International Business Times – June 16, 2016

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By Elizabeth Whitman

The Twitter account Garrett Fugate created under the pseudonym Hanif Kiriakos in September 2012 gave him the chance to finally speak freely and openly about his frustrations. Reassured by an online safe haven that included Muslims like him, Fugate, then a 24-year-old college student, began the process, little by little, of coming out as gay.

First, Fugate told his local lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) group. Next, he told his family, whose members were very accepting. And then, he told his roommate. A year passed before he had the hardest conversation of all, with his close-knit group of Muslim friends. The news spread with shocking speed through the local mosque in Lawrence, Kansas, where he lived. Soon, some members responded with stony silences when Fugate offered the standard Islamic greeting of peace, “Assalamu alaikum.”

Fugate’s experiences and those of other LGBTQ Muslims were catapulted into the public spotlight this week after reports that Omar Mateen, an American Muslim who allegedly killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Sunday, might have been gay himself. Prompted by one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history, this sudden scrutiny both bolsters and imperils recent, painstaking progress by LGBTQ Muslims to gain recognition and acceptance by their communities and the broader American public.

“Right now, we’re at this very difficult and painful nexus in American and global history,” said Raquel Evita Saraswati, an American and Muslim on the steering committee of the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD). Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., LGBTQ Muslims have found themselves grappling with thorny questions of political identity, instead of focusing primarily on shoring up emotional or theological support for their community while countering anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ bigotry, Saraswati said.

With the mass shooting in Orlando, “now you have a terrorist to talk about,” Saraswati said.

The motives of Mateen, the alleged shooter who was slain by police, are unclear, but, in the midst of the carnage, he called 911 and declared his allegiance to the Islamic State group, as he also reportedly did in a Facebook message posted before the rampage got under way. Meanwhile, Mateen’s father suggested that hatred of gays inspired the attack, even though Mateen himself may have been gay or bisexual.

The mass shooting highlighted how, in a country where homophobia is alive and well — almost 21 percentof about 6,000 hate crimes in 2013 were associated with sexual orientation — the LGBTQ community remains a target. And the religion of the alleged killer left Muslims once again defending their faith from being painted as the source of such violent extremism, even while fearing potential backlash.

In the U.S., to be either LGBTQ or Muslim is to be a member of a minority group that regularly faces discrimination. To be both is to exist even further on the margins.

“I’ve actually never met an openly gay Muslim,” said Jim Sues, executive director of the New Jersey branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Many Muslim societies reject homosexuality for reasons of culture, religion or both, even though the question about what Islam actually says about homosexuality has no single answer. With the Sunni sect alone having four schools of jurisprudence, Islam is not monolithic, and even the term homosexuality encompasses a spectrum of behaviors, feelings and identities. Still, those who identify as queer risk being shunned by families or communities that hold on to traditional views, including those in the U.S.

In response, various organizations have striven for decades to foster solidarity and support among LGBTQ Muslims.

For example, the Lavender Crescent Society served queer Muslims in San Francisco in the late 1970s. Al-Fatiha Foundation originated as a listserv in 1997, but quickly blossomed into a full-fledged support group, hosting events and providing other resources to LGBTQ Muslims. It disbanded in 2008, but not before amassing 800 members across four countries.

In 2013, MASGD took up Al-Fatiha’s national mantle. Every May, it holds a retreat in the Philadelphia area, at a location that it does not publicize for security reasons. Meanwhile, local groups such as the Queer Muslims of Boston organize gatherings, prayers and readings, as well as iftars, meals to break the Ramadan fast.

By now, these groups have learned to operate carefully, out of caution not just for personal security but also to protect members who otherwise remain closeted.

With so much at stake, the locations of events for LGBTQ Muslims are frequently kept under wraps, Saraswati said. When Al-Fatiha hosted a retreat about a decade ago, she recalled, some attendees were afraid that the event was not initiated by other LGBTQ Muslims, but in fact by extremists bent on killing them.

Such fears were not unfounded. In 2000, the group almost canceled a retreat in London after a conservative Muslim group issued a threat.

