This year, two notable controversies have been brewing in Tennessee: a proposed bill that would forbid educators from using the word "gay" in the classroom, and a court battle to determine if Islam is a religion. (The verdict? Islam is in fact a religion -- for now, anyway.)
These two issues may seem unrelated, but I believe they're actually symptoms of the same problem: our nation's historical difficulty with those who are seen as disrupting the status quo. Intolerance against Muslims and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) individuals isn't exclusive to Tennessee. With a fever-pitched debate over Park51 (or the "Ground Zero Mosque") and headline-grabbing concerns about anti-LGBTQ bullying, these issues are a national concern.
Last month, I went to Tennessee for the first time. I spoke at Vanderbilt about the need for the religious and the nonreligious to find better ways of engaging with one another and identifying action-oriented shared values, sharing some of the experiences I write about in my forthcoming memoir, "(F)a(i)theist: How One Atheist Learned to Challenge the Religious-Secular Divide, and Why Atheists and the Religious Must Work Together" (working title, Beacon Press 2012).
While there, I talked with a number of people about the ongoing struggles for Tennessee's Muslim community. We discussed their Lieutenant Governor's remarks that he is "not sure" if the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion to Muslims and his characterization of Islam a "cult"; proposed legislation that would make the practice of sharia punishable by 15 years in prison; and how the site of a future mosque had been the subject of arson.
This wasn't my first exposure to the challenges many American Muslims face. When I lived in Chicago, I worked extensively with the Muslim community. At first blush, it seemed we had little in common. I once walked into a meeting in a too-small T-shirt and neon green skinny jeans, my tattoo sleeve exposed and hollow gauges in my stretched earlobes, when a woman with a bright smile framed by a beautiful purple headscarf approached me and asked why I was there. I told her that I was a contract employee of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) and was interested in learning more about what they were doing.
"Oh!" she exclaimed. "And what faith tradition are you a part of?"
"None," I said, returning her smile. "I'm an atheist."
Her eyes flicked to my right, as if to check with someone if it was alright for me to be there. But her hesitation didn't last long; within minutes, we were gushing over our mutual love for a new Brother Ali song, "Tightrope." In it, Brother Ali, a Muslim rapper from my home state of Minnesota, tells the stories of a young Muslim woman who faces discrimination for wearing a headscarf and a closeted gay teenager who is the son of an anti-gay Christian minister. We bonded over how we both felt that the song had represented struggles we ourselves had experienced, and the parallels between them. By the end of the conversation, we had uncovered a lot of common ground between our seemingly disparate identities.
After that conversation, I reflected on how different it was than the ones I had when working with the Somali community in Minneapolis, Minn. I volunteered weekly at the Brian Coyle Community Center (BCCC). Just blocks from my college, BCCC served the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, one of the most densely populated areas in Minnesota, with nearly 2,000 apartment units in a two-block area. The makeup of the neighborhood was primarily Somali immigrants, the majority of whom were Muslim.
I volunteered at BCCC and started to become an active member of the community. As a result, I began to understand better the joys and challenges the Somali immigrant community in Minneapolis faced. When a young girl with round brown eyes and a striking red head scarf vividly described her first encounter with snow, I felt like I was experiencing Minnesota winter for the first time. When a mother with one child in her left arm and two running around her feet thanked me for helping her son with his math homework, I informed her that he actually knew more about the subject than I did. When I missed a week due to a bad cold, everyone grinned at my return and told me how much they had missed and worried about me. We became invested in one another's lives, and we taught one another how to be together. They even tried to coach me on some rudimentary Somali, but always playfully chided me for not sounding forceful enough: "You sound too Minnesotan!" they'd say with a chuckle (and they were right: I did).
But when it came to matters of religious life, I disengaged. As a former evangelical Christian turned atheist, I believed that religion was something best left undiscussed. They were free to their religious beliefs, I thought, but it didn't mean I had to listen to them talk about it.
One day I stayed late, caught up in conversation with a group of regulars. Gradually, all but one trickled away, leaving me and a young woman I had spoken with a handful of times. She was petite, but her presence filled the room. She spoke rapidly and precisely. A couple plates of food scraps sat on the table in front of us as we quizzed one another on the details of our lives.
After some talk of how terrible the Minnesota NBA team had been playing that year and which local politicians we were voting for, she paused and looked down at the nearly empty plate in front of her and took a deep breath.
"You know, some days I'm really afraid to go out in public because of how I dress. I just get tired of dealing with the stares and jeers my hijab elicits," she said, barely audible. We were both silent. I heard a shout from down the hall that the gymnasium was closing and all basketballs should be returned to the equipment closet.
