On the third floor of an Italianate building in Manhattan, an auditorium full of hungry attendees buzzed with chatter, the smell of cumin and coriander lingering from the slightly closed room across the hallway, tempting to be opened. It was already evident that the evening would be lively by the hum of small talk and pockets of private conversations heard from inside the elevator, moments the doors split. When they finally did, there they were, beyond the displayed sign that read LGBTQ+ Community Iftar 2023: Queer and trans Muslims eager to be with one another despite the urgency to break fast—a time to eat after a full day of fasting. Unlike ones at the local mosque, this gathering included a spectrum of sexualities, genders and means of self-expression, like the Indo-Caribbean drag queen in a coral lehenga and gold headpiece, or the Guyanese trans woman in a key lime sari.
The event they were attending was The LGBT Community Center’s annual LGBTQ Community Iftar. Iftar is the tradition of breaking fast when the sun sets during Ramadan, usually in a mosque or a communal setting. It’s uncommon to see visibly LGBTQ people in mosques, as the principle of removing shoes before entering a mosque oftentimes also means leaving their queerness or transness at the door for many LGBTQ Muslims. Criticism from cis and straight Muslim counterparts is common, making Ramadan an especially hard time for Muslims grappling with their queerness and transness. The LGBTQ Community Iftar, then, acts as a haven for Muslims who are LGBTQ to show up fully, with no compromise.
At the entrance of the event in a beige and gold sherwani and a green and pink shawl was greeter Mohamed Q. Amin, who helped organize community iftar, which started in 2017 as a response to Trump’s Muslim ban that was framed by the administration as an initiative to “keep America safer.” Amin is the founder and executive director of Caribbean Equality Project, a community-based organization for LGBTQ Caribbean immigrants.
“For many queer Muslims, many of us don’t often have that luxury to create space to celebrate community,” said Amin. As a result, Amin reached out to Tarab NYC, Salga NYC and Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD). The four organizations met with The Center’s executive director Glennda Testone, and the inaugural iftar in 2017 marked history as the first LGBTQ iftar in New York City.
Although it has been over two decades since 9/11, being Muslim in the U.S. continues to be a challenge. A 2021 poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed that “53% of Americans have unfavorable views toward Islam”, despite how the population of Muslim Americans continues to grow today.
And it gets even more complicated within the Muslim community. Although Muslims’ support to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination increased from 68% in 2015 to 75% by 2021, it still ranked as one of the least religious affiliations to support LGBTQ people according to a recent survey. Meanwhile, data on openly LGBTQ Muslims are scarce because coming out in Islamic communities can be a fraught decision.
Muslims and LGBTQ people have both been threatened by violence in their own sacred places of gathering in recent years. In 2019, the Christchurch Mosque Massacre resulted in 50 people dead by gun violence—in which the attack, according to Rep. Ilhan Omar’s Ramadan press release, was a “source of inspiration for mass shootings” in America. Last year, the Club Q shooting, where a gunman opened fire in a queer nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colo. resulted in five dead and 17 injured. Being Muslim and queer in the U.S. is daunting and has resulted in fatal violences.
The annual LGBTQ Community Iftar is one example of how queer and trans Muslims are not only actively organizing against discrimination, but also transforming the ways they can practice Islam as openly queer and trans people despite the vulnerability in both communities. We spoke to organizers, activists, and scholars to hear how they are making space for both their LGBTQ and Muslim identities. These are their words: Being both Muslim and LGBTQ is not easy, but very possible. Here are four ways they are forging themselves their own paths as LGBTQ Muslims:
Redefining physical spaces
Zain Islam-Hashmi attended the 2023 LGBTQ Community Iftar on behalf of the US chapter of Hidayah LGBTQ, an organization that provides support and welfare for LGBTQ Muslims in which he is the co-chair of. Hidayah started their involvement with the annual event in 2022.
For Islam-Hashmi, who is based in Baltimore, Md., seeing LGBTQ communities and Muslims come together has been “difficult, especially in the beginning when [you realize] the spaces for the majority are not for [people like us].”
He recounts a friend who worked on a thesis project about the history of mosques and how they are “designed and built for the majority.” Those who fall outside of the majority include women, children, converts, and LGBTQ people. This realization, then, started Islam-Hashmi’s own personal need to seek out a different space.
“When I realized that this is not the space for me, I had to actually start making active efforts to seek out spaces where it’s filled with people where [I ask], underneath the surface of this the person praying next to me, are they okay with me being here if they knew who I was?” he said.
For Islam-Hashmi, Ramadan is more than just the restrictions and the routine of fasting. To him, Ramadan is the month where community-based connections are essential.
