Monday, 6 July 2015

#LGBTMuslim + Ramadan + NYC = ?

This post was curated by Kamal FizaziI'm incredibly grateful for his hard work in organising and bringing together such a diverse range of voices to speak about the intersections between being Muslim and part of the LGBT community, particularly in relation to Ramadan. I would also like to thank the writers themselves for sharing their moving and deeply personal stories with us. - Sarah A.

Credit: Tumblr

O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may attain Taqwa [God-consciousness].
—The Qur’an, Surat Al-Baqarah:183

Diversity and Muslim Communities

A well-known anti-racist Muslim activist once told me they could not signal boost my fundraising for the Retreat for LGBTQIA Muslims and their Partners, because they were a "Conservative Muslim." They didn't elaborate what they thought would happen at the Retreat (or if they even believed prayer would be part of it). I have also been told numerous times, you can't be Queer and Muslim at the same time. Individuals who hold that view might be surprised by the vibrant and tight-knit New York City LGBTQIA Muslim community, and how it is celebrating the Islamic Holy Month of Ramadan.

It’s true! Queer and Trans* Muslims do exist, and are as diverse as non-Queer and non-Trans Muslims:
  • they hail from every Muslim-majority nation on the planet
  • some are converts/reverts
  • some are Sunni, some are Shia, some simply identify as “Muslim”
  • some are devout and “practicing” in an orthodox manner
  • some are secular or identify as are cultural Muslims
  • some identify as “Muslim” for political reason, living in the USA (for example, living in the USA and facing Islamophobia, wanting to challenge it)
  • Every ethnicity and race is represented among them.

In the USA, perhaps no place reflects this diversity as well as New York City. A recent Gallup poll found that of the nearly 19 million people living in the NYC statistical metropolitan area, 4% identify as LGBTQIA (meaning there are about 760,000 LGBTQIA people in NYC and immediate surroundings). Research also shows there are about 700,000 Muslims living in New York City. LGBTQIA Muslims are the people living at the intersections of these two unique communities.

How are LGBTQIA Muslims celebrating Ramadan?

During this Holy Month, the LGBTQIA Muslim community in NYC meets daily for 1.5 hours of Qur’an study, breaks for Maghrib prayers, and then enjoys a potluck iftar (the breaking of the fast meal). Members of the community rotate responsibility for hosting the gatherings, which so far have been held in Brooklyn, The Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens (none yet, I believe, in New York’s fifth borough, Staten Island).

Not all members of the NYC LGBTQIA Muslim community attend the Qur’an Study Group or the iftars every day. Some members go to a mosque for the Maghrib (sunset) prayers and the iftar (breakfast), or join in Tarawih prayers (extra prayers performed by Sunni Muslims at night in the month of Ramadan). Almost all members of the community will attend one of these iftars before Ramadan’s end, and all are invited to participate in an Eid picnic to close out the Holy month.

LGBTQIA Muslim Organizing

The Qur’an Study and Iftars NYC Queer & Trans Muslims enjoy are the fruit of the NYC Queer Muslim Book Club, which in a short while, has become the heart of the community. Some friendship networks existed before the Book Club’s formation, but it has made an invaluable contribution to connecting NYC area LGBTQIA Muslims.

By organizing the Quran Study Group and potluck iftars, the Book Club helps knit bonds among members of this community that can face Islamophobia, sexism, transphobia, and cissexism in LGBTQ communities and homophobia, sexism, transphobia and cissexism in some Muslim settings. The Quran Study and iftars are just one example of how these members of the Muslim Ummah (global Muslim community) support each other with love, compassion and solidarity, core Islamic values, and help each member practice their faith.

The Book Club’s founding members were spurred to start their project after attending the Annual Retreat for LGBTQIA Muslims and Their Partners a few years back, though the Book Club is independent and unaffiliated with the Retreat or the organization that organizes the Retreat, the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (“MASGD”). MASGD has as the threefold mission to:

  • work to support, empower and connect LGBTQIA Muslims;
  • challenge root causes of oppression, including misogyny, racism, and xenophobia; and
  • increase the acceptance of gender and sexual diversity within Muslim communities, and to promote a progressive understanding of Islam that is centered on inclusion, justice, and equality.

Credit: Tokopedia

In Their Own Words—Ramadan Reflections

Beyond stereotypes and pre-judgement—whether from “Conservative Muslims” or Islamophobes—the NYC LGBTQIA community is made up of people, people who care about their faith and live it to the best of their ability, some who experience conflict between their Muslim-ness and their LGBTQ identity, and some who do not. More than any statistics or descriptions of devotion I could provide, I have gathered and share with you below some Ramadan Reflections from a few members of the NYC Queer & Trans Muslim Community (some names have been modified to preserve anonymity):

Ramadan, much like birthdays, marks a new year for me and brings with it the space for intentional reflection and inward venturing. This year in particular, I enter the month exhausted and in need of intense replenishment: between hustling multiple jobs, balancing family obligation, and a combination of witnessing, absorbing, dodging and responding to the onslaught of institutional and social hate and ignorance (from Ferguson to Caitlyn Jenners and everything in between). More than this, I myself in a moment of what I can only describe as a spiritual dry spot—feeling distanced from Divine Guidance and in desperate need for re-grounding and connection.   
For days, I have been asking myself what intentions I want to enter the month with and meditate on rather than entertaining the comments around me about how long the summer days will be and worries about thirst on hot days from Muslims and non-Muslims alike. I trust and know that although fasting may be difficult, the most High and Merciful will provide and must humble myself to receive guidance. My intention is to celebrate in a number of ways, by building upon my spiritual practice as well as my self-discipline and integrity: 

  • I do not pray day to day and my intention is to observing salat more often.  
  • Daily zikr (remembrance of God) & daily prayer (dua) using my tasbeh (prayer beads) – most, specifically on the subway, as a way to bring ease to those most trying moments in my day.  
  • Commitment to journaling and writing – as a practice in building my creative craft, for reflection and to prioritize personal insights and inklings from my core.  
  • Most honestly, I cannot recall the last time I was sober for an extended amount of time and most definitely not for 30 days. And while I do not generally worry about what this means for me at this moment in my life, I am very present to how often alcohol is a common and daily part of my life. Maintaining 30-days of sobriety is also part of my Ramadan commitment.  

