In the days of the Trumpian order, American LGBT Muslims, a minority within minorities, find themselves especially vulnerable to the forces of racism, homophobia, and Islamophobia. As a member of this minority community myself, I can say that the burgeoning manifestations of these forms of hatred—from threats of lynching to incinerated Pride flags to vandalized mosques—have increased our anxiety about our future in American society. One minority advocacy group, however, is challenging the bigotry head on.
Born of a harrowing search for cultural and political identity, the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD) remains the only formally established LGBT Muslim organization in the country. The group emerged in January 2013 from the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Creating Change Conference, which has sought to advance the cause of “full freedom, justice, and equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people in the United States” for nearly three decades. This national annual conference has helped foster a network of support for a movement that has been marginalized both by the mainstream American Muslim and LGBT communities. In a social landscape largely barren of intersectionality, LGBT Muslims struggled throughout the 1990s and 2000s to assume the form of a robust, cohesive political organization advocating on behalf of LGBT Muslims nationwide, their voices ignored both by their Muslim brethren and their queer peers.
MASGD has dedicated itself to amplifying just those voices by centering the concerns and goals of LGBT Muslims. Its principal objectives are to offer queer Muslims a safe space for connecting with one another, tackling the “root causes of oppression, including misogyny and xenophobia,” promoting greater acceptance of sexual and gender diversity, and helping build a practice of Islam grounded in “inclusion, justice, and equality.”
The organization’s resistance to the twin evils of anti-gay sentiment and racialized anti-Muslim bigotry has at once preceded and been magnified by the November 2016 election. LGBT Muslims have focused mainly on domestic challenges, aiming to capitalize on a new mode of grassroots intersectional politics galvanized by visionaries like Bernie Sanders and the leadership of coalitions like Black Lives Matter, Fight for $15, and Rise and Resist. Yet they see that events on the global stage, in educational institutions, and in private spaces consecrated to spiritual healing are vying for their attention—all at once.
Immediately after the June 2016 Orlando massacre, MASGD was inundated with requests for televised interviews and written commentary, catapulting the group from obscurity to visibility on mainstream media networks. The recent torture, kidnapping, and murder of allegedly gay men in Chechnya has raised the possibility of similar requests from the media, even though it’s yet to be determined precisely what role (if any) Islam has to play in Chechen state violence or honor killings. But MASGD refrains from issuing broad theological statements, and can’t mobilize activists five thousand miles away. So its relationships and resources must be carefully deployed in the service of local movement-building.
It is at home, for instance, that the organization has excoriated the Trump administration for rescinding protections for transgender students and children, thereby endangering their lives and creating a violently transphobic political culture. In the same vein, LGBT Muslims are fully conscious of the injurious effects of Trump’s Islamophobic rhetoric and policies. Even non-LGBT Muslims are feeling more traumatized and depressed than before the presidential campaign, and have been visiting Muslim counseling centers for specialized psychotherapy in greater numbers.
Far from being an abstract term, intersectionality is necessary for the very survival of minority communities.
Above all, though, it’s MASGD’s own community who must take priority, and that entails strengthening LGBT Muslims’ bonds with other progressive movements who seek justice and equality for all Americans. The group is fiscally sponsored by the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA), and received a grant last month from the Contigo Fund, an effort started after the Orlando shooting to bring the Latinx and LGBT communities together in the fight for what MASGD describes as “collective liberation” and against “intersectional oppression.” In other words, joining hands with their supporters, LGBT Muslims are to combat the myriad political and economic dimensions of minority oppression rather than limit themselves to opposing homophobia and Islamophobia. Far from being an abstract term, intersectionality is necessary for the very survival of minority communities. As MASGD puts it, “none of us are free until all of us are free.”
To get a sense of what motivates MASGD’s activism, particularly in the current political atmosphere, I interviewed four pioneers of the American LGBT Muslim movement: Faisal Alam, Urooj Arshad, Raquel E. Saraswati, and Tynan Power. These leaders are members of MASGD’s Steering Committee, and were gracious enough to discuss with me their apprehensions, hopes, and concrete efforts as activists encountering popular suspicion, state-sanctioned persecution, and prejudiced legislation on a new scale.
As an American LGBT Muslim—under attack both for being queer and for being Muslim—what is your greatest fear right now? How are you managing this fear?
Faisal: My greatest fear is that the political right in this country have elected someone who is, one by one, installing the most extreme xenophobes, anti-LGBT, Islamophobic, anti-choice, anti-immigrant people imaginable. All of a sudden the very people we have feared are in positions of power and they will begin to enact policies that will be felt for generations to come.
