If you google ‘queer Muslims’ you get over three million hits; ‘gay Muslims’, 121 million. Not all the resulting pages are positive or supportive, but many focus on attempts to reconcile same-sex attraction and Islam or on exposing the dangerous, sometimes deadly, struggle faced by many queer Muslims. Though it’s nascent, there is – in certain areas at least – a movement challenging the notion that homosexuality and Islam are incompatible.
There are, in fact, queer Muslim groups all over the world.
In 1991, El-Farouk Khaki set up Salaam, a Canadian group that still exists today, and co-founded the ‘gender-equal, queer-friendly and religiously non-discriminatory’ el-Tawhid Juma Circle mosques. These mosques have an all-are-welcome policy based on ‘the understanding that women and men are equal agents of Allah in all aspects of ritual practice, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, race, class, dis/ability, HIV status, language, or any other grounds’.
In 1997, inspired by Khaki’s bold actions, Pakistani-American Faisal Alam founded the group Al-Fatiha (‘the opening’, the title of the first chapter of the Qur’an). The group is no longer active, but for over a decade its members would meet discreetly and organise retreats and conferences for themselves.
In 1998, the London-based group Imaan (Arabic for ‘faith’) was formed. Its website states:
Imaan supports LGBT Muslim people, their families and friends, to address issues of sexual orientation within Islam … Imaan promotes the Islamic values of peace, social justice and tolerance through its work, and aspires to bring about a world that is free from prejudice and discrimination against all Muslims and LGBT people.
In 2012 Imaan hosted its fifth international conference, which was attended by over seventy people. One of the key goals of the four-day event was to begin formulating a visible ummah, or community.
Finally, late last year, the openly gay Muslim Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed established an inclusive, queer-friendly mosque in Paris. Zahed is adamant that ‘being gay and a feminist is not incompatible with Islam’; he hopes the mosque will play a crucial role in fighting dogmatic interpretations of the Qur’an:
Looking at feminism and homosexuality within Islam permits us to look at our relation towards religious authority, to question institutional dogma and, by extension, to ponder freedom itself – the freedom to define our identity, without concession, compromise or submission.
One of the mosque’s most controversial practices (also a feature of the el-Tawhid Juma Circle mosques) has been allowing men and women to worship side by side, and women to lead prayer. To non-Muslims, this may not seem overly radical, but to the majority of practising Muslims, especially those whose experience of Islam has always been mediated through strict doctrine, such a break with convention is deeply confronting. Zahed’s project has sparked considerable debate in France, as well as widespread international interest in how the Islamic establishment will respond to this move.
So queer Muslims exist – and so do organisations for them. But in the late 1990s, there was nothing – at least as far as I was aware – for me, a young same-sex attracted Muslim woman in Australia.
I was born and raised in a household where my family, my sister and I thought it very important to educate ourselves. We were always encouraged to challenge the status quo and to ask questions; most importantly, we were never silenced. This was also true of our friends in the Muslim community. But homosexuality was never discussed at home, nor with friends. It was, like adultery, one of the taboo subjects: a terrible, terrible sin. All I knew of same-sex relations was the Qur’anic tale of Sodom and Gomorrah (or, as we knew it, the story of Lut).
In my early teens I was afraid of my same-sex attraction, convinced I was ‘wrong’ for feeling that way. Growing up believing that Allah destroyed a city because of homosexual behaviour was enough to instil intense feelings of self-loathing, fear and guilt. I believed that I would be rejected by my religion if I acknowledged my feelings. At that point, as a teenager, my heroes were a list of queer icons: Madonna, Boy George, George Michael (yes, I knew he was gay in the 1980s). I loved these artists for challenging society with their visibility; to me, that was what being gay was all about. But I didn’t want to be different, and I knew no-one who openly admitted same sex attraction – and I asked many friends.
When I started university, I sought out the queer spaces on campus. But I was told that I couldn’t be queer and have faith. So I turned away from religion, thinking you had to be one or the other: that is, straight and Muslim or queer and not Muslim.