But at the most recent MASGD retreat in May, attendees felt safe, as if they knew they were with family, Saraswati said, adding, “That’s a pretty remarkable shift.”

The internet has been central to these precious gains, from the early years of the Al-Fatiha listserv to the current private Facebook groups and other online initiatives, such as a Tumblr showcasing photographs of queer Muslims.

“A lot of the support networks for me — and a lot of queer Muslims — are online. That’s how a lot of us find each other,” said Fugate, who is now 28 and seeking a doctorate in Islamic studies at Boston University. “So many of us are closeted in our own communities,” he said.

However, the massacre Sunday shone a light on this community that has long hidden in plain sight. This invisibility has served to protect its members, but it does not necessarily help facilitate recognition or foster tolerance and acceptance.“I’ve actually never met an openly gay Muslim,” said Jim Sues, executive director of the New Jersey branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group.

As Fawzia Mirza, a child of Pakistani parents, explained it, “You have never met a queer Muslim — that you know of.”

When Mirza was first grappling with reconciling her identities as a queer Muslim, she initially felt she would have to sacrifice one or the other. “They don’t always necessarily play nice with each other,” she said of being LGBTQ and Muslim.

For her and for others, the fear of stigma and rejection can inhibit a willingness to come out to family, friends and the Muslim community at large. But Mirza also encountered questions from the broader LGBTQ community and sensed that there, too, she was different.

“When I was first going to gay bars, people wanted to know where my name was from, what it meant,” Mirza said. “So many people in the gay community had never met a gay Pakistani or a gay Muslim before.”

Mirza, an actor, producer and writer in Chicago whose work very publicly tackles very private questions of identity, eventually came out to her mother through the Google instant-messaging service some call Gchat.

She was fresh out of a breakup, sitting in an airport and feeling wretchedly alone and sad. So she told her mother about the relationship. “You’re so broken, and you just want unconditional love,” Mirza said, describing herself.

Her mother was shocked, Mirza recalled. For a while, they stopped talking. Even after many years and conversations, they still don’t see eye to eye — what mothers and daughters do? Mirza asked — although now they speak regularly, and Mirza said she is “living openly and authentically in a way I feel very good about.”

Fugate, at Boston University, said he felt privileged because, as a convert to Islam, he did not have family ties to one particular mosque or Muslim community. Yet since moving from Lawrence to Boston last year, he has kept quiet about his sexuality, at least at his local mosque.

“It’s like a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy,” he said. After he came out in Kansas, he lost the Muslim community there. In Massachusetts, he was not so much afraid that he would be ostracized. Rather, he was focused on being part of the other community of other queer Muslims he has worked so hard to find, online and off.

As a student, Fugate focuses on gender issues and sexuality in Islam, a religion built on centuries of scholarly interpretation and reinterpretation of the Quran and other texts. He mentioned at least one modern-day scholar who has already begun tackling theological questions about homosexuality’s place in Islam.

For Fugate, such study fuels hopes that perceived conflicts between being gay and Muslim might someday be fully reconciled.

“Sometimes, I feel like it’s a contradiction. In other ways, I don’t,” he said, before repeating, quietly, “It’s just who I am.”

The Root – June 13, 2016

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By Allison Keyes

“All I could do was cry,” says Sadiya Abjani. “Cry for my dead community members, cry for the future of my Muslim community, cry for my friends and chosen family who are about to live the next few months constantly looking over their shoulders.”

Abjani, a queer Ismaili Muslim in New York, is describing her reaction when she heard about the shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., that left 49 people dead. The shooter, Omar Mateen, 29, had been twice investigated by the FBI before carrying out the worst mass shooting in American history. He pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State group in a 911 call before opening fire at the Pulse club, killing 49 people and wounding 53.

Abjani says she woke up at 6 in the morning on Sunday, saw that her phone had 23 messages on it and then thought how such a horrific act shouldn’t be happening during Gay Pride Month.

