Last month, an estimated 1.5 million people took to the streets of London to join the annual Pride march in support of sexual and gender diversity. A day of celebration of just how far we’ve come – but also protest at how far we’ve yet to go – queer and non-queer organisations and diverse members of the public joined together in declaring that we’re all equal and that we all deserve equal representation, acceptance and visibility.
However, despite the huge turnout of people, for many people, attending Pride is simply a closeted dream. As a Muslim (albeit a heterosexual cis woman), I’m particularly aware of just how prominent this problem is within my own religious community.
Sexual and gender exclusion: Inside the British Muslim community
For many Muslims, the idea of a Muslim being actively queer is simply a “no-no”. Deemed a “sin”, often seen as an “unnatural” “choice” and at best declared as something best to be hidden, pushed aside and not acted upon, queer Muslims are therefore often left facing stigma, exclusion, disownment and/or physical violence for embracing their sexual and/or gender-based identity.
It’s sadly a common perception that there is (little or) no room for sexual or gender diversity in Islam – despite arguments, evidence, history and ongoing research proving otherwise – as well as the presence of queer imams. The story of Prophet Lot and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for example – as detailed in the Qur’an – is frequently used as the primary source of anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric. Common traditional readings of the Qur’an (and related hadith – sayings of Prophet Muhammad) state that this story refers to homosexuality and with a punishment given for such acts, homosexuality has is therefore declared as “haram”. Alternative readings of this passage, however, refer instead to a condemnation of rape rather than homosexuality itself.
Nonetheless, such commonly held beliefs ideas have established a strong sense of heteronormativity and strict gender binary. Not only do common beliefs adhere to the narrative that same-sex relations are immoral but some Muslims also think they should be actively discouraged. A poll of British Muslims undertaken in 2018, for example, found that 52% of Muslim participants disagree that homosexuality should be legal in Britain – compared to 23% for the adult public and 23% for Christian peers. Of course, whilst there have been significant concerns over the research methods used for the poll, we cannot deny that there is without a doubt a widespread belief that being queer or “doing something about it” (acting upon it) is “haram” (forbidden). Whilst, of course, sexual relations is a wide topic in Islam in terms of pre- and extra-marital relations, this narrative nonetheless excludes same-sex marriage/loving relations and trans and non-binary identities in any form or shape whatsoever.
The result of such norms and restrictions which have accompanied this anti-LGBTQI+ narrative are of course devastating for queer Muslims who face a myriad of difficulties and challenges coming out and embracing their true identity – for which they are often forced to stay inside the closet:
“I would cry on my prayer rug: ‘Give me cancer or anything. Please make me straight.'”
(Afshan D’souza-Lodhi, 26, Manchester)
“I came out when I was 23. My parents took me to see my GP, not out of malice, but because they didn’t understand what it meant to be gay.”
(Asifa Lahore, 35, Croydon)
“Growing up, I was very religious, but I was taught to fear Allah. When I came out at 15 it was a very difficult time. My parents thought it was a phase. They had an arranged marriage and met on their wedding day, so for them marrying someone you desire was not important. To them, you suppress desire to make things work societally.”
(Ferhan Khan, 34, London)
(The Guardian, 2019)
Pushed into marriage, taken to a GP or becoming desperate to “pray the gay away” as the saying goes, the harsh truth is that queer Muslims battle against traditionalism and cultural norms, fear and ignorance around sexual and gender diversity and longstanding religious conservatism. In truth: they have been let down. Misunderstood, excluded and stigmatised, they deserve better than to marginalised and forced to choose between their faith and sexuality – in other words: being a “sinful” queer and/or transsexual Muslim or a “good” heterosexual cis Muslim. This simply isn’t good enough.
I may only identify as an LGBTQI+ ally but I myself am all too aware of this commonality. I’ve seen the outspoken homophobic and transphobic rhetoric online. One Muslim brother on Twitter recently admitted to me that he is subject to “same-sex attraction” but is not pro-LGBTQI+ and instead chooses to propagate homophobic rhetoric [see image below]. Likewise, since tweeting about Pride as a proud Muslim woman, I’ve sadly also witnessed/been victim to Islamophobia within pro-LGBTQI+ circles.
The harsh reality of the bigotry and hatred in British society today, as shown in these tweets, is exactly why visible positive representation and LGBTQI+ allies from both within and outside the Muslim community are so important.
Gender, sexual and religious diversity: Pride in London
Whatever our sexuality, gender and faith identity (including those who have no faith), we must support our Muslim peers. It’s our duty to recognise, accept and help carve a healthy inclusive space for queer Muslims – one free from false dichotomies which (attempt to) force people to choose between their faith and sexuality. Yet crucially, this mustn’t be done in jest or subject to apologetic, half-hearted speech or wishy-washy promises.
This can of course only be done by working with those affected and becoming engaged allies ready to speak out, to challenge “norms” and to sadly not be afraid to “go against the grain” – even if it’s “a little different”, a little self-reflective or a little uncomfortable for some. We must work in a way that is truly accepting, intersectional, tolerant and inclusive – free of “if”s, “but”s and monolithic views of faith vis-à-vis sexual and gender identity.
