Muslims and Queer Folk: A New Alliance

One year and two days ago, a gunman burst into a gay nightclub in Orlando and killed 49 people in cold blood, injuring more than 50 others. For Adela, a 29-year-old Latina lesbian and recent convert to Islam based in Berkeley, California, watching the news that morning called up a lot of emotions. “As a lesbian, I was absolutely disgusted by this act of extreme homophobic violence,” she said. “As a citizen, I was disturbed knowing this was the worst mass shooting in the history of a country already dealing with a lot of gun violence. And as a Muslim, I found it scary that Omar Mateen shared my faith.” Her voice cracked slightly. “He did this horrible, horrible thing, and during Ramadan no less. I’m Latina too, so when they showed the families of the Latino victims weeping, I actually had to turn away from the screen. It was all kind of overwhelming.”

Adela’s reaction is one to which many LGBT Muslims can relate. What happened in Orlando prompted queer Muslims to think about how to bring LGBT and Muslim Americans closer, what these two minorities have in common, and what kind of political labor they could perform together. Maybe we couldn’t completely eliminate the possibility of another horrific anti-gay massacre, but we could at least try to create new social spaces where young LGBT people wouldn’t feel at war with their own souls, where they wouldn’t need to worry about being attacked for who they are, where they could join hands in resisting the myriad dangers to their well-being. Or, as Adela put it, “a space where we can just be ourselves without policing our gender expression or getting too much into our heads, wondering who suspects or who’s judging us.”

November 2016 made the creation of these spaces a matter of paramount importance. Muslims and queer folk were fighting institutionalized bigotry well before Donald Trump was elected president, but his campaign and administration facilitated a surge in homophobia and Islamophobia both in the halls of Congress and in wide swathes of a nation burning with white racial resentment.

Over the past six months, a Republican-dominated government has attempted to enact a travel ban targeting only citizens of predominantly Muslim countries, and a president whose journey to the White House was enabled in part by anti-Muslim bigotry—declaring that “Islam hates us” and claiming to protect the LGBT community from a “hateful foreign ideology.” Worse, this bigotry extends far beyond the state. Just four days ago, for instance, a group called ACT for America led a march against the imagined threat of “sharia law” to our democracy in 23 cities across 18 states.

Similarly, in addition to the flagrantly hypocritical stance of Mr. Trump toward the LGBT community, our vice president has an alarming record of denying equality to LGBT folk, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos still refuses to guarantee the protection of LGBT students’ basic civil rights in her school voucher program. Trans folk are perhaps at greatest risk: six members of Congress recently asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate the murder of seven trans women of color, but never received a response from the Justice Department.

These are just a few of the perils the LGBT and Muslim communities face today. But despite being shaken by the Pulse shooting, they remain alive to the destructiveness of both state-sanctioned and popular bigotry, and so have pursued an unprecedented level of mutual engagement. What does this cooperation look like? Activists from both communities—including LGBT Muslims who stand at the crossroads between the two—have taken advantage of an increasingly intersectional politics catalyzed by leaders like Bernie Sanders and the hard work of movements like Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, and Fight for $15.

Building on these intersections, a number of new initiatives have blossomed. While the mainstream LGBT community successfully organized the Equality March for Unity and Pride this past weekend, groups like Rise and Resist have spent months integrating LGBT Muslims into a coalition of forces fighting against the inequality and disenfranchisement inherent to the Trumpian order. Whether peacefully demonstrating against 100 failures of the Trump presidency on its 100th day or orchestrating die-ins in front of Trump Tower in New York, Rise and Resist’s message is clear. If oppressive government policies kill even a few among the most vulnerable minorities, we all die; our liberation must be collective, or not one of us is free.

LGBT Muslims themselves have rallied behind the one official organization representing their interests in the United States: the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD). This group has not only offered a much-needed spiritual sanctuary for queer Muslims, it has also tried to ease for its members the dual traumas of Islamophobia in the LGBT community and homophobia in the Muslim community.

In Adela’s experience, meeting other LGBT Muslims has been lifesaving. “I’m new to Islam, but luckily I met two other gay Muslims in Berkeley who told me about MASGD. It’s so great to have people who understand the struggles of being non-white, queer, and Muslim. It’s too hard to open up about it with straight Muslims, even if they mean well,” she said.

MASGD has not only helped LGBT Muslims come together, but the organization is also increasingly devoting resources to intersectional political advocacy. Currently, it’s liaising with the Contigo Fund, which emerged in response to the Orlando massacre and supports projects aimed at building relationships between the Latino and LGBT communities, healing for those directly impacted by the Pulse shooting, achieving racial justice, and connecting LGBT Latinos with Muslims and immigrants in Florida.

It remains to be seen how these nascent relationships will evolve in a cultural and political landscape blighted with hatred and division. “Ramadan can be a lonely time for converts of color, just like Pride month can be alienating for people of color,” Adela said, reminding me that she’d need to leave soon for iftar (the fast-breaking meal). “That’s why friendship and solidarity are so important right now. We gay Muslims aren’t like family; we are family. And we can’t let anyone take that away from us. Muslim, queer, brown, black, whatever—we’ve got to fight together for our dignity and equality. Our very lives depend on it.”

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