Coming Out Twice: Sexuality and Gender in Islam

As scholar Scott Kugle knows well, to be both Muslim and gay means the possibility of having to “come out twice”—with the likely chance of encountering either homophobia or Islamophobia (or both), depending on the context.

But in recent years, a new discussion of Islam and sexuality has emerged, led in large part by professor Kugle, who teaches South Asian and Islamic Studies at Emory University. Having written many books on Islam, including Homosexuality in Islam: Islamic Reflection on Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Muslims (2010), he is currently working on a collection entitled Voices of Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Muslim Activists (forthcoming in 2012, NYU Press). 

Susan Henking: As you know, when Gary David Comstock and I published Que(e)rying Religion: A Critical Anthology in 1997 it was not easy to find material on Islam and homosexuality, so I was thrilled to learn of your work. What do you think explains the shift?

Scott Kugle: The field of Islamic Studies has changed drastically over the past two decades, and new conditions within this field of study have made it easier to do research and write about homosexuality and transgender behavior in Islam. I’m speaking of the United States academy here, but similar things were happening in the global network of university inquiry.

Islamic Studies used to happen under the rubric of “Orientalist Studies” which was mainly philological and text-based, and was carefully sealed off from wider currents of cultural criticism. But in the 1980s, scholars began to take Islamic Studies out of this narrow field and merge it more with Religious Studies, connected to wider intellectual trends like feminism, interfaith dialogue, and progressive political analysis.  In the 1990s, this yielded a new intellectual climate. Mature scholars trained in Islamic Studies and textual traditions began to make bolder inquiries, and homosexuality was no longer considered a taboo subject; so for instance we see the books and articles of Everett Rowson (such as “The Effeminates of Medina” which you published in Que(e)rying Religion) who is a scholar of Arabic literature and Middle Eastern Studies. 

At the same time, a younger generation of graduate students were coming of age, pursuing research in a climate in which inquiry into sexuality and gender was no longer seen as risqué. In this younger generation were also an increasing number of Muslim students (from Muslim family backgrounds and also from convert backgrounds) who brought Islamic Studies into closer dialogue with Religious Studies and began to question the divide between “studying religion” and “living religion.”  

That said, it was really non-Muslim scholars who broke open the field. I remember the thrill of buying the book Islamic Homosexualities edited by Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe in 1996, when I was a graduate student at Duke University and had recently accepted Islam. It was the first book that addressed the topic, though admittedly it was from an anthropological perspective that showed great naiveté and even ignorance about Islam as a religious tradition. Still, it existed between two covers! It opened the doors, and invited others to begin publishing… as much to correct its misperceptions as to emulate its boldness. Then J. W. Wright and Everett Rowson’s edited collection Homoeroticism in Classical Arabic Literature (1997) showed how much literature in Arabic addressed questions of same-sex attraction, if only researchers would open their eyes to it. Yehuda Schofer and Arno Schmitt also contributed to this dialogue.

What was missing was a more intimate engagement with the religious tradition of Islam. This came with feminist Muslim scholars. They provided the techniques of skeptically critical yet faithfully engaged scholarship that nurtured a next generation of scholars. There was the cautiously secular approach of Leila Ahmed and the audaciously zealous approach of Amina Wadud; both styles of feminism provided tools and perspectives for sexuality-sensitive scholars to appraise the religious tradition of Islam from within.  

So, Homosexuality in Islam was published in 2010. Beyond what you’ve already described, what inspired you to write it?

That book was a long time in the writing. The process actually began in 2002. After 9/11 a group of scholar-activists came together to discuss our reactions to the attacks and the patriotic chauvinism that followed it in the USA. We were mainly Muslim scholars who worked together through the American Academy of Religion. Omid Safi suggested that we each contribute an essay to a book entitled Progressive Muslims: on Gender, Justice and Pluralism (2003) in order to publish our stance (political, cultural and theological) as progressive Muslims. For that volume, I decided to write an essay on homosexuality in Islam.