“You shouldn’t lose yourself in the [restrictions and limitations],” he said. “You should lose yourself in the spirit of community. There’s so many innovative communal [opportunities] during Ramadan that [are] based around coming together for prayer, coming together for breaking fast and going to see people. Innovation is the birth of beauty.”
Digging deeper into the Qur’an to find nuance
For 19-year-old Aliyah Ali, a California-based trans Muslim woman activist who seeks for liberation on behalf of other LGBTQ Muslims, her transness does not cancel out her faith despite the online critique she receives as an openly trans woman.
Ali, who was put in the foster care system for two years at 16 after unsuccessfully coming out to her family, spent that time praying “for some miracle”. Over time, her family came around to accept her, and Ali credits her dedication to prayer for her family’s change of heart.
“I use Ramadan as an opportunity to go back to my roots and strengthen my [faith] and build a connection with Allah.”
Having built a large following online, the pushback Ali has gotten as an openly trans Muslim woman is rampant, but she isn’t afraid to stand her ground. According to her, the history of the Mukhannathun proves why trans women inherently belong in Islamic spaces.
The Mukhannathun “is an umbrella term used by Islamic scholars to represent [people assigned male at birth] who displayed gender nonconformity,” Ali said in a Twitter thread about how early scholars write that the Mukhannathun were ‘free of physical desire’ for women, which in the Qur’an is the only other justification besides family and other women to be in a space where Muslim women can unveil. “Not all bodies who were assigned male at birth pose a threat to women’s spaces.”
Acknowledging colonialism’s impact on Islam
Fariha Róisín is a queer, nonbinary writer and multi-disciplinary artist. For them, connecting to other Muslims during Ramadan was difficult until they moved to Los Angeles, Calif., which is when “I found more of certainty and reliability in my friendships with other Muslims, and a reciprocity with the people around me.”
Róisín, whose partner is a queer and trans Muslim, is having their first Ramadan together, “which feels deeply healing for me,” Róisín said. “I’m getting to have the Ramadan I really wanted, with a focus on the heart, spirit, and God, but also one’s own private relationship to self.”
Róisín also tells Reckon that Islam was incredibly queer prior to colonization.
“Many caliphs, [religious rulers], had male courtesans, and homosexuality—predominantly between men—was respected and a part of society because the Muslims looked to the Greeks for social democratic guidance,” they said.
Róisín echoes that the case is especially true when thinking of India’s history. In their latest book, Who Is Wellness For? Róisín explains that British people introduced Section 377, which outlawed homosexuality, transness and third-gender identities, resulting in the colonized societies becoming more Christian and puritanical.
“Islam, I believe, is a very queer faith,” they said. “It’s important to know and understand that decolonization means unlearning transphobia and queerphobia. Find healing with God and the Earth, those two things will liberate you.”
Creating safer spaces on the internet
Twenty-one -year-old nonbinary Muslim TikToker Ibrahim Farooq built a community online as an alternative way to traverse beyond tangible and physical communities, with over one million likes on TikTok. They are Pakistani-Australian and are based in Sydney, Australia.
Farooq, who grew up in Dubai, UAE, felt differently towards Ramadan as they came into their queerness.
“That sense of community felt distant, and I didn’t quite understand the point of it,” they said. “However, once I started connecting with other queer Muslims, I learned to understand the beauty of community once more.”
Farooq started posting on TikTok last year, which helped them connect with other queer Muslims on the app. “There’s a very strong community of us online and it’s only just starting to grow,” they said. “I love the instant support we give each other, and the understanding that Islam doesn’t look the same for everyone. All of us comment on each other’s videos and show people that we exist. It has helped create visibility for queer Muslims everywhere!”
In the dichotomy of experiencing anti-LGBTQ treatment from other Muslims and experiencing Islamophobia from the LGBTQ community, Farooq notes that it can be socially isolating and difficult to come to terms with both identities.
“I want to encourage queer and trans Muslims to create their own representation, whether as students, online, in the creative field, or in the corporate world. Show up authentically as yourself, and you will eventually build a community of people who you will be able to connect with!”
In the end, Ramadan is about connection
Amin, amongst the growing organizations that are getting involved in the annual LGBTQ Community Iftar at The Center, has no plans to stop—only to keep moving upwards and onwards.
While working at the U.S. chapter of Hidayah, Islam-Hashmi has gotten to organize online meetings with LGBTQ Muslims who are not in major metropolitan cities. He has seen attendees calling in from Trinidad and Tobago, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and more.
“It’s our role to help bring [LGBTQ Muslims] together and support the community wherever those community members may be. Ramadan is about connection to God, [which] can also come from connecting with other people, who [I believe] are God’s gifts in this world.”