A deep and narrow closet

On May 17 in 1990, the World Health Organization finally took homosexuality off their list of mental illnesses. Today, which is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO), this milestone is commemorated.

As I was reading a statement issued by a number of Arab LGBTQ groups about IDAHO, I began thinking about the complex relationships that gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, transgendered, genderqueer, and asexual converts often have to Islam and Muslim communities. And more specifically,  the toll that conversion often tends to exact, depending on when, why, and under what circumstances people convert.

Some convert before they really realize that their sexual orientation or their gender identity (which are two very different things, BTW) are outside the heterosexual or cisgendered “norm.” This is especially likely to happen when people convert in their teens, particularly if they come from fairly sheltered or religiously conservative backgrounds.

Some converts report that they only found out after converting (sometimes, a good while after) what Islamic law has to say about certain same-sex sexual acts, or encountered Muslim homophobia or transphobia.

And some convert because for them, it is belief in tawhid, the Prophet and the Qur’an that matters most. They believe in Islam, and consider sexual or gender identity issues as a very secondary matter.

Converting and not knowing that you aren’t straight—and not coming to that conclusion for years—was in many ways facilitated by the pre-internet context, as well as conservative Muslim community dynamics. After all, those of us raised in the ’70’s outside of major urban centers had little exposure to any discussion about homosexuality. This was way before Ellen DeGeneres, Glee, and (of course) the internet. Words like “gay” (and their ruder equivalents) were slurs or insults, not positive self-descriptors. There was little incentive to ask critical questions about one’s sexual orientation (or for that matter, one’s gender identity), and plenty of reason to try not to think about it.

And it stands to reason that in North America in the ’80’s, people who felt as though they didn’t quite fit in anywhere (though they didn’t really understand why) would sometimes be drawn to conservative religious communities that claimed to have all the answers, and offered a powerful sense of belonging.

Conservative Muslim communities that I was associated with in the ’80’s and ’90’s divided space (and often also, activities) according to gender. Women were supposed to socialize with women, and men with men. Married couples weren’t really expected to have a strong emotional bond (or to “be in love”). In fact, the idea of romantic love was often explicitly rejected as a basis for building a marriage on. Getting married was supposed to mean playing a gender-based role, giving your spouse his/her rights, and carrying out your duties. Doing this properly would please God, and lead to rewards in the Hereafter. Love did not necessarily have anything to do with it.

If love was not found in marriage, it might be discovered elsewhere. Due to the expectations of how men and women were to socialize, it was quite acceptable—usually expected, in fact—for men to spend  a lot of time socializing with “the brothers.” To go to “the brothers” first for advice or emotional support. A man’s strongest emotional bonds could well be with other men rather than with his wife. And to a more limited extent, the reverse was true as well. In my experience, women were often more isolated socially, because of the emphasis placed on domesticity, obedience to husbands, and bearing children. But still, those they felt emotionally closest to might be their female friends. There were certainly plausible “Islamic” reasons that could be found to justify to oneself spending hours upon hours in the company of a female friend, whether it was teaching a sister to read the Qur’an or having an informal toddler play-group.

Sexuality wasn’t on our radar either, really. There was sex, but it was all about rights and duties in marriage. A woman had the duty to allow her husband sexual access (with a few legal restrictions on this “right” of his, such as when she is menstruating, or bleeding after childbirth). Whether or not she was “in the mood” or enjoyed the process very much was hardly the point. We all knew the hadith that says that if a man calls his wife to bed and she refuses him, that the angels will curse her all night long. Sex wasn’t something we really discussed much anyway, because it was seen as an immodest topic of conversation that could easily lead to “revealing the secrets” between husband and wife, which was forbidden.

It was simply assumed that women’s emotional needs would be taken care of in marriage—not so much by her husband (though she should be able to derive emotional satisfaction through serving him), but by bearing children. Motherhood was supposed to be women’s emotional be-all and end-all.  And it certainly was emotionally as well as physically exhausting.

The all-purpose answer to marital unhappiness for women was to have patience. As well as to be grateful for life’s blessings. We were taught that one of the chief faults that women have is that they aren’t sufficiently grateful, and that many women will go to Hell because they are ungrateful to their husbands, as the well-known hadith says.

Despite the strong pressures on converts to marry, male converts could get away with avoiding marriage for years, using poverty and/or devotion to the study of Islam as an excuse. Even once married, men could find plenty of pious pretexts to get out of spending time with their wives, especially if they were studying or teaching Islam, doing da’wah (particularly if this involved traveling), or had joined a Sufi order. Sexual energies could even be sublimated through obsessing about certain fiqhi issues, such as the fiqh of tahara. A brother who did this might well be perceived as scrupulous rather than, well, trying to suppress something.

And for those with issues of gender identity, who had grown up not quite sure why they didn’t seem to fit into either the “male” or the “female” categories, all the rules around gendered roles and dress and behavior could appear to provide a simple answer: All I have to do is to follow the rules, and then I’ll become a “real man” (or a “real woman”) and it’ll all be fine.

So, conversion could provide access to what amounted to a deep closet, indeed. One could easily spend years—decades, even—behind a heterosexual, cisgendered mask. Carrying out one’s duties, to the best of one’s ability. One foot in front of the other. Just keep moving, and don’t ask any searching questions about who you are and why this isn’t really working. Questions like that are modern, selfish, individualistic questions that good believers shouldn’t ask. The problem must be that you aren’t submitting to God enough. You just need to pray more. The Afterlife is better for you than the present.

