A good friend of mine and I were in a heated debate at Starbucks—naturally—over whether or not it’s possible to reconcile Islam with the LGBTQ community. My friend Zara was outed by her strict Muslim Pakistani family at the age of 19 when they read through her diary while she was away at work one evening. The scene awaiting her arrival was ugly. No longer able to see a place for herself in Islam, she broke ties with her beloved religion—and with her family. Why do so many gay Muslims self-segregate themselves rather than modify their interpretation of their faith to be more inclusive?
Back at Starbucks, Zara struggled to explain that letting go of her faith was the right thing to do. Irritation crept into my voice as I judged her for defending her family’s stance against her “lifestyle choice.” Don’t get me wrong—Zara is not self-loathing by any means. She has lived her life openly and proudly for the past nine years. But whatever made Zara feel like she wasn’t allowed to practice her religion struck sadness in her she has never been able to shake.
That fateful night began a torturous string of events for the next several years of Zara’s life. After the witch hunt was over Zara remained under house arrest. She was only permitted to leave the house to attend school and finish her sophomore year. Her eldest and very pregnant sister escorted her to class each day, ensuring wayward Zara made it straight to class and back. Her days at home were spent enduring physical and verbal abuse. Soon enough Zara sought an opportunity for escape and took it, with only the clothing on her back and her cockatoo, Lily, who sat quietly perched on her shoulder. At a nearby fire station Zara called an old friend who not only picked her up from the station but also opened his doors to her, which she graciously accepted. With a police officer as her escort, Zara went back home to retrieve school books and some of her personal belongings. She departed her family’s home with angry slurs, spitting and these haunting words, “Don’t tell anyone you’re related to us. And please God, don’t tell anyone you’re Muslim.”
Though her family acted out of anger and confusion Zara has only compassion for them. She understands her family’s upbringing and cultural background that feed their intolerance. Today, Zara has established a loving relationship with her family and visits them frequently. She has still denounced Islam, in part to obey her parent’s wishes, and in part because she does not see a way to reconcile those aspects of her life – her sexual identity and Islam.
“There are people out there who think they can be Muslim and gay, and that’s great. But to me, that sounds the same as people who claim Islam but still drink or don’t practice it properly,” Zara told me. “Islam has strict rules. If you follow them, you are Muslim. That’s it. There’s no other interpretation.”
It became clear to me why Zara’s family was so shocked at her coming out—she was the most pious of all her siblings and always took her religion seriously.
We dropped the argument and left Starbucks disgruntled but friends just the same. But I still couldn’t get past Zara’s dismissal of interpretation. Why shouldn’t interpretation of one’s religion be acceptable? Love for God is a personal expression and subject to the individual. I wanted feedback from a professional in the field, so I contacted Muslims for Progressive Values, an organization based out of Southern California that is accepting of all Muslims regardless of their sexual orientation. They symbolize a progressive interpretation of Islam, one that fosters equality for all regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation. Unisex group prayers and sermons are often led by female Imams, something that is far too uncommon. I spoke with Ani Zonneveld, cofounder of MPV, who kindly took a minute from her busy schedule to break down what MPV represents and what Muslims can do to facilitate a more compassionate, forward, and inclusive future for Islam.
For Muslims questioning their sexuality they are often apprehensive to ask for guidance from their Mosque. What are some avenues they can turn to for support?
They can turn to us at Muslims for Progressive Values and access scholarly writings which will help them understand the story of Lot and other religious interpretations better. Relearning Islam empowers you.
What does Muslims for Progressive Values offer gay Muslims?
We offer an inclusive spiritual space where straight, gay and trans Muslims are welcome. It is important that LGBTQ Muslims feel a part of the larger community. Because of the prejudices and the unkind sermons targeting gays, it is understandable that many have self-segregated themselves from the community.
Do you recommend gay Muslims to come out to their friends, family, or members of their religious community?
I think they should come out when they are ready and feel empowered enough to do so. We feel MPV is a community that can help them to that empowered space.
Is there a typical reaction for Muslim families when they discover a loved one is gay?
It depends on the family. For some it doesn’t matter, they love their child just as much. For others, it’s a total rejection. What makes it difficult for parents is the stigma the parents are burdened with in their respective communities.
How do gay Muslims hold on to their faith without denying their sexual orientation?
The gays who are in that position are those who have sought out an alternative interpretation of Islam, one that doesn’t degrade them as a human being. The fact that the Quran doesn’t mandate a punishment for being gay, or that “men who do not desire women” are mentioned tells us that LGBTs are totally the norm. LGBT Muslims have a long way to go toward understanding and believing this for themselves. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how we console them they are still convinced they will be going to hell.
Generally speaking, about how many gay Muslims do you think there are in the US today?
Somewhere between 70,000 to 137,000.
Do you think the majority of Muslim populations will ever be accepting of homosexuality?
I hope so. If not accepting, they could at least get to the point of not hating! Here in the America Muslims face the issue of Islamophobia, prejudices against all things Islam. In my opinion, homophobic Muslims need to look at their own prejudices against “the other.” The thing is, both LGBTs and Muslims are discriminated by the same folks. We should be working together in defending our rights.
What advice do you have for Muslims who think they might be LGBTQ?
Seek community support from us and from LGBTQ groups.