In the mid-1990s, my parents used to take me to a modest suburban mosque in New Jersey, hoping to anchor me in a community with socially conservative values and cure me of a scandalous malady. At sixteen I had been caught hiding magazines of naked men under my bed, not yet aware of the family honor I might have besmirched or the holy injunctions I might have violated. My mother was the kind of parent who would whisk her children off to the doctor at the first sight of a runny nose. So when she discovered my secret, she rung up our imam to arrange for a one-on-one spiritual counseling session.
Outside the imam’s door, my mother planted a kiss on top of my head, her face tightening with shame and fear. It was up to him to make me realize that I had been touched by something unnatural, but that deep down I was normal and eminently suitable for marriage to a pious Muslim woman in about ten years. He smiled and told me not to worry, that I was merely a confused teenager in a society that thought the world revolved around sex. God, he said, is ever merciful and would help me purge myself of sordid desires if I sincerely prayed and practiced my religion with care and rigor. “There is no such thing as a gay Muslim,” he said, handing me a dusty pocket-size Quran to study every afternoon. He advised me to count the praises of God on my right hand each time an impure thought came to mind, for the Prophet Muhammad had promised that this would protect a believer against the devil’s temptations.
But after years of supplications, supererogatory fasts and sterile attempts at fantasizing about Gwen Stefani or Jessica Biel, I found myself still dreaming of a life with another boy. I hated that nothing was working. God was dead, or else callous. My fingers had grown weary of counting scenes from a mythical future with a girl, any girl. My parents began to see that mine was a losing battle against a sickness they still couldn’t bring themselves to name. Yet giving up was not an option, so I pressed on. A therapist I visited in desperation insisted that I could reawaken my core heterosexuality if I just patched things up with my emotionally distant dad. But twenty awkward father-son conversations later, I was still gay. Shortly after graduation I had a nervous breakdown, not knowing where I’d gone wrong in the process of fixing myself. I hated that nothing had worked. Most of all I hated myself.
Nonetheless, I gathered the courage to contact some gay men in my city on a private e-mail list for LGBT Muslims. Four of us met for coffee to share our stories, to save ourselves from self-destruction. Our illness hadn’t consumed us, as we discovered to our delight that we had never been ill in the first place. We spoke in turn, and yet our narratives gradually intertwined, each person’s tribulations evoking similar painful memories in the others, as though we were incarnations of a single wounded soul. Bright-eyed and alive to a new fellowship, we could barely stop talking over each other, joking about messy drunken hook-ups with other guys, recalling long nights spent wondering if God existed at all or whether we should have excommunicated ourselves from a religious community that had forced us into hiding. We didn’t have the answers, but we now had each other. For the first time we could say the words gay and Muslim in the same sentence without immediately feeling a pang of guilt.
Today LGBT Muslims in America have begun to emerge from the shadows, determined to find a practice of Islam that celebrates queerness. We’ve founded our own mosques and community centers. Where once we were set on a path of suffering by people who wanted nothing but the best for us, we are now able to enjoy a sanctuary, a haven for the traumatized. We are queer, so we’re inclusive. We are Muslim, so we’re compassionate. We are queer, so we celebrate Pride month every year, but are reviled by many of our Muslim brethren. We are Muslim, so we celebrate Ramadan every year, but are reviled by many of our queer brethren. We know what it is to be assaulted from all sides at once, to be berated for not choosing one of our identities at the expense of the other. And so we know a thing or two about how to unite and resist.
And what are we—activists and allies—resisting? Nothing other than our government’s war on liberty and the pursuit of happiness. A month and a half ago the State Department issued new and arbitrary rules denying visitors from six Muslim-majority countries visas to the United States, permitting entry to, say, sons-in-law while barring grandmothers and fiancés. Although the Supreme Court suspended this restriction, the policy remains part of an ongoing, surreptitious effort to institute a complete ban on Muslim immigration. This targeting of Muslims was, after all, the original tactic of a president who has propelled his political career by demonizing Islam, all while hate crimes against Muslims have risen by 91% over the past year.
A couple of weeks ago, President Trump gave a speech in Ohio in which he not only pledged to destroy “bloodthirsty criminal gangs” he claims cross the southern border and brutally murder adolescent American girls, but also vowed to keep “radical Islamic terrorists” out of the country. But the fact that graphic portrayals of foreign non-white men attacking young women are a regular feature of white supremacist ideology means that terms like “predators” and “criminal aliens” is code for non-white Mexican immigrants in general. And the fact that the Trump administration spent its first six months in power trying to enforce a deeply Islamophobic executive order means that “radical Islamic terrorists” is code for Muslim immigrants in general.
At the same time, the leader of the free world recently declared that our military will no longer allow transgender people to serve, refused to acknowledge June as Pride month, appointed a justice to the Supreme Court who has dissented from a homophobic ruling obligating states to list same-sex parents on birth certificates and heads a party which tacitly supports the same ex-gay therapy that nearly killed my peers and me.
Still, I believe the misguided spiritual counseling, the dark stretches of time spent in self-loathing, the forging of bonds with kindred spirits, the good will and brotherhood among people who dare to call themselves queer and Muslim—all this has readied us for this moment. According to a new survey, American Muslims are gradually becoming more accepting of homosexuality, which will make our work easier. Mobilized by groups like the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD), LGBT Muslims are resilient enough to take the lead in combating the scapegoating and persecution of minorities on which Trump’s new order thrives. We cannot allow Muslims to suffer as their families are torn apart. We cannot allow LGBT people to suffer as they’re legally denied public services simply for being who they are. We cannot allow queer refugees to be sent back to places where they’re not safe. The only disease that has ever needed curing is hatred.
The Quran commands us to guard the oppressed against tyrants; those tyrants are now ruling over us. We must defend the dignity of those most vulnerable to this tyranny. And that means fighting for our right to worship, to express our innermost selves and above all to love freely. Our very lives depend on it.