The horrific killings in Orlando shattered two joyful occasions: Gay Pride Month and Ramadan. For many of us who are both gay and Muslim, these celebrations could only occur in parallel universes; our identities fractured between two groups, neither of which fully embraces the other. The attacks in Orlando have exposed this longstanding rift between the Muslim and gay communities, one that calls for resolution, even as some seek to exploit it for political gain.
This is a time for the Muslim and LGBT communities to not merely stand together but to deepen their understanding of each other, to recognize their common interests, and to acknowledge their shared members.
In this current moment of newly secured gay rights, it is easy to forget that gay-pride events arose in response to pervasive oppression. LGBT individuals long have been targets for political scapegoating, social discrimination, and hate violence, all deriving from a conception of homosexuality as deviant, unnatural, and a threat to the social order. The 1998 torture and murder of Matthew Shepard occurred less than 20 years ago, and countless other hate crimes have been perpetrated against LGBT individuals before and since. And while the legalization of marriage for same-sex couples symbolizes the rapid and historic gains that the gay community has made, the recent transphobic bathroom bills, not to mention the Orlando attack itself, should remind us of how vulnerable the LGBT community remains to demonization and exclusion.
But even as homophobia is being countered, Islamophobia is on the rise, and more readily accepted in the political, media, and public spheres in our country’s ongoing “war on terror.” In the 15 years since the 9/11 attacks, Muslim, South Asian, Arab, and Sikh communities have experienced an unprecedented backlash in the form of hate violence, bullying in school, and employment discrimination. Attacks on our communities have surged in the past year, particularly in the aftermath of the ISIS-inspired attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. Cab drivers and convenience-store clerks perceived to be Muslim have been shot; mosques and Muslim-owned businesses have been torched; Muslims have been assaulted while praying or peacefully walking down the street. In one instance, a man used a high-powered rifle to fire shots into a Connecticut mosque. In another, a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf and pushing her baby in a stroller was assaulted by a man who called her a terrorist and yelled, “I’m gonna burn your fucking temple down.”
But the imperative for the Muslim and LGBT communities to find mutual understanding should not derive merely from shared vulnerability. Rather, solidarity must be forged from recognition of common humanity and, importantly, shared membership. Many LGBT communities have been welcoming of Muslims. But, it is not uncommon for gay Muslims to feel that inclusion in the gay community requires suppression of their Muslim identity. In this regard, comments from former Congressman Barney Frank in response to the Orlando tragedy are disturbing. Representative Frank referred to an “Islamic element” that encourages the killing of gay people. Such statements not only reinforce the misleading premise that Islam and terrorism are interchangeable but also create wedges between gay and Muslim communities, making it even more challenging for those who inhabit both identities.
In that vein, the challenges posed from the Muslim community often seem insurmountable. LGBT people are virtually invisible in the Muslim community. This is not merely a problem of religious doctrine around homosexuality—that exists in Christianity and Judaism as well—but of social and cultural practices of stigma and exclusion. For those of us who are gay and Muslim, we must often choose between entering the mosque and exiting the closet.
But this can change, and there is some reason for optimism. In 2015, a Pew Research Center poll found that 42 percent of Muslim Americans supported same-sex marriage, compared with 55 percent for the overall population. To put this in context, Muslim support for gay marriage today is roughly equivalent to the level of support expressed by the total population as recently as 2010, in the middle of the first Obama administration. Additionally, organizations like the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity and Muslims for Progressive Values are at the frontlines of creating safe spaces for LGBT Muslims and urging mainstream LGBTQ organizations to be more inclusive.
The failure to reconcile the LGBT and Muslim communities leaves both at the cynical mercy of Donald Trump and his apologists. Trump casts LGBT rights as under threat from Muslims, and therefore from immigration of Muslims, including refugees. In his speech on Monday, he painted Muslims as monolithically terrorists or terrorist supporters, and framed Islam as antithetical to LGBT rights. By this account, Muslims are not merely the enemy of America but the enemy of gays, and a ban on Muslim immigration is necessary to safeguard the LGBT community, just as Trump’s “wall” with Mexico would safeguard Americans against murderers and rapists.
How then, should such cynicism be resisted and the gap between the LGBT and Muslim communities bridged? Statements of solidarity from LGBT and Muslim organizations are a helpful start, but they must be followed up with practices of solidarity. I suggest three approaches.
First, just as coming out has proven to be an enormously affirming and effective strategy for the mainstreaming of gay rights in the form of both cultural and legal change, the aftermath of the Orlando killings provides an opportunity for gay Muslims to come out as both and to insist upon full recognition of our full identities. Especially for those of us who by virtue of class, profession, or status can do so most readily, coming out as gay in the mosque and Muslim in the gay community may counter prior practices of marginalization in both.
Second, Ramadan provides an opportunity for mutual understanding. While the twisted logic of extremists understands Ramadan as a time for increased violence, true Muslims know it as a time of peace, introspection, and generosity. Ramadan commemorates the period in which Muslims believe the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad, and fasting during the month is intended to promote communion with God. But its religious aspects aside, the experience of fasting, from dawn to dusk, creates opportunities for intense reflection. In that spirit, Muslim and LGBT communities could join in a day of fasting next Sunday, to commemorate the tragedy of Orlando and to commit to a shared practice of grieving, healing, and understanding.
Finally, Ramadan’s daily fast is broken by an evening meal known as iftaar. The communal practice of breaking bread together transcends religion, culture, and sexuality. Mosques, Islamic centers, and Muslim families and individuals could invite LGBT individuals to join them for an iftaar, so as to welcome LGBT people into their lives and their homes. The shared meal could engender meaningful conversation about the historical and contemporary struggles of each community, and deepen the substantive basis for solidarity.
Gay Pride Month and Ramadan exist in different calendars—one solar, one lunar—but not in different worlds. Although the devastating violence of Orlando and a corresponding politics of fear threaten to keep them apart, it is within our power to celebrate their coincidence, and in so doing, to create a new occasion for mutual understanding.