Last edited: February 21, 2005

Dissident Sexualities: Muslim and Gay in the UK

Yakoub Islam takes a look at the gay Muslim scene in Britain and argues that homophobia is an act of social injustice based on prejudice rather than fact and reason.

Muslim WakeUp! Inc., December 29, 2004

UK Gay Muslims march in 2002, Photo by Andrew Hodges [the brilliant author of Alan Turing: the Enigma -Bob]

By Yakoub Islam

As a middle class, white, British-born convert to Islam, nothing has perplexed me more than the ideas and beliefs held by many ordinary Muslims about gay people. I’ve tried to rationalize it, justify it and excuse it. In the end, I felt impelled to put on my sociologist’s cap and investigate the problem. What I discovered was that the history of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Questioning (LGBTQ) Muslims, even their social reality, has been grossly misrepresented and misunderstood.

In this article, I will attempt to reconstruct the core historical and contemporary realities of LGBTQ Muslims in the spirit of ithar, a term which roughly translates as ‘self-sacrificing generosity’. I will start by brushing off the cobwebs of the past and roughly summarize what is known about LGBTQ Muslims by gender historians. The social research on LGBTQ Muslims in Britain will then be considered, exploring the human rights problems experienced by one section of this population – lesbian, gay and bisexual women.

As I am not an expert on Shariah, I will not be considering the legality of LGBTQ behaviours within Islam. Rather, my intention is to draw people’s attention to the dire consequences of continuing to rely on prejudice, rather than reason and research, to relate to LGBTQ Muslim people in the UK. My conclusions, however, should be equally applicable to other developed nations with Muslim minorities.

Speaking Historical Truth

In Arab and South Asian lands, pre-colonial LGBTQ activity was almost always hidden from the public gaze, but was nonetheless well-known. It took diverse forms, and even amongst the mainstream literature of classical Islam, there are numerous examples of same-sex relationships written about in an affirmative way. Medieval Persian poetry, including Rumi, esteemed the love of the older man for the younger man; and the now lost Kitab al-Sahhakat (Treatise on Lesbianism), dating from the ninth century, is equally assenting of women-women sexual activities, as are later works of Arab eroticism. There is also substantial evidence of the stigma surrounding pre-marital heterosexual relations finding outlet through male-male sexual acts, as there is in contemporary gay Muslim studies.

The arrival of the colonial Europeans introduced new ways of conceptualizing dissident sexual and gender behaviours. By the nineteenth century, Europeans had two well established social discourses on non-heterosexual activities. One was the institutionalization of lesbian and gay activities within a social identity, separate from gender: the self-conscious, dissident homosexual. For some lesbian, gay and bisexual Muslims, this may call into question their explanation of sexuality as something biologically innate. But Europeans did not invent homoerotic desire – what they did was link it to their sense of self.

The other discourse was evangelical Christian homophobia, a moralizing fear and hatred far more extreme than the mocking indifference common throughout much of the pre-colonial Muslim worlds. It was a discourse that has its parallels in the reactionary masculinities of popular Salafism and Wahhabism. From the hijab to homophobia, Salafis and Wahhabis sought cultural defense against colonialism through promoting their patriarchal and hyper-masculine ideologies. The fanatics who flew jet planes into skyscrapers on 9/11 proved to be no different in their hyper-masculine mumblings than modern neo-fascists – misogynistic, and inevitably, homophobic.

The rationalization of homophobia is an example of Salafi dissimilation par excellence. Indeed, if ever there was an exemplar of the intellectual bankruptcy of Salafism, it is in the telling of non-heterosexual Muslim history. From laughable accounts of how the American Psychiatric Association reluctantly capitulated to gay pressure groups in deciding to scratch homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, to the claims that homosexuality is a ‘Western disease’, the Salafabi mindset demonstrates what their anti-secularism is all about – the end of critical thought.

Fortunately, the interaction between Muslim and colonial texts has also forged more positive discourses. Non-heterosexual and transgendered Muslims around the world are increasingly talking about their sexual experiences and gender identities in a way that echoes European discourses. It makes sense to them, like computers and cars. But these dissidents are not talking quite the same talk, or walking quite the same walk, as European and American gays.

Witness the birth of the modern LGBTQ Muslim.

Speaking Personal Truth

Today, gay Muslims in Britain are speaking truth to prejudice on two fronts: the personal and the political. Unusually, it is within the former realm that help has come from professional academia. This April, Dr. Andrew Yip, a reader in sociology at Nottingham Trent University, published a groundbreaking study into the personal and family lives of a small group of gay Muslims in London. As well as the clandestine practices and marriages of convenience, Yip met a number of Muslims who had quietly come out to their families. And in doing so, he uncovered widespread and fundamental misconceptions within the Muslim community – about gay Muslims, and about British society.