In 2004, I moved to Melbourne to start a new life. I had completed my law degree and had spent the last seven years studying. I had also spent the last seven years trying to come out to my parents, but denying it later, claiming it was just a phase and that I wasn’t really queer. This cycle would inevitably be repeated: every time I started a relationship that I thought would last, I would push myself to reveal my sexuality, but once the relationship ended, I would always try to deny my same-sex attraction, even to myself.
After arriving in Melbourne, I briefly worked in sexual health and was told about a new multicultural queer group that some people were organising. I joined it – the Australian Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer Multicultural Council (AGMC Inc). It was liberating to be on a committee with people of diverse yet similar backgrounds: a Jewish lesbian, a Greek gay man, an Italian queer woman and so on. All these people were like me: they were trying to reconcile religion and spirituality and culture and ethnicity with their sexualities and their gender identities. They felt invisible in the one-dimensional white gay male world that is the popular representation of same-sex attraction in Australia.
That year we put on an amazing conference, featuring dynamic academic and empirical research on the intersections of sexuality and multi-faith identities.1 Over two hundred participants from diverse areas came together to discuss, share and debate on the theme of ‘living and loving in diversity’. Since then, the group has grown (and has successfully hosted two further forums) and now has a representative voice in lobbying, health, education and advocacy.
AGMC Inc. provided a great opportunity for me to find my feet with similar people, but there were no queer Muslims there. I was still the only one. Again, I questioned myself: am I really ’wrong’? But then I remembered a promise I had made.
In the late 1990s, during one of my attempts to come out, I looked online for relevant web groups. Although there were some networks in the (very) early stages of forming overseas, there were no support groups for queer Muslims in Australia. I promised myself that if I ever felt strong enough, I would set one up.
Feeling strong didn’t come easily: it took years for me to understand that my faith and my sexuality are intertwined and inextricably linked. My desire to explore these aspects of my life led me to read and learn about religion. Eventually religion came back to me in a different form – as spirituality. Organised religion is about dogma and doctrines corrupted by interpretations. Spirituality isn’t. It allows me to feel good, rather than to experience (unnecessary) guilt that I am not practising the exact religious principles as someone else tells me that I must.
I decided that I could identify as Muslim, mainly because I believe strongly in the ‘intention’ principle in Islam. Loosely described, this idea relates to the purpose behind any action: if one’s intentions are good, hopefully God will accept the behaviour.
So in 2004, after reconciling my sexuality and spirituality, I created the ‘Queer Muslims in Australia’ Yahoo! Group, an online safe space for Australian lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer (LGBTIQ) Muslims. The site has the tagline ‘with education comes liberation’. We use a strict screening process. We will only sign up people who identify as LGBTIQ and Muslim and who have a connection to Australia. Every time a new member joins, we hear the same words: ‘Oh wow, I didn’t think this group existed. I thought I was the only one!’
We have debates and discussions on ‘coming out’. For some, coming out isn’t safe and, personally, I would never encourage someone to put themselves in harm’s way. Some of our members have come out and have lost crucial community and family support. For many, it isn’t possible to live openly as an LGBTIQ Muslim regardless of finding others in a similar situation, but they still remain in the group as it offers them something. For others, being in this group means they connect with people who have, or are trying to, reconcile their faith and spirituality with their sexuality and/or gender identity, thus feeling less alone. I have read gut-wrenching stories from members who used to self-harm but do not now that they have found a community. Sometimes we have people looking for sham marriages. This saddens me greatly, but I do not judge.
Of course, not everyone in the group agrees with each other; this is to be expected when dealing with such personal and deeply sensitive issues. Through a strict code of conduct, I and a co-moderator ensure that people are respectful in their dissent. Discussions, many of which become debates, are sensitive and passionate. Sometimes I hear things that I wouldn’t have known otherwise – for example, a year ago quite a few gay men on the list were insistent that if they did not have anal sex, they were not committing a sin. Likewise, many still argue that being an ‘active’ partner during sex is somehow less wrong.
