Gay and Muslim? The Advice You Should Have Received

I read with dismay the purported advice (really just a continued dig at me) to a fellow Muslim woman seeking advice about her attraction to other women:

A Cry for Help

I have a question and I really don’t know where to turn. This is something I can’t even talk to my parents or friends about, so I hope you can help me. I am a 19-year-old Muslim girl and I’m sexually attracted to other girls. Please don’t judge me. I know it’s not right to act on my feelings and so far I haven’t, alhamdulillah. But I come from a good Muslim family, and now I live away from home for college and it’s getting more & more difficult to stay away from sin. I’m part of the MSA (Muslim Student Association) & I tried to bring up this topic once (without telling them it was about me); and the Muslims got all upset & some people started making jokes about “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” And I was just asking what someone with these feelings should do to stay away from sin. I didn’t say homosexual acts are okay! Now I’m getting really depressed and feel so alone. I’m even starting to question my faith. I mean, why can’t Muslims with gay & lesbian feelings get advice or help when Muslims have no problem giving advice to Muslims who don’t wear hijab, who drink, who commit zina, and even Muslims who don’t pray! Do you know of any online resources or support groups for Muslims I can join anonymously? I don’t want to lose my faith. Please help me. –Don’t want to be Gay Muslim

Dear DwtbGM,

Welcome, I hear you and recognize your pain. I commend you for having the courage it takes to reach out for help. You are not alone in this at all. I, too, know what it’s like to be a 19-year-old Muslim girl attracted to other women.

I want to emphasize, from the beginning, that you are fully human, normal, worthy of love, respect, connection, dignity, and that you have every right to your faith. It’s not easy to be in communities, religious or otherwise, that force us to hide who we are and our struggles. It is incredibly taxing, painful, and sometimes humiliating to be on constant alert, guarding yourself against even the slightest form of self-disclosure amongst your family, friends, and peers. It can feel like you have no one to talk to about these issues and sometimes we don’t have or know anyone who is safe for us. I have reached out to clergy – imams and teachers, mostly anonymously. Unfortunately, I did not find most of these men, some of whom have expressed what can only be considered homophobic and crude statements and jokes, to be helpful in this situation. But I haven’t given up on them and some have made remarkable strides toward listening with more openness and have made better language choices in public.

I was in a Friday prayer service, when a well-known and respected local imam also made the Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve joke before encouraging the congregation to sign an petition against marriage equality. Many people laughed while I remained still and silent, cringing internally, always careful not to give any visible signs that might alert someone to my own orientation. The sad reality is that for all the lip service our community gives to following prophetic ideals including good manners, loving for someone what you love for yourself and embodying safety in words and actions for all people, we often fall short.

It is not a surprise that many people who are disgusted by the idea of being attracted to the same gender cannot really hide their disgust when speaking to or about lgbt folks. It’s easy enough for us to perceive the disdain in their words often couched in terms of sincere religious advice or concern. This uncovers the lie in the love the person not the action statement. Even without any action there is no love there. I’ve found that if you say you are lgbt, rather than having by default a good opinion of you, many of these people automatically assume you are doing something sinful.

As for support, there are some resources out there. If you have the means and the ability, I would encourage you to attend the annual LGBT Muslim Retreat held over Memorial Day weekend. I had heard about the retreat from its inception but was afraid to attend because I felt that I, as a conservative-ish Muslim, might not be fully welcomed. I attended the retreat this year and was overwhelmed by the intentionally welcoming and safe nature of the retreat cultivated by the organizers. I also met and befriended a large number of LGBT Muslims, who are diverse and lovely.

There are some regional resources including the El-Tawhid Unity Mosques in several locations, Queer Muslims of Boston or QMOB, the Queer Muslim Book Club in NYC, Queer Muslims of Seattle. Some of these groups are active on fb, so you can join their groups and find out about their activities. There are also informal groups where queer Muslims get together to just hang out and support each other. This past Ramadan, a large group of queer Muslims got together in DC for a potluck iftar. So try to join one of these groups, and hopefully you will meet a few people and not feel so alone. Because you are not alone, there are so many of us, often hidden in plain sight. I’ve known a number of queer Muslims over the years, who were equally closeted like me, and we had no idea about each other.

