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.

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?

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”

Photography | A Muslim’s Dilemma

When I was younger, I dreamed of being a photojournalist. In high school, I took a photography class and loved it and one Christmas, I was able to convince my dad to buy me my first SLR camera. I paid for my subscription to Life magazine out of my own money earned from delivering newspapers or babysitting. I spent long hours pouring over old copies of National Geographic magazine interested as much in the stories and people behind the photos as in the actual photos.

I knew the names, photos, and life stories of Bourke-White, Cartier-Bresson, Parks, Adams, Eisenstaedt, Leibovitz, Lange, Avedon, Ritts, Meisel, Demarchelier, Lindbergh, Nachtwey, Newton, and Testino.

As an introvert, I like the solitary nature of photography. While in a crowd, I can focus on searching for and composing a shot but can also be apart from them without anyone noticing, alone with my thoughts. Being from Rochester, NY, the home of Kodak, I, like the company, resisted the digital age.

After I converted to Islam, I moved to solidify my Muslim identity, and gravitated towards a very conservative form of Islam. Certain online fatwa websites became our bible and the opinions of a few overseas scholars the final word on any issue of dispute. Anything western or American was looked at with suspicion and disdain. Strange as it may seem, there were benefits to this ultraconservatism. I read a lot of books and articles and listened to many lectures. I formed an attachment to learning and seeking out authentic religious knowledge, and forged real bonds of brotherhood and community with other like-minded Muslims.

As I read online fatawa and listened to lectures, I learned of the difference of opinion about photography and my heart sank. I was so afraid of doing something wrong that I put my SLR camera away. I left rolls of film undeveloped and may have thrown some away. I resolved to follow the hadith about avoiding gray matters, so I stopped taking pictures and stopped allowing myself to be photographed. I was quite the buzzkill, always standing off to the side, neither taking pictures nor joining in group photos with friends and family.

I lowered my gaze from people but also from the dunya (worldly life) because it was painful to still see with the eyes of a photographer, noticing details, and composing the next shot in my mind without the aid of camera. Eventually, I stopped seeing those details, and when I went for my driving test, I discovered that my eyes had in fact deteriorated and that I needed glasses. I hadn’t realized that objects in the distance had become blurred.

Even as I learned more about the iktilaf (difference of opinion) over photography and no longer viewed it as prohibited or disliked, I still kept my distance from it. I relented in allowing myself to take photos if asked but would not consent to having my photo taken. I purchased a digital camera but never used it and sold it soon afterward to a friend.

© Mustafa Davis Photography

Several years ago, I heard an interview on NPR with Yusuf Islam where he described his return to making music with instruments after nearly 30 years. His son, inclined toward music, brought a guitar into the house. And one night, Yusuf Islam picked up that guitar and his fingers immediately and instinctively fell into place as he strummed a few chords. That experience led him to create his album, An Other Cup.

I was overwhelmed with emotion as I listened to that story. Some time later, in the darkness of the night, alone in my room, I gently unpacked my SLR that I had put away so many years earlier. I rediscovered some old pictures and rolls of film and with it my longing for photography was renewed.

I purchased my first camera phone, and then a second one and slowly began to take pictures. At first only nature shots, no people, but eventually even shots of people. I try to be sensitive to requests from Muslims who do not want to be photographed. More recently, I’ve allowed myself to be photographed. I find posing awkward and my friends know that the best way to get a shot of me is quickly, when I’m unaware, and before I can say no.

Since joining Facebook, I’ve allowed myself to enjoy the photography of others, and to begin to create photo stories of my own, usually taken quite informally with my camera phone. From time to time, I pour over reviews of digital cameras, point-and-shoot, mega-zooms, ILRs, and DSLRs. I’m still carefully wading into the digital era.

Last week, I spoke to a photojournalist and told him that I didn’t think my photos were much good and that I might not have an eye for photography. He said like any skill, part of it is natural talent and part of it is determination and hard work. He advised focusing on a niche, studying technique, and working hard at it.

Today, I purchased a camera and took my first shots with it.

I love this quote by James Balog:

Photography is thus an antidote to the disorientation of our time; it replaces fragmentation with focus, forgetting with memory, indifference with affection.

Being Muslim in the Age (and now death) of Bin Laden

Ten years ago on September 11th, 2001, I had just moved from New York to Virginia, and was at work babysitting my new next door neighbor’s four-year old kid before I walked her to school for her half-day kindergarten class. Before we left, her mother called, frantically asking me if I’d heard the news and to ensure that I kept her daughter home from school that day. I hadn’t heard anything that bright sunny morning so I turned on the television but couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing. The imposing and seemingly unshakeable buildings that had always loomed so large in the recesses of  my memory were ablaze with massive gaping holes in them.

And last Sunday night, I was also at work, when I heard the news that President Obama intended to make an unusual Sunday evening address to the nation. When the news finally broke that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. forces, I was stunned and felt a gradual and spreading sense of relief. I didn’t rejoice and I didn’t mourn at the news of his death. However, I did reflect on the enormous loss of life and continued suffering and harm that has occurred and continues to occur throughout the world.

I reflected on my life before September 11th, when I was not Muslim. Religion, much less Islam, was far from my mind. How thankful I am to have become Muslim in the intervening years.

Then I went out into the cool and dark night for a walk and I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness and that low-grade fear and apprehension that always comes after a significant (usually negative) event with Muslims in the news. As a few cars sped by, I assumed the occupants had probably heard the news on the radio or phone or by text or tweet, and I wondered if like on other occasions one person might  feel emboldened enough to shout out some nonsense in my direction. Thankfully, none did. And feeling the tenseness building in my muscles, I made an effort to relax and once again enjoy the quiet solitude of my walk.

Our fears must be faced, challenged and defeated each day.

On a side note, I wonder what happened to the guy who said he would not shave until Bin Laden was captured.