This deep closet is very narrow and stifling. Its walls are hard, but also brittle. Reality intrudes. Cracks appear. More and more of them. You try to plug them up, cover them over. But that can’t keep out the daylight. The walls are crumbling… and from the graves they hie unto their Lord. They say, ‘Who has raised us from this place of sleep?’

What are the long-term effects of living in this kind of deep, narrow closet?

  • Depression. If it goes on long enough, severe depression. The kind of depression that makes life seem hopeless, like a prison that only death can release you from.
  • Disconnection from reality. Life becomes all about playing roles, doing what others are telling you that you have to do, and repressing what you yourself feel. You lose touch with yourself. You don’t feel real. You feel like a shadow.
  • Numbness. Goes with depression, as well as with disconnection from reality. You don’t feel much—hardly any grief, emotional connection, or desire, much less love—in most situations. Close relatives die, and you can’t feel anything, except a twinge of guilt that you can’t emotionally respond to their deaths.
  • Problems with social and familial relationships. How can you have relationships with anyone that go beyond the superficial when you can’t be honest even with yourself, much less with others?
  • Harm to children. Children know on some intuitive level when their parents aren’t being real and completely emotionally present. They can also suffer when parents try to compensate for their own issues with sexuality or gender by doing their darndest to ensure that at least their kids will manage to fit into conservative Muslim gender molds, whether the kids want to (or are able to) or not. Parents’ depression and self-esteem issues also have a negative effect on their abilities to care for their children.
  • Serious self-esteem issues. There’s a mold you have to fit into, but you aren’t managing to do it, no matter how hard you try. You aren’t managing to be the “ideal Muslimah” (or  the “ideal Muslim”). To be sure, these molds are laughably unrealistic for most straight, cisgendered folks to fit into as well, but you don’t see that, because you are so busy trying to become what you aren’t and never will be. There must be something seriously wrong with you. You must be irreparably flawed.
  • Getting drawn into a cycle of self-deception (and self-hate). You believe that if you stop and admit for once that you can’t fit the mold, then God will reject you. In effect, God will despise you for being honest. So you can’t be honest, but you can’t admit even to yourself that you aren’t being honest, or this means that you have abandoned all hope. God doesn’t create people like you—everyone says so. So you hate yourself. There’s something rotten at your core that doesn’t allow you to live up to God’s standards. You wonder if you are among those God created for Hell. God is all-knowing, and your efforts aren’t working. You can’t fool God. God must hate you.
  • Becoming suicidal.

Some converts who have sought advice from scholars, imams, or Sufi leaders have been told that getting heterosexually married should “cure” them—or, that things like prayer, meditating on the torments of Hell, and lots of Qur’an reading will turn them straight, and that marrying someone of the “opposite” sex will cement this “cure.” This does not work. It also causes a great deal of needless suffering to their straight spouses (as well as to any kids involved).

Some converts turn their self-hatred outwards, and become energetic moral police. They rant endlessly about the real or imagined moral transgressions of others, whether it be the less-than-perfectly modest dress and behavior of Muslim women nowadays, or the evils of “free-mixing”… or the slightest hint of tolerance for LGBTQ people, anywhere. Those that shout the loudest against “homosexuals” or the supposed “gay agenda” tend to have something to hide. They also made the conservative Muslim communities that I was involved in even more conformist and intolerant places to be.

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  1. #1 by Chinyere on May 17, 2012 - 8:21 pm

    Wow. Powerful entry. So much pain, so few solutions within our communities. …unless the answer is to leave the community, and find a home elsewhere…

  2. #2 by xcwn on May 17, 2012 - 11:32 pm

    I don’t know if there is really any answer. Some LGBTQ people do leave Islam, of course. But that seems more feasible for those who haven’t been Muslim for all that long. It is a lot harder for people who converted several decades ago to leave once they realize that they aren’t straight. They can remove themselves from conservative Muslim communities, but whether they can truly “leave” is another question.

    The expectation on the part of some conservative Muslims that LGBTQ converts leave is often not so much intended as some sort of a solution, as it is a wish that such troublesome and embarrassing people would just disappear. As if that will solve the “problem.” Out of sight, out of mind. (I don’t mean to imply that this is what you think. But the suggestion that LGBTQ converts should leave is sometimes made by people with other motivations.)

    Anyway, the “should I stay or should I go” question is fairly removed from reality, in my experience. I keep bumping into recent converts who identify as LGBTQ, who practice Islam in a pretty conservative way. The first time that I met someone like that, my response to them was basically WTF? What on earth do you think you are doing?? Oddly enough, this did not make them sit up and say, “Oh, now I see that I never should have become a Muslim! Thanks so much for the helpful advice; I’ll just leave Islam now before I really screw up my life!”

    • #3 by Chinyere on May 18, 2012 - 5:24 pm

      Yes, definitely understood. Hard is an understatement. I recognized in retrospect that leaving one’s Muslim community is tantamount to leaving Islam, essentially, for those who are more conservative. And anyway, it’s never fair for someone to have to leave their faith community. You’re right, I didn’t mean it in the sense of out-of-sight, out-of-mind, but just digging for healthful solutions to a really complex issue… I guess all we can do as individuals is create a welcoming home for those who don’t feel at home in their communities, short of activism…

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