How to be culturally competent when supporting LGBTQ+ Muslims

Rahim Thawer
25 min readJan 12, 2022

In this article, we’re going to talk about the experiences of being a minority within a minority. If you’re a counsellor, therapist, or another mental health professional, hopefully, you will come to appreciate the ways in which minority stress theory and the nuances of complex identities really come to impact someone’s mental health. I hope you’re able to walk away with some strategies and ideas about how to conceptualize challenges around identity formation and identity conflict with your clients who are both LGBTQ+ and Muslim, or more broadly, queer and of faith.

In this article, I will discuss my three overarching recommendations: a) expand beyond the mythological monolith b) appreciate multiple mental health paradigms, and c) attune to specific LGBTQ+ Muslim experiences by -
1. offering multiple options for coming out and into one’s identity
2. creating space for “competing selves”
3. presenting the possibility of reconciled identities without imposing a specific model
4. identifying internalized stigmas to challenge your clients
5. honouring your clients’ resistances to oppression

Let’s begin.

EXPAND BEYOND THE MYTHOLOGICAL MONOLITH

Muslims are not just olive-skin Arabs.

There are many Muslim-majority countries in the world, all of which have regional cultures and therefore unique cultural expressions of Islam. There are roughly 1.8 billion Muslims globally, which comprises 24 percent of the world’s population[i]. The largest concentrations of Muslims are found in the countries that make up South Asia, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal; Central Asia, such as Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan; the Middle East and North Africa, such as Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Algeria; Southeast Asia, such as Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia; and West Africa, such as Senegal, Mauritania, Ghana. There are also sizable Muslim populations in the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa, East Africa, Eastern Europe, and China. In China, I’m specifically referring to the Uyghur Muslims, a highly persecuted community in the Xinjiang province[ii].

In North America, when we talk about Muslims, we’re talking about people from each of these regions in the world who have migrated to the West in different waves (meaning, at different times with a range of social-economic-political motivations). Some of the first Muslim communities in America were enslaved people of African descent. And, in the early 1900s, Islam’s presence grew in the West through the founding of organizations like the Moorish Science Temple of America and the Nation of Islam, which helped lay the groundwork for the emergence of Islam as an influential part of the Black Power movement of the mid-1900s[iii].

In the USA, it’s estimated that there’s about 3.45 million Muslims[iv], and in Canada, just over 1 million[v]. When you meet clients who are Muslim, you’ll of course explore what their relationship to Islam is, but you might also consider the intergenerational transmission of hopes, dreams, expectations, anxieties, and cultural norms that makes up the ethos of their families of origin, and is connected to geographies beyond The West. The conditions of immigration and the family’s settlement experience also lay the groundwork for examining a client’s internalization of historical traumas.

APPRECIATE MULTIPLE MENTAL HEALTH PARADIGMS

Paradigms are lenses through which we see the world and understand ourselves and other people. And when it comes to mental health, it’s not just Muslims, but also Muslim-majority countries and other cultures that are non-Western, that think about mental health in multiple ways. For many Muslims, when they think about what cultivates wellness, what goes into feeling good about themselves, feeling good about the world, or feeling optimistic, there’s a direct link between feeling good overall and their commitment to their faith[vi]. As a result, if somebody is not doing well, is struggling with depression, has fallen on hard times, or is experiencing bad luck or relationship conflict, one of the ways that might be conceptualized is that said person is not so committed to their faith. Maybe they aren’t tithing appropriately, they aren’t pious enough, or they don’t pray or ask for forgiveness regularly, for example. You may also experience this paradigm in other religious groups.

Mental health can also be seen as a series of very normal responses that don’t need particular attention or intervention — that is to say that mental health symptoms like sadness and depression can be seen as a necessary part of larger human suffering. I know that with a lot of older Muslim folks in my life, if I’ve told them about a difficulty that I’m having, sometimes they will say, “You know, I’ve had a similar challenge in my life, but it’s part of life, there’s ups and downs.” And on the one hand, I find that response dismissive, but on the other hand, the expectation that things shouldn’t always be good, and a belief that a certain amount of human suffering puts us closer to humility, reality, and other people’s suffering, or suffering at large, is actually quite protective for a lot of people. Some people will see huge life stressors as a test of faith, so at times when you feeling particularly isolated, people might tell you, “You know, when you’re feeling really alone, this is the test of your faith, and to overcome it is to continue investing in your belief in God, in the Oneness and spirituality, in good possibilities and in a grander design.”

