As a teenager my impression of religion was that if you had an abortion, were gay, or had sex before marriage, you were going to hell. I was a contemptuous atheist.
It wasn’t until living for 3 years in a Muslim society, in Palestine, that I began to see the many benefits of becoming religious. This Muslim majority society had something I utterly lacked in my teenage years; social cohesion, structure and limits. I became more curious about Islam and religion in general. I knew I didn’t believe that a human being, Jesus Christ, was also God. And Judaism’s exclusivity was off putting, especially after living in Hebron where Palestinians couldn’t walk on certain streets, drive cars and were subject to constant detention, harassment and violence simply because they were not Jewish. The violence in Hebron produced a visceral reaction; despite my Jewish heritage I wanted nothing to do with Judaism.
There was one issue that kept me from actually taking the Islamic testament of faith, the shahada, and becoming a Muslim; that was the homophobia I witnessed from the majority of Muslims. As someone who had grown up with queer family members and friends, the question I kept asking Muslims was “if I become Muslim, does that mean I also have to hate gay people”? I could never get a satisfactory answer. I knew I wanted to be a Muslim but I also knew I couldn’t suddenly become homophobic and I was worried that was a requirement based on the reactions I received. In the end I decided that since one of God’s 99 names in Arabic is The Compassionate, there must be more to Islam and homosexuality than I was hearing in casual conversations.
Upon returning to the US I began attending Masjid Al Iman in Oakland. Their motto is “everyone is welcome.” I had to assume that also meant LGBT people so I began asking worshippers if that was the case. The answers were astonishing.
“I don’t want them here checking me out.”
“Faggots should stay away.”
“You can’t be a Muslim in you live that lifestyle.”
The imam at Majid Al Iman is Yassir Chadly. He’s a gem and all his khutbahs are very inclusive, uplifting and motivating. I assumed he was the one who wrote the “everyone is welcome” motto and that it extended to LGBT folks too, despite what his congregants said.
I searched for more answers in the book Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflection on Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims by scholar Scott Siraj al Haqq Kugle. Anyone wanting to have a serious discussion about this issue needs to read this book.
The source of homophobia in all Abrahamic faiths comes from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, specifically a group of men who had non-consentual sex with other men.
The Quran says:
We also sent Lot: He said to his people: “Do ye commit lewdness such as no people in creation (ever) committed before you? For ye practice your lusts on men in preference to women: ye are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds.”
— Quran 7:80–81
But the transgression, Kugle argues, is not gay sex, it is instead a group of straight, married men committing the double sins of both adultery and rape.
Everyone was riled, this is not what San Francisco is about. There were articles, Facebook posts, discussions, hang wringing about what we should do in response.
There is so much that Muslim activists and community leaders could learn from the legal and social struggles of the LGBT community and vice versa. I wished there was more communication and cooperation between the two communities. As an artist I thought the best way to fight back against Pam’s ads would be to organize a joint Muslim and LGBT art show. I was riding high on my own genius for a few days until I started asking people from both communities if they’d like to participate.
That idea went over with both communities like a ham sandwich on Passover. The underlying sense I got from everyone I polled was that their responses were based on fear of what other people would think.
I decided to take my brilliant idea to an Islamophobia lecture and discussion at UC Berkeley. At the question and answer session I stood up, shaking, my voice was trembling and made my case; that both Muslims and LGBT communities could learn and benefit from making connections with each other and that we should have a joint art show to fight Islamophobia and homophobia.
I don’t recall the actual words that were said to me by one of the panelists because I was so nervous but the gist of it was that I was forcing my neo-colonialist white liberal beliefs down her throat.
The show never happened, I’m better at creating art than organizing art shows but I wasn’t going to let the issue go. I regularly attended lectures at Ta’leef Collective in Fremont, a community center focused mainly on under 40 Muslims and converts. One of the discussions in 2013 centered around inclusivity. The brother who was giving the guest lecture was adamant that we welcome and accept everyone who came to Ta’leef no matter what their background. I saw it as a good opportunity to see how far he was willing to extend the welcome so I raised my hand and again, heart pounding in my ears asked:
“Are LGBT people welcome here at Ta’leef ?”
The young man paused for what seemed like forever and then answered with a firm and well considered “Yes.”
And people started clapping. One woman hugged me and said “we’re so glad you are here, you are very welcome here.” She was so kind and gracious, her eyes shining, that I didn’t have the heart to tell her I was straight. Then something amazed me. A young man raised his hand and said that he had come out in a youth group meeting at Ta’leef the week prior and that everyone had welcomed him. I almost started crying I was so happy to see a glimpse of a future where someday, inshallah, homophobia will not be the standard in American Muslim communities.
People are free to believe what they want to believe about homosexuality. The problem is the homophobic rhetoric in the Muslim community which is as vile as the Islamophobic rhetoric coming from Pam, Donald and the mainstream media. Let’s not keep our heads in the sand about this anymore.
As we learn more about what may have been Omar Mateen’s latent homosexuality as motive for murdering 49 people in Orlando, the subject of homosexuality in the lives of American Muslims is brought front and center. I hope for the sake of the LGBT community and LGBT Muslims in particular that our community does some serious soul searching and that our leaders (whatever their beliefs about homosexuality may be) make it a priority to tone down the vitriolic homophobia in the mosques and classrooms.