No one made you Muslim except yourself. Religion is a choice, sexual orientation is not.
Allah also condones you being dropped off a building by your fellow Muslims.
Why would you choose to be part of a religion whose orthodox thought demands death for who one is?
Keep your sexual misbehaviour to yourself.
First rule of the Internet: never read the comments.
But I always do and it often leads me down a dark hole wondering if people from my communities, Muslim and LGBTQIA+ (I’ll be using queer), really consider me as a clueless and confused anomaly trying to get attention.
Even before the Internet provided confirmation, I had inklings deep down that these were the opinions of many. Why is it so hard for others to accept that being queer and Muslim is possible, including ourselves at times?
Like many within the queer community will tell you—I always knew.
I always knew that I was not heterosexual (fine, maybe I didn’t use those words) but I knew who I was.
I always knew that I was not like my parents, my cousins or other girl children I grew up with. I noticed they had inclinations to create couples within binaries that only offered a boy and girl/husband and wife as options. I didn’t have a problem with it and I could take on the role of wife because it was just play, but I always knew it would not be who I would grow up to be.
My first memory of any sexual awakening, while strange to share aloud, truly captures the essence of sexual orientation for me. I was six or seven years old, having just finished watching an episode of Knight Rider with David Hasselhoff and I remember a rise of sexual energy that was never there before. Not knowing what to do with these feelings internally, I decided to act on them but replicating only what I had seen on TV. I strutted up to the soft, crushed velvet material of our apartment’s couch and started to kiss it, mimicking whatever I thought was how people expressed this sensation.
I trusted and accepted that God placed within me my sexual identity and orientation—there were no mistakes, it was humans who interpreted and policed others incorrectly. I knew I loved Allah and that Allah loved me—it was always that innate.
Reflecting on it now, I was pretty smart for piecing together what I saw on TV without having been told what was happening given that I grew up in a household where we did not talk about anything having to do with sex. But most interesting of all is that I didn’t envision Michael; I remember it being Kit, the voice in his car. I put flesh onto this voice to craft a woman. I knew that was who I was seducing on that couch. My sexual orientation was that innate.
Growing up in the late ’80s and with English as a second language, if I had been introduced to themes and language that gave me the words to describe myself as anything other than heterosexual, I must have missed it.
Even once puberty began, I never questioned my internal sense of self-awareness as other; I simply accepted. My external self, on the other hand, I questioned and despised incessantly. Everything about my physical form felt awkward and out of place. My insides had no words to describe herself, but my outside did and ‘ugly’ was the most suitable word. It was during this adolescent moment that I found myself on vacation with my two older girl cousins who, until then, were the only other girls I could relate to.
While in the hotel pool we saw a group of women also on vacation. They weren’t quite girl cousins, but to me, they came close as they seemed so open and free with one another and I felt such an affinity to and for them until I was subtly told not to. One of my cousins almost innocently used the word ‘dykes’ within earshot to describe the group and in response one of them scolded us for using such a hurtful word. I don’t even know if she knew what she was saying or how she knew to describe them as such, but something became very clear: there’s something not okay about dykes and anyone who could embody that word.
But I knew I was likely a dyke.
Surprisingly I don’t remember wrestling with this new self-awareness as something that I had to find a solution for or undo. Borrowing from my first and only sex talk that equated boys with hellfire because people like us, Afghan girls like me did not have boyfriends, I wasn’t that worried about having a boyfriend and I knew that living a self-expressed sexual life was not in my cards. So hiding and covering my queer identity wouldn’t be much different, right?
There is no singular culture within Islam, but when you grow up in a country like the US where the faces of Islam are racialised to reflect where your family is from, it can be easy to mistake social expectations of one’s cultures with the religious norms. In fact, I grew up collapsing being Afghan with being Muslim—assuming that the two were the same including expectations on gender, dating, curfews and even my academic standing. And because I grew up (quietly) critiquing and furrowing my brow at all of the above, I took it all with a grain of salt. I trusted and accepted that God placed within me my sexual identity and orientation—there were no mistakes, it was humans who interpreted and policed others incorrectly. I knew I loved Allah and that Allah loved me—it was always that innate.
Hazar Watts, a 31-year-old ex-Muslim based in Texas, on the other hand, needed answers and what she found did not give her peace. She was left broken-hearted at having to reconcile her identities. She made the choice to have a real relationship with herself and leave Islam.
“I never found the answers within the Quran that offered me peace,” Watts, of Syrian descent who came to the US at age 12, tells me over FaceTime. She remembers wondering early on if she knew herself to be would be right with Allah. Watts, who now identifies as queer and non-binary, knew this about herself early on."
“Between the ages of four and six, I knew I was going to hell because all the social cues told me I was going hell. If I ever heard about it, it was in a derogatory context or ‘that disease’.”
I know Watts was an ex-Muslim and it automatically raised my hackles a little because I did what so many others do: collapse being an ex-Muslim with anti-Muslim or even worse, an aggressive atheist who would try and punch holes in my blind faith. Remarkably, she immediately named the many ways that her organisation, the Ex Muslims of North America, are often not widely accepted by the political left, often accused of being Islamophobic and often have their message manipulated by the political right to match their agenda. By the end of our conversation, we were surprised by our overlaps with faith and identity even though we represented different ends of the spectrum.