What about when people experience particular symptoms of mental illness? We must acknowledge the widely accepted household concepts of jinn and evil eye. In a lot of Muslim-majority cultures, we use the language of jinn (spirit possession) to explain when somebody is experiencing psychosis, consistently can’t sleep, frequently has nightmares, has significant anxiety, or has anxiety that turns into somatic complaints. The wrath of Jinn is often understood as resulting from being in the “wrong place,” defying spiritual teaching, spending time with the “wrong people,” or going against your family. Evil eye is the result of contempt from somebody else. If you’ve harmed somebody, if you cheated, if you lied, if you did something bad in the world and someone else noticed, or they were harmed in the process, it might be their contempt that makes you ill. These concepts don’t fit in by and large with our Western conceptualizations of mental health, but they’re important to think about when we work with clients from multiple backgrounds, because these clients might come to see the resolution of their illness or their symptoms as being located in something such as a spiritual cleanse, reconciling with people with whom they’ve had a conflict, or making good on a promise to someone.

ATTUNE TO SPECIFIC EXPERIENCES

1. Coming in, out, and around

What does this language of coming out mean to you and your clients? The dominant narratives (in this case, usually Western) largely tell us that coming out is positive. It’s connected to liberation, freedom, relief, 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.

As a queer Muslim, these were also the benefits of coming out for me. However, as a therapist and queer Muslim community organizer, I also think that the challenges are particularly unique for a lot of LGBTQ Muslims and that 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 one’s faith, from God. If you’ve grown up and been socialized to think about a system in the world that punishes you for sins, and you come to understand yourself as sinful, then that can be really difficult to overcome or to work through. There’s also the challenge of visibility: If you come out, how will that affect your family or their community? And does your sudden visibility, whether it is on social media or at a queer event, make it harder for you to compartmentalize your life when compartmentalization might actually be a very necessary form of protection for you?

Are these challenges precisely what make coming out a necessary journey, or are they the foundation for new approaches? In their article “The Whiteness of ‘Coming Out’: Culture and Identity in The Disclosure Narrative,[vii] Sanchez talks about how coming out might erase the nuances of their cultural identity. In their Latin American culture, the concept of pride is seen as sinful and indulgent, so the idea of celebrating pride goes against a community value of humility. They describe having their partner come visit them at home to have dinner with their family, and that their family, by and large, accepts their partner. However, they can appreciate that if they asked for explicit conversation and acceptance from their parents, for the other person to be named as their boyfriend, they might come up short. They suggest that seeking explicit acceptance in this very particular way is actually a Western construct and that if they try to do that, it erases the ways that their family has already come to accept them and undermines their cultural identity, where acceptance looks different. They also explain:

“The thing about coming out is there must be something for you to come out into: the open arms of a shared experience, the waving of rainbow flags, and five seasons of Queer as Folk. This vision of coming out implies access to a cultural space where identity is well-defined and validated” (Sanchez 2017).

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 realized there was a whole gay history that I didn’t know of, but that history that I was first being taught as an out person was largely a white history. Racialized people have a queer and trans history that encompasses our own visibility and activism and community organizing, 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 racialized queer folks.

A few years ago, a class of social work students I was teaching introduced me to the concept of coming in — coming into one’s identity and sharing intentionally with people they trust. I’ve learned through countless queer Muslims in my life that one’s place in the world needs to be neither destabilized 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 racialized 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 racialized 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 characterized by dichotomous thinking and polarization.

2. Competing selves

Rarely does simply identifying a mechanism of systemic oppression that’s fueling a client’s grief lead to relief. They’re still living in the reality of the world and its many rules. So, we must work with their competing selves.

In their article[viii], Sherry et al. (2010) explore the negotiation of spiritual and sexual identities. They discuss the ways in which conflict between these competing selves can activate distress, shame, internalized homophobia, depression, and suicidal ideation. However, their study of approximately 400 respondents reveals some particularly useful themes to help us counsellors and therapists organize the process and turmoil of competing selves, which may or may not lead to “reconciled identities.” Here are the themes that emerged:

a) Sexuality issues led to questioning religious beliefs
b) Shifting toward being spiritual, but not religious
c) Rejecting religion for other reasons besides sexual/gender identity
d) Still searching or struggling within a religious or theological framework
e) Experiencing religious community and religion as an oppressive force
f) Personal experience of trauma and rejection in the context of religion
g) Never having experienced conflict or a sense of competing selves

The very first theme resonates with me so strongly. For me, it was specifically as a result of my sexuality that I started to think about life from a different angle, from a marginalized lens, which led to me questioning all the rules I had once taken for granted about life, relationships, tradition, family, schooling, career paths, and, of course, religion. This is precisely why I now see queerness as a lens, a vantage point from which to see the world. Still, there are many queer Muslims who have questioned their religious beliefs for other reasons. That is, religion may have been weaponized against them, used to harm them. Many have experienced trauma and oppression within religious institutions and may need space just to grieve the indignities and the violence that they were subjected to.

