LGBT Muslims Are Enemy No. 1 in Trump’s America
Queer Muslims are between a rock and a hard place: a religious community that doesn’t accept their sexual orientation, and a political climate that views their identity as a threat.
What if Donald Trump had a Muslim daughter?
This is the central question behind the satirical Ayesha Trump webseries, a mockumentary from Chicago-based writer, actress, and comedian Fawzia Mirza, who plays Trump’s illegitimate faux-offspring.
“Ayesha Trump could no longer keep silent,” the series’ website reads. “For the past 30 years, she did not publicly share the truth of her heritage but the time has come for her to shout it loud and proud.”
For Ms. Mirza, the webseries arose out of her experiences being a brown person during an election season where the Republican frontrunner called for a halt on all Muslim immigration to the United States. (According to the most recent Pew estimate, the current Muslim population in the U.S. is more than 3 million.) Mirza attended the recent Trump rally in Chicago—one that would later be disbanded due to widespread protests—and spoke to a Donald Trump supporter. She recalls that the woman commanded her to renounce ISIS and all forms of Muslim terrorism.
“This woman looked at me,” Mirza told the Daily Beast. “She didn’t even know who I was. She was so upset. She was so angry. And she hated me.”
For Terna, a 35-year-old clinician living in Boston, the hatred and distrust of Muslims generated by Trump’s rise to power is about more than just her religious identity. “I’m worried as a Muslim about Donald Trump,” Terna said. “I’m also worried as a black person about Donald Trump. I’m also worried as a person from an immigrant family about Donald Trump.”
Terna is of Nigerian descent and converted to the religion when she was 19. However, there’s another wrinkle to her identity: In addition to being a Sufi—a practitioner of the mystic path in Islam—she, like Mirza, identifies as queer.
In today’s America, queer Muslims find themselves between a rock and a hard place: communities that may not be understanding of their orientation and a conservative political climate that views both their faith and sexuality as a threat. Polls from South Carolina, where Trump handily won the presidential primary, showed that 31 percent of Trump voters in the state supported not only his proposed ban on Muslims entering the U.S. but also restricting LGBT immigration.
For queer Muslims, it can be especially difficult time to be alive. But as many told The Daily Beast, it doesn’t have to be.
While it’s common for LGBT people to come out to friends and family members in their teens, Mirza—who describes herself as “thirtysomething-ish”—said her experience was very different. She didn’t begin that process until she was in her late 20s. “My way of coming out was to start putting things on the Internet,” she said. “I started making videos and posting them online—on YouTube and Facebook.”
Although she never had the “I-am-a-lesbian” sit-down with her mother, Mirza did tell her that she’d started seeing someone. They rarely talk about it.
She argued that for queer Muslims, the idea of “coming out” isn’t the same. “As a Muslim Pakistani raised in a conservative household, what am I coming out about?” she asked. “That I wear low V-neck shirts? That I drink? That I eat pork? That I sometimes have premarital sex?…So that phrase to me sometimes is a little limiting. There’s always something to come out about when you’re raised with so many identities.”
If many queer Muslims come out in phases, others might not be out at all. According to Terna, that’s OK.
“Coming out is a very Western idea and a luxury for many people,” she said. “I come from an immigrant background and many people in the queer Muslim community also come from immigrant backgrounds. I would literally be risking my life. People die! Coming out is not a good idea in that situation.”
While she believes that the LGBT community’s emphasis on “coming out no matter what” is harmful for queer Muslims, Terna also expressed that many Muslims feel invisible and alone in a community where they don’t see others like them.
“The greatest challenge that Muslims as a whole face is isolation,” she explained. “Isolation is a very destructive thing. I think there are ways that are alive in your body but if your spirit is not alive, it’s a kind of death.” Mirza further argued that the lack of queer Muslim representation on television and in pop culture certainly doesn’t help this feeling of invisibility.
Many Muslims, however, are trying to change that by carving out a space for themselves in a religion that hasn’t historically been the most accepting of LGBT people. In Muslim countries like Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, you can still be put to death for engaging in same-sex relations.
As Terna explains, the Islamic proclamation against homosexuality comes from the same place it does in Christianity and Judaism—passages in the Old Testament from Leviticus and Deuteronomy. “Islam accepts the Bible as a Holy text and the Torah as a Holy text,” she said. “In the Qur’an, there’s not that much—a small number of verses that people point to.”
