March 6, 2014
by Khaled A. Beydoun
Every Friday after playing hours of basketball, Jihad packs his duffel bag and heads to the Mosque for the traditional afternoon prayer. Commingling with familiar faces at the Mosque offers him community, and prayer the spiritual exercise his love for basketball provides his wiry yet muscular frame.
With brothers to his left and right, and his aligned feet, closed eyes, and bowed head pointing straight to the east, Jihad blends seamlessly with the mosaic of multicultural Muslims worshiping in unison. The congregation of males locked in prayer a partial microcosm of Muslim America’s rich diversity.
The small parcel his body occupies in the prayer row marks his physical belonging in the Mosque, while the warm handshakes he exchanges with friends after prayer represents acceptance. Yet, a hidden identity could extinguish this belonging and acceptance in an instant.
Jihad’s rush to prayer is, in great part, driven by the safe haven the private exercise provides. Befitting his name, prostrating before God offers solace from an arduous struggle – namely, reconciling his steadfast identity as a Muslim American with his homosexuality.
On February 23, the Brooklyn Nets signed Jason Collins – making him the first openly gay man to play in the NBA. Collins’ coming out spoke to Jihad’s coexistent identification as a gay, Muslim American. ESPN analyst Chris Broussard labeled homosexuality, “an open rebellion toward God,” a criticism thankfully drowned out by the praise that Collins rightfully deserved. On February 8, Michael Sam – an All-American for the Missouri Tigers – announced:
“I am gay. I am an American football player,”making him the first openly gay athlete to compete in the NFL.
However, Jihad is not seven-feet tall with a seven-figure bank account, or a promising NFL prospect on the cusp of stardom. He’s a young, twenty-something shooting for the same goals of most everyone in his age bracket — a meaningful career, a family, and the support and acceptance of his family and community. But he is Muslim American and gay, two seemingly warring identities that — for the vast majority of Muslim Americans — are thought to be separate, unequal and irreconcilable.
Wars of the Worlds
Muslim America and the LGBTQ population are framed as two entirely independent communities. Indeed, the rigid caricatures assigned to both communities, combined with the Muslim America’s taboo relationship with homosexuality, have exacerbated the perception that the two are disconnected and distant. Jihad, and the struggle so many Muslim Americans like him endure, embodies not only an overlap of these two identities, but also their very real coexistence.
“Gay and Muslim American,” for both Muslim and non-Muslim Americans, reads like an oxymoron. Yet, is a largely harmonized yet hidden identity that characterizes the experience of many Muslim American men and women. Muslim America has long been caricatured along monolithic racial, spiritual and political lines — misrepresentations that distort its layered diversity.
Muslim America is not only caricatured as being uber-heterosexual, but also stridently homophobic. These are both generalizations, of course, but the wounding words of homophobes have drowned out the far-too-scarce declarations of support and solidarity within the Muslim-American community and, at their extreme, have intimidated supporters into silence.
Countering the monolithic image of the Muslim-American heterosexual is the critical mass of Muslim Americans who have come out, in the face of backlash and ostracism. Some mosques and religious leaders have opened their doors to out-of-the-closet members of their communities, but these are very rare exceptions.
One overarching Islamic staple has been overlooked and ignored — namely, that only God can judge each individual, and every Muslim’s relationship with God is private and precludes the meddling of others.
Muslim and American Marginals
Muslim Americans, particularly after 9/11, have faced a “shared rage” from both state and private citizens. Islamophobia is still rife today, and the criminalization of adherents and the faith at large highlights that the civil rights struggle for Muslim Americans is still in its nascent stages. For LGBTQ Muslim Americans, who sit at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities — the compounded violence against their bodies represents a heightened and compounded struggle that takes place within, and without their community.
Perhaps no struggle is more imposing that that faced by LGBTQ Muslim-Americans. LGBTQ Muslim Americans are stigmatized from without and, more acutely, from within their spiritual communities. Indeed, a vast portion of Muslim America feels that “coming out” must be accompanied by renouncing one’s adherence to Islam — or, de facto excommunication. This position marks one instance where the external caricaturing of Muslim America aligns with an internal platitude — namely, that homosexuality and adherence to Islam are clashing lifestyles that cannot be integrated.
However, for LGBTQ Muslim Americans, like Jihad, who devoutly practice their faith and deem it core to their identity, their intersecting marginalization and compounded struggles offer a hidden yet human counter-narrative.
Coming out the Crescent
In his article “Out Yet Unseen: A Racial Critique of Gay and Lesbian Legal Theory and Political Discourse,” University of Florida Law Professor Darren Hutchinson writes,
‘The symbolic meaning of the phrase ‘tongues untied’ has grown to identify a small, yet expanding, cultural, intellectual and artistic movement aimed at revealing — or ending the silence around — the intersections of race, class, gender and sexuality.’
The observations made in Hutchinson’s important piece penetrate far beyond legal and political discourse, and pierce sharply into the everyday lives of LGBTQ Muslim Americans. The “tongues untied movement” he speaks of must be stretched to encompass religion, in addition to race, class, gender and sexuality, in order to speak to the distinct obstacles confronting LGBTQ Muslim Americans and their allies and usher in prospective coalitions forto support them. This will not only empower LGBTQ Muslim Americans to ultimately speak up, but also hopefully trigger what is perhaps a prerequisite to this step – encourage heterosexual and sympathetic elements within Muslim America, such as myself, to step forward in solidarity.
“Muslim American civil rights,” since 9/11, has saturated legal and political discourse and dominated the missions of Muslim American advocacy organizations. However, can Muslim American organizations and citizens advance a broad civil rights agenda without first redressing the harm to and facilitating the inclusion of perhaps the most damaged insular community within their ranks?
The Muslim-American struggle for full-fledged humanization and equal treatment under the law, ultimately, may not be fully realized until Jihad’s jihad for acceptance, is first achieved. Perhaps a Muslim Jason Collins, or a figure of similar stature and standing, is the essential first shot of the game.
But until that individual openly steps into the center, the ball is in our court — as heterosexual Muslim Americans — to unabashedly demonstrate that we are on the same team as our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.
Khaled A. Beydoun is a professor at the UCLA School of Law. Critical Race Theory and Criminal Law are his primary areas of expertise. He has published at top law reviews, including the Harvard Journal of Policy and the Howard Law Journal, and frequently writes for Al-Jazeera English. He is a native of Detroit, Michigan, and tweets @KhaledBeydoun.