Therapeutic space may be used to process the decision to leave one’s faith community or to process the experience of feeling abandoned by faith. This is really a conversation about attachment trauma and loss. The notion of an (idealized) integrated self might be replaced with honouring the ever-evolving self. 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 a large part of my life, 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.

I’m not sure if you, the reader, ever asked big, existential questions at a young age. I did. And it led me toward so much angst and distress. On the one hand, religious doubt and questioning can be framed as a brave and positive space to be in (even for prolonged periods of time). On the other hand, if there aren’t opportunities for conversations to explore those very same questions, the result can be extreme isolation. As mental health professionals, our role may be to provide a space for existential questions to be processed — even if they seem aloof and don’t directly reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression (in fact, those symptoms may appear to be exacerbated before being treated). One of the things we have to assess is how ready the person we’re working with is to take on existential uncertainty, and we must appreciate whether they see questioning religious systems as positive and rewarding, or as a driver of distress.

3. Reconciling identities

If we appreciate that many of us experience conflict between our sexuality or gender identity and our cultural and religious identity, and then the work seems obvious — we have to reconcile these two things. But there are multiple perspectives on the idea of reconciliation, and there’s no one way to be reconciled because we hold multiple self-concepts. For example, I call myself a queer Muslim all the time, while others might describe themselves as: a non-practising Muslim, someone raised Muslim, culturally Muslim, or spiritually Muslim. Being culturally Muslim can also range in its meaning. It might suggest, “I participate in rituals, but I’m largely atheist, but I have a Muslim background,” or, “I’m not super theological about Islam, but I accept its general teachings, practices, and rituals (kind of like most White people around Christmas).”

I often find that people who are born in Muslim-majority countries and then migrate to Canada and the United States might be more likely to articulate a national identity: Jordanian, Palestinian, Iranian. Whereas somebody who is Canadian- or American-born and part of a diasporic community, like I am, can’t help but understand themselves as a Muslim Canadian or a Muslim American. The message here is that we really have to listen and be attuned to how people construct their own identities, and ask ourselves, “What is this in response to?” and, “What are the social and political forces shaping how somebody understands themselves?”

Reconciling identities for queer Muslims is made more challenging by the context of mainstream queer culture. Regardless of faith group, organized religion has very much harmed LGBTQ people through shaming, moralizing, and damaging reparative therapies. The Church’s refusal to promote condom use thwarted HIV prevention efforts in the 1980s and reified the conception of gay men as deviants. Despite many changes in Christian churches, mainstream/White LGBTQ communities often still have a strong reaction to religion and see organized religion as an institution designed to regulate bodies and strengthen cultures of homophobia. If you are from a non-Christian religion, or you’re a person of faith in general, you will legitimately have a difficult time finding your place in queer culture — and the people who support us must understand this.

Nonetheless, you might still wonder why some queer Muslims 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. Whether it’s an Imam, a gender studies department, a family member, or the local gay bar, if where one seeks to be affirmed doesn’t respond positively, despair is sure to follow. 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 point them toward Imam Amina Wadud, Imam Muhsin Hendricks, Imam Daaiyiee Abdullah, Imam Nur Warsame, Imam El-Farouk Khaki, Imam Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, Professor Junaid Jahangir, and Professor Scott Kugle.

Left to right: Amina Wadud, Muhsin Hendricks, Daaiyiee Abdullah, Nur Warsame, El-Farouk Khaki

Part of reconciling one’s sexuality and faith may lead to denouncing faith or distancing from a faith community. This process is only made more painful by the racism experienced in LGBTQ+ communities. And having to be on the defensive, contending with xenophobia and Islamophobia, disrupts our ability to process internalized shame, critique both queer and Muslim cultures, and find our true place in the world. A video project titled Illuminations, by Yalda Pashai, explores the nuances of reconciling identities for queer Muslims.

