I was 14 when I met a cute girl at a county-wide maths competition. We were two nerdy teenagers looking for a connection. A few weeks later, we were messaging regularly and had each other in our MSN names. People thought we were just friends, we weren’t.
Like everyone else did in those days, we went to the shopping centre to “hang out.” Only I freaked out after we met. I liked her but whatever “this” was could never be actualised in my world. Everything I was taught up until that point made me feel deep shame and confusion about my sexuality. As a Muslim, I thought I was sinning.
Now, I know I was wrong. Queer Muslims exist and have for centuries - I just wasn’t told about it.
This is partly due to the cultural norms I absorbed as a child growing up in an Uzbek household, and partly due to the mainstream conversation on LGBTQ+ rights within Muslim communities. Whenever this topic gets brought up, it’s viewed through an Islam vs. Queerness lens - when in reality, for many of us these two truths are core parts of our whole identities and cannot be separated.
Although there are no stats available on how many LGBTQ+ Muslims are out as the topic is still seen as taboo, Stonewall research finds that 32 per cent of lesbian, gay and bisexual people of faith aren’t open about their sexual orientation. One in four trans people of faith aren’t open about who they are in their faith community, too. For many queer Muslims, living their truth can result in ostracisation, danger and even violence.
Still, there is no one way to be an LGBTQ+ Muslim, which I've found out through my own experience, as well as speaking to others. Hafsa is 26 and grew up in Birmingham. She is a cisgender, bisexual woman and currently works for Stonewall UK. Growing up in an Indian Muslim household, she didn’t think about sexuality and relationships much. “If people had told me I couldn't be who I was, I definitely would’ve gone down a different path where I thought, ‘Well, I can't be Muslim or be openly LGBT,’” Hafsa explains.
“I’ve definitely gone down that road where people expect you to choose between faith and sexuality,” she continued. “My faith is so intertwined in who I am, it was never a choice of, ‘I'm going to give this up.’ But at the same time, my sexuality is part and parcel of who I am.”
Hafsa never came out publicly, it just happened organically after she won the Stonewall award for Bi Model of The Year. “Well, now the fact I’m bi is on the internet and I can’t really hide it,” she laughs. “I went on the BBC the next day and it opened the floodgates. I was tentative because I thought people would want to hurt me for who I am, but it was a mixture of, ‘we don’t care,’ and, ‘this is really great!’ There were very small instances of, ‘you're disgusting and you should die,’ but I didn't really pay any attention to it.
“People keep trying to put you in this box where they're like, ‘You should be this type of queer,’ or ‘this type of Muslim’ and both are a spectrum. There might be some Muslim women who don't wear hijab or some Muslim women who wear makeup, or some Muslim men who drink and are struggling with substance abuse issues. I may not live that way, but that doesn't mean I have the right to turn around and see them as not Muslim for how they live. As a religious person, I think, and this sounds so cliche, but only God can judge me.”
Sara, who is 23 and a non-binary lesbian, was 13 when she realised she wasn’t straight. “I don't think many of us are explicitly told growing up that you can't be a gay Muslim, or Muslim and trans, Muslim or whatever. But it's something you internalise,” she says, adding that she found this information difficult to process through her teens.
“Everything I’d been taught, at least about religion, said that the person I was born as was not valid and even evil. So that was a view I had throughout my adolescence.” Sara grew up in a predominantly-white suburb but things changed when she moved to Manchester five years ago and met queer people her age. “I met people for the first time in my life who were Muslim and they were saying there’s nothing wrong with being queer. They were like, ‘Allah made you so I don’t give a shit,’ and that was the first time in my life I was like, ‘Oh, okay. Cool.'”
The act of acceptance was “life changing” for Sara. Her immediate family know she’s queer and have been putting in the effort to understand and accept it. “I began to feel for the first time in my life that actually, these two things weren’t diametrically opposed. I am finding faith on my own terms and accepting myself for who I am.”
It took me 10 years to stop repressing my sexuality and unlearn the Good Muslim narrative. Accepting my truth has also allowed me to make sense of my religion. I thought I wasn’t good enough for Islam and kept pushing it away - I’m now able to reconcile my relationship with my faith.
I also spent way too long trying to unthink my sexuality, as though it’s something I could whitewash from my own story. I hate to think of how many others are currently going through the same experience.
If you’re a Muslim struggling with any parts of your identity, there are so many resources available. Charities like Hidayah and Imaan are fantastic services and London’s first ever Muslim Pride is taking place later this year. There are even Mosques that conduct Islamic marriage ceremonies for same-sex and genderqueer couples.
And just remember, there are so many of us out here. You’re not alone.
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