Queer, Trans — And In Love With Islam
How I went from being Catholic to Atheist to Muslim.
When I was in middle school, some guys from my wrestling team chased me into our locker room, held me down, and punched me over and over again. They called me a girl. They were right, but I screamed over and over again that I was not. They called me a faggot. They were right, but I screamed over and over again that I was not. For years after that, I wore a rosary with a big wooden crucifix around my neck; it was my only form of protection.
After my confirmation, my Irish Catholic grandmother proudly told me that my name would be put on a card and kept in a drawer in the Vatican forever. That is, my dead name, a name I hadn’t used for myself since I was 7 years old. My name has since been changed everywhere else, but sometimes I wonder if the old one is still there in that drawer.
The first time I went to a Protestant church, I was 15. They tried to convert me. They asked me to speak with God and listen for a reply. So I did. I begged Them to let me speak to a friend who had passed. For a minute, I swore I could hear her.
Two weeks after we came out to each other, He called me crying. I was 22. He was 17. He had not been to work in days; we were all beginning to worry. Later he told me a nearby church performed an exorcism on him. They locked him in a basement for three days; they fed him lies and hate constantly. They fed him food once.
One year ago, we lost him.
One year ago, I reverted to Islam.
I’ve had a complex relationship with organized religion throughout my life. Mostly it’s been traumatic. But there are these little vignettes — of passion, of pure joy, of stunned awe — that punctuate this narrative. Like standing in front of Notre-Dame de Paris and considering my absolute smallness. Or listening to my mother, a woman who has toiled in poverty almost every day of my life, magically plucking guitar strings during a choir practice. Or sitting alone in the balcony of the cathedral where I was christened, 23 years later, watching dust dance freely on the beams of light.
Sometimes, I feel so close to God that I could almost reach out and touch Their face.
But not usually. I have always been a proud, cold scientist. And most importantly, usually, an atheist.
When I started learning more about Islam a couple years ago, I only considered myself an outside observer, a student of the thousands of cultures tied to this faith. I wanted to learn about Islam, the history and significance, what made it real for people, so I started asking my Muslim friends questions about Ramadan, fasting and salat. A friend of mine taught me how to pray in the bedroom of her AirBnB. She taught me Al-Fatiha on the Long Island Expressway. And last year, I decided to observe Ramadan, not as a Muslim, not as part of my faith, but just to experience it — the devotion of it all. And then something funny happened: I fell in love. How silly; how cruel. An atheist, falling in love with a faith. It felt dirty. But I couldn’t help it. Imagine your friend gushing over her new crush, telling you all the little things this woman does that are so uniquely her and so uniquely beautiful; you are supposed to tell her how amazing this woman sounds and how happy you are for her, but instead you just fall in love.
I fell in love with the power of standing with three thousand people praying shoulder to shoulder on Eid. I fell in love with my phone’s alarm trying to wake me up for Fajr and failing. Like young Muslims all over the world, I fell in love with wanting to do it right. I fell in love with sitting down for coffee with my closest Muslim friend and talking about “Muslims like us”. I fell in love with the softness of the baby blue rug another friend gave me to pray. And, slowly, I’ve fallen madly in love with my Muslim family, my Ummah.
But love is not always enough, and faith does not always come easy. As a queer and trans woman, falling back in love with an Abrahamic religion felt like a stark betrayal to all the friends, family, and mental health I had lost to the church.
This past Ramadan, like the last, I lost a close trans sibling and grappled with whether or not my grief was a good enough reason to break my fast. This Ramadan, as with every Ramadan for the last seven decades, Palestine remained occupied. This Ramadan, like every single one for the last 500 years, black lives were destroyed by the U.S. with callous impunity. And this Ramadan the lives of 49 mostly black and latinx LGBT+ siblings were extinguished. This Ramadan I couldn’t help but ask why all of this is suffering was allowed to happen.
So for me, an able-bodied white Muslim, my Islam means fighting with my voice and body for a world where black Muslims can enjoy Eid without seeing their dead brothers and sisters on every news feed. For me, as a Muslim in the U.S., it means fighting imperialism and the never-ending war around the world. For me as a Muslim socialist, it means fighting capitalism and oppression with solidarity. My Islam is a struggle for justice. My Islam is a struggle for peace.
I don’t go to the mosque much because my Islam doesn’t usually feel calm and organized.
There are times when I need to soak in the sounds of so many worshipers whispering to our God. But often it feels so foreign. It feels like it’s not for me. My life has not been a mosque. My life has not been beautiful or intently kept; it has not been clean or focused on.
My Islam is like my body. My body is not a temple. My body is flawed and scarred. In so many ways, my body is a battlefield. My Islam is a battlefield too.
When I was 26, I went to the mosque for the first time. My friend and I complimented each other so well. She hadn’t been in years; I had never done salat. She pulled me in close so our shoulders touched. It reminded me of the first time I danced salsa, her body leading mine, keeping my time for me.
I spent last Ramadan almost completely alone. I would bring a little sandwich baggie of dates and a bottle of water to a hill overlooking my city and break my fast. I dedicated myself to YouTube, to learning a few surah so I could keep prayer. I wanted so badly to do it right.
This spring, when I was 27, I went to my first queer Muslim event. I prayed in a mixed group, outside in the sun. I don’t always feel fully accepted, in Islam or anywhere else, but here I felt completely at peace.
This Ramadan I dedicated myself to loving my Ummah. I hosted Iftars and made a point to visit queer Muslims whenever and wherever I could. My heart, my home, and my refrigerator, had never been so full. I’m still not sure I’m doing it right, but I am finally starting to feel like I am heading in the right direction.