WATCH HERE: https://vimeo.com/47102905

[Start of video transcript]

When I think of my past, which I do a lot, I keep discovering new connections to where and what I am today. I had to denounce my past for a while to be able to focus on my present, but today I am in a reconciliation phase. What does it mean to be gay and Muslim? What does it mean to be gay and Arabic? What does it mean to be gay and queer? Questions that go through my mind on a daily basis. I am shaping them, moulding them, perfecting them, and destroying them, just to shape them all over again. In the end, I see my existence, our existence, to be extremely political.

I grew up in East Africa and I converted to Islam over a decade ago. and I was initially drawn to Islam because I was searching for a more honest way to relay in the language of integrity and passion. What I did find in my path, though, was that I didn’t feel accepted or acknowledged, particularly within fundamentalist, conservative notions of Islam, because of my sexual orientation and gender identity. And this is what drew me, in my quest, to draw closer to God, to re-learn the ways of the past, and within that, and coming to Islam is what drew me to learning more about my ancestors, because my foundation is reclaiming Indigenous African traditions, such as that of my father’s tribe the Bukusu, who have the [….] which translates as “following the ways of the ancestors.”

I was born in Scarborough, Ontario. My parents are both from Guyana. I was raised Muslim, raised in a very Muslim family. I always hold my mom in such high regard. I guess that’s why when I came out to her, I felt like I was disappointing her. So, when I told my mom that I was gay, she was definitely in shock, but she handled it in the way I should have assumed that she would handle it. She was very strong about it; it’s almost like she put up an instant wall when I said it to block off me from feeling any of her emotions. I’m pretty sure, like, when we got home, she went into her room and started crying. Being Muslim is a big part of my life, my name is a very Muslim name, my family is a very Muslim family, I was born Muslim, like I said. There are certain aspects of Islam that will always stay with me: the morals, the values that I think are in every religion, which I think is amazing, and I keep that with me.

I think being Palestinian is hard enough, with the occupation and the colonization and the struggles that we have to face, and I think being queer and Palestinian is even harder, because you become a part of a minority of a minority, and hence the challenges are not only bigger but also multi-layered. But on the external side of things, and being a resident of Canada also adds a layer of challenge, because I face a lot of Islamophobia and Palestinian-phobia from mainstream culture, which makes my challenges within my community even harder to face.

At a very young age, my parents instilled in me that my relationship with God was my relationship with God, and nobody could tell me otherwise; it was a one-on-one, personal relationship. I think having that in my life is what made my experience with Islam and my sexuality so positive. I strongly believed that I was loved no matter what and I was worthy in God’s eyes no matter what anybody said. I mean, this being reinforced with having a really amazing family and a great, supportive group of friends, I think, has made coming out and being an openly gay Somali man fantastic.

They say that human love can be a bridge to divine love, and for me I believe that to be very true, whether it’s the warm and respectful love I share with my parents, the passionate and committed love I share with my wife, or the nurturing and unconditional love I have for our son. Every experience with my family takes on a spiritual dimension. Non-traditional as it may appear, my family in so many ways is a true expression of my identity as a Muslim. As Rumi says, “Who could be so lucky? Who comes to the lake for water and sees the reflection of the moon.”

Being both Muslim and gay always seem like separate identities to me. I simply could not be both because I thought they clashed ideologically. But this wasn’t a satisfying way of looking at the world. I didn’t think that I should have to repent for even being a certain way. Yet I began to hide and attempted to find sanctuary in prayer. I wanted this thing to go away. Then I distanced myself from my faith and later on, eventually, I found true support in queer spaces. I now identify with Islam culturally and I’m much happier not to be seeking validation from anyone else. Though I sound liberated and despite my so-called resolve, my relationship to Islam has changed and the label Muslim still brings up a lot of emotion for me, which makes me think that perhaps reconciling identity is a lifelong process.

Somali, queer, androgynous, Muslim. How do I reconcile identities that I’ve been told my whole life are incompatible? How can I assert my Muslim identity while simultaneously claiming my queerness, claiming my right to resist heteronormative ideas of masculinity? How do I claim African ancestry when told homosexuality is un-African? I grew up with a secret — I grew up thinking I was committing the biggest sin. Was it true? Did Allah detest homosexuality? Did he detest me? No. I’ve since found that my faith, my Muslimness, my relationship to Allah, with Allah, is not defined by who I’m in love with. I can be queer and I can be Muslim. I can finally live without secrets.

