LGBTQI Muslims and International Movements for Empowerment

I was currently in Cape Town South Africa at a Queer Muslim International Retreat. In one month, I went to Jakarta Indonesia for a workshop focused on the same agenda: reform in Muslim communities towards the lives of dignity for lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, Queer and Intersex Muslims.  It has been a long road and the end of the struggle is nowhere in sight. Still, there are important developments worth noting.

I am the fifth of eight children.  My brother, just older than me, is gay. Although we are both in our 60’s now, it was evident that his sexual orientation was not normative heterosexual from very early. My first nephew, son of my older sister is also gay. Now in his mid-40’s his was also not a question of lifestyle choice.  I love these two men and always have. That did not mean I was devoid of homophobic tendencies and subtle acts of discrimination against queer people. I wasn’t against them, but I did not see why I, who lived as a straight heterosexual woman, should have to pay any attention to the particularities of their life struggle.  It was their problem and I could ignore it. So I did.

I was never guilty of vicious acts – teasing, name calling or bullying; I just put it out of my mind. As a Muslim, I would come to encounter a much greater awareness how the convenience of sitting on the fence was inadvertently a tacit approval of gross homophobic violations and that all I believed about a Merciful and Compassionate Creator of Justice required me to support the struggles to establish that divine justice and cosmic harmony and beauty everywhere and for everyone.

In a meeting about the prevention of HIV/AIDS held in Kenya with the World Conference of Religions for Peace, I would meet the more aggressive side of the discourses over homosexuality and Islam. The Muslim participants in this meeting had breakfast together one morning where we would eventually be forced to listen to religious “leaders” making only thinly veiled homophobic and sexist remarks in order to abdicate any responsibility towards the AIDS pandemic.

By the time I was asked to deliver a paper at an international conference on Islam and HIV/AIDS on the issue of women and children’s vulnerabilities, I would specifically address the limits of the kind of religious rhetoric I had heard in Kenya to remedy the consequences of gender imbalance in the prevention of AIDS.

A tiny contingent at that meeting, after literally shouting at me and calling me a “Devil in hijab (head- scarf)”, demanded that I be removed.  A counter protest was launched by around 2/3 of the conference, mostly lead by LGBTQI Muslim activists and their allies. Quite frankly, I was ashamed to recognize that I had never stood up for any gay or queer person. It was there I met a transgender and devoutly religious Muslim, who was denied entry into the mosque and would not be allowed an Islamic funeral.

It was clear I needed to become better informed and pro-active.  I sat for a two-day course at my University to voluntarily mark my office as a safe space.  I would learn that more was at stake than just the office. Rather, I needed to intentionally invoke inclusive examples of sexual diversity in my teaching and to speak out against anyone who uttered exclusive or homophobic comments in my presence, especially in my classroom. Somehow this latter bit of information was deeply moving for me, because it also required me to give up my privilege to ignore sexual diversity.

Thus it should come as no surprise when matters moved forward to where I could act as an ally to the LBGTQI Muslims who have only in the past few decades begun to form organizations focused on the right to self-proclaim both their sexual and Muslim identities.

There are still many Muslims who say you cannot be both gay and Muslim. In the face of this, most queer Muslims would simply give up being Muslim. But I would soon meet a Muslim man who attempted to give up being gay to conform to what was projected as the expected role for all Muslim men: he married a woman, they had children together, and coincidently he completed extensive training to be awarded the certificate and qualification as imam, and mawlana (religious authority). Still he was aware that he was gay.

The Inner Circle TIC is a Queer Muslim organization formed 18 years ago working on all aspects of the reform movement to support the equality and human dignity of all Muslims no matter their gender identity and sexual diversity.  Elements of the Queer Muslim movement include theological study of sacred text, including for example alternative textual analysis of the story of Lot, critical examination of Islamic jurisprudence, spiritual consultation, and human rights laws as they work to form international alliances, capacity building, refugee status, marriage and family.

After several days together confronting the issues, engaging the theories and meeting in a safe and spiritually enriching space, the delegates of this retreat will celebrate the end of our time together by attending the wedding of two same sex couples. I have been asked to officiate over one of them for two longtime friends who already enjoy civil contract in their home in Canada but wanted to include the Islamic Nikah or ritual marriage ceremony. It will be my first time, so I am both excited and nervous.  More than anything I wish them and the other participants the same as I would wish every human being: a life confirmed in faith, dedicated to justice and enhanced by joy and love.

amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking  answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives.  Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.



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