Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
“Actually, we exist. We are not a contradiction. If we contradict your narrative, there’s something wrong with your narrative, not with us.”
Aamir Ali* woke up early on Sunday at his home in Minneapolis for Suhoor—the prayer and pre-dawn meal that sustains fasting Muslims until sundown during the holy month of Ramadan. Before heading back to bed, the 31-year-old Ph.D student checked his phone, and read that while he had been asleep, the worst shooting in U.S. history had occurred.
As he read the details of how a U.S. citizen of Afghan descent named Omar Mateen opened fire at a gay club in Orlando, ultimately killing 49 and injuring another 53 innocent people, Ali*—who is gay and originally from Afghanistan—was enveloped in shock.
“It was so painful for me to see that this was happening in a community that is so close to me,” he tells CityLab. “This was so close to home … This [was an attack on] the LGBTQ family that I consider my family.”
He couldn’t go back to bed, so he followed the developments into the morning, hoping desperately that the killer wasn’t Muslim. When it turned out that he was, Ali* teared up. He knew the incident would now become much messier and painful than it already was, he says.
And he was right: The complex issues surrounding this tragedy were soon distilled to simplistic narratives in headlines, talking points, and tweets. The Republican presumptive nominee, Donald Trump, took the tragedy as an opportunity to congratulate himself. He was also among those who used this explicit attack against the LGBT community to punctuate a battle cry against “Islamic terrorism,” and by illogical extension, against all Muslims.
The incident has left Ali* and other queer Muslims in America at the center of a clash of civilizations and identities. “And here I am—a part of the Muslim community and the LGBT community,” he says. “I can’t detach myself from either of my identities.” The last couple of days have amplified this familiar issue within the queer Muslim community: Even when queer Muslims don’t themselves feel that these two parts of their identity are in conflict, they exist in a world that does. And so, very few spaces exist where being queer and being Muslim can coexist, where queer Muslims can feel accepted and complete.
For the general LGBT population, spaces like gay bars and nightclubs are refuges from the prejudice and violence that they routinely encounter in their daily lives. As Richard Kim wrote in The Nation:
"Gay bars are therapy for people who can’t afford therapy; temples for people who lost their religion, or whose religion lost them; vacations for people who can’t go on vacation; homes for folk without families; sanctuaries against aggression."
That experience with gay bars is also true for many immigrants— including Muslims—within the queer community. But some queer Muslim don’t always feel that they belong in these spaces. “The club is a part of me that feels free,” Ali* says. “But there’s another part of me that feels so conflicted, because I’m not very comfortable telling people I’m Muslim, although it comes up whenever I refuse to drink.”
Ify Okoye is a 32-year-old nurse from Baltimore. Okyoe is black, queer, and hijabi. Wearing a headscarf means that there’s no hiding her Muslimness when she’s in LGBT spaces. “For Muslims who outwardly present as being Muslim, it’s a little awkward,” she tells CityLab. “We’re visibly different in that space.”
At the same, in exclusively religious spaces, like Mosques, queerness is seldom worn openly. When Ali* came out about his sexual orientation, for example, he was told to leave the Minneapolis mosque he attended. “Somebody who was there who knew that I was out … he told me to leave because I am making the space impure and I’m bringing sin to a sacred space,” he says. He recently tried to go back, but was greeted with unanswered salaams and averted eyes. “It was so sad because I went to the mosque not to feel alone, but I was actually more lonely there.”
The one place every queer Muslim person I spoke with mentioned was the LGBT Muslim retreat, which happens once a year. The three-day event brings together over 100 people of different ages, races and ethnicities, genders, abilities, and experiences with Islam. In other spaces, “we’re always having to justify, we’re always on the defensive. It’s almost like you have you put on your armor to do battle,” Okoye says. But at this retreat, there’s no hiding, explaining, or justifying who you are. “I wait impatiently for those three days to feel alive,” Ali* says.
“While transformative for many, the retreat as a concept and practice, is not new,” Yasmin Ahmed, the co-founder of the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity, which organizes the retreat says. “The LGBTQ Muslim community has a long legacy of organizing and building community both in and outside of the U.S.—of creating the spaces and the sanctuaries that current systems don't provide us.”
Every big U.S. city usually has informal spaces where queer Muslims convene. Often, they get together to break fast at one another’s homes, meet up at public libraries, or go out to movies. Eman Abdelhadi, a queer, Arab-American Ph.D student at NYU, stumbled upon one of these groups when she moved to New York City. The first time she went to a monthly meeting, she remembers the ease with which people talked, and how all genders prayed next to each other. It was a testament to the fact that neither Islam nor queerness are monolithic. And that’s why these spaces are so important: “To be able to say, ’Actually, we exist. We are not a contradiction,’” Abdelhadi tells me. “If we contradict your narrative, there’s something wrong with your narrative, not with us.”
Now, in the aftermath of the Orlando shooting, when no indoor or outdoor “third spaces” seem safe, it is even more urgent to make room for communities, like queer Muslims, who have dealt with the collective burden of Islamophobia, racism, homophobia, and transphobia, and are vulnerable to violence on these fronts. As Bilal Qureshi wrote in the New York Times:
What I do know is that there will be more dark days to come if we don’t build the psychological, political and spiritual space within our communities to embrace the remixes that are possible only in this country.
*NOTE: Because of concerns about his family’s safety, CityLab has changed his name in the post.