I feel like at first, when I was younger, I could never imagine someone being sexual, let alone being queer, and I never really heard about the word lesbian. I just knew that sometimes I wanted to more than cuddle with my girlfriends. I always knew it was a part of my family’s history and culture, but after 9/11, there was a lot of questions around what does Islam mean, what does it mean to you to be practicing, what does it mean to be discriminated against when you are Muslim. And then when I started meeting queer Muslims in around 2007 and I met my first queer woman and I fell in love with a queer Muslim woman that I met, it was a real awakening for me, because I started meeting women that were challenging the idea that you didn’t have to give up one for the other.

I’m a queer Lebanese refugee, raised Muslim, believing in nothing tangible enough to be called a religion, struggling to reconcile identities that seem at first to be polar extremes. I go back to when I was twelve, a short stint of devotion pushed forward by sexual abuse — to be more precise, the unpredictable arousal during said abuse. What did it all say about me? So I bowed up and down on a prayer rug, speaking verses I barely understood, raising my hands up and reading the imagined Qur’an, but mostly trying ever so hard to wash away the shame. I looked forward to [sixteen?], when there was no longer a question about what it all said about me. The shame remained, intensified by the fear of how Islam would inform my community’s reaction if ever they found out. Well they did find out, and I was damned, so I damned Islam right back. I’ve yet to forgive it. Reconciliation? Nope. Not yet, not by a long shot.

[End of video transcript]

4. Internalized negative messages

Many of us are familiar with what internalized homophobia looks like. It ranges from anger at ourselves for not being straight to disgust at others like us who can’t help but beautifully defy gender norms. Sometimes it means praying to be different, over-investing in hegemonic masculinity, compensating through achievements, or even distancing yourself from the queer community (I’m looking at you, Mr. Non-scene on the apps).

What counsellors and therapists are less familiar with is what internalized Islamophobia looks like. It can include evoking the good Muslim vs. bad Muslim tensions, a desire to prove one’s Westerness, simple changes in physical appearance, or surrendering to politically contrived ideas of Muslim people’s backwardness.

Muslims are scrutinized by non-Muslims in North America who want to know more about our religion, but also are very quick to judge us. Their gentle curiosity might look this: Why don’t you wear hijab? Oh, you’re a Muslim that drinks? Why do you observe Ramadan but don’t otherwise pray five times per day? You have to recognize that there are so many ways to be Muslim, and people are going to have different relationships to not just Islam itself as a religion, but to the cultures where they’ve come from and how their families engage with Islam.

Nevertheless, if we have all the explanations and demonstrate to the voyeurs that we’re making every effort to adhere to Islamic practices, we can get the good Muslim badge, and be seen as earnest citizens just trying to make a life in the West. Those of us who aren’t seen this way are, by default, the bad Muslims. Sometimes the outside world celebrates us for being bad — people say, “We like you because you’re progressive and not like the others.” It’s challenging to even begin metabolizing this “compliment” without throwing your family under the bus. What’s worse is that just like internalized misogyny, internalized Islamophobia leads us Muslims to surveil one another and judge who’s being a good group representative and who’s “giving us a bad name.” It’s one of the many gifts of white supremacy to feel this pressure to adequately represent our whole Muslim community of 1.8 billion people.

As many queer Muslims are from families who migrated to the West, we’re often trying to prove that we are American, British, Australian, or Canadian. Ru Paul’s repetitive (yet catchy!) song “American” declares “I Am American, American Just Like You!” While some may jump to critique the invitation to join a parade of nationalism, I think that as a drag queen of colour, it’s actually quite strategic to boldly state, “You know, just because we’re queer (or of colour) doesn’t mean we’re not of this place.” It’s a solid outreach message for acceptance. But for people from diasporic communities, this project of having to prove our Westernness is really about convincing others that “We are more like you than where we came from, we’re progressiveness, we belong here.” And it’s precisely this constant, subconscious effort that entrenches the idea that where we came from is regressive and backward. If you’re a Muslim person reading this, think about how you act and present yourself at any country’s border: Are you happily flashing a Canadian passport or particularly cognizant of how your accent is read? Did you make sure to shave and trim your beard before daring to get on that flight? These physical expressions and manipulations are sometimes the very manifestations of internalized Islamophobia.

