By Zehra Kazmi:
It’s an interesting co-incidence that the month of Ramzan coincides with LGBTQI+ Pride Month this year. The legal validation given to homosexuality in Ireland and USA was followed by a barrage of statuses and rainbow display pictures in my news feed. I realise that the subject I am going to write about in this article is going to raise a lot of eyebrows, but here I am, a Muslim, who believes that homosexuality needs legal recognition, social acceptance, and an end to its oppression. I have met several people in the past year who don’t align to a particular sexual preference and are dealing with the complexities that arise from being queer in modern-day India. In the history of Islamic socio-cultural expression, there have been various references to alternative sexual identities in the literature of Central Asia, Mughals and even medieval Arabia. Countless paintings, stories and the memoirs of Babur and later, of writers like Oscar Wilde, show that the Orient was a place where homosexuality was accepted as a part of society.
‘Allah Made Me Queer’ and ‘#WeAreNotHaram’ are two movements that have caught on with trans Muslims on Tumblr this month, given the overlap of Ramzan with LGBTQI+ Pride Month. Dozens of young Muslims have taken to sharing their coming out stories. They are using the hashtag #WeAreNotHaram with their stories to spread awareness about their sexuality and reach out on a digital platform. I came across stories of people offering support to each other, sharing their experiences of coming out, their frustration at constantly having to hide their sexual orientation, their efforts to reconcile their socio-religious and sexual identities and pictures of the Pride parades and underground LGBTQI+ movements in Muslim countries. Research led me to Anonymous (she requests that she not be named in this interview), who along with Noor (an intersex blogger), started the movement online.
Anonymous is a lesbian woman from the Middle East and hopes to reach out to fellow members of the Muslim LGBTQI+ community with her movement. She has not ‘come out’ outside of the virtual world yet. Given the rising popularity of #WeAreNotHaram, or performances like Coming Out Muslim: Radical Acts of Love, it’s clear that more and more LGBTQI+ Muslims are gathering the courage to speak up. And to find out more, I emailed Anonymous with my questions, who was kind enough to respond.
Zehra Kazmi (ZK): How was the idea of starting the “#WeAreNotHaram” born? Did you expect the movement to gain so much attention?
Anonymous (A): The idea actually was totally random. Around four years ago I discovered Tumblr and started loving it, I noticed how it has become a safe place for a lot of people who feel like they are different. I started wondering, am I the only Muslim out there who still wants to hold on to their faith and their sexual identity? So I created this blog and I started using the hash tag ‘Queer Muslims’. That word was barely used back then and people started following me immediately, which was very shocking for me.
ZK: The month of Ramzan or Ramadaan and the LGBTQI+ Pride Month are coinciding this year. Don’t you think that is significant in a month that calls for compassion and brotherhood? What is your interpretation of self-expression in Islam?
A: Islam was never about imposing someone else’s beliefs onto another. It always preaches Al targheeb which means actually wanting the thing rather than Al tarheeb which means doing it just because I’m scared of God. We should not only fear God Subhanahu Wa Ta’alas (SWT), but love Him first. Fear will be then out of His love and not an imposed emotion. I honestly still think that the Pride month being at the same time as Ramadaan is a pure coincidence, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use the time and values Ramadaan teaches us to address it- whether you’re struggling with your own sexuality or struggling to understand someone else’s.
ZK: On your blog, you have identified yourself as a Muslim. Islam has been perceived to have highly codified ideas of sexuality. The Quran’s retelling of the destruction of the people of the Lut has been interpreted by many scholars as it’s condemnation of homosexuality. How do you reconcile your sexual orientation with your religious faith?
A: I am always very anxious and tense when asked this question, but this time I will get it all together and answer with Allah’s help. It’s sad how often I use an oversimplified response –”Well, we all commit sins, and we are not perfect, we are brothers and sisters still we must stick together – blah blah.” But this response usually acknowledges that I am weak and cannot handle a complex question, so I give a simple answer. Let’s not forget the fact that this is something I’ve always seen as a sin since I was aware of it, which introduced a lot of intense emotions of self-hate. Dealing with this (I still am) was, and still is, a very hard task which is probably why I’m always avoiding these questions.