As well as offering opportunities to share and connect, online spaces like the Yahoo! Group, along with advocacy groups like the AGMC Inc., play an important role in combating the negative impacts of ‘reform’ movements. Although the Yahoo! Group is closed and relatively small, its inclusive, supportive and positive messages provide an antidote to organisations offering ‘cures’ for same-sex attraction (such as the StraightWay Foundation) and to online groups providing conclusive ‘proof’ that homosexuality is sinful (such as the website Eye on ‘Gay Muslims’).
History has shown the great harm that religious conversion groups can do. Christian ex-gay ministries such as Exodus have been operating in the US for decades with disastrous results for those promised salvation from their ‘demons’. Worryingly – and for many Australians this comes as a surprise – a large number of these organisations are also operational here, promising ‘to release people from sexual brokenness’ and to help them ‘in their struggle to live chaste and holy lives’. I am not aware of any Muslim gay conversion organisations currently in Australia, but international websites that perpetuate self-loathing and internalised homophobia in LGBTIQ Muslims do exist.
We have had lively discussions on the Yahoo! Group about the effects, both positive and negative, of such ‘reform’ organisations. The debate divided people into two camps: one side arguing that such groups may have something to offer by teaching that same-sex attraction in Islam is not wrong but acting on such desires is sinful; the other believed passionately that these groups care less about helping gay Muslims than fostering confusion and harm.
With the finite resources and money available to most queer-friendly Muslim groups, there is limited opportunity for direct campaigns targeting the conversion movement. El-Farouk Khaki, the founder of Salaam Canada, is pragmatic when it comes to such organisations, arguing that it’s ‘better to focus on creating rather than being on the defensive’.
For me and others in the local Yahoo! Group, the important thing at the moment is to build internal networks. Our small alliance provides a crucial space to support each other and to share information – and yes, heartache – about the issues associated with being LGBTIQ and Muslim in Australia. I refer to this experience as facing the ‘double-edged sword’. Every day we have to deal with being LGBTIQ and the issues involved with that. But the life of being openly Muslim in Australia nowadays is not easy either.
We have just over 100 members on the Yahoo! Group – I am well aware that this is a tiny number in the world of the internet age, but it is a hundred brave people who have decided to find and make their own community. Some of us have found peace, and some have not.
Changing people’s perceptions and beliefs is no easy task. Christians were the first to debate the reconciliation of sexuality, religion and spirituality, followed by Jews and now Muslims. Islam has a bit to catch up on – there are openly gay Christian churches and ministers, and Jewish rabbis and synagogues, but in Australia, there are no clerics or mosques that openly welcome LGBTIQ persons who identify as Muslim.
One explanation is that Muslims in Australia come from varied nations, such as Indonesia, Iraq, Pakistan, Albania and Lebanon – each of these having its own ‘version’ of Islam influenced by culture, geography and society. Such a diaspora makes it impossible to have one ‘true’ leader that can help shift opinions or, at the very least, appeal for tolerance.
Despite such differences, these disparate groups will still band together against the common enemy: homosexuality. It is a sad fact that Muslim religious organisations have been known to join alliances with fundamentalist Christian and Jewish groups to protest homosexuality, a phenomenon that has occurred in Israel, the UK and other parts of the globe.
Another possible reason for the lack of reform in Islam is the intense social pressure that prevents moderate Muslims from voicing any opposition to dominant opinions within their community. I am aware of Muslims who do support LGBTIQ rights, but who would never consider speaking openly about this due to a fear of creating controversy within their community. There are supporters, but they operate behind the scenes. Although it’s encouraging to know that there is some solidarity within the broader Muslim community, it’s still very frustrating that such views aren’t expressed publicly.
For me, one of the biggest hurdles is the lack of visibility of queer Muslims in Australia. Not enough have, or feel able to, come out and publicly challenge the cultural norms that have assumed the status of Islamic doctrine. The voices of queer Muslims need to get a lot louder before they are acknowledged, let alone listened to.
If you ask most Muslims about homosexuality, you will be told it is haram (forbidden). If you press the point, most will cite the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as ‘proof’ that homosexuality is condemned by Islam. Yet there have been many (re)interpretations of this story. Several times throughout the Qur’an, Lut urges his people not to ‘do such indecent acts as no-one else in the world has committed before you … surely you are committing such sexual misconduct as no-one in the worlds has ever attempted before you’.
