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Queer Muslims Observe a Separate, Unequal Ramadan

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The LGBTQ Muslim community is gaining notice in the arts, but mainstream acceptance in their communities lags behind, particularly at mosques. "I don't go because of that feeling that I cannot be my full self," says one queer Muslim.

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The LGBTQ Muslim community is gaining notice in the arts, but mainstream acceptance in their communities lags behind, particularly at mosques. "I don't go because of that feeling that I cannot be my full self," says one queer Muslim.
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Queer Muslim

Credit: Charles Roffey on Flickr, under Creative Commons

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NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Kaamila Mohamed, Nabil K. and S. Syed have three things in common: they're Muslim, queer and rarely found at mosques.

The Islamic month of Ramadan is coming to an end and none of them has consistently attended prayers at mosques as is often done during this spiritual month. The reason: they do not feel very welcome.

"I don't go because of that feeling that I cannot be my full self," said Mohamed in a recent phone interview from Boston. "I have to constantly be questioning and navigating whether it is safe to be open about who I am. That is an extremely psychologically draining experience and it bars me from being a full participant and community member" in Muslim spaces.

The LGBTQ Muslim community around the world has attracted attention in the arts and media lately. Earlier this month "Coming Out Muslim: Radical Acts of Love" was staged in New York in two performances. The play dramatizes the struggles of queer Muslims to reconcile the beliefs of their families and homelands with their own existences as LGBTQ Muslims. In a poetic narrative-based format, Terna Tilley-Giado and co-creator Wazina Zondon shared their stories as coming out Muslims.

But breaking that kind of artistic ground doesn't mean an openly bisexual woman such as Mohamed feels comfortable or accepted in her own community or in mosques.

As in any Abrahamic religion, homosexuality is forbidden in Islam and subject to legal punishment in many Muslim countries, though discrimination against the LGBTQ community happens all over the world, including the United States.

Sexual orientation is barely, if at all, addressed in mosques, said queer Muslims who spoke to Women's eNews. At worst, you may hear some form of condemnation; at best, religious leaders and community members will stay silent.

None of the imams contacted by Women's eNews wished to comment on the issue or they didn't reply to an interview request.

Building Own Community

Instead of seeking out mainstream acceptance, Mohamed has been building her own Muslim community in Boston "with other people who share a queer identity."

Mohamed, 25, is co-coordinator of Queer Muslims of Boston (QMOB), a space for Muslims who identify as LGBT, Queer. The group meets once a month to discuss and share with each other. On July 19, the group hosted an iftar--the evening meal when Muslims break their fast at the time of sunset –at a member's home.

"This time we talked about how Ramadan is going, the challenges, the successes, where we are at spiritually. It was a time to be vulnerable and to share with each other," Mohamed said.

Mohamed started to come out when she was 19. "Some members of my family are incredibly accepting and supportive and there are others members of my family that I am estranged from," she said.

Aside from some of her closest relatives Mohamed has had no difficulty being openly bisexual with the rest of the Muslim community. "Among Muslims of my age, I have peers and friends that are straight and who are amazing allies and supporters."

At the same time, she speaks of a "disconnect" between the tolerance displayed by individuals and the institutional atmosphere of mosques where homophobia can go unchecked or unchallenged. "Unless there is a strong stance of welcoming acceptance and safety in those spaces, for many queer Muslims it will continue to be a place where people feel they cannot be out about who they are or in other cases may not feel they can participate in their spiritual life in these spaces."

"I am out" said Mohamed when asked if she ever hides her sexual identity. Yet she also said she "plays it safe" in mosques and doesn't bring the topic up.

Ramadan will end on July 27 in the United States. On July 28, Mohamed plans to go to a mosque for the Eid prayer that seals the month of fast and spiritual rejuvenation. "I will be going with a few of the queer Muslim folks," she said.

Doubly Marginalized

"I think continuing to affirm our existence in this world is the biggest issue that we are facing," said Mohamed, adding that this group is doubly marginalized. While they don't always feel welcome by mainstream Muslims, they are also questioned by the mainstream LGBTQ community, who often find it surprising for someone to be queer and Muslim.

S. Syed, who doesn't want her full name to be used, shares that feeling of double marginalization. One of the biggest challenges, she said in a phone interview, is the perception that being queer and Muslim is mutually exclusive.

Syed, who is also 25, lives in Chicago with her family after having studied in Boston, where she found out about QMOB. So far she has only came out to her father, about two years ago. They both decided she should not come out to her mother, who still does not know.

Since returning to the country earlier this month from an internship in Chile with an LGBTQ rights group, she has spent most of Ramadan with her family; from pre-dawn breakfast to iftar in the evenings.

The LGBTQ Muslim community in Chicago is not as developed as the one in Boston, she said, so she and some friends are trying to start a group based on the model of Boston.

Syed, who started to come out at 22, says her liberal interpretation of the Quran means she never felt the need to leave Islam to be herself. "I have adapted my faith to my life." She adds that her sexual identity "was about to be more of a disappointment for my family than it was for God."

Mosques a Rarity

Like Mohamed, Syed rarely goes to mosques. "I don't need a mosque to believe in Islam. You can pray anywhere and that's the beauty of it."

She added that she never felt welcomed in prayer spaces, especially as a woman. "I feel the women's section is not being taken care of. I feel like a second-class Muslim."

For now, most of her daily interactions are with family members or other queer people. She would like to see a conversation start with the rest of the Muslim community, but nothing too big or too sudden. "We would have to start small. Talking about sexuality within your own family should come first before you can move on into a larger group."

Syed appreciates the recent media coverage of queer Muslims for showing it's possible to be queer and Muslim. "I think it is great publicity because it shows that you don't have to leave your religion because of your orientation."

Nabil K. has also spent most of his Ramadan with his family. "I have only been to the mosque one or two times."

Nabil K., who doesn't want his full name to be used, says he is "trying to get better at praying five times a day" during the spiritual month.

His family members know about his sexual orientation but "some of them are in denial about it," he said.

The 28-year-old serves as the co-coordinator of QMOB in Boston. He describes the LGBTQ Muslim community as "apart" from the rest of the Muslims.

"We are trying to change that," he said. One of QMOB's goals is to work on visibility and outreach among mainstream Muslims in the coming year, including older generations.

Elizabeth Kuhr contributed reporting to this article.

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