I was frankly afraid of doing it, being uncertain of what its ramifications would be for my position as a young professor without tenure, and as a Muslim convert in Islamic communities in North America who were by and large not open to acknowledging homosexual women and men in their midst. But the enormity of the 9/11 crimes and the pressures that Muslim communities in the USA were placed under after this convinced me to put aside self-centered concerns and write for the greater good. We all felt that “extremists and reactionaries” had hijacked Islam, and that we needed to speak boldly (and write furiously) to do our part—however small it might be—to take Islam back. 

In that essay, I was basically “coming out” twice. I was coming out as a Muslim believer to my Academic colleagues. I was coming out as a gay man to my Muslim fellows. Neither position was very comfortable. So to do both at once was very foolish. Yet, I never regret it.

That book was a great success. It was widely discussed, and we were surprised that it galvanized the support of a wide spectrum of Muslims who had been largely silent. After that, many progressive-minded Muslims (within the academy and beyond) began to speak up with new boldness.  But many mainstream Muslim groups expressed discomfort (often in the form of keeping silent) about my contribution, entitled “Sexuality, Diversity and Ethics in the Agenda of Progressive Muslims.” There were offers to publish translations of the book in Arabic or Turkish… if only my chapter was left out. To the great credit of the editor and publisher, these compromises were not made. The book today exists only in English, but my chapter is in an integral part of it, and stands unrepudiated, even if unpopular.   

At the same time, I became involved in a community-based support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, and questioning Muslims. This support group for LGBTIQ Muslims was called Al-Fatiha Foundation and it organized yearly conferences and retreats. Through it, I met other scholars and activists who were thinking along the same lines as myself. I discovered that I was not thinking alone! There was a collective effort, and many of us were advancing similar interpretations of Qur’anic scripture to create a “gay-affirming” interpretation of Islam.

That initial essay of 2003 did attract criticism from other Muslim scholars. I was called a Mu`tazili, a brand of rationalist theologians in early medieval Islam who were branded as heretics. I took that as a compliment, but also as a misreading of my stance. I found that there was an on-line boycott (among some Muslim groups) of my books, even those which did not deal with homosexuality at all!      

These critiques incited me to write more, based on deeper theological research. By 2003, I had decided to seek help to enable me to do this. I applied for a research fellowship at the Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World in the Netherlands. They generously gave me a two-year fellowship. So in 2004, I left my teaching position at Swarthmore College, which I dearly loved, and moved to the Netherlands to pursue two years of research and writing. I was determined to produce a full book that would include a study of hadith and also Islamic law and ethics. Homosexuality in Islam was published only in 2010, but it was written during that two-year period, from 2004-6.    

That grant allowed me to also interview activists who are LGBTIQ Muslims in South Africa, the Netherlands, Britain, USA and Canada. I am now preparing a book that features their interviews, to show both the variety of activist activities they engage in and the common issues that they face. That book will be published soon by NYU Press and will be entitled Voices of Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Muslim Activists.  

I know you have already commented a bit on this, but can you say more about what sorts of reactions do you get within Muslim circles? From LGBT groups or people? From Muslim LGBT people and groups? 

I have to admit that my perspective on reactions to the book is skewed. I only hear from those who read it and had positive reactions! Those who have negative reactions either don’t want to buy it, don’t care to read it, or have decided that silence is the more effective strategy to suppress its ideas. 

Yet I am overwhelmed by the positive reactions that I hear. Many people write to me by internet to say that reading the book has saved their lives. This is the ultimate compliment, and may God bless them and me! To offer someone information and through that information they are touched with compassion, that is the ultimate reward. So many people are alienated from family and community (and even from God) that they consider suicide or fall into depression. If my book can offer them a way out of this deadly cycle, then it is a great success and I am satisfied. As the Qur’an says, “If you save the life of one person it is as if you saved all of humanity…”   

Other Muslim readers have written to me saying that they are using the book to argue with their families, to present an alternative view. If the book can provide them with information and arguments to open a dialogue with their parents and elders, then it is a success. But some Muslim readers have responded that the book is too conservative; they see it as obsessed with dialogue with the tradition, Islamic law, and conservative interpretations, a dialogue which can never bear fruit. I understand their impatience, but still I feel an attempt must be made to explore the Islamic tradition itself for resources to comprehend and accept LGBTIQ people.  Until that exploration is exhausted, it is too early to give up.   