As for fearing for the loss of your religion and faith, hold on to it, in whatever way possible. I’ve written about this before, just scroll down a bit to previous posts. One tragedy of the harmful discourse around lgbt issues in our community is that queerness is often placed in opposition to faith. I believe this is a unfortunate aiding of the sower of disbelief against a believer. I am queer and Muslim. How that plays out in my life may be different from how it will work for you or for someone else. If Islam is universal, as is often claimed, then it must be for everyone including you and me.

I think our faith community still has a lot of work to do in articulating a viable life plan that includes queer Muslims beyond the deception marriage or lifelong celibacy options. In my own experience, I have benefitted from reading some works by Jewish and Christian writers, as those communities in the West seem to have started this work much earlier, but also from Muslim scholars. I find great comfort in the overarching principles of shariah and how these principles work to affirm my life in so many ways.

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Moving Forward Amid Disagreement about Gay Muslims

I finally got around to reading Scott Kugle’s Islam and Homosexuality as well as its recent companion book, Living Out Islam: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims. I also thoroughly enjoyed reading Rabbi Steven Greenberg’s Wrestling with God and Men, which while specifically dealing with Jewish tradition resonates with issues common to many conservative religious communities. These books have been tremendously illuminating and spiritually healing for me. Reading and reflecting on these works and the very real voices and lives from the lesbian, transgender, and gay community, a community that has been as the Muslim gay activist Faisal Alam notes, “so spiritually wounded” was in many ways humbling, devastating and enriching.

I’ve heard conservative voices, which claim the mantle of orthodox legitimacy poorly paraphrase or summarize the arguments about understanding homosexuality elaborated with much care and detail by Kugle, Greenberg, and others. There is no substitute for reading their works, reviewing their evidence, arguments, and intellectual creativity in full. Irrespective of one’s own personal views being open to learning and truly hearing another person in attempt to foster greater understanding and empathy is a worthwhile challenge.

It seems that we should be able as a religious community to move the discussion forward beyond a simple rehashing of legal rulings regarding particular sexual acts. That discourse has dominated the conversation but is only a side point. I’m going to use broad brushstrokes here so bear with me for a moment. The LGBT community doesn’t need to seek permission from religious authorities for what they do in their bedrooms. It’s none of your business. What we, as a community, do need is a pragmatic religious and spiritual paradigm, which allows us to be fully present, seen, and included in our communities. And as Rabbi Greenberg says, “a way to envision a life of love, intimacy, and commitment…in the context of a religiously alive Orthodox (or otherwise) community.”

For many religious gays, our orientation is not on the table for reconsideration or debate. Many of us have spent the majority of our lives working through the issues surrounding our sexual orientation so what is at stake is our faith and our lives.

Scripture can be read in a multitude of ways, not every reading holds the same subjective weight of validity or truth. Our challenge as we continue to be out and remain in our religious communities is to read scripture in ways, which Greenberg argues “replace the depiction of perversity with mere difference and sinful desire with the simple human longing for loving.” If you want to see that as a slippery slope that’s your business.

Rabbi Greenberg offers that “the challenge of gay inclusion tests any tradition’s capacity to engage with diversity, to encounter the world responsibly as it is rather than as it is wished to be.” How many of us would willingly accept a religious tradition that offers no path or way forward other than lifelong celibacy or “deceptive heterosexual marriage.” If we’re not going to leave our faith, it’s time that we move beyond religiously sanctioned lying about who we are toward the moral imperative to “stay and tell the truth.” I am disturbed by how easily my tongue has become accustomed to reflexively lying in order to hide an integral part of my life.

I wept after reading the conclusion of Rabbi Greenberg’s book, which mentioned three points to help move the discussion forward:

1. For religious leaders: No humiliation. They will agree not to humiliate or intimidate gay and lesbian people from the pulpit and work to prevent such humiliation in their congregations.

