Queer, Brown, Muslim — And Constantly Under Attack

I’m in the middle of it all.

Image by Ayqa Khan

It would be cliché to admit that when I woke up to news about the mass shooting in Orlando, I prayed that the gunman wasn’t Muslim.

What actually happened that morning went something like this: I woke up parched and hungry on one of the longest days of fasting, about a week into Ramadan. With one eye open and the other closed, I reached for my buzzing phone. Another mass shooting. The usual prayer floated up to my lips: Allahumar rhamhum wa aafihim waafu anhum. Allah, have mercy on the victims, give them strength and forgive them. I’ll admit that I was cliché in adding: please, please don’t let the gunman be Muslim.

The day passed by in a blur of grief, but I remember the details emerging in progressive heartbreak: the gunman was in fact Muslim, the victims were mostly latino and black, the victims were gay, the gunman himself was gay. As a queer, brown Muslim these revelations hit hard. Suddenly, all my identities were under attack.

In a strange way, the intersection of my identities — as a queer person, as a person of color, as a Muslim — was also suddenly treated as valid for the first time. After years of erasure in Muslim spaces, years of being treated as an anomaly, read as an ally, fetishized because of my hijab in queer spaces, it was hard not to get swept up in the excitement of visibility and recognition. Plastered across TV and social media were faces and struggles like mine. It felt like we were on the precipice of change.

But soon the stories and struggles of my community were reduced to sound bites and “Surprise! Queer Muslims exist!” headlines, and I found myself wondering at the media attention. How were these voyeuristic forays into our lives by mainstream media playing into our exoticization? Why were we letting vulture-like journalists tell flat and uncomplicated stories about us when we could — and in many cases did — provide the most nuanced, most thoughtful analysis?

More importantly, how did queer Muslims end up being the focus of this maelstrom, instead of the victims and the survivors, instead of the homophobia and racism in this country? It was hard to shake the feeling that we were being dangled in front of America like shiny objects, deflecting from bigger conversations: like the fact that hate crimes targeting queer people — especially queer people of color — remain unacceptably high in this country; or the fact that the first headlines about Orlando didn’t mention the queerness or the race of the club goers, as if the victims could only be sympathetic when stripped of their marginalized identities. The homophobia of Muslim communities was treated as exceptional, not as a scion of the profoundly American phenomenon of discrimination against the marginalized.

Now that that 24-hour news cycle has moved on to other shiny objects, and now that we know that visibility in mainstream media does not equate to change, how do we as a community move forward? How do we turn this feeling of being at the precipice of change into a reality? I’d like to see queer Muslims build a movement that isn’t reactionary or centered around acceptance from the mainstream. I’d like to see us build with other marginalized communities around issues we collectively face: the queer Latinx community, for example, around immigration and worker’s rights; with Black Lives Matter around police brutality; with growing movements demanding the release of unfairly detained Muslims. I’d like to see self-reflexivity in our organizing. I’d like to see us take on anti-blackness in our own spaces, to ensure the inclusion of minority sects in our organizing.

I would also like to see us challenge homophobia in mainstream Muslim communities — a homophobia that cannot be extricated from the misogyny and racism that also affects our lives. Can we build with women’s mosque movements and Muslim anti-racist organizations to hold accountable the Muslim leaders, imams and scholars who issued statements after Orlando, who went to vigils and who said that they stood by their LGBTQ siblings and who also said that Omar Mateen didn’t represent Islam? How do we ensure that the words of these leaders translate into actions? How can we make sure that they offer support not just for the dead, but also for the living queers in their congregations? We want active support, affirmation and love, not just toleration, not just empty claims of being “progressive” because we’re not turned away. Because tolerance is not enough in the homophobic world that we live in: silence is not enough.

What can we as queer Muslims do for ourselves? What lessons can we draw from Orlando, from the Islamo-racist fear-mongering of the presidential election, and how can we support each other through the inevitable sorrows of the future? How do we equip ourselves to support those who were outed in the aftermath of the shooting? How can we take care of each other and how can we build intentional communities and networks of love? How can we create alternative spaces that are affirming of our queerness and our Muslim-ness?

Finally, what can we as queer Muslims do for ourselves? What lessons can we draw from Orlando, and how can we support each other through the inevitable sorrows of the future? How do we equip ourselves to deal with the islamo-racist aftermath of this presidential election, with the dystopian turn the world seems to be taking?

I don’t have answers, but perhaps you do? Instead, I hold onto how my queer Muslim family came together that Sunday, June 12th, the day that the Orlando shooting happened. We texted each other all day: Are you ok? Are you safe? Be careful today. I’m here for you if you need to talk. And then we met later for iftar as we had been doing all month, to break fast and mourn together, to figure out how to hold grief and anger at the same time, to brainstorm how not to let our queerness and Muslimness be pitted against each other. We reiterated our love and support for each other. And then prayed. For safety and justice for our people: queer people, muslim people, queer muslim people, and for all those whose bodies fall victim to the violence that cannot be separated from our modern neoliberal politics. In the hopes that in the month of Ramadan, this prayer would be accepted.

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