“My parents think I am having sex all the time!” Adaam laughs. This is the perception of many Muslim parents – Britain, a debauched society, poisons the minds of their young and sucks them into a life of homoerotic vice and self-indulgence. The term to describe this view is becoming increasingly well-known: Westoxification. In Britain, it’s a perception which finds easy reinforcement in the media, not to mention our rowdy, boozy pub culture. Ironically, Yip’s study suggests most gay Muslims are in tune with their parents, and prefer not to visit clubs, partly because they perceived them as being ‘cruisy’. In the real world, of course, people who drink and engage in premarital sex may be stupid, but they don’t mutate into self-serving ogres.

Adaam was also a participant in Yip’s research, and spoke to me on the telephone on behalf of Imaan, a LGBTQ Muslim collective based in London. Originally founded in 1999 as a US chapter of Al-Fatiha, led by Adnan Ali, the organisation has recently been re-launched as a collective catering to LGBTQ Muslims, their families and friends, and is committed to ‘Islamic notions of social justice, peace and tolerance’. Adaam is responsible for liaising with individuals, groups and organisations interested in the gay Muslim issue.

Despite a recent upsurge in homophobic violence in London, Britain is more comfortable with dissident sexualities than ever before. The rebirth of Imaan has clearly revitalised Britain’s gay Muslim community, with media interest showing interest in a range of organisations, including the Naz Project, which focuses on gay sexual health issues. A TV documentary is in the offing, and BBC’s flagship talk station, Radio 4, recently devoted an entire programme to gay Muslims in Britain. Muslims are now visible on gay pride marches, and this year gay Muslim placards could be seen above the crowds of London’s Mardi Gras.

Adaam is keen to emphasise that Imaan is, first and foremost, a religious and social organisation which supports LGBTQ Muslims, forging links with the wider Muslim community with its solid commitment to fighting Islamophobia.

“A more social take on things was demanded by the membership,” He explained. This year, Imaan is holding an Eid party, with a representative from the Mayor of London’s office invited to attend. There are also monthly meetings, with members’ discussions revolving around a selected topic. Next meeting, the group intend to discuss the difficulties of having a non-Muslim partner. Yet in both its social activities, as well as in its wider remit, what makes Imaan stand out is its commitment to a compassionate and wholly non-judgemental ethos.

“If someone at a meeting says he or she can’t be both gay and Muslim, that’s okay with us,” Adaam explained, “But equally, if someone is gay, Muslim and proud, that’s okay too.”

The same non-confrontational ethic also informs Imaan’s dealing with the media on national and international issues, including the recent visit to Britain by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who co-opts a term from Victorian biological determinism to describe homosexuality – ‘unnatural’. Some British gay activists argued al-Qaradawi should be banned from visiting Britain, but Imaan remained neutral throughout the media foray condemning him. The collective are already in quiet discussion with other religious leaders over the legality of gay relationships, although such is the tendentious nature of the topic that Adaam mentioned no names.

With Britain’s ulema still dominated by Imams educated outside the UK, attitudes to LGBTQ Muslims generally reflect the laws and customs of the countries of origin. Like Imaan’s original membership, Islam in the UK is predominantly South Asian, with 43% of Britain’s 1.6 million Muslims having ethnic origins in Pakistan. Perhaps partly due to the Barelvi Sufi tradition of tolerance and humanism, homosexuality is tacitly accepted in many parts of Pakistan, providing it doesn’t threaten traditional marriage. At the same time, Britain has seen the encroachment of a more intolerant Islamism, and is not immune to other international gay Muslim issues, including the politically expedient clampdowns in Egypt, and the recent legislation against homosexuality in Zanzibar.

Perhaps the most powerful friend of gay Muslims in Britain is Zaki Badawi, the curmudgeonly graduate of Al-Azhar with a PhD in psychology from a London University, who has long condemned homophobia and controversially once suggested many high-ranking leaders in the Muslim world were gay. Yet inevitably, there are also leaders who continue to fan the flames of prejudice. Amongst the more disturbing is Sheikh Sharkhawy, based at the prestigious Regent’s Park mosque in London, who once denigrated gay people as “paedophiles and AIDS carriers.”

Speaking Political Truth

Testimony to the impact of such flagrant bigotry comes from the Safra Project, an organisation founded in 2001 to pursue the interests of Muslim lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (LBT) women. Originally part of the old Al-Fatihah-UK, Safra has demonstrated an ability to consult widely and focus on social policy issues. In 2003, Safra published a searing indictment of the difficulties Muslim LBT women experience in accessing legal and social services in the UK.

At this point in time, I want to get preachy and sound a word of warning. In Britain, many Muslims feel embattled by Islamophobia on the street and in our own government’s foreign policies. There is no doubt that negative portrayals of Muslims in the media contribute to this predicament. At the same time, one of the most perilous consequences of Islamophobia is the silencing of self-criticism, whereby Muslims defend what is indefensible. By any measure, the treatment of Muslim LBT women is indefensible. I hope you can dare to look these unpleasant truths in the face-–imagine being there, suffering, living these people’s lives. Then by Allah do something about it.