Now let’s talk about how politics in the world — in North America in particular — really reinforce the tensions and the difficulty around identity reconciliation for queer Muslims. The image below[ix] (see Figure 1) begins with the routine military invasion of Muslim-majority countries by the West. This includes starting wars, fake wars, to take advantage of local resources. This Western intervention and interference has led to the rise and radicalization of Islam that, in turn, targets the West (e.g 9/11).

Though radicalization is largely denounced by most Muslims, it gets a lot of media air time. And the radicalization of Islam by a few who are targeting the West then increases Islamophobia in the West. As a result, white and non-Muslim Americans are persuaded to be afraid of Muslims, and start saying things like “Muslims are taking over” or “They don’t understand our values” or “They hate our freedom.” Ironically, the mentality that “you’re either with us or against us” is characteristically fascist. Nevertheless, drawing on a xenophobic nationalism renders Muslimness as antithetical to anything American. What gets re-cast here is another iteration of the dichotomy of the progressive West and the backward Muslims.

Figure 1

Now, we all know that America and Canada are not wholly progressive in any way. The North American continent has lots and lots of regressive, violent, right-wing people and ideologies. But this dichotomy of the backward Muslim and the progressive Westerner further creates and contributes to this identity conflict, which makes the queer Muslim subject once again feel at odds themselves.

The consequence of this cannot be understated. The Orlando massacre of June 2016 is but one example. People thought about the shooter as a Muslim man who was struggling with internalized homophobia — but due to his Muslim upbringing. He’s from a community, they said, that is inherently homophobic. In my Rabble article, I suggest that what actually creates the internalized homophobe is also what creates the internalized Islamophobe: an American culture that doesn’t allow you to be multiple things, that creates social conditions that demand that you are in conflict and at war with yourself.

Source: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/07/30/486491527/the-costs-of-the-pulse-nightclub-shooting

5. Expressions of resistance

I am not talking here about the ways your clients get defensive and resist your clinical interpretations. Resistance in this context is about the range of ways queer Muslims dare to exist. If you have queer and trans Muslim clients, I ask that you look for the ways in which they resist their own erasure and resist different forms of xenophobia and violence, because those resistances are strengths that need witnessing.

Queer and trans Muslims are not just resisting Islamophobia. What often goes unnoticed are the ways we regularly challenge patriarchy and cis/heterosexism within Muslim communities. This is demonstrated well in the South African documentary Locked In: A Transgender Story and the creation of many LGBTQ-affirming prayer spaces — enclosed circles in place of traditionally gender segregated seating, often with women and trans people leading prayer.

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 actively 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.

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. And our mental well-being relies on our ongoing expressions of resistance.

Endnotes

[i] Diamant, J. (2019, April 1). The countries with the 10 largest Christian populations and the 10 largest Muslim populations. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/01/the-countries-with-the-10-largest-christian-populations-and-the-10-largest-muslim-populations/‌

[ii] BBC News. (2021, June 21). Who are the Uyghurs and why is China being accused of genocide? BBC. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-22278037‌

[iii] Williams, J. (2017, January 29). A brief history of Islam in America. Vox. https://www.vox.com/2015/12/22/10645956/islam-in-america

[iv] Mohamed, B. (2018, January 3). New estimates show U.S. Muslim population continues to grow. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/01/03/new-estimates-show-u-s-muslim-population-continues-to-grow/

[v] A New Life in a New Land. (2011). A New Life in a New Land: The Muslim Experience in Canada. A New Life in a New Land: The Muslim Experience in Canada. https://www.anewlife.ca/muslim-demographics-in-canada

[vi] Rassool, G. H. (2015). Cultural competence in counseling the Muslim patient: Implications for mental health. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 29(5), 321–5. https://doi.org10.1016/j.apnu.2015.05.009.

[vii] Sanchez, A. A. (2017, July 7). The whiteness of ‘coming out’: culture and identity in the disclosure narrative. Archer Magazine. http://archermagazine.com.au/2017/07/culture-coming-out/

[viii] Sherry, A., Adelman, A., Whilde, M. R., & Quick, D. (2010). Competing selves: Negotiating the intersection of spiritual and sexual identities. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 41(2), 112–119. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0017471

[ix] Hankir, A., Carrick, F. R., Zaman, R. (2015). Islam, mental health and being a Muslim in the West. Psychiatria Danubina 27(Supple. 1), S53–9. PMID: 26417737.

affectiveconsult.ca

--

--

Rahim Thawer

Toronto-based social worker, psychotherapist, clinical supervisor, lecturer, consultant, writer and vodcast host. Queer, racialized, he/him.