Vital Signs, August 6, 2001
By Yas Ahmed
My great aunt recently told me that queerness "never would have gotten
to me if wed stayed in Lebanon." She associates gayness, like fast
food, cowboys, and Levis, with Western culture. While hearing these
messages from my aunt, I grew up in the U.S. where "Muslim," like
"Arab," was synonymous with terrorism, hating women or dying in
mobs. From either perspective I was taught, quite simply, that queer Muslims
constitute an oxymoron; they do not exist.
Never do we hear of the experiences of the three gay men in Afghanistan,
who had a wall collapsed on top of them in 1998, while thousands of
spectators, including the leader of the Muslim fundamentalist Taliban, looked
on. Or, that same year, of the two lovers publicly whipped in Iran, 100 times
each, for being lesbians.
Being gay is illegal in many Islamic countries, including Algeria, Bahrain,
Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Syria and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
However, in many of these same countries exist thriving queer communities,
complete with gay clubs and human rights organizations. It is only in the
fundamentalist populations (which, by far, are a minority) that being gay is
deemed sinful and punishable by death. It is only according to these
conservative leaders that being gay is immoral. Oftentimes Allahs name is
invoked during public execution of gays, and yet nowhere in the Quran does
it state, explicitly or implicitly, that death is the appropriate punishment
for being gay. And all throughout the Middle East and the United States, queer
people everywhere young queer people especially are disproving this
myth by claiming their right to exist, to thrive and to love. And to be
Muslim. "Love for Allah, love for Islam, love for my family, love for my
partner; all of these are the same," says 19-year-old Linda Awad, born
and raised in Syria. "The ways that so-called Muslims betray Islam by
hating gays is the same way so-called Christians betrayed their religion by
supporting slavery and racism. So much hatred "all in the name of
Growing up queer in the Middle East is, arguably, a very different
experience than growing up queer in the Western world. For queer youth in the
U.S., there is a myriad of resources available in our communities as well as
online. In countries where fundamentalism prevails, however, the basic right
of acknowledging your queerness within yourself can prove to be a tumultuous
and isolating experience. It is because of that isolation that queer
civil rights groups (such as the Iranian group Homan) have been established
not merely for visibility purposes but also for solidarity. "[These]
human rights groups are crucial to the queer community, especially youth who
may be questioning their own sexuality but do not have the language to
describe it, and thus stay silent in fear for their life literally,"
one queer youth (who wished to remain anonymous) had to add.
Online resources, then, are vital connections between the queers living in
lavender bubbles like San Francisco with queers in places like Afghanistan.
Discovering any kind of community cyber included has proven time and
again integral to the coming out process of queer youth, especially those
practicing a religion that, ostensibly, does not allow for much sexual
freedom. Websites like Queer Jihad ("jihad" literally means an
intense or holy struggle with oneself) and Al-Fatiha ("the opening")
were created to help people reconcile their religion with their sexuality. The
line between what is considered haram (forbidden) and halal (permissible) is
slowly shifting, making it somewhat easier to combine Islam with queerness.
Dalilah, a young queer woman, tells her story: "As a Muslim woman, I
struggled a lot with my sexuality. When I first started to have intimate
feelings for other women, I tried very hard to ignore them. I let people
arrange a marriage for me and convinced myself that I liked this man. In the
end I broke off the engagement because I couldnt lie to myself or to him.
After I came out to myself, I rejected Islam and God. I thought that if I no
longer believed in this religion, I would not be bothered by my conscience and
my upbringing. But, I was in a conflict with myself. Finally I told myself
that if this God that I love created me the way I am, and I was taught that
God was never wrong, then HE did not hate me."
Parents of queer Muslim youth dismiss their childrens identities as if they
were simply products of living in a Western culture. It was somewhat ironic,
then, for me when I started seeing queer references come up in Islamic
spiritual texts. For instance I read about the Sufi Saint Jalaluddin Rumi, who
uses earthly love as a metaphor for the love of the Divine or Allah, and yet
uses metaphors in the form of his physical love for his male companion,
Shams-e-Tabriz. Despite what my elders have said, I know that my sexuality is
not a Western derivative. But the mere fact that they think it is, frustrates
But things are changing. I see young people around me beginning to come
out, speak up and tell their story. Political asylum has been granted to queer
Muslim refugees from fundamentalist societies in an unprecedented number of
countries within recent years, and voices are finally beginning to be heard.
The Muslim community is slowly changing, and maybe someday it will include and
accept me and other queer people.
- Yas Ahmed is a young queer Muslim residing in the San Francisco Bay Area
of the United States.