2. For gay and lesbian congregants: No public advocacy. Gay and lesbian members will acknowledge the limits of the scriptural process and not presume the Orthodox community will adopt the social agenda of the lesbian and gay community.

3. For communities: No lying. Lesbian and gay members will be able to tell the truth about their relationships and their families.

I think these considerations point toward a meaningful start to move the conversation forward, wouldn’t you agree?

Gay Muslim Survival Guide

A number of people have asked me to explain or clarify issues raised in my coming out post, Yes, I Am. So here’s an attempt to respond to that feedback as well as offer some constructive points of advice for my fellow LGBT Muslims.

I am Muslim, by choice. Faith is central to my identity and without it I’d be lost as I still clearly remember my life before Islam.

So how do we reconcile faith with sexual orientation or sexuality? This is perhaps the most commonly asked question for gay Muslims but for me the question misses the larger point that orientation is not the same as sexuality. Beyond semantics, some of the language used to describe orientation is unhelpful. Orientation is not limited to who you sleep with and who you sleep with does not necessarily define your orientation. While our community has many hang-ups when it comes to sexuality, I think part of the challenge of having a discussion with gay Muslims is an inability to see beyond the jurisprudential bedroom. Islamic law is concerned with classifiable acts and is silent on matters, which are not so easily classified.

The idea of reconciliation or counseling for LGBT Muslims begins with an assumption that there is a conflict between faith and orientation. Not everyone agrees with this view. Nearly everywhere you look there is a growing movement of scholars and activists challenging old assumptions and interpretations to fuel a more progressive understanding.

Even if you’re like me, schooled in more conservative cultural interpretations (and every interpretation has its own cultural baggage), the progressive understanding holds an undeniable appeal though for me the arguments are not fully convincing. You will have to decide for yourself, which interpretation or understanding of Islam works best for you as no one else can live your life for you. So keep the lines of communication open between you and God and try to surround yourself with good and supportive family and friends.

Should you come out? Each decision to come out is incredibly personal and it’s a continual process with each group of people you encounter. I am out to some people and not out to others, it just makes life easier that way for me. You have to evaluate your own life situation. In reflecting on the life story of the Prophet Muhammad and in listening to Brene Brown’s research into vulnerability, shame, and whole-hearted living, there are so many lessons to be drawn from embracing vulnerability as a means to seek out authentic and meaningful connection with others.

You do not have to accept the idea that your orientation is sinful or unnatural nor do you have to accept the opinion that coming out is publicizing something that should be hidden. I’m always amazed by people who sincerely think that remaining closeted is the optimal solution when they themselves are completely open and in your face about the reality of their own orientation and relationships.

Know that a huge part of reconciling between your faith and sexuality or the courage to come out stems from your own self-esteem and feelings of self-worth. You are worthy, beautiful, and deserving of love and goodness. You have to believe this. Cultivate your relationship with God, your relationship with those who sincerely care for you, and take care of yourself. It’s very possible you will encounter haters along the way but you don’t have to value or accept their criticism.

In my experience, fearing how others might react, is a mostly useless and paralyzing activity. Despite my best efforts, I was not able to predict, with any sense of accuracy, how my family and friends and people in the wider community have reacted to my coming out. Not every experience has been positive but the overwhelming majority have been positive. As a rule of thumb, people who spend a lot of time online (so rarely in person because that would require courage most don’t have) trying to tear you down are usually in pain in their own lives trying to compensate for their own insecurities. If they were happy, they’d be out enjoying their own lives more than they enjoy commenting on your life. Spare a thought for those deeply closeted LGBT folks so scared that someone might think they are gay that they take up the anti-gay banner with more energy than the real homophobes. I know some of you are secretly reading this now and I wish you much love and healing.

What about the “love the person, not the action” distinction? This is problematic, is that even really love? This dichotomy works for some people but not for others. Certainly, we can give credit to those holding this supposedly more compassionate view over the more fire and brimstone exclusionary types but what does this really offer to the LGBT Muslim?  It appears that lifelong forced celibacy is unnatural and maybe even harmful. Marriage to someone of the opposite sex can work for some but not for others, leaving aside the question of fairness to the unsuspecting spouse.