"It's not exactly the same thing, but I think I can empathize," I said before I could stop myself. She looked up. Her face showed that she was curious about how I, a white male who looked like every other young hipster, might relate.
"Sometimes I get really nervous about the looks I get when I'm holding another man's hand in public." I wasn't sure how she would respond to this new information. I wasn't really out as queer to anyone at BCCC. I assumed that because many of them were religious, it would be an issue. She smiled, and I realized I hadn't taken a breath in the last minute.
"When I'm afraid of how others might receive me," she said, leaning in, her elbows sliding across the table in perfect unison like a pair of synchronized swimmers, "it is my belief in Allah that gives me strength." She wasn't proselytizing; she was sharing her beliefs. She hadn't asked for clarification about what I had said, hadn't condemned me; she hadn't even blinked.
"May I ask you: What gives you strength when you get such looks, or when someone says something disparaging about you because of who you are?" She looked me in the face, her eyes warm and brown and invitational.
I froze. I looked down at her elbows and noticed that they were fixed in place, their choreography finished. The show was over, and I too was done.
"Um, do you know when this place shuts down for the night?" I asked, shifting my head to the left, unable to look her in the eye.
Her religious beliefs were integral to her identity, and she opened a door for us to discuss the things that mattered to us both with candor and honesty. But I was afraid to open up to her -- the gulf I imagined between the experiences of a gay atheist and Muslim woman seemed too vast. Rising abruptly, I picked up the plates from the table and grabbed my bike helmet with a fumble, inventing some story about a big paper that was due the next day.
Working with the Muslim community in Chicago, I realized how problematic my "don't ask, don't tell" approach to working with the Muslim community in Minneapolis had been; how my refusal to engage the religious identities of those I worked with at BCCC closed me off from countless opportunities to build bridges of understanding and respect with a community I honestly knew very little about, aside from my academic study of Islam. And how, by refusing to open up to them about my own beliefs and experiences, I denied them the opportunity to learn about me -- to really know me and understand the challenges that I faced.
Religious and LGBTQ identities are important, and when we try to tuck them away in some dark and dusty corner we lose something integral. When open discussion about essential aspects of our identity becomes taboo -- when we are forced to silence the stories of who we are and what matters to us -- intolerance goes unchallenged and we are its accomplices, complicit in allowing others to be cast aside. When we see the other as so different that we think we can find no common ground, we allow others to see them as not-quite-human, too.
It is fear of the unknown that keeps us apart. Telling people that they can't use the word "gay" in the classroom, or suggesting that Islam isn't a religion -- that it shouldn't been seen as in the same realm as Christianity and other religions -- and that Muslims shouldn't be able to build a Mosque, prevents us from learning about one another. Religious literacy is abysmal in the United States while religious diversity thrives, breeding ignorance and fear of the other. The time that a friend of mine had her hijab ripped off, and the time I was physically assaulted by a group of men who shouted "fag" at me, share a common root.
Last year, a Gallup poll demonstrated something the LGBTQ community has known for some time: People are significantly more inclined to oppose gay marriage if they do not know anyone who is gay. Similarly, a Time Magazine cover story featured revealing numbers that speak volumes about the correlation between positive relationships and civic support. Per their survey, 46 percent of Americans think Islam is more violent than other faiths and 61 percent oppose Park51, but only 37 percent even know a Muslim American. Another survey, by Pew, reported that 55 percent of Americans know "not very much" or "nothing at all" about Islam. The disconnect is clear: When only 37 percent of Americans know a Muslim American, and 55 percent claim to know very little or nothing about Islam, the negative stereotypes about the Muslim community go unchallenged.
The Muslim and LGBTQ communities face common challenges that stem from the same problem -- that diverse communities don't have robust and durable civic ties. This is why the Muslim and LGBTQ communities ought to be strong allies.
This shouldn't suggest that there won't be some profound disagreements, and that engagement won't be fraught and difficult (perhaps especially so for those whose identities are located at the intersection of LGBTQ and Muslim), but if we avoid this engagement simply because it may be hard or messy or complex, then we have ceded victory to the forces of intolerance and allowed our voices to be subsumed by those whose bombastic volume is designed to drown us out.
As Robert Wright wrote in the New York Times last year, the LGBTQ community has learned that engaged relationships change people's hearts and minds, and this is a model that can be applied to the issue of anti-Muslim bias as well. All the more, I believe that the LGBTQ and Muslim communities would do well to join together and decry the voices that wish to marginalize either -- and, often, the voices that marginalize both.
Until Tennessee, and all of the United States, is a safe place for both LGBTQ individuals and Muslims, it will not be a safe place for anyone. But together, Muslims, LGBTQ individuals and all of those committed to equality can ensure that this is so.
Follow Chris Stedman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ChrisDStedman