My inner struggle with my identity is always going to be there, and my response and feelings about this issue will not be the same as other queer Muslims. Whatever I say in response to this is my own and should not be portrayed as a universal truth for all queer Muslims, because I am no scholar. Still, I will try to give you my best response that includes multiple views, which may or may not be my own. While running this blog, I got to draw from many people and learn from them, though I am still developing my own opinion and interpretation, and I don’t see it happening any time soon, as I only have accepted myself a couple of years back. Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle, Kecia Ali, and Amina Wadud have the best discussions around these issues, and in case you haven’t looked into them, please do. Also, a simple Google search can help out a lot. Don’t mistake this as me dismissing this question but what I’m trying to do is trying to provide you with a lot more than my own ramblings.
When it comes to the story of Prophet Lut (as), there are numerous discussions by others about how the interpretation is actually not a condemnation of homosexuality, but how the people he was speaking to were being inhospitable, etc. So many queer Muslims out there feel trapped and want to choose between two very vital parts of themselves: their identity and their religion. This is not strange because the amount of homophobia that exists within this community is indescribable. The traditional interpretation of the story of Lut has been reiterated so much that it’s very hard to shed light on those issues as it’s a cultural thing now. This blog is simply designed to support those who are struggling with keeping that balance or simply keeping their faith. No preaching, no halal or haram matters, just simple and pure support.
Personally, I know that I’ll be unhappy if I choose to leave Islam just to be queer and to fit into the queer community which is usually very disconnected from any religion. On the other hand, I don’t feel that it’s okay to be hypocritical about it and pretend to be straight for the sake of being a Muslim. There’s always middle ground.
Generally speaking, queerness and Islam are like left and right against each other. To quote from a piece I read online:
“I was too political for the average Muslim. Too queer for the political Muslim. Too arts & culture oriented for the conservative Muslim. Too conservative for the cultural Muslim.”
I can relate so much to this as I am too queer for Muslims, and too Muslim for other queers. Probably this is the reason why I haven’t found the right person yet.
I still don’t know how being queer will affect my marriage decisions, I am not someone who wants one. But I don’t know what God has in his plans for me, so I choose to trust in him. Me being Muslim, and me being queer doesn’t mean anything unless I act upon it, and this is a discussion between me and Allah SWT.
I must admit that I am not very well versed about queerness and my response is still full of flaws because it’s under construction and probably always will be.
In simple terms, hate the sin, and not the sinner. Many of our brothers and sisters lie, drink and have sexual relations outside marriage. Why aren’t they judged as harshly as us? Aren’t those sins clear 100% in the Quran? At least with the whole Lut situation it’s a little tricky because of how it only includes men, how many new imams have interpreted it in a whole other way, and how the word homosexual or homosexuality was never mentioned not even once in our holy book (which upsets me really but I found my way around it). I am not here to judge or play on words, but just my two cents.
ZK: Positive expression of male homoerotic sentiment in Turkish, Urdu and Persian literature has existed for a long time. Why do we still have a schizophrenic response to homosexuality in our culture?
A: Honestly, I have no idea. Many of our kings and queens and great people were homosexuals and had those who served them for exclusive sexual relations. Yet the books we use and have easy access to always choose to ignore those facts. If that didn’t happen, we wouldn’t be having this discussion now!
ZK: What kind of people have responded to the movement? Have you observed any dominant class or nationality among your supporters?
A: It has been literally from all over the planet, which is very overwhelming and I am honoured.
ZK: Have you faced some negative response? What is your message to such people?
A: Oh, I have received more than my share of hate mail and even death threats! What I do is that I don’t even post them on my page, because that would be counter-productive. I am trying to provide a safe space. If a troubled kid goes in and sees that kind of response, it would only horrify him or her and cause them to fear their own identity.
ZK: In India, we have a very strong movement supporting the rights of LGBTQI+ community, even though homosexuality is legally a crime in our country. Do you think that de-criminalisation is the first step towards bringing about acceptance?
A: Of course the law plays a big role in our lives, but the ideology of the people and schools of thought must also be targeted as it is the acting party here.
ZK: What do you visualize the future of the #WeAreNotHaram movement to be?
A: I could only imagine it growing further if we still call out for alliances and new hashtags, and Internet meet-ups. I can confidently say that almost 95% of us are not out yet and not considered to be out which makes it very hard to do such things. I myself don’t encourage queer Muslims to out themselves if it’s going put them in any kind of danger, which it probably will.
This article is part of Youth Ki Awaaz’s special coverage of Ramzan this month. Follow Ramzan With Zehra for more.