For both of us, the option to be Muslim and anything else was non-negotiable: there was only one way to be a proper Muslim which can often mean a narrow lens on what makes for a proper Muslim—the culture and context of one’s country of origin informing how our gender is meant to be performed and almost always it’s compulsory heterosexuality.
Where and why we diverge on our personal journeys might have to do with where I grew up and learned about Islam initially: in the US. Watts posited that it was much of my Western Muslim identity that was entrenched in individualism and her experience with Islam with an Eastern experience, including living in and travelling through a number of Muslim countries, offered her a different experience as a queer Muslim.
While I do not think she is wrong, I do believe being queer and Muslim in the US has offered me and other Muslims across sexual and gender identities access to a plurality in religious expression. According to a recent survey by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, 31 percent of Muslim-Americans said they held a favourable opinion of LGBT people, 23 percent said unfavourable and nearly half, at 45 percent, said they had no opinion. While these numbers may not sway all, the numbers paint a more hopeful picture for those of us within Muslim communities.
It wasn’t until high school that I re-heard the word ‘dyke’ and this time it came with pride from my small crew of lesbian and bisexual friends. It was with them I learned to embrace the margins I occupied: whether it was due to my sexual identity, racial background or even fashion choices as we all were deeply engrossed in goth and punk aesthetic.
On the home front with my parents, I chose silence as a natural path both because I was living under my parents’ roof and relying on them for financial and emotional support until college and because silence was the norm on most matters that could rock the boat.
After an intense power struggle to allow me to go away for undergrad studies, I could not have prepared myself for the sheer joy of living away from home nor the highly compartmentalised life I would find myself in: as fully out and proud queer Wazina and fully Muslim, first-generation Wazina. Based on the experiences of my ‘fully’ out and proud peers, I began to falsely internalise the concept that I would not be able to merge the two. I began my safety planning and considered a marriage of convenience with another queer person who could help me pass as heterosexual if the time came. When you don’t have role models, you just make it up as you go along.
After an intense power struggle to allow me to go away for undergrad studies, I could not have prepared myself for the sheer joy of living away from home nor the highly compartmentalised life I would find myself in: as fully out and proud queer Wazina and fully Muslim, first-generation Wazina.
In the early 2000s as I considered my options, my friend Mercury agreed to a marriage to a man from a family that her parents were proud to name as their in-laws. While planning a celebration externally, she battled internally to reconcile her queer and Muslim identities that nearly no one knew about.
While she said no to previous marriage offers, she saw no way to keep rejecting her parents wishing to set her up with a suitor—especially not in the close-knit Shia community they belonged to where no one had ever strayed. More than this, she loved Allah and wanted to be a good Muslim. “I wish I knew what I know now: me being the best version of a Muslim has nothing to do with me being gay. I was deeply devoted to my faith and I had to do the right thing.”
In a turn of events that no one saw coming, she was divorced within a year of the marriage for reasons unrelated to her sexual identity. Now, nearly 20 years from her divorce, Mercury is 40 years old and in a loving partnership with another queer Muslim woman, out to some of her family with the exception of her parents who accepted her divorce and made no further requests for marriage. It’s not ideal for her to hide such a large part of herself from her parents and she continues to grapple with the question: if the role models in our communities and faith are people who are unlike us, how will we know if we are normal or good enough?
Reconciling one’s identities is certainly a task, but the act of self-acceptance and internalising it is another major undertaking, particularly when mainstream religious sources tell us we don’t or shouldn’t exist or we ourselves use it to police others and ourselves.
Farhat Rahman, a filmmaker, was outed in high school. “Most folks would come up and tell me I’m acting anti-national and against Islam,” he says. After struggling with how to pair his queer and Muslim identity, he returned home to Bangladesh for a year and slowly began to understand his trans identity and reconnected with his faith. “I thought practising Islam, praying five times a day and going to religious khutbas would relinquish me from being queer and gender non-conforming,” he adds. When he returned to college in the US, his queer and Muslim identities did not leave him. Luckily for Rahman, being in a queer-friendly college was “instrumental to my growth as a queer and trans Muslim being. I don’t think I looked back after that.”
Finding resources that speak to the experiences of queer Muslims were scarce until about a decade ago. I remember scouring the Internet during college and finding one web-based support group for LGBTQ Muslims, but I was afraid to really engage for fear of my secret being leaked. Now, articles abound and social media is home to accounts that capture the range of queer Muslim experiences from uncertain and questioning (on both fronts), theological guidance, support for secular Muslims and resources for queer-identified converts to the faith.
I keep wondering what resources would be needed for the 45 percent of Muslim-Americans who don’t have an opinion on queer people to form a favourable one. Maybe I just need to hold out a little longer, remembering that Islam is comparatively new to this discussion; the progressive shifts within Jewish and Christian denominations took decades and they’re still figuring it out. Maybe it’s as simple as philosopher and pantheist Alan Watts put it: “The attitude of faith is to let go and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.”