Finally, I am pleased to report that there are many students who are taking up the challenge posed by my book. There are graduate students now, and undergraduates too, who are doing their own research… and they are empowered by the book I wrote. Some of them disagree with me vehemently. I’m happy to hear that! As long as they learn from the techniques of inquiry that I explain in my book, I am happy to see my conclusions challenged. In the next decade, we can look forward to a real flowering of studies of sexual orientation and gender identity in an Islamic framework. 

Do you see the work as having relevance to contemporary struggles in Muslim majority countries? 

My book was written for Muslims in secular democratic states (the so-called West) who mainly live as a small religious minority. They enjoy access to education and legal rights that allow them to think critically and act independent of their families, in many circumstances. The book was written with them in mind. 

But it is also written to address universal issues for Muslims, and the arguments about gender and sexuality that originate in the West have great relevance for arguments that happen in a quieter way in Muslim-majority countries. Access to my book is limited in Muslim-majority countries (and this true generally of progressive and feminist Muslim scholarship from the West). It is limited by language, and by economic access, and by political censorship.     

Some people from Muslim-majority countries have written to me asking if they can purchase the book as an internet file or an e-book, because their country censors book purchases and deliveries through the post. I have not yet worked this out with the publisher Oneworld Publications, but hope to do so, considering the political situation in many Muslim-majority countries and the tenuous privacy that people have within their families. 

I believe that—for better or for worse—Muslims in the West have a privileged place in this progressive dialogue. The opinions expressed by Muslims in the USA, Canada, Europe, and South Africa have a great impact on the international dialogue. I hope more US-based Muslims will take up this challenge, acknowledging the gift of freedom and legal rights that God has given them in their residence here. 

In the book you “posit that there are real categories of people who can be called gay, lesbian, and transgender” and focus on what you call dispositional homosexuality. Why is this important?

This argument is a legacy of the last two decades of academic debate about the epistemological category of sexuality orientation. It is often called the “essentialist/constructivist” debate. There was a tendency in academic circles to embrace an extreme “constructivist” position, with Michel Foucault as a constant reference. There were “essentialist” hold-outs like John Boswell and Bernadette Brouten, who maintained the usefulness of “homosexual” as a category that describes a class of people across the divide of era, region or culture. I tend to agree with Boswell and Brouten. I see much of the “Queer Theory” debate in a constructivist mode as an academic enterprise that is good for making careers in the university but is not so good at affecting the rights of real people in situations of vulnerability and struggle. I try to balance the urgency of activism with the accuracy of scholarship, and I do believe that a good balance can be achieved.

That’s an area where I like the both/and approach myself—or better yet, Gayatri Spivak’s notion of “strategic essentialism”—when expedient for purposes of justice! Not unrelatedly, I was startled to learn that the Ayatollah Khomeini favored sex reassignment surgery in some circumstances—and yet find this matches the controversies about sex reassignment, on the one hand, as re-instantiating gender binaries and on the other hand as liberating. Sometimes I experience sex reassignment surgery as a conservative alternative and sometimes liberating. Do you find this a bit puzzling too?  

In the USA, we are so used to demonizing Ayatollah Khomeini that we often fail to see the more creative and constructive aspects of his life and political rule. Not that I’m a supporter of his Islamic Revolution in Iran, mind you! But nobody is a demon.       

Ayatollah Khomeini made a decision that sex-reassignment surgery was Islamically permissible, if and when the “real gender” of the person could be determined beneath any anatomical or psychological ambiguity. This is a potentially progressive Islamic stance! Much has been written about this by journalists and scholars, most effectively by Afsaneh Najmabadi. She states rightly that this decision is potentially liberating for transgender people, but it is effectively debilitating for homosexual men. (For more on her views, click here.) Often in Iran gay men are pushed toward gender reassignment surgery as a “cure” for their sexual orientation: if a man feels attraction for another man then he should become a woman so that this attraction is no longer subversive of the social order, you see?  