The interesting observation from the “marriage solution” is that despite assuming an outward facade of heterosexuality that inward orientation rarely changes. I could marry a man and almost did yet my orientation was as settled then as it is now despite my efforts to pretend otherwise. In 1971, the American Psychiatric Association (APA), didn’t just stop referring to homosexuality as a disease based on a whim and switch to offering guidance that sexual orientation cannot be changed. Most people involved in ex-gay or reparative therapy programs also encounter this reality of stable orientation. I hear the “abuse argument” a lot from some Muslims i.e. that being gay results from sexual abuse, but this myth is also addressed in the link above about the APA decision. Give it a listen, it’s a good program, and won’t make you or your children gay, I promise.

Can I be LGBT and a good Muslim? Of course! Don’t ever allow people or their opinions or your own actions to come between you and your faith in God. Every person is more than simply an orientation or an action. When I stand before God to pray, I am Muslim, a human being, a daughter, a woman,  a sister, black, gay, American, a nurse, a neighbor, a student and so much more than these labels can convey.

I’m okay saying to Allah as I bow down that I am here at your service, turning to you. I don’t always understand everything perfectly, but I ask you for help in everything, and I know that you will and always have helped me, and that you are the best of those who offer assistance.

Hold on to your faith, you are not alone.

Yes, I Am

Rachel Maddow: “I think the responsibility that we have as gay Americans to the extent that we can — and we ought to be really ambitious about the extent to which we can — we have to be out. That’s the thing that we owe the people who came before us who are the pioneers, and that’s the thing we owe the next generation of gay people in terms of clearing the way and making life easier for them. I think that there is a moral imperative to be out, and I think that if you’re not out, you have to come to an ethical understanding with yourself why you are not. And it shouldn’t be something that is excused lightly. I don’t think that people should be forced out of the closet, but I think that every gay person, sort of, ought to push themselves in that regard. Because it’s not just you. It’s for the community and it’s for the country.”

My name is Ify and this is a part of my story. There is much more to me than this but it’s here none the less. I’ve been asked, “How do you know?” Really, just as you know yourself, it’s the same. You don’t need to try everything else to know what feels most real and authentic to you. No, I was not abused as a child and I feel very blessed and fortunate to have had such a loving and nourishing upbringing.

I lived in fear for many years, afraid of what my family, friends, fiancés, and social circle would say as I tried mightily to discern what God intended for me. I don’t claim to have any answers but what I do have is my faith in God, a loving family, and some sincere friends. I’ve come to understand that these connections are more dear to me than anything else.

Perpetually living in a state of anxiety and fear is an awfully heavy burden to carry alone and a diminished way of experiencing the world. I’ve learned that hiding the truth about an integral part of  myself leads to dishonesty. And dishonesty is a poor foundation for building one’s faith or meaningful relationships. It is a quicksand-like foundation for beginning a marriage.

Anger and sadness became my close companions even as I turned to God seeking and hoping for a way out, struggling to maintain my faith. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom, as I joyfully immersed myself in strengthening my relationship with God and with my community through learning and volunteering. I found a fullness and contentment of faith while cultivating my defense mechanisms. It takes a lot of effort to consistently maintain a neutral facade as those around you confidently express the most ridiculous or hurtful opinions. Over the years, deep fissures appeared in this facade and I unconsciously used anger and sarcasm in an attempt to keep my anxiety at bay.

At one of the last Friday prayers I attended, the imam made an impassioned plea exhorting the congregation to sign their names to a  petition to have a referendum ballot this year on the issue of gay marriage in the state. As a joke at the end of the sermon, the imam said, “We all know that God made Adam and Eve and not Adam and Steve,” which received some chuckles from the audience. But I’d like to offer as a correction that God not only made Adam and Eve but he also made Steve and me. That some in our communities readily display an attitude of willful ignorance and harshness rather than gentleness and compassion on a wide array of issues can and does alienate the most vulnerable from their faith.