Imagine experiencing intense same-sex desire, in a world where such feelings are not only condemned as wrong, but information about dissident sexualities is inaccessible. Imagine seeking counsel from within your community over such feelings, even from Asian women support services, only to face homophobic hatred and rejection. But there are so few people you can tell, anyway – the fear of the loss of honour (izzat) is such that you dare not risk your family’s public vilification should your secret become public knowledge. What can you do?

Imagine then turning to people outside the community, and finding things no better there. Homophobia also exists amongst state-funded social services, along with Islamophobia and racism. Some service providers, holding misplaced ideas about ‘cultural sensitivity’, don’t like to bring the issue of dissident sexualities up. Muslim LBT women working for these services may be silenced from professing their sexuality for exactly the same reason.

Imagine the sense of isolation and inner turmoil, but you don’t have to imagine the outcome. Muslim LBT women suffer serious mental health problems, with some attempting self-harm and even suicide. And at this juncture, the only ‘sin’ many have committed is inside their heads.

Those Muslim LBT women who dare to come out to their families face rejection, despite being brought up to believe that family is the only real protection a Muslim woman can have. Those who are not rejected often face intense pressure to marry, or physical and emotional domestic violence from parents or siblings. Not surprisingly, some Muslim LBT women never come out, and consequently spend their whole lives either in torment or in clandestine relationships.

Other Muslim LBT women, isolated from information and support, struggle to make sense of their own sexuality well into adult life, by which time they have a husband and children. These women then sometimes risk physical or emotional violence from husbands, either due to conflicts over sexual interest or the discovery of the truth that cannot be spoken. Some women, filled with self-loathing, leave their husbands and give up their children, or even lose them to abduction.

You have imagined the worst. Thankfully, the problems of Muslim LBT women are not universally the same–-middle class women, particular those who are educated and economically independent, fair slightly better than their poorer, worker class sisters. Some families are simply more sympathetic than others. And these problems are not without some remedy –the testimonies of women and men who have been helped by Safra and other organisations show that Muslim LGBTQs can cope with the right support. But two troubles remain to be told.

The Mustad’afun fi’l-Ard and HIV

The conflict between sexuality and faith which Muslim LBT women and gay men usually experience is almost always overwhelming. In my view, that is a matter for each individual; for the wider ummah, my view is that LGBTQ Muslims are clearly among the mustad’afun fi’l-ard—that is, they are among those individuals and groups mentioned in the Qur’an who, for no reason of their own, are pushed to the edges of society and live in oppression. Muslims have a duty to defend them. This is what the academic histories and the sociologies of dissident Muslim sexualities and genders are saying to me.

Some assert LGBTQ Muslims are not amongst this group, since they choose to be who they are. This is not an argument I can accept, because the extraordinary level of suffering experienced by gay Muslims makes no human sense if you assume choice is involved. The psychologists agree with me on this one. To date, the American Psychological Association maintains that, “human beings can not choose to be either gay or straight.” But if this doesn’t convince you, let’s be clear where continued condemnation of LGBTQ Muslims is leading.

More than anything, it is leading precisely nowhere. LGBTQ Muslims are not going to go away, although a minority end up abandoning their Muslim faith as inimical to their sexuality. For most, the continued vilification of LGBTQ Muslims pushes them further underground, where they are forced to live a lie. Even in liberal Britain, many continue to hide in marriages of convenience, only able to express their sexuality through clandestine relationships or purchased sex.

Putting aside the intolerable pressure this must place on such artificial families, such practices clearly put men, women and unborn children at risk from sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. Yet rather than viewing this predicament in terms of health risks, some Imams with a direct line to Ar-Rahman’s will exploit this issue in order to attack LGBTQ Muslims, by claiming AIDS as divine justice. One must ask, then, why Allah would want to kill 66 Irish haemophiliacs with HIV, or infect unborn children. There is no answer to this question, of course, because such diatribes are expressions of hate and fear, not reason.

And so the suffering cascades through our communities, its history and faulty logic forgotten. Despite the clear injunction on Muslims to care for the sick, the outcome for many Muslims suffering from HIV is rejection by the families, communities and even their faith leaders – with some Imams even refusing to give people who have died of AIDS a proper burial.

Non-heterosexual sexual activity has been a part of Muslim life for centuries. In Britain, where there are 1.6 million Muslims, it has forged a community and identities that are compassionate, insightful and bursting with a passion for our faith. But some Muslims continue to view this community with malice, born of a hatred unknowingly borrowed from their former colonial masters. It’s a hatred that kills justice and, by creating a climate of fear, may even be killing Muslims.

Time to put the hatred to bed, and wake up love!

  • Yakoub Islam is the parent and primary carer of a child with autism. He is also studying for an MA is Social Sciences with the Open University and writing an auto-ethnographic study into Islamic masculinities.

For reasons of confidentiality and security, individual names have been changed.


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Muslim Youth
Naz Project
Safra Project
American Psychological Association

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