When most people think of TikTok, they imagine a bunch of Gen Zs posting dance routines, making whipped coffee tutorials and doing silly viral challenges but for many queer Muslims across the world, the digital platform has become a unique space where they can express themselves wholly and embrace all aspects of their identity.
As you scroll through this corner of the internet, you’ll find one video which shows a young Muslim woman lip-synching “mama said that it was okay” to a caption that reads “being hijabi lesbian”. Another, watched by over a million people, depicts the male to female transition of a popular trans Muslim on the platform. A third video shows a young Muslim man crying because he feels forced to choose between his family and living his truth as a gay man.
TikTok videos posted under hashtags #QueerMuslims and #LGBTMuslim offer a range of lived queer Muslim experiences. Some of the content from these Gen Z users is funny and made relatable in the form of internet memes but most of it is serious, aiming to be educational and expressive. The comment sections are a mixed bag. There are uplifting and encouraging messages such as “I love you so much keep your head up and remember you’re loved” and “My jaw dropped, how stunning and powerful.” Yet many are upsetting, with users writing triggering things like “Astaghfirullah [I seek forgiveness from God] may Allah guide you” and “Day of judgement needs to hurry up.”
Yet despite the backlash, queer Muslim TikTokers continue to post and claim their space online. I wanted to find out what their experiences have been like on the platform. Are they worried about the larger Muslim community and do they have fears of being outed? Is TikTok a safe space which allows them to embrace every aspect of their identities or does it only intensify the feeling of duality?
I know it’s risky for me to publicly share my experience of being a gay Muslim but if it affects one person’s life, it makes it worth it.Shaz, @mrspotatoqueen
“I get a lot of DMs every day from closeted queer Muslims saying things like, ‘I’m 14 years old and I thought this side of me was bad and I was ignoring it, but you made me feel safe about it and like it was okay,'” says Shaz, a 21-year-old from London who has been posting on TikTok for a year under the username @mrspotatoqueen. For her, the TikTok experience has mainly been positive and she doesn’t worry about filtering herself. “I know it’s risky for me to publicly share my experience of being a gay Muslim but if it affects one person’s life, it makes it worth it.” When I ask her what she thinks of the hate comments, she reassures me that most of them come from little kids. “I don’t block those people because if anything, they’re the ones who need to see my content.”
Aliyah, who goes by the name @thetranshijabi, has over 9,000 followers and posts about being a trans Muslim. “At first I was making these beauty TikToks and didn’t think of my identity becoming a central part of my account but once I posted the video about my transition and it went viral, that’s when things started to change for me,” she says. After receiving dozens of thankful messages and paragraphs on a daily basis, Aliyah began posting educational TikToks about the trans Muslim experience.
However she’s currently having to take a short break from the platform because she’s received death threats. This doesn’t seem to faze her too much as she tells me the long-term plan is to continue TikTok. “I may get a bunch of hate comments but in real life there are queer Muslims getting stoned, hanged and thrown off buildings. In hindsight, it’s a blessing that these comments are all I got.”
Queer Muslim communities have existed for a long time yet there are no statistics to indicate how many Muslims identify as queer today. Research shows that in the UK, 32% of lesbian, gay and bisexual people of faith aren’t open about their sexual orientation, while 25% of trans people of faith aren’t open about their gender identity. Being out as a queer Muslim is often dangerous and can end in ostracisation as well as violence.
Although queer Muslim videos have garnered a lot of attention on TikTok, there are also deep fears of being outed (when someone reveals the sexual or gender identity of a person). Hannah*, a 16-year-old from New Zealand, recently had to delete her popular TikTok account after her family discovered her online presence. “I’ve always been worried about family finding out and now they have. I can’t say much else on the matter as it’s only been a day since they’ve known, but in the end it may be useful being less hidden.”
