What does ‘coming out’ really mean? We’re told (usually in the Western world) that it represents liberation, freedom, an immediate reduction in stress and isolation – a promise of having a weight lifted off your shoulders. And then only after ‘coming out’ can a person truly experience pride. But what about the challenges to reach those elevated feelings?
For LGBTQ Muslims, the benefits of ‘coming out’ don’t always outweigh the challenges. The biggest of these include fear and rejection — not just from family, but from their religion. However, I believe we can reframe these challenges, and use them as a foundation to adopt new approaches in the way we look at things. I have outlined four ways of doing this;
- Attune to the specific experience
Coming out, coming in and coming around
Thinking back to my own experience of coming out — which included embarking on new friendships, attending campus discussion groups, and becoming one with the dancefloor of a local gay bar — I realised there was a whole gay history that I didn’t know about, and that history was largely a white history. Racialised people have a queer and trans history that encompasses our own visibility and activism and community organising, but it’s not part of a dominant story that’s told, and so it takes us a little bit longer to find our tribe and find our people. Therefore, the idea of coming out sets us up to think that you come out into something, while that something might not always be available for a lot of racialised queer folks.
A few years ago, I was introduced to the concept of coming in — coming into one’s identity and sharing intentionally with people you trust. I’ve learned through countless queer Muslims in my life that one’s place in the world needs to be neither destabilised by nor contingent upon the big coming out experience — it can be done selectively, following some simple cost-benefit calculations. Nevertheless, the emotional piece that needs attention is dichotomous thinking: that we must choose between sexuality and culture/religion. This incites so much dissonance, conflict, and loss as we think, “If I choose the path of honouring my sexuality, maybe I will lose my family.” But this is often a false dichotomy. Many of us come out and manage to keep pieces of our culture, pieces of our religion, pieces of our sexuality, and maintain strong, healthy familial bonds.
The underlying problem here is that dominant culture teaches us that queerness is rooted in whiteness; that the cultures of racialised people, particularly those of Muslims, are backward and un-American; and that if we choose the path of embracing our sexualities and gender identities, we have to leave something else behind. In this way, internal identity conflict, anticipation of loss, and warring identities are rooted in white supremacy. As a racialised queer Muslim, I never would have imagined the many actual possibilities for acceptance in my own community, and that isn’t for lack of imagination. I think it’s because the world around me taught me to think in a way that’s characterised by dichotomous thinking and polarisation.
- Creating space for competing selves
When I first started to question my religious beliefs in relation to my sexuality I started to think about life from a different angle. I then started questioning all the rules I had once taken for granted about relationships, tradition, family, schooling, career paths, and, of course, religion.
This is why I now see queerness as a lens, a vantage point from which to see the world. What I’ve found personally useful about accepting the evolving self is that it alleviates the pressure of creating one fixed mould of who you need to be. For example, I may say that I don’t want to pray or I don’t want to participate in ritual; and maybe later in my life, I have the option to say, “You know what, there’s something about the Islamic way of doing funerals,” or, “There’s a Sufi tradition in Islam that really speaks to me,” and I give myself this opening where I’m allowed to work with different layers of myself and draw on them and explore them at those particular times.
- Reconciling identities
Many of us experience conflict between our sexuality or gender identity and our cultural and religious identity, which is why we have to reconcile these two things.
But at the same time it is more challenging to do this if you’re a queer Muslim in the context of mainstream queer culture. Regardless of faith group, organised religion has harmed LGBTQ people through shaming, moralising, and damaging reparative therapies.
Nonetheless, there are some queer Muslims who are at peace with themselves while others are not. One thing I explore with my clients is where they are seeking affirmation and legitimacy for who they are. And, in the depths of our self-loathing, we may repeatedly seek affirmation from sources we know will fall short of providing us with what we need. That’s an important behavioural pattern and self-fulfilling prophecy to be disrupted with the emotional safety of a therapist.
Some queer Muslims look specifically to theology to speak to who they are. While doing so can be difficult, here are some queer and queer-affirming theologians to look up; Imam Amina Wadud, Imam Muhsin Hendricks, Imam Daaiyiee Abdullah, Imam Nur Warsame, Imam El-Farouk
- Being an active participant in an evolving culture
As a therapist in the public sector, I’ve seen many refugee claimants who have come to Canada seeking safety from homophobic violence. Of course, each of these individuals has a critique of their home country, the communities they fled. These are often resistances to militant Islam. They also traded one resistance for another to arrive in a place that turned out not to be the all-accepting utopia they imagined. This is simply to say that LGBTQ Muslims are often critiquing Islam or changing it from the inside and that they need a space to do that safely, where they don’t have to be defensive of their faith or their faith community.
But one of the biggest gifts we can give to ourselves as queer Muslims is to not see cultures as fixed or stagnant, but rather to see ourselves as active participants in evolving cultures. Appreciating this paves the way to combat Islamophobia. We — as we stand today with our intersectional, social justice lenses — are exactly what being Muslim looks like.
Rahim Thawer is a social worker and psychotherapist from Toronto, currently living (and practicing) in Johannesburg. He describes himself as a racialised queer practitioner with over a decade of clinical experience. He writes about topics that he feels do not get the attention they deserve. This is an edited version of an article which was first published in Medium.