‘My Heart Just Sank’: Talking to Muslim LGBT Activists About Orlando

By
Image
Photo: JANEK SKARZYNSKI

Sunday’s mass shooting in Orlando, which left 49 dead and 53 injured, is a tragedy for all Americans and for anyone who believes in love, equality, and inclusion. For LGBT Muslims, the sense of loss and mourning is even deeper. It’s compounded by past traumas and all-too-present fears.

Wazina is a 33-year sex educator, activist, and lesbian Muslim daughter of Afghan refugees. For her, the shooting is a triple slam to the heart. When she first got the news — half asleep at 3 a.m. — she refused to imagine the worst, to speculate at the shooter’s identity. It wasn’t until the next day, when friends and family began calling to check in and express their solidarity, that she discovered that 29-year-old Omar Mateen was a New York–born Afghan Muslim like herself.

“My heart just sank,” she says. “All the LGBT community is in mourning. Organizations like CAIR [the Council on American-Islamic relations] are stepping up to express solidarity. I think every single Afghan family is shaking their heads in condemnation.”

Several miles away in Manhattan, 29-year Hamid, a gay Muslim immigrant from Bangladesh, experienced the same shock and dismay. It was a fresh cut at an earlier wound: Eight weeks earlier, he’d been shaken to his core when he read that the founder of Bangladesh’s only LGBT magazine, a Bangladeshi man named Xulhaz Mannan, had been hacked to death in his own apartment in Dhaka by six strangers posing as couriers. A homegrown terrorist group with Al Qaeda ties later declared responsibility.

Hamid didn’t know Xulhaz personally, but the story hit close to home. Hamid, too, had grown up in Bangladesh, as a gay Muslim who had been alienated by mainstream religious doctrine. But, unlike Xulhaz — who loudly and controversially spoke up for LGBT rights in a conservative, Muslim-majority country — Hamid’s life has been a closeted one. He still isn’t out to his parents or to the Dhaka community where they live. Now a stylish, confident Manhattanite working at a major business consultancy, he dates openly and has many gay friends — but it’s very much a double life.

“I don’t personally know anyone who is a gay Muslim and not living like a pariah,” he says. “Growing up, I feared that the worst thing that would happen is that I’d be disowned. I would tell myself, At least I’ll be successful. Now, I realize, the more successful I am, if I’m out, the more it puts me in danger. It’s a strange feeling, that your dreams have to be reimagined.”

Many LGBT Muslims like Hamid and Wazina feel caught at the nexus of their multiple identities: internally fractured and torn between competing loyalties. Many reject Islam because a place doesn’t seem to exist there for them; hardline ideologues and fundamentalists greet them with fear, hatred, and sometimes violence. Many resign themselves to lives of quiet desperation, never fully able to express their full selves.

The good news is that change is brewing. In the face of angst and uncertainty, LGBT Muslims are beginning to claim their rightful space within the ummah, the global Muslim community. For these individuals, reconciling the multiple parts of their identities requires imagination, love, bravery, and the solidarity of other Muslims.

Wazina knew she was gay around age 13, but she didn’t have the courage to come out to her parents until years later, in a letter to her father.

“They said there was no possibility to be gay and Muslim and Afghan, if I chose to assert that out loud,” she recounts. “My father said, ‘Don’t live this life of struggle. You’re a refugee, a person of color.’”

She didn’t agree. She calls this notion, that to be gay and Muslim means only struggle, never joy, “the deficit model of our identities.” Too often, she says, this model dominates the conversation, among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and even within the larger LGBT community.

Oh, it’s so sad to be gay and Muslim,” she says, mimicking the tone of a concerned cultural bystander. “Every movie and documentary will give you that narrative. If we keep hearing that, we will keep thinking of ourselves as a deficit.”

Today, Wazina is the co-creator of Coming Out Muslim: Radical Acts of Love, a performance and storytelling project that explores what it means to be queer and Muslim. Through her teaching, writing, and workshops, she offers gay Muslims who feel splintered and alone the opportunity to tell their whole stories and to engage in a conversation about how loving God can coexist with embracing your sexuality.

