Guest post by Noor Pervez
The first time I entered a queer space, I was fourteen. I’d lied to my parents about going to an end-of-the-year party at a nearby Dairy Queen, snuck out with a pair of older lesbians, and gone to a nearby church where what is now Gala Youth met twice a month. I came into the small central room with posters and hand-written notes pinned to the walls and stared at a fridge full of snacks (“You’re welcome to anything that’s in it!”). Coming out of the small-town South, this felt alien-warm, lesbian grandmothers welcoming me to a space full of well-meaning, presumably gay or bi young white men.
I sat at a circle of plush chairs, alongside the lesbian grandmothers and three skinny, white cis boys. The grandmothers opened the conversation by discussing updates to LGBT youth life in the area. They talked about events happening in the metroplex related to LGBT matters, and I sat there, curled up into a ball. It was impossible for me, isolated as I was, to relate to these people—so settled, so finite in their identities. Finally, I saw an entry point.
“So, like, I’m talking to this guy, and he says he’s a Christian! I’m not opposed to that, like, at all, it’s just not something I’m used to.” The young man who said this twisted a soda cap between his fingers as he spoke, clearly somewhat uncomfortable. Then, in the smallest voice I think I’ve ever had, I whispered, “I’m a Muslim.”
They stared. “Okay!” one of the elder lesbians said. “We respect that.” I had so much more I wanted to say. There was an overwhelming tide of questions that I had that had been buried for most of my life: “How does God feel about me? Do you worry, too? What about marriage?” I was on the brink of asking when I heard someone say, “How does that work?”
Just like that, I deflated. Somehow, I’d thought that this would be different from every school I’d ever been to, where I’d been made to explain in detail: “Here’s what I believe. No, I’m not a terrorist. Yes, there are people that are ‘modern’ and Muslim. Yes, I am allowed to not wear a hijab.” It felt like the same story, but a billion times worse in a place where, finally, I was expected to be myself, I still had explaining to do. My uncertainty bubbled beneath the surface. How did it work? Did it work? I didn’t know. I honestly didn’t know.
At that age, I had none of the tools of older activists. I lacked the bitterness towards cultural norms upholding Christianity as the only faith, or the understanding that LGBT folks often have fear or trauma associated with religion. Then, I was just a tiny, queer Muslim honors student. So, I just looked at him. I said nothing. They moved on.
This, in a nutshell, is how I am often treated by others within the queer community. There is often a moment of polite awareness from about half the folks I meet, an “Oh, okay! That’s something I didn’t expect, but alright,” followed by the inevitable sting of them asking a question that implies I’m not a part of the community. The other half of the time, it might be in the form of a microaggression (“Oh, are you looking for HOSA? They’re meeting just across the hall”) or a backhanded attempt at support (“That’s cool, Muslims are alright”) or flat out disrespect (“Go to a Muslim-majority country and see how that works out”).
All of these reactions speak to a larger issue within the queer community: We, sans our Muslims, do not know how to treat and be welcoming to Muslims. This is due to a combination of cultural norms and entrenched structures around expected whiteness in the queer community and the expectation that faith is not a part of our identity. While some of the community is indeed white and much of it is indeed estranged from faith, the reality of the thing is that we are diverse enough that we do include people that are not either. In fact, we always have. Some of our greatest historical icons, such as Martha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were black and latino. It’s not fair—nor realistic—to act as though our movement was made just on the backs of white atheists.
Accordingly, in the world post-Orlando, it is time that we embrace our Muslim siblings. Here are some simple tips on how to make queer spaces more inclusive:
Set a Precedent
If you’re leading a queer space or know someone that does, encourage them to be open about trying to keep it intersectional. Have a statement at the beginning of meetings, or the start of the workday around inclusivity. If it’s something like a club, have a statement about tolerance towards people (especially people of faith) on their website or at their door.
In doing so, people have something to point to when people step out of line, including people who are being impacted. For example, in my own LGBT group, we have a statement that basically says that we do not tolerate any form of oppressive behavior and that we have the right to correct it if we see it. When people slip and make Islamophobic comments or microaggressions, this lets me say, “That’s not appropriate here.”
Spread a Good Apology
“I’m sorry for saying X. I understand/do not understand why what I said is wrong. [Since I do not understand, can someone recommend a resource for me to look up later?]”
Go to workshops at conferences, and read up on the basic tenets of Islam. That’s not going to to be everything you’ll ever need, but it’s a good start. Also, remember that allyship is not passive-update your resources at least once a year, and if someone from a minority group says you’re failing, listen and then research why it’s a problem. Little things make a big impact (e.g. not planning a fun run in the middle of Ramadan).
A mircroaggression is any act of unintentional discrimination. Understand that this is never personal—it’s about others and how you treat them. You won’t get far in terms of understanding if you’re just focused on you. If you see this behavior, particularly in a space designated as being LGBT+ friendly, speak up. Understand that this is not always going to be possible and that there are different rules of etiquette in terms of interrupting depending on where you go, but it should not ever be possible in a space designated as being safe for all LGBT+ folks.
Noor is an LGBT+ educator, public speaker and tutor who focuses on intersectionality regarding disability, gender identity, sexuality and religion. He has taught workshops regarding Islam and the LGBT community, as well as disability both at national conferences and locally. He is the president of his campus Rainbow Guard and has organized events around LGBT history across minority intersections (e.g. disabled LGBT history) and around the intersections of being LGBT and other identities (e.g. Being the child of LGBT immigrants). He hopes to build a world where there is peace between communities of faith and the LGBT community.