“This was quickly followed by a very selfish thought. I really hoped the killer wasn’t Muslim. Then it turned out he was, and my ability to function crumbled for about 30 minutes,” Abjani writes in an email to The Root. Now she worries and prays that her community is spared from the hate she believes is headed its way.

“Our community is hurt and scared, and still struggling to process,” Abjani says. “A majority of us are queer and trans people of color. That could have been any one of us in that club. But in the same breath we take to mourn our lost queer family, we’re scared for the backlash that’s about to come.”

Abjani was chair of programming for the 2016 Retreat for LGBTQ Muslims and their partners, held at the end of May in Philadelphia. There was a major backlash against the Muslim community in New York City and many other cities around the nation in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. She says that though the imams in New York have been supportive in the wake of this tragedy, as a recent New Yorker who has lived in both Washington, D.C., and Texas, she felt safer in the Lone Star State than she does in the Big Apple.

“Whenever one of Hijabi Muslim sisters is on a train platform, even if I don’t know her and have never met her before, I’ll stand close to her, because I’ve seen and heard the hate that gets tossed at openly identifiable Muslims,” Abjani says, referring to Muslim women who wear hijab, or a Muslim headscarf. “At the mayor’s office vigil for Orlando, someone walked by screaming, ‘Arrest all the Muslims, get rid of them; that’ll solve the problem.’”

Abjani is on the steering committee for the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity, which was among several Muslim advocacy groups that put out statements denouncing the attack and the shooter. The Council on American-Islamic Relations held a press conference Sunday to condemn the shooting, saying it “violates our principles as Americans and Muslims.” The Los Angeles-based Muslims for Progressive Values issued a statement calling on imams across the country to address the mass shooting in Orlando at their upcoming Friday sermon during this holy month of Ramadan.

‘While we understand that every community struggles with homophobia, today it is abundantly clear why the American Muslim community needs to address homophobia in our community and institutions,” MPV’s statement reads. “We must challenge divisive interpretations of Islam that may encourage those like the gunman in Orlando.”

Raquel Evita Saraswati, also on the steering committee for MASGD, says many in the Muslim LGBTQ community are dealing with the effects of both anti-Muslim bigotry and homophobia, both inside and outside of the faith community.

“Still others are dealing with sectarianism, oppression due to their dissent with mainstream interpretations of the faith, colorism, anti-blackness, transphobia and more,” Saraswati says in an email to The Root. “We are not single-issue people, and those burdens are heavy.”

Saraswati identifies as an American Muslim and says many in the LGBTQ Muslim community find themselves in a painful and contentious nexus of this tragedy: “Members of our community were slaughtered in cold blood by a person who proclaimed our faith. This act of terror occurred during the holy month of Ramadan, when it is said the ‘devil is in chains.’ As we saw this past weekend, though, evil knows no restraint.”

She notes that Mateen also carried out this evil act at a time when LGBTQ people are most open about their identities because it is Gay Pride Month. Saraswati adds that the shooter fits a profile that’s been seen before, i.e., a person with a history of violence against women who has been permitted to roam freely, a person who is known not to be especially religious but becomes radicalized “by those who promise salvation through misogyny, hate and violence.”

President Barack Obama spoke out in support of the LGBTQ community in statements following the attack, but Saraswati says she is unimpressed.

“While President Obama and other politicians have said some of the right things, the fact remains that our government, including both major political parties, continues to ally and exchange favors with the very theocrats and fascists responsible for censorship, criminalization, repression, torture and murder of my people,” she says.

Saraswati says that many in the LGBTQ Muslim community are afraid, though she thinks that fear is exactly what terrorists seek to instill in people.

“They wish to strike fear into our hearts, fix a muzzle over our mouths and to tell us that we have no sanctuaries,” Saraswati says. “We must fight this with every cell in our bodies, and every breath in our lungs.”


Allison Keyes is an award-winning correspondent, host and author. She can be heard on CBS Radio News and WTOP News Radio, among other outlets. Keyes, a former national desk reporter for NPR, has written extensively on race, culture, politics and the arts.