I try to listen attentively with all of my being to hear the whispers of the divine message in my life. I’ve been deeply inspired by people across faith traditions who in their negotiation of faith have found it within themselves to recognize and respect each person’s inherent dignity and to love for others what they love for themselves. Slowly, I’ve gained the courage to allow my family and some friends in to get to know me and have been surprised to find their hearts soft and open enough to continue to love and embrace me even if it’s not always easy.

I am not giving up on my faith.

Q&A | The LGBT Community from an Islamic Perspective | Part II

VIDEO The LGBT Community from an Islamic Perspective | Part I 

The question and answer session provided some interesting and unexpected comments from the panelists particularly from Imam Ahmad Azzaari. He began by reminding the audience to avoid suspicion and to “not dig into the hearts of people” in response to a question about the permissibility of shaking hands with LGBT individuals. When someone asked if an LGBT person could convert to Islam, Azzaari affirmed that Islam is a universal faith and is open to everyone.

Photo courtesy of the PGMA Youth Group

Missing Voices

Any discussion about homosexuality that does not include the voices or perspectives of those in the LGBT community is incomplete. The metropolitan D.C. area is home to Al-Fatiha, which draws gay Muslims together through its annual retreats and to Imam Daayiee Abdullah, one of the most prominent gay Muslims in the United States. So one would not have to look very far to include the voice of at least one gay Muslim, if greater inclusion and diversity in the discussion was valued by the organizers.

As it turned out, Daayiee Abdullah was in the audience, and could have provided additional perspective. However, it seems the mosque is only willing to go so far in reaching out and jumpstarting discussion.  It would be nice to move beyond straight Muslims talking about and advising gay Muslims to actually hearing from LGBT Muslims, an act which would require listening and leadership. I wonder what it would be like to have a discussion about converts to Islam and to not actually include any converts or their experiences in the discussion? It’d probably be like most of the women in Islam talks given by men.

Early marriage was advocated by several panelists but there was no mention of mixed marriages between heterosexual and LGBT partners. Despite the earlier biological definitions, also missing from the discussion was an understanding of the sexuality of true hermaphrodites, those with ambiguous genitalia or chromosomal abnormalities and the transgender community.

See You on the Way to the Internment Camp

A man once asked the ascetic and scholar Al-Hasan al-Basri if everything was in the Quran and Al-Basri replied in the affirmative. So the man asked, if how to bake bread was in the Quran? Al-Basri recited the verse, “…So ask the people of knowledge if you do not know.

In this presidential election year and with Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley pushing for the legalization of gay marriage in the state, Imam Azzaari shocked many in the audience with his political views and advice. He said that when considering the lesser of two evils, he would rather vote for an Islamophobic anti-Muslim conservative candidate than for a more liberal one who supported human rights for all including those for Muslims and for lesbians and gays.

His reasoning was two-fold, first, that he believed God punished the people in the time of Prophet Lot that actively participated in homosexual acts and also those who supported it. And secondly and somewhat surprisingly, that he felt he could more effectively communicate with conservative candidates even if they espouse strong anti-Muslim sentiment.

According to Azzaari, Muslims have a duty not to lend a hand to any politician that supports sin. But this statement is so general that it has very little meaning. Even the conservative politicians, he claims he can dialogue with have supported and continue to support immoral economic, political, and social policies. It’s unclear whether Azzaari believes Muslims should completely disengage from the political process or participate despite the potential for gray areas.

Later in the Q&A, Azzaari seemed to contradict his earlier statement by suggesting that Muslims could and should work together with diverse groups on issues of mutual concern. So we can work together to find solutions to poverty and hunger but cannot work together to support civil rights, which enable all of us to live here and practice our faith traditions without having the beliefs of others imposed upon us? It strikes me as remarkably inconsistent to use civil protections to practice one’s faith while using religious arguments to counter and deny the extension of those civil rights to others.

Dr. Tariq Ramadan advises Muslims to avoid having an immature and slavish mentality when it comes to questioning scholars. One may have a degree in shariah but that doesn’t necessarily make them qualified to discuss every issue. As an American, our history with Japanese internment camps during WWII is far too recent for me to take the social and political demonization of Muslims so lightly.