Urooj: My greatest fear is the safety of my family. My mom and brother live in the Chicago suburbs. My mom has already experienced a lot of discrimination, especially as a Muslim immigrant woman with a heavy Pakistani accent. My brother’s name is Ali Mohammad and he drives [for] Lyft and I constantly worry that an anti-Muslim bigoted person will get in the car. I am managing by trying to remind myself that this is for the long haul and that I should continue to focus on the everyday joy. I recently moved in with my partner, and building a home with them feels like a small act of revolution. And we just got a [dog] as well, and dogs are very good about forcing us to be in the moment and to enjoy life to its fullest every day!
Raquel: There are certainly many things to be concerned about in today’s political reality. However, the things that trouble us today are the continuation of the very same things that plagued our society during the Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush senior, Reagan administrations, and beyond. Racism is not new. Misogyny is not new. Xenophobia is not new. Our government’s continued alliances with fascists and theocrats? Not new. The things marginalized people are fighting today are frightening because their consequences are in our present and we can foresee further harm—but we must remember our past. I have spent a lot of time since November talking with people who grew up during segregation and what Douglas Blackmon called neo-slavery—you may know it as the Jim Crow era. People have been frightened for years, but they marched, wrote, spoke, acted, and fought back against immense evil. Around the world, demanding that girls and women have bodily autonomy is a controversial act. Still others are jailed or worse for choosing to leave their faith. I’m not as frightened as I am aware of how these oppressions are connected, always have been, and will remain unless [we] challenge them at their root. The reality is that while I experience marginalization, I have privileges and resources many don’t have. Rather than managing fear, I am working on managing the amount of toxic news I am taking in, focusing heavily on growing my personal strength, faith, and connections to those I love so that I can continue—and be better in—my work.
Tynan: As a transgender American Muslim, I’m acutely aware that the Trump administration has put forward both anti-Muslim and anti-trans rhetoric and policies. Beyond actual policy changes, the impact of the rhetoric seems to be that individuals and hate groups feel emboldened to express and act on their hostility toward Muslims, immigrants, queer people, trans people, and anyone who seems “different.” In the current climate, I feel that I’m facing increased scrutiny and possible hostility, both from official sources and from members of the public. I’m very concerned about air travel, in particular, both for myself and my family. As a trans person, I already experience a great deal of scrutiny passing through airport security, routinely enduring invasive pat-downs and questions about my body and clothing. It is not always apparent to TSA that I am also Muslim, but if it is known then those questions could take a much darker turn. One of my children is also queer-identified and travels frequently to a Muslim-majority country. After hearing of cases of American citizens, like Muhammad Ali, Jr., being detained and questioned while traveling both internationally and within the U.S., I’m very worried about my son’s upcoming travel. I’m also very concerned about changes the Trump administration may make to healthcare policy, [as] transgender identities are often medicalized and require both physical and mental healthcare during and after transition. Like many trans people, my response to Trump’s election has been to do everything in my power to make sure my identity documents (such as passport and driver’s license) are in order, with correct gender markers, and that upcoming healthcare needs are addressed sooner rather than later. Although these concerns may not seem directly related to being Muslim, in a climate of hostility toward Muslims, the dangers of traveling (or even driving) with ID that has an incorrect gender marker become much greater. Similarly, having access to medical care that is both trans-informed and culturally competent regarding Muslim patients becomes paramount as healthcare becomes less certain.
In spite of these worries and challenges, are you optimistic about your resistance to Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and racism? If so, what do you think justifies that optimism given that every day we seem to see more and more terrible news?
Faisal: I am optimistic, but also realistic. These [political] forces have been brewing and building for several decades … The policies we are seeing [coming] to fruition aren’t just randomly thought up. Conservative think tanks and other right-wing institutions have been preparing for this moment and their dreams are now coming true. So these are opportunities for reflection, but also action. What coalitions have we built up that we can now call upon? What allies do we have in other social justice movements that we can now work together with? In the next few months and years, we will see strange bedfellows. Environmentalists working with the Black Lives Matter movement. LGBT people working with the fair wage and labor movement. This is a political and historical moment that calls on all of us to unite [at] multiple points of intersection to counter one force of power that wants to see all of us doomed.
Urooj: I am not super optimistic about the state’s ability to not go to war with people that I love, here and abroad. In that way, I am not super optimistic, but I am optimistic about the resilience of my people. I am optimistic because we have a long history of resistance and we have created a beautiful space as LGBT Muslims that supports and cares for those who have been rejected by all sides. How can I not have faith in this kind of love?
