Two days before Omar Mateen opened fire in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, I was leading Friday prayers for a dozen LGBTQ Muslims at the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference.
In my sermon, I spoke about Surah al-Asr, a chapter in the Koran that says we must have faith, do good in the world, support one another in upholding the truth and have patience. These verses have another implicit message: We can’t do this alone. We need one another.
I had no idea how soon we would be reminded of this truth.
I converted to Islam at 14, and I’ve been a devout follower for three decades. But when I realized I was transgender in the 1990s, I began to struggle with my faith. I was told that my new identity made me a bad Muslim.
Things became harder once I transitioned. I couldn’t hide under a headscarf and long skirt anymore, and I became a target of the prejudice I’d heard about. When I took my children to holiday celebrations, close friends looked away as I passed them with my short hair and man’s button-down shirt. My ex-husband told my son that I was condemned to hell and insisted he agree.
For a time, I withdrew from my religious community entirely. Yet I knew that these views were not representative of all Muslims. There were others, including my former parents-in-law, who expressed surprise when they saw me — but then embraced me. A local mosque became aware of my work and explicitly invited me to join.
I also found it hard to be “out” about my religion in the LGBTQ community. At queer events, I often kept silent about my Muslim identity out of fear of Islamophobia. While I didn’t lose queer friends over my faith, I discovered that some believed I was an exception, a “good Muslim” who stood in contrast to all those other “bad Muslims,” and assumed that their comments about other Muslims didn’t affect me.
Finding other LGBTQ Muslims changed everything. I learned that scholars of both the Sunni and Shiite traditions had passed rulings in favor of transgender people and that Muslims hold diverse views about being gay. I came to understand that God’s truth includes all truth, even mine.
Many others have experienced this struggle. Some turn that struggle against ourselves. LGBTQ youths are twice as likely to attempt suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A quarter of transgender youths and more than 40 percent of transgender adults have attempted suicide. In recent months, homophobic rhetoric has increased as a result of legislation such as North Carolina’s HB2, which requires transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds to the gender listed on their birth certificates. Days before the Orlando massacre, a woman identified by media as a “conservative Christian” set off a bomb in a Target bathroom in Evanston, Illinois, in response to the store’s gender-inclusive bathroom policy.
Add to that pressure the Islamophobia that Muslims in the United States face. One study shows that Muslims in the United States are more prone to depression than other Americans, especially if they face personal harassment. More than 60 percent of the study’s respondents reported that they had been treated with suspicion and nearly 40 percent had been called offensive names.
To be an LGBT Muslim in America today is to feel vulnerable all the time, even in spaces that are supposed to be safe. As LGBT people, we are vulnerable in a society where homophobia and transphobia are persistent, vocal and sometimes violent. As Muslims, we face a daily barrage of media that ascribe to all Muslims the beliefs and actions of a few unbalanced individuals. We are, like all Americans, at risk in a country with inadequate gun control, where the right to bear arms trumps the right to personal safety in public spaces such as nightclubs. (The Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity is so concerned about safety that it uses a P.O. box and does not disclose the location of events to non-participants).
LGBT Muslims know what Surah al-Asr teaches is true: We need one another. Each year, nearly 100 people gather for our annual retreat, but our community stretches around the world. It sustains us, gives us space to worship in an environment of acceptance and grants us opportunities to connect with others without fear of Islamophobia. With its growth and visibility, our acceptance in both the queer and Muslim spaces has increased, as well. The LGBT Muslim community helped me to deepen my faith, by countering the prevailing narrative that LGBT identities and Islam could not coexist.
As I have continued to study Islam, I have come to understand that the underlying message of my faith is one that invites us to acceptance of the great diversity of the people with whom we share this miraculous planet – and of our own experience as part of that diversity.