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From Tragedy, Some Hope: Muslim LGBTQ Look To Dispel Taboos

Updated 6/21/2016

Standing in front of scores of people crowded on the carpet and in chairs lining her living room, Nabeela Rasheed told her guests that she calls herself “a new lesbian, and an old Muslim.” Rasheed, a lawyer of Pakistani heritage, said she loves both of those parts of her identity. But the weekend’s tragic mass shooting in Orlando, where a Muslim man killed 49 people at a gay nightclub, put that very identity into a harsh new light. 

“After Sunday, I was standing with one foot in this new camp of LGBTQ, and in this other camp of being Muslim,” she said, “and underneath my feet was just quicksand, and it was just disappearing.”

The Tuesday evening gathering, at the home that Rasheed shares with her girlfriend, Fawzia Mirza, was an iftar meal --the traditional meal at which Muslims break their daylong fast together. For Muslims, these convenings happen most nights during the holy month of Ramadan. 

But many of the roughly 75 guests said this particular gathering was unprecedented. It included LGBTQ Muslims, people who said they were allies, and others interested in the conversation. 

For many Muslims, homosexuality is discussed neither in the home nor the mosque, and it is common to fear ostracization because of one’s sexual or gender preferences. Rasheed, Mirza and a handful of other Muslim leaders said their goal was to break that taboo.

“I really want an open dialogue and one where we can discuss how many different hurts we’re going through,” said Rasheed, “and how we frame our questions and how we frame this debate.” Various organizations invited people they knew might be interested.

“This is an attempt to simply start the conversation,” said Omer Mozaffar, the Muslim Chaplain at Loyola University, who facilitated the evening’s discussion. “What does it mean to be Muslim and LGBT?”

The rules? This would be a judgment-free zone. It would also be a place where people could expect forgiveness if they misspoke. WBEZ was the only media organization invited. Anyone who did not want their comments recorded could simply say so, and it would be respected. 

At first, the stories were slow to come, but soon momentum built, and they poured out, one after another. 

“When I converted, I wouldn’t tell any of my queer friends that I was Muslim because there is some Islamophobia in the LGBT community and people were very against religion because a lot of my queer friends had really, really horrifying experiences with whatever religion they grew up in,” said Agnieszka Karoluk, a doctoral student and special education teacher who converted to Islam in 2011. “And then I wouldn’t tell my Muslim friends that I was queer because I didn’t want to feel that backlash.” 

“It’s difficult, you know, to defend the religious community on Islamophobia to the queer community that says ‘Doesn’t your religious community want to kill you?.’” said Cruz Rodriguez, a recent graduate of DePaul University who identifies as a queer Latino Muslim. “I was actually excommunicated from the mosque that I converted to,” Rodriguez shared, saying that others in his Arabic class at the mosque had discovered his sexual identity and sent him death threats through Facebook. 

“I took it to the imam, I showed him the messages, and he responded with ‘Well, this is a reality of our religion, we can’t really do anything about that,’” said Cruz. “And what is the punishment for it? The punishment is death. I wasn’t welcomed back in that mosque.”

 Rodriguez talked about another burden he’s been carrying -- he said he’d been sexually assaulted by another Muslim who was still in the closet. “A lot of times when I go to mosques, to masjids, now, I don’t really feel safe because I always feel very paranoid of being attacked for whatever reason,” he said.

And yet, Rodriguez said he still tries to find religious comfort at mosques. It was just the opposite for another person there, a student of clinical psychology who asked to be identified only by the name Fawzy. He said he had dissociated himself from mosques five years ago. “I developed my relationship with God individually, I have never felt closer to God, and my relationship with God is not going to wait for people to understand me,” Fawzy told the group. “I grew up with internalized homophobia, I believed the same thing. I still sometimes believe the same thing and I have a lot of shame that I carry that I can’t get rid of, as much as I try to get rid of it.” 

Fawzy said the silence around issues of sexual and gender identity has caused a lot of pain for him and other queer Muslims. “That pain, I think for me, needs to be addressed first, for me to feel safe. My pain of being repressed for 15 years or 20 years or my whole life. But if I don’t establish a sense of safety first and security first, I cannot answer that question anymore.” Across the room, people spoke about the need for safe spaces for Muslim LGBTQ. In mainstream environments, many said, they fear rising Islamophobia. 

But many said they have not found refuge in mosques, because of longstanding prejudice in their religious community against people of different sexual or gender identities. Mohammed Kaiseruddin, chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, has been in the thick of Chicago’s Muslim community for decades. He said he had never attended a gathering like this -- it was unprecedented.

“There is no justification… there is no teaching, nothing, that says that if you disagree with somebody go after them and kill them or hurt them or hate them,” Kaiseruddin told the group.

But Kaiseruddin also expressed amazement at the composition of the room. He said while he expected that the group would discuss LGBTQ issues, he never expected that LGBTQ Muslims -- and so many of them -- would be in attendance. 

Later in the evening, he said he felt he had to review Quranic scriptures regarding the faith's posture toward gays and lesbians.

For many, the Orlando shooting had at least provided an opportunity to air some long-held grievances and clear up misunderstandings. It also exposed just how much work is ahead for LGBTQ advocates in the Muslim community. “I’ll tell you, up until Sunday, I’ve not heard the word ‘homosexual’ uttered from a pulpit at a mosque,” said Sufyan Sohel, an attorney with the Chicago Chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations. 

“Ahmed Rehab, our executive director, always likes to say if he ever uttered it at a khutbah or anything like that, he would be told by the imam that we’re not allowed to use those words -- in some of the biggest mosques around the city. It’s a reality that I think we just need to start addressing.” 

Once the floodgate had opened on the discussion, hands flew into the air with more and more people eager to share their stories and thoughts. But cell phone alarms began going off with ringtones of the call to prayer. With a promise to continue this discussion, and to start the difficult work of advocating for inclusivity within the larger Muslim community, the talk ended. They prayed together, and then they broke their fast.

This story has been updated. We have clarified it to communicate that attendance at the gathering also included people other than LGBTQ Muslims and people who said they were allies. In addition, it emphasizes that it was later in the evening when Dr. Kaiseruddin spoke of reviewing Quranic scriptures.

Odette Yousef is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @oyousef and @WBEZoutloud.

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