people who are terrified by the specter of violence against gay people, but who also immediately start praying, “just please don’t let him be Muslim” every time they hear a news item about an attack.

“It was a really confusing day,” said Omair Paul, a gay, New York-born Pakistani-American who’s the UN representative for Muslims for Progressive Values. “I was just confused and overloaded with thoughts.”

MPV is just one of a nascent wave of liberalizing Muslim groups. The Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity, on whose steering committee Haidar sits, is another. A now-defunct group called Al-Fatiha—literally, “The Opening,” and the name of the Koran’s first chapter—carried the standard for a time. There have been LBGT Muslim organizations since a group called the Lavender Crescent was formed in the 1970s in San Francisco. Yet queer Muslims exist as a sort of ghost contingent.

“Many of us feel we’re not fully accepted in the Muslim community, and many of us who are also racialized as black and brown and other colors of the racial rainbow, we’re not fully accepted within the larger LGBT community, elements of which might not only just hold racialist views, but also anti-Muslim views and anti-Islam views,” says El-Farouk Khaki, an immigration lawyer and activist in Toronto.

One result of that is a feeling among many Muslims feel compelled to choose between their religion and their sexuality. “A lot of times people are torn and feel they have to choose an identity,” Khaki said. “They feel they have to make a choice that’s not natural.” They might repress one or another facet of their identity, either all the time or when they’re with certain friends or family members.

In 2009, Khaki co-founded El-Tawhid Juma Circle, a queer-affirming prayer space. “We often have people who when they first come to a service at the mosque or come to the iftar, I see one of two responses, not exclusive,” he said. “Either they’re beaming from ear to ear, or they’re crying, and sometimes they’re doing both. It feels like something’s been lifted from them. They can come into a space and not have to hide who and what they are.”

Gays in many Muslim countries overseas face horrifying persecution. (Paul spends much of his time lobbying for protection for LGBTQ people overseas). There’s also discomfort and worse within many U.S. Muslim communities about homosexuality, just as there has been—and in many cases still is—within American Christian and Jewish communities. Even when this doesn’t take the form of virulent anti-gay preaching, which sometimes does occur, queer Muslims say that mainstream Muslim organizations tend to try to steer clear of dealing with homosexuality.

LGBT activists point to a rich history of same-sex relationships in many Muslim cultures. Sexual relationships between men were once relatively accepted in Afghanistan; the poems of Jalaluddin Rumi have often been read as homoerotic. Today’s queer Muslims present theological arguments for their place within the religion, and some argue they have more leeway than members of some other faith communities because of Islam’s non-hierarchical structure.

“I’ve had Catholic-identifying gay people say, ‘It must be difficult to be Muslim and gay,’” Khaki said with a chuckle. “Like, you have a pope! We don’t have a central religious authority who defines our place, which affords us the freedom to find our place.”

How far this discourse reaches into the broader community is unclear. Reliable polling on American Muslims is hard to come by, in part because Muslims constitute such a small portion of the population. In 2011, Pew found that American Muslims were split between those who felt homosexuality should be accepted (39 percent) and those who disapproved (45 percent.) But overall American attitudes on LGBT issues have shifted considerably over the last five years.

In a New York Times column on Monday, Bilal Qureshi criticized what he views as the silence of many Muslims in the face of discrimination and violence against LGBT people. “We must stand up against the anti-Muslim responses that come so easily in this current political climate,” Qureshi wrote. “But for Muslims, this is also a moment to reflect more deeply on how we feel about living in a country where gay rights are central, where marriage equality is real and coexistence is the only way forward.”

But the queer Muslims with whom I spoke expressed frustration with LGBT communities as well.

“There’s going to be this rampant Islamophobia within the LGBTQ community, as if there wasn’t already,” Paul complained. Despite increasing ties between faith and queer communities, he said many LGBT people he knows tend to be antagonistic toward religion, which they view as a font of persecution, and in particular toward Islam, which forces him into the uncomfortable position of mediator. “There is this nascent—not Islamophobia, but, ‘Well, I’ve been reading a lot of ISIS and them throwing gay men off buildings in Iraq, and it’s justified with Islam, how do you address that?’ I’m not going to have a casual conversation with someone about hadith and the Koran and critical analysis.”

The frustration extends to formal groups within the queer community. “I think that mainstream LGBTQ organizations have not been great about understanding intersectionality however it occurs, and specifically for LGBTQ Muslims,” said Sahar Shafqat, a professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and a steering committee member at MASGD. (The acronym is a homonym of masjid, the Arabic word for mosque.) Too often, she said, these groups reduce their membership to white gayness, she said. “That privilege comes with actually being able to fit all parts of your identity and the not having the world force you to choose. People don’t say, ‘How can you be gay? You’re white.’”

Haidar gently pushed back when I asked her about any tension. “These are not two communities that exist, oftentimes. These are the same community,” she said. “The shared goal is justice and freedom for all. The problem is Islamophobia in general, not  just in the queer community. The problem is not just homophobia within the Muslim community, it’s homophobia in general.”

It’s this kind of division that Donald Trump tried to capitalize on during his remarks on Monday about the shooting, in which he offered extremely warm words for the gay community while also bluntly questioning the loyalty of American Muslims.

Both of those currents—the intersectional nature of homophobia and Islamophobia, and the danger of being exploited as wedge issues by politicians—suggest the utility of an alliance between LGBT and Muslim communities. Both are beleaguered minorities in American society, both are subject to frequent violence and harassment.

“That’s the irony, isn’t it? These two groups are often portrayed as the most marginalized in American society—there seems to be a natural affinity, at least within the North American context, and yet these two groups are seen as being in opposition,” Khaki said. “It doubly impacts LBGTQ Muslims, that our identities are seen as mutually exclusive.”

For now, however, such an alliance is mostly theoretical, limited to groups like MASGD and MPV, and the Orlando massacre has left their members feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. Haidar pointed out that the focus on Mateen had distracted from James Wesley Howell, who was arrested while allegedly heading toward the LA Pride festival with explosives and guns.

Shafqat found herself disappointed with the political response from Democrat Hillary Clinton. “What I am looking for is a very, very robust and full-throated articulation, a progressive defense of LGBTQ rights as well as Muslim rights. I have not seen that,” she said. “We expect that with Donald Trump, but I think people expect more from the Clinton campaign. I hope that she can step it up.”

As for Paul, his reaction was more visceral. “I am personally—I’m exhausted,” he said. “I’m just tired of it.”

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