Male Rape & Inhospitality?

Continue reading “Q&A | The LGBT Community from an Islamic Perspective | Part II”

VIDEO | The LGBT Community from an Islamic Perspective | Part I

VIDEO: Part 1 and Part 2

Earlier this month, the youth group at the Prince George’s Muslim Association (PGMA) mosque in Lanham hosted a discussion before a packed crowd on how Muslims should understand issues related to homosexuality and interact with members of the LGBT community.

When I first saw the promo email’s subject header in my inbox, I almost deleted it without opening it thinking that it must have been spam since it’s pretty rare for mosque lectures to touch on hot-topic issues.

The panel discussion idea was the brainchild of Manaar Zuhurudeen and I also give credit to the PGMA youth group and the mosque leadership for being progressive and pragmatic enough to take the first step to make the mosque a safe place where serious and relevant discussions can take place. I used to love going to the mosque but my enthusiasm has waned over the years as the mosque with its penalty boxes and other make-shift barriers has come to symbolize a place of increasing cultural isolation, irrelevance, and loneliness.

At PGMA, men and women pray in separate rooms but for this event women were allowed into the main hall both for prayer and to listen to the panel discussion. Still, there were barriers erected to divide the hall in half and by gender.

Dr. Adeyinka Laiyemo, a physician, opened by mentioning that frank discussions about sex are still largely considered taboo in the Muslim community. Dr. Laiyemo’s powerpoint presentation included a few graphic photos of certain disorders like Turner Syndrome and Klinefelter Syndrome, so I knew this would not be a typical mosque lecture.

Working in health care these definitions and photos are routine but it I found it remarkable how we as a Muslim community could come together in the mosque to discuss these issues with pictures in a such a matter of fact manner when we’re still so uncomfortable even sharing a hallway or prayer space. It occurred to me that this is probably similar to the way many issues were discussed openly in the mosque of the Prophet (peace and blessing of God be upon him).

Laiyemo broadly defined a number of terms related to biology, sex, and sexuality including true and pseudo-hermaphrodites and men on the “down low.”

PGMA’s imam Dr. Ahmad Azzaari, also a physician by training, spoke next  about the history and prohibition of homosexuality in Islam. Imam Azzaari said the issue of homosexuality is addressed a number of times in the Quran and that this repetition and emphasis indicates the seriousness of the matter. He read verses in the Quran that mentioned the story of the people of Lot whom many Muslims believe were punished by God for their homosexuality and a number of hadith from the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). Azzaari also offered a rebuttal of the interpretation that the destruction visited on the people of Lot was due to their lack of hospitality and attempted rape of their guests.

In another welcome change from the typical mosque lecture, two women were included on the panel. Dr. Naseem Sharieff, a pediatrician and community activist, and Sarah Yazback, a doctoral candidate in education counseling, who has been involved social work and counseling in the Muslim community for many years.

Dr. Sharieff used a white board on stage to illustrate her points and began my mentioning that every person has his or her strengths and weaknesses and that the challenge is in what we do with those weaknesses. In a nod to Muslim converts, Sharieff acknowledged that there is a difference between those born into Muslim families who are Muslim by chance and between those who are Muslim by choice through conversion and commitment to practice.

In choosing to be Muslim and to practice the faith, Sharieff advised that patience in the face of tests and trials makes a person stronger. She encouraged Muslims to not despair when faced with life’s hardships but rather to turn to the Quran, which contains both prevention and cure for what ails the heart. As she closed, Dr. Sharieff reminded the audience that they could maintain their beliefs and still treat others with respect and accord them their rights.

I found Sarah Yazback’s presentation to be the most enlightening part of the discussion. She began by acknowledging the importance of creating a safe space where people especially young people feel empowered to discuss relevant issues like homosexuality particularly for young people growing up in this society as homosexuality, gay marriage, and the repeal of discriminatory laws continue to be in the news and become more mainstream. Acknowledgement, Yazback clarified, does not mean justification and that legitimizing feelings does not mean legitimizing specific behavior. Continue reading “VIDEO | The LGBT Community from an Islamic Perspective | Part I”