But in recent decades, religious scholars have been questioning the classical interpretation of these texts—such the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as a condemnation of homosexuality.
“If you really want to look into it a little further, it’s really a story about rape, first of all, and the inhospitality which is a huge, huge thing in many countries around the world,” Terna said. “Being inhospitable is one of the most egregious things you can do in terms of being a good person.”
In the United States, Islamic believers are taking slow, if conflicting, steps toward acceptance. Chernor Sa’ad Jalloh, the assistant imam for the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, stressed a “love the sinner, hate the sin” approach in a 2014 interview with Al-Jazeera. He explained that while the center is open to Muslims of all sexual orientations, homosexuality is “contradiction” to “the system of Islam.”
Ramy Eletreby, 33, was recently hired by Muslims for Progressive Values to help bridge this divide. Elterby serves as the group’s lead org facilitator in Los Angeles, a city that he believes lacks a “vibrant queer Muslim community.”
“There’s a demand,” he said. “There are queer Muslims here in Los Angeles. It’s just that we’re not really organized. We have challenges being in L.A. It’s a car culture, where a meeting is can make or break whether someone goes. No one has been able to really rise up to that challenge and make it work.”
For Eletreby, finding a community Muslims dealing with the same struggles and challenges proved crucial in reconciling his faith and sexual orientation. After publicly coming out at 24, he left the religion for many years, because he didn’t feel there was a space for someone like him. After moving to New York City for grad school and meeting queer Muslims for the first time, the experience completely changed his perspective.
“I started opening up the possibilities that I could call myself a Muslim again,” he said. “I called myself a Muslim for the first 24 years of my life. I’d really missed it…I missed Ramadan. When you have a faith identity, it really is a huge part of who you are. When you cut that off for a long time, you start to not know who you are.”
Eletreby believes that it’s up to Muslims to fight for their visibility by getting organized. “If queer Muslims aren’t even gathering on their own to create community, how can we expect any mainstream Muslim community to recognize us as being present?” he asked.
While there are local groups that meet in cities across the U.S.—including a Meetup for gay Muslims in New York—one of the biggest facilitators of community is the annual LGBT Muslim Retreat. Organizers attempt to be secretive about the location for safety reasons, but according to Terna, it’s been held in the spring every year since 2011. This year’s retreat will take place in May.
She previously served as the event’s co-chair for two years and calls her first retreat one of the most “powerful” experiences of her life. “It was a space in which you didn’t have to leave anything behind of yourself,” Terna said. “Anytime you’re traversing mainstream religious spaces you definitely are leaving the queer part behind.”
Malcolm Shanks, an organizer and scholar based in Washington D.C., believes these spaces have made a huge difference in the community.
“When I was growing up until four years ago, I had only met one other queer Muslim,” he said. “Now I know 80. There’s a kind of community that comes from that which helps me survive on a daily basis.” He also believes that the Internet has been an incredibly powerful tool in making Muslims feel less alone.
In addition to providing much-needed lifelines for queer believers, Terna believes that finding a community both online and in person helps build a population that’s both surviving and thriving. She believes that those outside the community too often view them as “tragic queer Muslims,” defined solely by misery and oppression. Shanks further called it the myth of the “permanent victim.”
“It’s really important that for me as a queer Muslim that, yes, there are many of us who have challenges in our lives in holding our identities, but at the same time, there’s a lot of joy and a lot of beauty about holding these identities,” she said. “There’s amazing beauty in the culture that people have developed in various parts of the country.”
In addition to helping organize the retreat, Terna is part of a performance series called “Coming Out Muslim: Radical Acts of Love” that she hopes highlights the community’s resilience and perseverance. “I have never believed that there was anything that would take me away from God,” she said. “There’s a line I say in the show, ‘If God is the source of my blood and its beat, how could I despise myself?’”
According to Mirza, such acts of storytelling—whether it’s theater, social media, or Donald Trump’s illegitimate daughter—are some of the most important tools queer Muslims have at their disposal. “Telling your story in whatever way you can is powerful,” she said. “It’s about finding each other and not being afraid of each other.”
That’s never been truer than in the current political moment, an era driven by fear, ignorance, and the hatred of those different from us. As Mirza explained, queer Muslims can both fight intolerance and promote greater understanding by showing us that there is no one single type of Muslim; the Islamic community is incredibly diverse, complicated, and—most of all—beautiful.
“The more we normalize the stories of all Muslim people,” she said, “the less fear there is.”