Raquel: I am always optimistic about resistance! There is no change without it, no progress without it, and indeed there is no hope without it. Nothing has ever changed for the better without courageous and inconvenient resistance; courageous and inconvenient resistance always changes things—even if that change is slow. As a Muslim, I draw great strength from my faith, which commands me to resist oppression, speak against injustice, and live as an example of God’s mercy and compassion—even [when] doing so is inconvenient, scary, isolating, and difficult.
Tynan: I am cautiously optimistic about resistance over the long haul, but less so in the short term. I do not believe that the United States of the 22nd century will be a nation in which white supremacy, Islamophobia, homophobia, and transphobia are the norm. I think the current climate is, in part, a reaction to the progress that was made in the previous eight years. Whether we bounce back quickly, in a counterreaction to the hate and hostility of the current period, will depend on two things: the success of an enduring resistance and avoidance of diplomatic and environmental catastrophe in the meantime. It is encouraging to see that the resistance is not monolithic. This isn’t just one interest group or ideology. It isn’t just a resistance of the left, or of women, or of people of color, or of religious minorities. It’s a resistance of people across a wide range of political ideologies and personal backgrounds. The challenge is for the various groups who feel something precious is at stake to begin to work together in meaningful and ongoing ways, despite significant differences.
Right now, as an LGBT Muslim activist, I feel like I’m being pulled into a million directions.
I think “cautiously optimistic” accurately illustrates what many LGBT Muslims are feeling right now. What kind of plan has your organization got to resist the Trump administration and Republican-dominated Congress, which have enabled the rising tide of bigotry in this country?
Faisal: The Orlando massacre and the Muslim communities’ reaction in swiftly condemning the attacker and visibly calling for support of LGBT people was a moment that we have not seen before. This moment offers us—as LGBT Muslims—an opportunity to begin dialogues around support and acceptance of LGBT Muslims within the larger Muslim community. MASGD will soon be starting a “Muslim Community Engagement Project” that seeks to build alliances and coalitions with Muslim civic and religious leaders. LGBT Muslims have more allies within the larger Muslim community than we realize. Unfortunately, much of this support is not visible or public. This project’s goal is to identify these Muslim leaders and convene a meeting to discuss challenges and opportunities for them in the hopes that they will begin to openly welcome, support and eventually accept LGBT Muslims in their communities. In addition to this project, we will continue to speak out against the Trump doctrine and we stand with other marginalized communities who are being impacted by the Trump tyranny.
Urooj: Right now, as an LGBT Muslim activist, I feel like I am being pulled into a million directions. Everyone wants the “Muslim” perspective to whatever it is that they are organizing and that can be exhausting. So proactive planning has been a bit difficult, but the plan is to continue to resist the tropes that pit LGBT people against Muslims. We have known about how the right wing has used our identities as a wedge issue, been learning from our European friends who have been resisting the rise of “homonationalism” and “gendered Islamophobia” perpetrated by the right-wing populist movement intent [on demonizing] Muslims by pitting LGBT rights against Islam for much longer. And now we are seeing this fringe rhetoric become part of the mainstream here in the U.S. as well. We will continue to build alliances with the mainstream Muslim and the mainstream LGBT organizations to make sure that they are centering the needs of LGBT Muslims and that they are ready for what is to come, a further co-option of LGBT issues to advance anti-Muslim bigotry. And of course we will continue to build spaces where LGBT Muslims are able to connect and rejuvenate in the midst of this new onslaught against their lives.
Raquel: It is important to be very clear: the bigotry we see reaching a fever pitch was not caused by the election of Donald J. Trump. While some hateful individuals certainly feel emboldened by him, they didn’t wake up racist, homophobic, anti-Muslim, and all other flavors of ugly on November 9. Any belief in the narrative of “spontaneous post-election racism” is part of why he won in the first place—and why, frankly, the Democratic Party wasn’t able to produce a meaningfully progressive candidate. The election, its outcome, and subsequent events come as no surprise to many of us who have been working on issues relevant to girls and women, Muslims, LGBTQ2SIA people, and other marginalized groups. I and others will continue the resistance we have been engaged in for years, combating hatred at its roots: misogyny, xenophobia, racism, and the dangerous, murderous alliances between politicians, fascists, and theocrats. We will do so while remembering to remain empathetic and deeply loving—of ourselves, our communities, and even many of our critics. Right now, it feels very important to focus on healing as part of resistance, and to remember that our outrage is nothing—and will produce nothing—without acts of resilient love.
Tynan: As an activist in the LGBT Muslim community, I’m witnessing an unparalleled level of cooperation among activist and advocacy groups. Rather than remaining siloed as a special interest group, we’re taking steps to support and collaborate with organizations that share our values, such as those working for racial justice, economic justice, and immigrant rights. Ultimately, we cannot shift politics or popular opinion alone. We can only change the tide by joining with others.