Aliyah is currently in foster care, trying to re-establish a relationship with her family after coming out as a transgender woman. Like Hannah, she acknowledges that being out in the public eye can be very dangerous if you don’t have strong familial support. “Queer Muslims don’t have the privilege to be out online and many are private, it’s important to talk about that,” she says. Even though Aliyah recognises the wrath of the comment section and online bullying, she wants to use her platform to create a space where other people can benefit from her visibility.
At first I was making these beauty TikToks and didn’t think of my identity becoming a central part of my account but once I posted the video about my transition and it went viral, that’s when things started to change for me.Aliyah, @thetranshijabi
Shaz, who’s had a slightly more positive experience, came out to her mum aged 15. That alone was traumatising. “My mum called in some imams to pray on me. They were saying I was possessed and shouting things at me, screaming things at me and even spitting on me. Trying to get rid of the jinn [spirit or demon].” She wants to make sure that other young Muslims don’t have a similar experience and it’s what keeps her posting.
It’s evident that in 2020, conversations about being queer and Muslim are still largely taboo within many cultures and regions worldwide. So does a digital space like TikTok offer a place for marginalised identities to express themselves?
“By its very nature, being a minority can often mean growing up feeling alone or out of place in society,” says Areeq Chowdhury, director of WebRoots Democracy, a think tank focused on inclusive technology policy. “One of the beautiful things about the internet is that it has transformed this entirely. By enabling people to have a platform to speak, under a pseudonym if necessary, it has created a space for individuals to share experiences, make friends and gain role models.”
Areeq believes that search functions, hashtags and algorithms have empowered people to seek out information as well as each other. “In the pre-internet world, it was impossible to simply search the global population for others who are like you but on platforms like TikTok this can be done easily. This is the true story of free speech in the modern age. For good and ill, it has eliminated the barriers for anyone and everyone to speak, connect and organise.”
However the ability to remain anonymous has its downsides and can make people feel unsafe. Dr Bernie Hogan, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford’s sociology department explains: “We often hear people complain about these very same features. They say, ‘Without real names how can we police trolls?’ People do not need a real name to care about their identity but they need a persistent account of value. And also it’s worth noting that people say terrible things with their real names all the time. What people really mean is that they want accountability.” He believes that a safer TikTok is possible with a “hybrid of algorithmic curation and community moderation,” and cites Tumblr as a good example.
By its very nature, being a minority can often mean growing up feeling alone or out of place in society. One of the beautiful things about the internet is that it has transformed this entirely.Areeq Chowdhury, WebRoots Democracy
Hannah agrees that TikTok may not necessarily be a safe space but says it’s crucial for establishing bonds, organising and seeking out like-minded people. “There will always be people who want to bring you down but I’ve formed a group full of so many LGBTQ+ Muslims, many of whom are also popular TikTok creators. We talk to each other every day, rely on each other for support and help each other through our hardships,” she says.
Shaz has done the same. Whenever she gets messages from other queer Muslims she adds them to a group chat formed by queer Muslims all over the world. “Growing up, I didn’t even know there was another queer Muslim in the whole world but there’s so many of us, it’s crazy. We’ve made a really good little community.”
Group support is crucial when the responsibility of being a spokesperson for an oppressed community gets too much. Aliyah fears she’s becoming desensitised to the constant flow of people’s depressing personal experiences. Instead, she’s trying to focus on the power of her platform. “It’s crazy knowing that somehow, from making TikToks, I’ve gained the ability to help people to this extent. Someone will tell me they’re getting kicked out in three days and I’ll raise $2,000 for them through Twitter.” The 16-year-old is hoping to start a nonprofit organisation off the back of her platform to establish a more permanent resource and recruit external help.
This type of content is a step in the right direction, paving the way for difficult conversations within the larger Muslim community and increasing queer Muslim visibility. Despite the swarms of hateful comments, this digital representation is allowing underground communities to find each other and form connections offline and beyond the app. The queer Muslim TikTokers may feel safer digitally than IRL but they’re still regularly risking their safety as platforms don’t protect them from being outed in real life. Yet one thing is clear: what they’re doing is radical.
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