Several months ago, I ran across a short film on youtube about twospirit people. The thing about it that particularly grabbed me was Joey Criddle’s description of traditional Native teachings on people who are different:
“You know, there’s a saying we say—We don’t throw our people away. So, people who are born differently, whether mentally, physically, emotionally, whatever, were considered sacred or holy people. There was a reason why the Creator made them different. So historically, traditionally, twospirit people were viewed as very special people. That all changed with the coming of the Europeans. When the Europeans came, they attacked that….”
Wow, I thought. That’s just such a really, really different attitude to human variety than what I am used to.
I can’t even begin to imagine any of the Muslim communities I have been involved with looking at queer people—or at anyone who didn’t fit the mold, really—in such a positive way. Especially not if the person who didn’t fit in for some reason was female-bodied. This was just not how we were taught to think about difference.
More recently, I heard a Catholic priest say that God created every single person, individually and deliberately. Which again struck me as just a very different way of looking at human variety than what I am used to
And then, I was rather taken aback. Sure, the idea that God created human beings is a very familiar one, and we certainly believed it. We even believed that God creates and recreates the world continuously—“yas’aluhu man fi’s-samawati wa’l-ard, kulla yaumin huwa fi sha’n.” That nasheed by Dawud Wharnsby is still stuck in my head, about how even an autumn leaf “only breaks away and sails on the breeze / when Allah commands it to do so.”
And yet. Somehow, I hadn’t connected the dots. I hadn’t really regarded myself as having been created individually and purposefully by God, much less thought about what that would mean.
And thinking about it now, I found it an almost mind-blowing idea. Why, that would mean that… every single human has incalculable worth. Every single human. Even those human beings that neither “mainstream” society nor the conservative religious communities that I have been involved with seem to know what to do with: Those who don’t fit into neat little gendered boxes. Those who aren’t physically attractive. Those who can’t ever quite seem to “fit in” socially, or “get their lives together.” Those who get pegged as “weird” or “eccentric” and who most people avoid.
And that would even mean… me.
This was and is an absolutely astounding notion.
I thought back to what we used to believe. Yes, we certainly believed that God created everything and controls everything and that everything that happens is divinely destined. But we also were taught to see society and the family in heterosexist terms, and as divinely designed to be hierarchical, which in turn basically meant that some people—especially female-bodied people—had been created primarily for the sake of serving others, though that was more often implied than explicitly stated in the circles I moved in.
I realized that this hierarchical vision that we were taught had had the effect of undercutting any notion that we female-bodied and/or queer folk had worth because God had created us individually and purposefully. Because we were taught to measure our worth in terms of how well we were serving our supposed purpose. Female-bodied people had worth primarily as wives and mothers. We didn’t think that we had worth in and of ourselves—even entertaining such an idea would have been seen as selfish and individualistic and “modern” (in a profoundly negative sense).
Worth was also tied to obedience to God—which meant in reality, conforming to the mold of an “good Muslim (man)” or an “ideal Muslimah” as closely as possible. Men were typically held to less exacting standards of conformity than women, but still, a man who was too obviously not fitting the mold and had no religious excuse figleaf to cover his deviance wouldn’t be seen as having much worth either.
My ex and his community actually referred to people whose behavior they didn’t approve of for one reason or another as “cheap people” or even “worthless.” As for The Cult, they explicitly taught us that if we didn’t devote our lives wholeheartedly to obeying God (which in reality meant devoting our lives to conforming to what we were being told that God wants us to do and be) then God wouldn’t even care in which valley we died.
That essentially, we’d be rejects, human trash, as far as God is concerned.
And we believed it.
With such a mindset, managing to physically leave such a community becomes at best a Pyrrhic victory. You gain your body, but lose whatever worth you were thought to have had. Not just in the minds of those you left behind, but too often, also in yours. You keep looking at yourself through the heterosexist, male-centred gaze that you internalized… that you were taught is not only the community’s gaze, but God’s. That this is how God sees you.
So, your inability to fit yourself into that narrow template means that you are damned. And basically worthless. God doesn’t care what valley you die in. You’re just fuel for hell. As the hadith qudsi says, “I will fill hell with men and jinn, and I don’t care.”
There was really no room in those communities for any sexual identity other than heterosexual, or for gender variance. Because they believed that God made everyone either male or female, and also heterosexual. So, anyone who didn’t fit into these categories was simply a misbehaving heterosexual, cisgendered person who for some reason—whether bad parenting or giving in to their nafs or satanic influence or prideful defiance of divine guidance—had chosen to disobey God and act in ways that they really knew in their heart of hearts is completely wrong.
There was little room in those communities for people with learning disabilities, mental illnesses, or even those who were socially awkward.
The label “crazy” was stuck on people quite freely—and it meant that such people were not to be taken seriously. Social awkwardness or autism-spectrum-type behavior were often (mis)understood as character flaws. It was assumed the people who apparently had “normal” levels of intelligence but didn’t behave as they were expected to had deliberately chosen not to conform. That in effect, it was their “fault” that they didn’t fit in with others. Or perhaps somewhat more mercifully, they could be condescended to as sick or otherwise flawed people who needed care, and who would be viewed primarily as problems to be dealt with.
Depression wasn’t usually regarded as a real thing, either—it was supposedly due to having weak faith, so it was seen as the depressed person’s fault. PTSD was rarely if ever even acknowledged, even when people who had been through traumatic experiences were acting out. These communities didn’t have a clue what to do about things such as eating disorders, or kids cutting themselves, or self-destructive behavior. When these things did happen, it would often be assumed that such things were caused by poor parenting or some sort of flaw in the parents’ faith or the contamination of this evil, corrupt modern world.
Trying to recover from such conditioning essentially means rethinking your entire life. On an individual level, as well as how your life relates to the lives of others. It is like looking at the pieces of shattered glass that were once your life and trying to make sense of them. Was there ever anything there of value? Is there something there that can be built upon? Or do you just sweep it all aside and begin again?