It can be argued, though, that this ‘indecency’ does not refer to homosexuality, since homosexual behaviour was practised before the time of Abraham. Many alternative arguments have been put forward for Allah’s punishment: that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah lacked moderation and self-discipline; that Allah’s wrath was condemnation for cruelty and rape, or for the sin of adultery; that it was punishment for the inhospitable behaviour shown towards Lut or for mockery of Allah. It is, in other words, perfectly reasonable to view the story of Lut differently: that is, not about homosexuality but about violence, adultery, inhospitality or a myriad of other reasons.
It is also possible to argue that, while the Qur’an encourages heterosexuality and substantially addresses women, family life and social interactions, it does not expressly prohibit homosexuality per se. The word ‘homosexual’, and by extension the relatively modern concept to which it refers, did not exist in the Arabian context in the period in which Islam developed. English translations of the Qur’an (including my own copy) do expressly refer to homosexuality, but I would consider such translations inaccurate, an attempt to apply modern concepts to the ancient world.
Same-sex marriage also isn’t expressly excluded: ‘Forbidden unto you are your mothers, your daughters, your sisters, your father’s sisters’, and so on – a clear prohibition on incestuous relationships. There is no direct mention that same-sex couples cannot marry. Marriage in Islam is not a sacrament but a civil contract, which is why I, with activists like Zahed, do not believe that same-sex marriage is as anathema to Islam as mainstream Muslims would have me believe.
Homosexuality has existed and will always exist in Islam. As Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle notes in his seminal work Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflection on Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims, people often believe that religion has expressly forbidden homosexuality when, in reality, it is the hetero-patriarchal social environment in which they have been raised that has led to this assumption.
I believe that God loves me the way I am and that I cannot change – not years ago when I so desperately wanted to and not now when I do not. If I try to suppress my sexuality, it will manifest itself in random acts of sexual promiscuity or self-harm. I cannot allow that and still call myself a Muslim. I know men who have (unprotected) sex with men and then go home to their wives with whom they have sex to procreate. I read the pain that members share about not being open; I learn of sham weddings and children born into a lie. I pray that these people will find support and safety one day.
Can you actually reconcile the two worlds? I have had both Muslims and non-Muslims tell me that you can’t. Some Muslims say, no, homosexuality is a sin: it’s wrong and evil, and therefore you cannot be Muslim and LGBTIQ. Many non-Muslims are perplexed by my desire to reconcile the two, and question why I would want to identify with such a ‘horrible’ religion.
Where do I stand? My partner isn’t Muslim but she respects and loves my family, and we are raising our young son as Muslim. The respect and time she gives Islam is amazing, and she does this because she is not threatened by the religion. We are bringing up our son to be strong and resilient, and hopefully we will equip him with the skills and knowledge to handle whatever adversity he faces. We are aware that our son will be challenged for being raised Muslim and for having two mums, and one day he may choose to accept, reject or find his own way with his faith.
I am also incredibly lucky in that my parents are extraordinarily generous people. Both have accepted my sexuality and encourage me on my personal spiritual journey. They are proud grandparents to my son and they love my partner like a daughter. My sister has always supported me and I draw strength from her love and protection. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be able to write this essay if it weren’t for my family’s guidance, support and encouragement.
And so, when I ask myself again if it is possible to reconcile Islam and homosexuality, I can – without hesitation – say, yes. Of course, I can only speak for myself: I am a queer Muslim woman. I am not alone, but I am only one voice.
1 For an interesting local perspective on the intersection between sexuality and ethnic or religious identities, see Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli, ‘Ethnic Identity’, Youth, Education and Sexualities: An International Encyclopedia (Volume 1), James Sears (ed.), pp. 303–6, Greenwood, Westport, 2005; Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli, ‘Presenting a Sampler of How Diversity Is Lived and Loved’, Gay and Lesbian Issues and Psychology Review, vol. 4, no. 1, 2008, pp. 2–6.
The CAL-Connections project draws attention to the systemic exclusion of certain groups within Australian literary culture by publishing a writer from an under-represented background, with extra editorial support funded by the Cultural Fund of Copyright Agency.