In the USA, there is often tolerance for homosexuals but bafflement or hostility toward transgender people… but in Iran, the policies but in place by Ayatollah Khomeini have the opposite effect and often transgender people are accepted if they move toward surgical reassignment while homosexuals are oppressed. There is no ideal place, only contrasting shades of gray. 

You take up the issue of marriage in Homosexuality in Islam. And, of course this is a big issue in today’s news. I admit I sometimes find the marriage equality movement—and the movement for inclusion in the military—paradoxical. On the one hand, of course I want the full rights of citizenship and I am lucky enough to be living in New York! On the other hand, I think of these as two very conservative institutions that got critiqued in serious ways by progressives in my lifetime. Is the best world we can imagine one where LGBT persons can join these two problematic institutions?

I agree with you on this. But I see the issue of marriage equality as an important indication of human rights and social tolerance. I favor marriage equality because those who want to marry deserve the chance to do so, whether they have opposite-gender partners or same-gender partners. And I will fight so that they have this right and have equality before the law.       

That said, marriage itself is a bourgeois institution that is as much about property, child legitimacy, and taxation as it is about love. Not everyone who is LGBTIQ will find fulfillment in marriage, even if it is legalized. It is one thing to advocate that LGBTIQ people should be able to marry… and it is quite another to claim that they must or that they should be married! 

Still, in the current climate of the USA, it is crucial to fight for the right of all people to marry the partner of choice, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. It establishes a legal principle that will affect many other more universal and quotidian issues of rights and capabilities. Among LGBTIQ Muslims, there are some who want to marry in an Islamic ceremony (nikah), and they should have the means to do so. That is an important symbolic statement. In the last decade, there have been many such ceremonies in the USA, out of the limelight and beyond the reach of the media.

In my opinion, one should support the right to all people to marry, even one does not want to marry. In the same way, one should support the right of all people to serve in the military without discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation, even if one would never want to serve in the military (or even opposes the existence of the military!). And one should support anti-discrimination measures within big corporations or banks, even if one despises the financial shenanigans of such organizations. This is a question of political strategy, not radically idealism. We need to get realistic about what battles to fight first, and which to prepare for later on. 

In your work, you adopt what you call a liberation theology approach combined with traditional modes of Islamic argumentation. Would you say that there are possibilities for alliance building across more “progressive” forms of religions insofar as they take history and culture into account or not so much? 

Liberation theology is a power set of tools and approaches within any religion. It refers to internal reform of a religious tradition in order to consciously align the religious beliefs and practices toward the goal of stopping oppression, protecting the vulnerable, and advancing a progressive political agenda.     

The term is mainly related to the Catholic Church, as many lay-leaders and some church authorities organized a progressive and radical critique of the Church’s institution in Latin America. The term then spread to Protestant Churches, in the civil rights movement in North America and to the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. It is also used in Buddhist communities when religious belief is coupled with desire for radical social change through nonviolent means and/or forceful civic protest.     

There are scholars who use the term liberation theology to describe progressive approaches to Islamic belief and practice. Amina Wadud and Asma Barlas are good examples in the field of feminism in Islam. Farid Esack and Asghar Ali Engineer are good examples in Islamic politics against racial oppression, poverty and exploitation. In Islam, many scholars and activists use the word “reform” or “revival” rather than liberation theology, because the later term sounds too much like it was borrowed from Christianity and that might be a liability for an indigenously Islamic project.  In this sense, the legal scholar and reformer Khalid Abou El Fadl does “liberation theology” from within the Islamic tradition without actually calling it that.

Among LGBTIQ Muslims, there are many who talk about liberation from oppression, but few who identify as “liberation theologians.” Yet liberation theology is exactly what they are doing, in an organic sense. They are building community, addressing marginalization, empowering lay-leaders, and challenging entrenched power structures within their religious institutions. I thought that it was important in my book to acknowledge that what I am doing is liberation theology, linked to a past tradition and a movement that has manifestations in many religions.

LGBTIQ people in other religious traditions are doing similar work, and Muslims can support them and learn from them in their shared goals. Often the obstacles and the tools to overcome them are similar, even if the religious traditions may differ. There is great potential for coalition building especially with Jews and Christians, since the Islamic tradition shares many features with these other Abrahamic faiths. I recently attended an interfaith gathering in Atlanta of Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders, who were called to address the question of whether their faith and institutions accept and include LGBTIQ people from their respective communities. 