Our rights to freedom of expression and belief are fundamental to all our brothers and sisters – of all faiths and none. As Muslims, when we talk of rights, we have to recognise that we have to not only accept but actively call for the same rights to inclusion and freedom of expression which we enjoin in every day here in the UK. We therefore must come together as a religious community to support our Muslim peers. What’s more, as a multicultural and multifaith nation, the same support, unity and inclusion must be equally present in secular and non-Muslim circles, as well as Muslim spaces.
Recognising the need for intersectional, inclusive spaces, we can see why such openly public events such as Pride – which are also cross-cultural and interfaith in nature – are so important. Imaan – the UK’s leading LGBTQI+ support organisation for queer Muslims – is dedicated to supporting LGBTQI+ Muslims across the country and engages in a variety of spaces including Pride in London. On the day of Pride this year – just like every other year – members of Imaan (out of the closet of course) stood tall and proud to march for Muslim LGBTQI+ rights. I myself was delighted to join them for such a critical cause.
Shouting: “Allah loves lesbians!”, “Allah loves equality!” and “Allah loves queers!“, we were declaring that we don’t merely stand against exclusion and hate, but that we believe wholeheartedly that queer Muslims aren’t “haram”. Queer Muslims need to be accepted, celebrated and supported in every way possible and our message was loud and clear: LGBTQI+ Muslims are just as “Muslim” as their cis and heterosexual peers and they’re not going anywhere!
— Imaan LGBTQI (@ImaanLGBTQ) July 6, 2019
As a (heterosexual cis) LGBTQI+ Muslim ally, what I found particularly heartwarming at Pride (in addition to the great unity within Imaan) were the cheers, smiles and welcomes given by fellow marchers and members of the public. As we took to the streets of London, proudly Muslim and also proud of sexual and gender diversity, fellow Pride-goers young and old were there standing, jumping and screaming happily in support with us. They accepted us as Muslims, loved us as Muslims and celebrated with us as Muslims and non-Muslims together – just as we did with every other participant at Pride. And this is the crux: this is what inclusion is about, this is diversity in action and this is love in full force.
It’s exactly this sense of solidarity, inclusion and acceptance which what we should be seeing in action each and every day across the UK. As queer Muslims and allies, we believe in sexual and gender diversity and inclusion within and outside Islam, for Muslims and non-Muslims alike – whatever a person’s faith or non-faith background. Sadly though, across the UK, homophobia and transphobia still exist in many religious and non-religious spaces, and so we must address the issue of gender and sexual diversity within our own specific communities – including quite critically my own community in which anti-LGBTQI+ has so deeply embedded itself.
As Muslims, the time must be now for are already lagging behind. We only need to look at the ongoing row over inclusive education in schools and the protests of certain concerned Muslim parents to see how bad things have become – in fact: how hate, ignorance, intolerance and exclusion have become in fact so common. These ongoing protests have without doubt highlighted exactly how we’re at a critical crossroads. Our community is undoubtedly diverse and certainly not a uniform monolith but we must unite to take the crucial step onto a new more unified, progressive path, or else certain segments of the community risk leaving themselves behind, blinded by dogma and traditionalism based on singular monolithic, literalist interpretations of faith – interpretations that shut out others, exclude diversity and intersectionality, halt progress and critically stigmatise people (including quite crucially their own adherents).
What our community critically needs to do is to move on and to accept queer Muslims and above all, recognise that our peers need allies – outspoken allies who will actively support them. Denouncing hate crime or saying “I wish no harm” is simply not good enough. The fact is that harm is exclusion, harm is stigma, harm is a lack of inclusion and a lack of nuance – and this harm is manifesting itself within (as well as outside) our religious community.
The truth is simple: sexuality isn’t a “choice”, gender identity isn’t something we “self-create” and living as you so crucially are – in the way that Allah created you – is not “haram”. What is a choice, what is self-generated and what is wrong are: shame, stigma, exclusion and hate. We therefore need to not only accept but actively embrace these truths – and many, many more! It’s time that we learnt to explore other “narratives” – to question, to think and to listen to the feelings, experiences and stories of others without apologies, excuses and simplistic, un-nuanced and unchallenged “haram only” narratives. Too much time has already passed. Our Muslim siblings need us. I therefore call on you – Muslims and non-Muslims alike to be an ally, a friend, a companion and a supporter – not a bystander, not an “excuser” and not an accuser.
So, if you’re Muslim: please stand with our queer co-religionists by speaking out against hate, building inclusive spaces and developing more open narratives around sexual and gender diversity. It’s not simply the duty of our queer peers to battle for inclusion and acceptance – it’s all the responsibility of each and every one of us to make this happen.
Likewise, if you’re non-Muslim: please don’t propagate homophobia and transphobia in the name of “community relations” out of fear, socio-political pressure or a (well-needed and well-meaning) desire for better relations with the wider Muslim community. Instead, please work with queer and non-queer Muslims alike for the betterment of our entire community. Help spread the voice of queer Muslims, offer openly queer (and non-queer) Muslims an inclusive space free from Islamophobia and actively engage with the full diversity of the Muslim community with zero room for hate, stigma, shame and intolerance. This will crucially help respect the rights and dignity of our queer Muslim peers in secular queer spaces and both Muslim and interfaith circles and help promote a more tolerant, diverse society for everyone.
By working together, we can create critical long overdue change. For each and every one of us, the message is simple: there are no half measures. You either stand for equality – the right of each and every one of us– or you don’t. No double standards.
So, are you ready to stand up and declare: Allah loves equality?
This article was first published by Faith Matters (18/07/2019).