In June 2016, I was knee-deep in my work on queer Muslims in literature and film when the Orlando shooting took place.
It appeared that the shooter, Omar Mateen, was a Muslim and that he claimed allegiance to ISIS. The initial predictable response was that he was just another Islamic terrorist driven by religious fanaticism.
Later, it transpired that the man himself may have been a regular of the Pulse nightclub. According to Muslim commentators, he drank alcohol and probably had sex with men. He couldn’t be a ‘proper Muslim’.
Here we have the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality that sadly reigns supreme in our society.
When will we be ready to accept that being Muslim and queer is possible? Hopefully when we start recognizing the failings in our communities.
It may come as a surprise to western readers that Islam has a long and complicated relationship with homosexuality. Did you know that 18th-century Ottoman poems by well-liked male poets were often addressed to young men?
And that, in medieval Spain — long before 1967 — Islamic jurists were arguing hard that homosexuality was not deemed a sin in the Qur’an and shouldn’t be legally punished?
There is also a growing tradition of queer Islamic scholars who are reinterpreting the scriptures in a queer-friendly manner. These are facts that many orthodox Muslims don’t want us to know today. Why? Because it goes against conservative Muslims’ heterosexist and masculinist values.
With the end of colonialism throughout the 20th century, Muslims around the world wanted to define themselves in contrast to the West. They saw the West as materialist, exhibitionist, immoral. Again, the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality.
This way of thinking doesn’t take well to people’s difference.
On the other hand, it’s no secret that western LGBT scenes can be inhospitable towards people who look, act, or believe differently.
‘Homophobia isn’t exclusively a Muslim problem’
I remember growing up in Spain as a Catholic, and realizing that I was gay. My mother was already quite lapsed, and whenever the topic of homosexual Catholics and the church cropped up, she used to make the same comment: how can those people want to belong to a community that rejects them?
It’s a common assumption that one’s religion is chosen, whereas sexuality is innate. But one can’t choose the community one is born in, or the cultural and religious values one is brought up with. Also, one may be innately LGB or T, but there is much choice in how that identity is lived out in the world.
For Muslims who are LGBT, then, there is often great conflict in trying to reconcile their sexual orientation and gender identity with their ethnic and religious identity.
It’s hard enough growing up in communities that, at worst, still punish homosexuality, or that, at best, let it happen as long as no-one talks about it.
Life quickly becomes complicated for queer Muslims. At the moment they are supposed to become liberated, they often find out they need to reject their religion and their culture if they are to be accepted in the LGBT community.
There is an innate suspicion of religion in queer communities, and understandably so. Most world religions have a dark record regarding their treatment of homosexuals. But Muslims are particularly singled out in our Islamophobic times.
What we need to remember is that homophobia isn’t exclusively a Muslim problem. There is still much homophobia in our allegedly liberal western societies, even despite our newly acquired civil rights.
Queer Muslims are the objects of racism, homophobia, and Islamophobia. They are made to suffer for being LGBT and Muslim. How long till we allow them to be just who they are? We owe it to them, and to the 49 victims of the Orlando shooting, to begin building bridges in an age of walls.
Dr Alberto Fernandez Carbajal works at the School of Arts at the University of Leicester, UK. He is organizing a free, one-day event on Islamophobia and Homophobia at the University of Leicester on 20 May 2017. It will feature scholars, artists and activists amongst its speakers. For info and registration, follow this link: le.ac.uk/diasporas-2017