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.”