In Striving Toward Solidarity, Muslim and LGBT Communities Need to Prioritize LGBT Muslims

Last week should have been a joyous occasion for Muslims: Thousands of Muslims came together for the annual Islamic Society of North America conference in Chicago. For LGBT Muslims like me, however, it was yet another painful reminder of how excluded we are. Organizers requested, on religious grounds, that Muslims for Progressive Values, which advocates for LGBT Muslims, leave the exhibition area. Once again, LGBT Muslims like me were caught in a double bind: marginalized by mainstream America, including the LGBT community, a number of whom seem to equate Muslims with terrorists, and at the same time, rejected by the Muslim community for our sexual orientation and gender identity. We are told that one of our identities is a threat to the other. This double rejection is both heartbreaking and dangerous in a cultural climate when LGBT and Muslim groups must work together to protect the human rights of us all. 

For hundreds of years, Muslims have been vilified for political gain. The British colonization of South Asia and their divide and conquer strategy led to the hurried and violent carving of several nations including the creation of Pakistan, where I was born. For the next five decades, in Western politics and culture, Muslims were consistently portrayed as sinister and violent. And September 11, 2001, brought this rhetoric to a crisis point. I was flying that day: As my mother frantically awaited word of my safety, she received no sympathy from her colleagues at the childcare center where she works. Rather, they asked “why are your people doing this?”

At the same time, LGBT people have been rejected and persecuted just as long as Muslims—perhaps longer. I can never forget the day I learned that the shooter who killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando was Muslim. The event shattered my LGBT friends; the fact that he was Muslim threatened to further exacerbate the divide within my communities.

In the past year, the far right, including the Trump administration, has attempted to exploit this divide. They have promoted an insidious false narrative that Muslims are a danger to women and LGBT individuals. For instance, while on the campaign trail, Trump advocated for the Muslim ban as a response to the Pulse tragedy and said that "It’s an assault on the ability of free people to live their lives, love who they want, and express their identity.”

This hypocritical call for support of freedom for LGBT people directly contracts a long list of actions by the administration to end abortion access, limit birth control access, and promote discrimination against LGBT people in schools and communities. This administration has rescinded protections for transgender students and children; it has included C-FAM, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated an anti-LGBT hate group, as part of the official U.S. delegation to the Untied Nation’s commission on the Status of WomenUnder the guise of “religious liberty,” it has eased restrictions on religious groups around engaging in political activities; and it has eased restrictions on employers in limiting employee’s access to contraception. Most recently Trump appointed anti –transgender activist  Bethany Kozma as the senior adviser for women's empowerment at USAID. 

With horror, LGBT Muslims have seen some of our fellow LGBT people fall into the trap.  On the right, Milo Yiannopoulos, a gay man with a huge social media, built his career promoting hate speech against Muslims. Even on the left, Barney Frank joined in the collective blaming of all Muslims for crimes committed by one individual after the Orlando. 

LGBT Muslims responded to the Pulse tragedy by showing up like never before. We spoke to the press, even though some of us were not yet out of the closet; we attended meetings with Muslim communities, despite fears of not being accepted. We told our stories wherever we could, to remind people that LGBT Muslims exist and that we experience no dissonance in being both. But the expulsion of the pro-LGBT Muslim group from the conference last week proves that this testimony needs to continue.

Today, the bravest thing we can do as LGBT Muslims is to continue to come forward with our stories. We live the full breadth of the LGBT Muslim experience. We know the specter of divide and conquer too well to fall into the divide and conquer traps. By speaking of our experience, we can address the current political climate in an intersectional way.

A year after the Pulse tragedy, I am heartened by the LGBT Muslim community’s efforts to push back against the Trump Administration’s bigotry. I have been heartened by LGBT Muslims from Bishkek to Oslo cheering us on. LGBT rights groups and Muslim rights groups must connect with these networks and be proactive in building spaces on the national and local levels to educate both the mainstream LGBT and Muslim communities against bigotry and intolerance. Now is the time for LGBT rights groups and Muslim rights groups to stand up for LGBT Muslim. With courage and bravery, we need to unite against this threat to all of our rights, and indeed, our very lives.

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