So, it’s National Coming Out Day. The day that marks the importance of coming out for LGBTQ folks.
In the insular, conservative Muslim communities that I have been involved with in the ’80’s and early ’90’s, coming out was unacceptable. It was so far from acceptable that it was rarely even acknowledged as a possibility.
Coming out—or more often, being found out—was usually equated with having supposedly made the choice to be a sinner, and to sin openly.
This myth—that being LGBTQ is a choice which people willfully make because they want to indulge in sin—was believable to so many for so long in part because almost no one came out.
Oh, some brothers dodged marriage for years, claiming poverty or studies or “they just hadn’t found the right woman yet.” There were those women who put off getting married—or once divorced, didn’t seek to marry again—or who stayed in loveless marriages and poured their emotional energies into very close friendships with other women. Some people might suspect, or even whisper about them. But they didn’t speak openly about their experiences and lives, so the community didn’t have to deal with the reality of LGBTQ Muslims in their midst.
Speakers at Muslim conferences, preachers and community leaders at events, would occasionally address the issue of “homosexuality.” (Typically, the concern was with gay men—meaning, men who were not only having sex with men, but who had the temerity to publicly claim the identity of “gay.” Queer women and transfolk were not usually acknowledged.) According to these speakers, there was no type of sexual depravity worse than “homosexuality.” There was nothing whatsoever positive that could be said about it. Because “homosexuality” was not about relationships or love, just about sex, and the most sinful kind at that. Because “homosexuals” had supposedly chosen to pursue their lusts. And nobody got up and questioned this message in light of their own experience.
Another topic which was more often addressed was “proper” gender roles and behavior—that there are men and there are women, and they are to play “complementary, not competing” roles. Some speakers ridiculed men who were not “masculine enough.” Supposedly, being properly “masculine” was part and parcel of being a true believer, if you were born in a male body. And, being properly “feminine” was even more narrowly defined (and entirely necessary) if you had been born in a female body. People debated questions such as whether it is appropriate for women to wear pants, even if it is under a long dress, or if women wearing pants would fall under the divine curse pronounced on “women who imitate men.” Gender ambiguity, questioning one’s gender, gender queerness, femmy men, butch women, gender transition… were hardly acknowledged, but when they were, it was to pronounce them both sinful and “unnatural” (as well as just ridiculous). And again, nobody publicly challenged these messages.
Fortunately, a lot has changed since the ’80’s and ’90’s. LGBTQ Muslims are increasingly coming out and speaking up against such heterosexist and cis-genderist views, and putting their own stories out there. They are producing films about their lives, writing about sexuality, gender identity and sexual minorities in Muslim societies past and present, finding theological room for sexual and gender minorities in Islam, establishing support groups…. And straight Muslim allies are also becoming more visible, working with LGBTQ Muslims in order to educate communities, and to establish and maintain Friday Prayers which are welcoming to persons of all sexualities and gender identities.
Yes, it is absolutely getting better.
So, coming out has a definite communal dimension, whether for LGBTQ people or for straight allies.
But it also has very personal implications.
Living one’s life in a deep and narrow closet is incredibly suffocating and restricting. It is disfiguring. If you can’t even be honest with yourself, what, where and with whom can you ever be honest?
If you look at the world through heteronormative and cis-gendered lenses when you yourself don’t fit into the neat little boxes that those lenses presuppose, what does this do to your self-image? How can you not hate, fear and despise yourself? (As well as anyone else who reminds you of yourself?)
How did you feel when you heard preachers or other believers, even supposedly good friends of yours, say that LGBTQ people are “disgusting”?
What did it do when you screw up the courage to sort of come out to someone you thought was a friend, only to be rejected? Or when you distanced yourself from formerly good conservative Muslim friends, because you couldn’t stand lying by omission any more?
To me, coming out is bearing witness to the internal violence that homophobia and transphobia cause. And refusing to silently allow it to continue to do so. It’s a matter of taking back my integrity.