Better miserable (or even suicidal) than sinful?

In the news today: President Obama has finally endorsed same-sex marriage publicly. A rather daring thing to do, in an election year.

I thought about the long, difficult process that had to occur for things to get to the point where the president of the United States of America can make such a statement, and have a fair number of Americans applaud him for showing principled leadership—rather than having the overwhelming majority declare him crazy and demand that he be carted off to a mental institution. Anyone my age can remember a time when to be gay or lesbian meant to be socially invisible, to lack equal rights under the law, to not be taken seriously as a human being.

What brought about this major shift in the ways that lesbians and gays are perceived? LGBTQ activism, protests, and court cases played a role, of course. The tireless efforts of organizations and individuals to educate. The efforts of some religious leaders to rethink old interpretations that branded all gays and lesbians as evil sinners. But what drove all this work and activism and rethinking? And, what has  made so many average Americans  who aren’t particularly interested in political activism or psychology or religious debates decide that gays and lesbians deserve equal rights, including the right to marry?

Stories. The stories of people you know, as well as of people you don’t, or of fictional characters. Stories in books. In poetry. In film. In the media. On youtube. Stories from people you know. Stories about what it’s like to grow up, and begin to realize that you aren’t attracted to the so-called opposite sex. Stories about what it’s like to live in a homophobic world, and the toll it takes. Stories about what it’s like when you find out that your brother, your sister, your cousin, your child is gay. Stories about teens and adults driven to self-harm or suicide because of the prejudice they face. Stories about gay-bashings, and those who survive them—and those who do not. Love stories. Funny stories too. Human stories that make people question their prejudices, and question discriminatory social attitudes and laws.

And I wondered when or if  “mainstream” North American Muslim leaders will have such an “Obama moment.” When they will come to the realization that what they teach about LGBTQ people is causing harm, and resolve not to be the cause of harm to others any more. After all, the stories of queer Muslims are increasingly being told by Muslims, in film, in books, and elsewhere.

I would like to think that queer Muslim stories will make a difference.

Thinking about this, I was drawn into a vortex of memories, about the way I was taught to see such issues. About how I believed for years that living a miserable life was far better than a “sinful” one.

What is really at issue for gay Muslims is not the story of Lot, it’s idealized, patriarchal visions of social order. And perhaps even more importantly, the idea that avoiding sin (or “rescuing” someone from committing sin) is a value that stands well above anything as mundane as happiness, or even mental health.

“Mainstream” conservative Muslim organizations and leaders in North America typically have a particular vision of how the family, the mosque, the community (and ideally, society in general) “should” be organized. It is a hierarchical model based on male authority. People pointing out that in lived reality, this vision comes at a considerable human cost are the bearers of news that is most unwelcome, to say the least, whether they are abused wives or gays. But even more key—at least, in my experience—is this notion that preventing certain kinds of sin (usually sexual sins) takes priority over most other considerations. “Preventing sin” here is often less about actually preventing the persons in question from engaging in it, or even rescuing them from temptation to sin, than about the appearance of virtue.

And so, (for example) a new female convert is strongly encouraged to marry a newly immigrated Muslim man she barely knows (and who no one at the mosque really knows all that well, either), as has sometimes happened. For years, this sort of thing made sense to me. What could be more important than preventing fornication or scandal? People sometimes used this sort of “logic” when dealing with teenage daughters too.

Somehow, the questions of whether she will be unhappy, whether she will be abused (or whether she is being abused by being pressured into a marriage she doesn’t want), what the long-term impact will be on her life, her future, her physical and mental health… weren’t seen as really important. They certainly weren’t seen as an issue of “sin” on par with fornication, nor as things that would likely make her vulnerable to temptation to “sin” in future.  For when moral values (meaning, avoiding sexual temptation or scandal) are at stake, what do individual women’s hopes, concerns, aspirations or lives matter?

We were taught—and for years, we really believed—that a woman who is miserable in an abusive (straight) Muslim marriage is in a far better position than a woman who is happily living with her boyfriend in a mutually supportive relationship. Because the first is living a virtuous life, being protected from “sin”, while the second is mired in it. The first is Islamically approved (with room for some improvement), while the second is practically beyond redemption.

I am sickened when I reflect that we believed this so much that we wouldn’t have even made an exception for an abused woman who became suicidal.

In effect, I was taught to fetishize suffering. And we had so little compassion.

For years, we lived out this teaching.

In the end, we paid the price.

Perhaps paying the price is the only way out of such a closed circle of “reasoning.” Paying it and paying it and paying it. Paying it until you can pay no more, and you realize that you wouldn’t want to inflict this sort of thing on anybody else.

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  1. #1 by MK on May 11, 2012 - 8:08 pm

    This is a tough one. From a Islamic point of view (going by the Quran only) sexual activity out of marriage is discouraged and this would apply for both men & women with no exceptions both are expected to remain chaste.
    So when people denounce homosexuality it always seems over the top as any from of sexuality outside marriage is discouraged and to pick on one group (or for that matter to obsess on female sexuality) seems pointless particularly when the same standards apply for straight men and they sure as heck are not being terribly chaste!
    Whether its gay sex or straight sex outside marriage its not encouraged. I actually feel people have been created by God with different dispositions and orientations. I do not feel I can make judgement on personal choices as we all have our challenges and issues in life and can honestly say that if I were gay I would be heartbroken at being shunned by my family and as a parent if my child displayed such orientation while I would be very sad (the world is not kind to those who seem different or make choices that go against the flow–and what parent can stand by watching their child be treated with hate) I certainly would not shun her or force her to marry some man to ‘cure’ her–that would just be so unjust and cruel.
    Ultimately, our sexual identity is just one segment of us and there are so many other areas and qualities that determine us. To pre-judge and write off people on just one aspect seems unfair and illogical.
    Sorry for the rambling post and not sure if what I want to say came across!

  2. #2 by Chinyere on May 12, 2012 - 4:46 pm

    I’ve just started reading your blog…very good posts and considerations for those of us taking a second look at the Islam we came into when we stopped questioning. Very insightful!

    Sex in Islam…ay ay! You hit the nail right on the head here. The chastity of men and women in the community is relegated entirely to women (I don’t hear anyone looking at the man’s history and questioning his chastity). And what is the purpose of our chastity? It’s supposed to be extra protection for us, as our gender renders us more vulnerable, if strictly physiologically and anatomically speaking (our anatomy makes us more susceptible to STIs than men, for example) and not emotionally and economically (depending) speaking. And saying that it’s preferred for a woman to stay in an abusive relationship…in my opinion, seems like a greater sin than fornication. Not on the woman, but on the husband and any accomplices, of course.

    But it’s hard, right? Abuse of human beings (spousal abuse, harrassment of minority groups, etc.) isn’t outlined as one of the major sins in the Qur’an, but zina is. I think that’s one major reason why we have focused so much on sexual sins in the past.

    I do applaud the President and I don’t worry about naysayers in their liberal bubbles who call his overall statement a cop-out and cowardly. It is a huge move, and I think it’s something that Muslim leaders should think long and hard about before they decry it…

  1. Link Love (12/06/2012) « Becky's Kaleidoscope

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