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‘Mentally, I go through hell’: On being queer and Muslim

The Philip Rush Center houses the Atlanta branch of Muslims for Progressive Values. It is a space for the LGBTQ+ Muslim community. Photo by Unique Rodriguez | The Signal

The LGBTQ community has largely enjoyed mainstream acceptance in the past five years: the majority of Americans (including baby boomers) support same-sex marriage, encompassing over two-thirds of Catholics and Protestants. Republicans’ support for same-sex marriage has almost tripled since the 1990’s, and while only 35 percent of white evangelical Protestants support same-sex marriage, a clear majority of Muslim Americans support homosexuality, according to Pew Research.

These findings are a stark contrast to media portrayals of Muslim Americans as staunchly homophobic and fundamentalist. And yet, while Muslim Americans and the LGBTQ community are frequently strong allies in a world that too often marginalizes both groups’ struggles, Muslim Americans are routinely clumsy when extending that same goodwill to queer members of their own community.

“Mentally, I go through hell…I don’t feel right when I step into a mosque,” one Georgia State student who asked to be referred to only as Mona, said. Mona is a woman who loves women, and is the only queer Muslim she knows. “[I’ve] tried reading the Quran, trying to find the sections where it’s [stating] ‘Oh, it’s a sin.’”

Surprisingly for many, homoeroticism holds a powerful place in Islamic history. Male-on-male sex and lust is well-documented in poetry, artwork and historical records in several pre-modern Islamic societies, including Persia and India, the latter case shocking the British when they invaded and colonized the Asian subcontinent. Indeed, medieval Europeans considered Islamic societies “hedonistic” and indulgent for their open sexualities. The Ottoman Empire was among the first in contemporary history to decriminalize homosexuality in 1858, over a century ahead of some American and European states. Some scholars of that era characterize sexuality not as an identity, as many people do today, but as a personal preference, like being a vegetarian versus a meat eater.

While Islamic history is colorful, the present reality LGBTQ Muslims in the Muslim world face can be devastating. Queer Muslims can face the death penalty in 13 Muslim-majority countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan, and suffer criminal penalties in others. Nonetheless, one report on Muslim life in the East stated, “Gay life in the open is rare, but the closet is spacious,” suggesting that strict laws and social norms cultivate flourishing underground LGBTQ communities.

In tune with the stringent cultures in most Muslim nations, most scholars in recent history have denounced homosexual practicesalbeit not homosexual individuals so long as they don’t act on their “urges”as one of the gravest sins. Yet, unlike other Abrahamic faiths, Muslims’ holy text, the Quran, doesn’t explicitly refer to homosexuality as forbidden, a finding that Kelly Wentworth, one of the leaders at the Atlanta branch of Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV), found enticing about Islam before she converted to the faith.

MPV is an LGBTQ-friendly organization designed to provide queer Muslims with a safe space from homophobia in religious communities and Islamophobia in American ones. The Atlanta mosque, located in the Phillip Rush Center near Little Five Points, found its current home there in 2011, around the time that Al-Fatiha, the largest LGBTQ-Muslim institution in the world, dissolved. They hold prayers, study groups and community events at the center on a primarily “word of mouth” basis.

“We have some Muslims who aren’t out, can’t be out, and will never be out, and we try to respect their privacy,” Wentworth said.

One visitor at MPV said she was drawn to the community after the Orlando Pulse shooting, when over one hundred club-goers were injured or killed. After the shooting, she needed support during an apparent conflict between her Muslim identity and her queer identity, especially because she felt ostracized by the greater Atlanta Muslim community.

Members also cited a critical difference between MPV and other organizations that are explicitly queer-friendly as opposed to well-intentioned but apologetic Muslims and mosques: the latter often hold a “love the sinner, but hate the sin” attitude that some queer Muslims find problematic. Rather, members cited a desire to be accepted wholeheartedly and unconditionally.

Other queer Muslims have not had the fortune of finding a broad community for LGBTQ Muslims. “It’s lonely,” Mona said.

“I’m only out to two of my cousins … my sister is just like totally against it for some reason,” Mona said. She recalled times when her family lambasted gay men for being infected with HIV, claiming it’s their punishment for living a life of sin. However, she’s out to those outside of her family.

“All my friends know, even the Arabs, the Muslims. So all my friends, I make sure to let them know. I don’t like hiding that,” Mona said.

Millennial Muslim Americans, as Mona and the other queer Muslims The Signal spoke to believe, tend to be more accepting of LGBTQ Muslims than generations past. In fact, there’s been increased discourse between mainstream and queer Muslims in the past few years.

“Especially with this [Trump] administration, we’ve found that there’s a lot more understanding and outreach, whereas before [Muslim] people could comfortably ignore us,” Wentworth said. The queer Muslim community has also fostered bonds with the local Ahmadiyya and Ismaili Muslim populations; the members of MPV said this was because they’ve all faced “being on the outskirts of Islam” and could relate to each others’ experiences.

But even when times of tribulations lead to a “marriage of convenience” between groups that seem to be at odds, queer Muslims can still feel unbearable pressure from their families to conform. Muslim culture, especially those from African and Asian backgrounds, revolves almost completely around family values and making your elders proud. Some of the Georgia State Muslims and members of MPV said they were on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” basis with their families and local Muslim communities. Many gay Muslims marry people of the opposite sex, hoping that it will help relieve their identity conflicts. Others leave the faith entirely, with ex-Muslims in North America reaching record heights.

“You know what’s crazy is that this year I fasted for the first time for Ramadan since 2013. I’ve had a lot of trouble with it from junior year to now … Now it’s really hard, especially as I’m getting older. My mom [expects] me to get married to a man. It’s really getting close,” Mona said. “Right now, I’m living a double life.”

In spite of all their troubles, the future seems optimistic for LGBTQ Muslims, with new progressive mosques opening across the United States, Europe and Africa. There have been several initiatives, like Muslims for Progressive Values and the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity, that strive to mold a welcoming environment for those with identities that traditionally have clashed with the status quo.

“They’re not alone,” Wentworth said of queer Muslims. “We’re trying to be as visible as possible. There’s been a lot of concerns in our community about visibility, especially in the South, as you know. But we’re here.”

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