How Can We Discuss Homophobia in Muslim Communities Without Being Islamophobic?

It’s all too common for dialogues about sexuality to be weaponized by those who hate Islam.

Coming out as gay to my Muslim family was extremely difficult, but with a lot of effort and communication from both sides, my parents accepted who I am and who I love. But my story may not be the norm. Many queer Muslims face violence and backlash at home. To erase that reality would only erase problematic perceptions of queer people within select Muslim communities, not fix them.

So, let’s talk.

It’s common for dialogues about sexuality to be weaponized by those who hate Islam. The homophobia that exists in interpretations of the Qur’an have been used by such individuals to prove that Islam has no place in Western culture. Meanwhile, some far right politicians have even promised to defend gay people from Muslims, though their own views and policies are fiercely anti-LGBTQ. How can we constructively discuss homophobia and Islam in a way that improves the situation for queer Muslims instead of becoming fodder for Islamophobes?

Donald Trump is one of the aforementioned politicians. In the wake of the Orlando terror attack, Trump explained how the 49 people were murdered by an “Islamic terrorist,” and vowed to protect the LGBTQ community from the violence and oppression of a “hateful foreign ideology.” His statement was controversial and hypocritical, as Trump has become one of the biggest oppressors of the LGBTQ community in America today.

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In remembrance of Pulse, Marwa Balkar holds a candle at the Islamic Center of Southern California and ICUJP Interfaith Vigil Against Violence in L.A.

Though there are endless differences between Obama and Trump as leaders of the free world, a main one resides in the use of the phrase “Islamic terrorist.” Obama refuted the label because he believed that terror organizations like al Qaeda and ISIL used Islam as an excuse for abhorrent behavior; Obama worried that the term would lump the abundance of peaceful Muslims around the world with a select, radical group responsible for murder and terror.

Obama’s point here is imperative: Linguistics matter and Muslims aren’t a monolith. My family is proof of this, and so are the many American Muslims in the public eye who’ve demonstrated fierce support for the queer community: People like Hasan Minhaj and Reza Aslan, Mahershala Ali, and even gay icon Janet Jackson. This concept that Muslims aren’t all one of the same is key in having constructive conversations about the homophobia that exists within some Muslim communities.

Momin Rahman, a sociology professor at Trent University in Canada, whose research focuses on Muslim LGBTQ identity and politics, believes that talking about Muslims as a monolithic group plays into bigoted stereotypes, and that this sort of bigotry may halt meaningful, progressive dialogue.

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London Pride.

“We know from general sociological research that a community that feels under threat is more likely to become internally focused and defensive,” Rahman tells NewNowNext. His worry is that when this happens, it’s difficult for a community to reflect on or change its way of thinking.

This would be hugely counterproductive. It was through conversation and compassion that I was able to change the minds of my parents, and it’s not just my family that’s willing to change: Research shows that Muslims can adapt when it comes to thinking about homosexuality. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, 52% of Muslims in America believe that society should accept homosexuality. This is up from 27% from 2007. Compare that to white evangelical Christians in the country—as recently as 2016, only 34% believed society should accept homosexuality.

Whether Islam itself is a belief system that prohibits homosexuality is debatable, as well. There is no explicit mention of gay people in the Qur’an, and the only proof against gay sex comes from the story of Prophet Lut (or “Lot” in the Hebrew Bible). But it’s argued by some queer Muslims and imams that this tale condemns male rape, not consensual gay sex or love. The Hadith, which are words or traditions of the prophet, Muhammad, is clear in its condemnation of homosexuality, but since it’s not the word of Allah, some deny its validity.

But the majority of Muslims hold the Hadith in high regard, and there is homophobia within many communities. To start productive conversations, Raham says we need to create public, political pathways that encourage people to engage, which could include outreach to Muslim communities.

“Some queer Muslim groups are trying to think through outreach to wider community members, including parents of queer Muslims. [Later this year], I am working with a group where queer Muslims try to provide some answers to questions that Muslim parents might have.”

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London Pride.

He also brings up a strong point: Anti-discrimination legislation in the U.S. often benefits queer people as much as it does Muslims. Furthermore, the fact that both groups must demand such legislation can serve as a uniting bridge between them, yet another reason to further meaningful and timely dialogue.

“I think it is a complicated debate,” Rahman adds. “And I think there is a danger of enforcing Islamophobia just by talking about Muslim homophobia outside of context. But one way of navigating a debate that challenges both sides is to actually talk about the fact that there are queer Muslims out there.”

Rahman believes that queer visibility in Muslim cultures and identities can help to dismantle misunderstanding and increase empathy. Including LGBTQ Muslims directly in conversations—whenever safe and possible—would further strengthen outreach. But what doesn’t help is when people show their concern for queer Muslims by hating on Islam at large.

Queer Muslims, after all, are Muslims. All Islamophobia will do is hurt them more.

Mike Miksche has written for The Advocate, Slate, Vice, Lambda Literary and The Gay and Lesbian Review.
@MikeMiksche