Archive for category LGBTQ issues

Musings on Muslim identity (I)

As God says, “Fa-aina tadhhabun?” (Where are you going?)

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In the beginning, it seemed quite simple: belief that God is one (as opposed to belief in a trinity), belief in the prophets with Muhammad as the last, reading quranic passages in my personal prayers more frequently than Bible verses… I couldn’t even pretend to fit into any Christian church any more. My religious beliefs, my ritual language, were undeniably becoming more and more Muslim.

But that was before I had encountered a Muslim community. I had met individual Muslims—most of whom were students who weren’t very practicing, although a few nonetheless plied me with dawah literature. But they were not an organized conservative community, with clear ideas of who was “in” and who was “out,” or an interest in policing what people believed or did. So at that point, gradually becoming a Muslim was primarily about my own individual, private spiritual practice.

Once I married my ex, however, the specter of community slowly began to rear its head now and again.

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Eid al-Adha aftermath: maybe there’s hope

For a number of reason, many of which I outlined in my last post, Eid al-Adha was far from being my favorite holiday back when I was a conservative Muslim. In the insular, very conservative community that I belonged for a number of years, Eid was really a celebration of patriarchal power and privilege.

This year, I learned that Eid al-Adha doesn’t have to be a celebration of patriarchal power and privilege. It can become a way for justice-seeking individuals to begin to recognize their own complicities within structures of power, and to resist these.
This photo is of the Eid prayer space of El-Tawhid Juma Circle in Toronto, Canada: <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mmw/2012/10/mmw-eid-roundtable-part-2/#more-12005&gt;

While I and my convert friends did our best not to acknowledge this, and tried so hard to get into the spirit of things, to find some spiritual nourishment in the whole thing—or failing this, to at least make it memorable and fun for our kids, it was practically impossible for us not to notice that its overwhelmingly patriarchal focus left barely any room for us or our children. It was a celebration of a particular type of hyper-masculinity that all but erases every way of being that doesn’t fit into that mold, and damns to hellfire all those of us who can’t help but protest the injustice of being negated and shoved to the margins.

But as this year’s Eid al-Adha approached, I began to hear things that made me wonder if perhaps I hadn’t written off this holiday too quickly. One mosque had invited a woman to give the sermon at the Eid prayers. And another was having a woman lead the Eid prayer. History was being made, apparently—and on this day of all days, when the story told in innumerable sermons around the globe studiedly ignores female subjectivities, and real live women are most typically relegated to the kitchen. I could hardly believe it.

But I was skeptical. The holiday is what it is, I thought. How could a few women giving sermons or leading prayers make any difference? Wouldn’t it be the ritual equivalent of… I don’t know, trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear?

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National Coming Out Day, or why coming out matters to me

So, it’s National Coming Out Day. The day that marks the importance of coming out for LGBTQ folks.

A lot has changed since I converted in the ’80’s. LGBTQ Muslims are becoming increasingly visible. It is becoming much less tenable for imams and community leaders to pretend that LGBTQ Muslims don’t exist, or to dismiss them as people who have chosen to live in sin. (The signs in this picture were carried by members of IMAAN in the London Pride Parade several years ago.)

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.

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October 11 is National Coming-Out Day

Happy National Coming-Out Day to everybody, especially to converts who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, transgendered, gender-queer, intersexed, questioning….

I have to go to work, so more later.

But to those folks who keep finding my blog through search terms such as “deep and narrow closet” and aren’t doing home renovations: Closets are for clothes, not human beings.

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“Purity” as a myth

In the last two posts, I have been trying to disentangle why I (and some of my convert friends) bought into the notion that a girl’s or woman’s worth is essentially dependent on her “purity”—her virginity at marriage, and her chaste and modest behavior forever after. Supposedly, all this concern about what girls and women were or weren’t doing sexually was all about morality. Supposedly, it was (sexual) morality that made Islam and Muslims morally superior to “the West”, as well as to all other religions and cultures in the world. Or so we were given to understand.

But the reality as I experienced it was something quite different, now that I look back on it.

I remember various evangelical Christian sex scandals making the news, and the responses of the immigrant or convert Muslims that I knew: We aren’t like this. Because Islam has given us a superior way of life, that protects us from such things. Unlike Christianity, with its guilt about sex and its so-called monogamy, we have a realistic way of life that is in accordance with human nature (fitra), which doesn’t leave anyone any excuse to fornicate or to commit adultery….

To be sure, we didn’t really have sex scandals in the communities I was involved in or had ties with. At least, we didn’t think of them in that way. Because what this “realistic way of life” gave us was the illusion that everyone (or nearly everyone) was being sexually moral—and the means to make most infractions disappear. Men’s infractions, anyway. While girls and women bore the brunt.

An important consequence of this was that we didn’t question the teachings on sexuality that we were given:

  • A total ban on dating, or even on male-female platonic friendships
  • A ban on anything thought to facilitate or tempt people to commit fornication or adultery
  • Gender segregation in most situations, wherever possible
  • The requirement that women wear hijab, and dress modestly even in their own homes or in female-only spaces
  • The belief that fornication and adultery are very serious sins, that are to be punished by flogging and stoning in an “Islamic” state
  • The belief that even same-sex sexual thoughts or feelings are extremely sinful, and probably mean that the person having them is going to hell

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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.

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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.

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