Faisal Alam, the founder of Al-Fatiha Foundation, was invited to speak from a Muslim perspective; a local mosque leader who is a medical doctor was invited to represent mainstream Muslim institutions. They disagreed with each other, but did so respectfully and with tact. It seemed that the LGBTIQ people of whatever religion had more in common with each other than they did with their co-religionists. The obstacles that they face are so similar—rooted more in cultural prejudice, patriarchal power, and masculine fear than in actual religious beliefs—that their personal viewpoints are similar as well.

I hope that Christian and Jewish groups, who have more resources and institutions at their disposal in North America, can reach out more to include Muslims in such discussion, and to offer help as fledgling Muslims groups with progressive values try to organize, often again considerable pressure from their own religious leaders. Often Christians and Jews think of Muslims as somehow exceptional—as if Muslims are somehow so different that they cannot be called to a common podium to speak. Yet Muslim communities are going through crises and internal debates now that Christian and Jewish communities have already passed through decades ago… and a few decades is really not such a long time.

Thank you so much for everything you have shared with us today. I want to end with a question I will ask everyone I interview for Religion Dispatches: If you were to imagine the future—or to imagine the most hopeful future—what would the impact of your most recent book be? And how would our world be different?

Of course, books don’t change the world. But they can help to change people’s minds, and that can change the world, slowly and gradually.    

I have three great hopes for the future, when I consider the possible effects my book might have. The first is that it might empower LGBTIQ Muslims to reconnect with their faith. That connection is very powerful and it can give them great strength and moral resources to stand up to the oppression and abuse that they often suffer from the hands of religious leaders, family elders and community authorities. Often LGBTIQ Muslims get estranged from their faith because they are struggling with their parents’ expectations, and parental authority become fused in their minds with religion. Many of them take a secular turn or feel unable to worship, even on an individual level… or they can even feel that God has rejected them. Such attitudes can lead to despair and a deep sense of loss. On the other hand, if they can manage to reconnect with their faith in a personal and spiritual way, this can give them great endurance, resilience and hope which are all necessary virtues to survive the hardships that they face. It certainly has worked that way for me.

The second hope I have is that the book will be read by the Muslim parents family and friends of LGBTIQ folks. The book lays out an alternative to prejudice and rejection of LGBTIQ Muslims, and that alternative is based on Islamic sources and principles. Some readers might find it “conservative” in its adherence to religious sources. But the hope is that this appeal to the religion for tolerance from within will actually appeal to the parents of LGBTIQ Muslims, who actually suffer from oppressing and marginalizing their children. If the dynamic between parent and child changes, then there are seeds for change in the wider Muslim community. Many people expect dialogue and debate to begin with Imam and mosque leaders, but these will be the last to change their attitude and practice. Change will start first within the hearts of LGBTIQ Muslims, and then within their own families. I have heard some anecdotal evidence from email correspondence that in fact this is happening, slowly, one parent at a time.      

The third hope I have is that the book will remove the veil of fear from an emerging generation of scholars and writers. I hope it will inspire and enable them to do their own research and write their own books. They will not agree with me, I’m sure—but I want them to say that my book paved the way for others. I have published Homosexuality in Islam from a perspective within the faith and for those with faith. I wrote it in my own name. I was not threatened. I was not attacked. I was not killed. I did not suffer professional setbacks. Perhaps I was ignored and perhaps I was shunned, but one can live with that! The point is that there is so much more research to do, and Islamic theology offers rich resources and spiritual insights that are yet to be uncovered and articulated. That is a great challenge for the future. 

I learn each year of university students doing papers, and Masters degree students writing thesis, or Ph.D. scholars-in-the-making writing dissertations about Islam from the perspective of sexuality and gender identity issues. I find it amazing that they read my book and gain a sense of empowerment to do their own work. That is what we call, in the Islamic tradition, a sadaqa jariya, a gift that keeps giving benefit even after the giver has passed away. I hope my book is a sadaqa jariya.