You exist and you’re whole and complete — that’s all I want to tell people,” she says. For Wazina, creating this space for affirmation and open dialogue becomes a way of “dismantling loneliness” and moving the dial toward a more progressive, joyful Islam.

She says, “There is a progressive Islam that exists, where people are resisting and challenging the larger ISIS conversation. This is what Islam means to me: Muslims standing up in response to injustice. I’m very much moved be the idea of being part of the ummah — though not everyone there is cool having me there.”

She’s glad to see Islamic leaders and organizations stepping up to condemn Sunday’s shooting and declare solidarity with the LGBT community (just as LGBT leaders are declaring their support against Islamophobia) but she says public statements are not enough.

“It’s more important that they condemn it at the dinner table. If you’re not having the conversation at the very personal level with your family, your neighbor, or one-on-one with your partner, it’s not enough. That’s how you share your values, that’s how they change. “

Building a more inclusive Muslim community is also the aim of Imam Daayiee Abdullah, an openly gay DC-based imam who counsels LGBT Muslim youth and their families, and performs nika (marriage rites) for same-sex couples. He is the founder of the Mecca Institute, a progressive Islamic seminary. The Imam’s scholarly work focuses on “Qur’an based interpretations for modern life,” including locating inclusiveness and equality as themes in Islamic scripture and history. He believes that the Qur’an doesn’t privilege heterosexuality over homosexuality, and describes several verses that he interprets as sanctioning marriage diversity.

“There is nothing wrong with a diversity in how people understand the Qur’an,” he says. “People think there is a monolithic Islam but, if you look at the history, there have always been a number of different Islams. Myth is very powerful, but history is much more truthful.”

He cites the Muslim ummah in China, where he converted to Islam as a 33-year-old graduate student, as an example of diversity and acceptance: “In their culture, in the 1,300 years they had been Muslim, there were no problems with gays.”

Indeed, same-sex attraction has held a recognized place in many Islamic civilizations, and homoerotic themes abound in pre-19th-century Islamic art, poetry, and literature. But, in the modern global era, that’s been lost — Imam Daayiee blames “funders from Saudi and the Gulf who promote certain ideological frameworks.” (Others have blamed British colonialists for exporting rigid attitudes toward gender and sexuality.) But the Imam says that progress is being made, as conversations about LGBT rights and dignity shift worldwide.

“I think that the awareness is much higher now, outside of people who harbor animosity because they are frightened by mythology, or bad personal experiences,” he says. “We’re working toward a scenario where being an LGBT Muslim isn’t an oxymoron, where all are accepted, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, place of origin.”

Abbas Rattani, cofounder of Mipsterz (Muslim Hipsters), a listserv that often functions as a crucible for progressive Muslim conversations, says that he sees minds being changed in real time.

He describes passionate Mipsterz discussions in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s 2015 marriage equality decision and the “Open Letter to American Muslims on Same-Sex Marriage” penned by scholar Reza Aslan and Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj.

He says, “One of the positive things that came out of it was recognition of individual and collective struggle. A lot of people were raised to think homosexuality is a sin, but you started noticing people starting to question that orthodoxy.”

For Wazina, Hamid, and others, the hope is that tragedies can also become catalysts for change, as the Stonewall Riots were in New York in 1969. There’s an opportunity for Muslims who stand for justice, inclusion, and equality to come together, face their collective humanity, and speak up.

Xulhaz’s murder became just such a catalyst for Hamid. In the week after, he attended a fundraiser for a co-editor of Xulhaz’s Bangladeshi LGBT magazine, who is in hiding in a safe house in Bangladesh while he petitions for asylum in the US. At the fundraiser, Hamid witnessed for the first time, the existence of a vibrant community of “non-pariah” LGBT Muslims like himself, and begin to reimagine his place as a gay Bengali Muslim. He contributed to the fund and later reached out to Ivy League lawyer friends who could help with the asylum petition. He also began to research local events organized by Muslims for Progressive Values, a grassroots organization dedicated to nurturing progressive Muslim communities “rooted in traditional Qur’anic ideals of human dignity and social justice.”

“We need a more vibrant presence of these voices,” Hamid says. “There are so many of us around, but we don’t speak up or do as much as we would if the structures were already in place.”

* Some names have been changed.