And most of all, I am stepping into Ramadan this year with an energy of excitement and anticipation unlike any other year that I can remember. 

Ramadan means anxiety and joy. The joy comes from re-discovering what it means to be a part of a Muslim community, among migrants from far-off countries who somehow stumbled onto the eastern coast of occupied North America, and huddled together to find warmth through the winter that is New York City. My anxiety is in response to re-arranging my entire life, my whole consciousness, to hide the fact of my queerness. It is a constant dance, one that exhausts me more during this holy month than other months, because Ramadan reveals that my close-knit conservative community of Afghan migrants will never accept me for who I am.

Yes, I used to observe the fast with such unwavering strength, you would have marveled at me. But the past couple of years have led to erosion in my faith. I do not even pray consistently anymore. It is not gratifying for me to say these things. I wish that I could join my queer Muslim siblings for fasting and studying the Quran together, and I am glad that they have found safe spaces to do so. But anxiety overwhelms me. Living with my parents keeps me from many freedoms, which have no doubt come at certain costs for other queer Muslims. I am ¾ anxiety this Ramadan, for fear of being found out and shut out from the world. For now, I will keep Ramadan close to my heart and pray for the good in the world to shed its light on me. 
Malalai K, born in BROOKLYN, ancestry from AFGHANISTAN

Today is the first day of Ramadan. I’m sitting in my La-Z-Boy trying to come up with resolutions for this holy month while seriously thinking whether sitting on a La-Z-Boy would nullify my fast. 

I grew up in Iran where a very specific flavor of Islam is shoved down throats; it has that unpleasant burnt-carbon-saturated-way-past-crispy taste that every time you exhale you feel sick but can’t even throw up. For most people across the religiosity spectrum in Iran this month is a whole lotta things but holy ain’t one; specially if you’re out during the day trying to get some bureaucratic work done at a government office which is on a regular day as effective as the US congress. In both cases you can only use fine curse words to put out the fire inside you. Now imagine these offices being open only half their regular hours with hungry thirsty employees during Ramazan. Holy ain’t this one. But like any other instance of power forcefully inserting itself in your life, magically there is always a way, if not more, to resist. Since I was eight (yes I was a wise youngin), I had used this national mandatory break to drop a habit or introduce a new one in my daily routine until I came to this Allah-forsaken capitalist country in 2008. I haven’t been able to continue making Ramazan resolutions for the past seven years for many reasons.

  • One: not having a community to break fast with everyday. It’s hard to run a marathon by yourself every day for thirty days without a support group. And if you’re so pretty, witty, bright and gay while Muslim it’s rare to find buddies to fast with and feel free of judgments.  
  • Two: Ramazan doesn’t feel so joyful in a country obsessed with productivity because Evangelical-God forbid if you choose to slow down your daily job to somehow reflect a bit inwards: you’ll be sent home permanently to reflect on how not to be lazy. 
  • Third: I was [lazy] to fast alone. Replace [   ] with many more adjectives you see fit.  

But thanks to Allah this year is different. I’m proud. Not because pride is right in the middle of Ramazan and I get to practice self-control while holding back making out with the entire New York City parade (cause wet kisses break your fast), no. I’m proud for celebrating this month with my chosen family. This year I get to celebrate Ramazan my way again. As we gather everyday for Quran study before sunset followed by Iftar, I’m planning to stick to my resolution everyday and use this collective space as a way to hold myself accountable. Knowing that at the end of every day that I carry out this promise I get to break fast with my favorite people empowers me and makes me all shades and sortsa happy and holy. 
Ausoo Ausmaani, IRAN

The first time I fasted for Ramadan I was 12, living in my hometown of Casablanca. My nuclear family was fairly secular (not everyone in it fasted), but I wanted to see if I could do it, and my family supported my choice.

I was proud I was able to meet the challenge of abstaining from food and drink from dawn to dusk, reined in my anger and arguments or gossiping, added more charitable activity and spiritual reflection, and in other ways participated in the community tradition that is Ramadan. When it was a struggle, I also learned from it. 
One thing I gained from fasting for Ramadan that year is a better understanding of what it means to be hungry (I got a refresher in this lesson every subsequent year I fasted). While Ramadan is not a poverty simulation game, it did give me an experiential insight into hunger I had the privilege not to have before then. I also loved Ramadan for the feeling of unity that flowed from everyone in the country synchronizing schedules. I continued to fast for Ramadan throughout my time in Morocco, and after I arrived in the USA for my undergrad and post-grad education and my first few jobs. 
Today, I live in NYC. For medical reasons, I can no longer fast for Ramadan. Ramadan now, for me, brings a moment of sadness, a reminder of my health challenges, a sense of loss because I no longer can participate fully in this beautiful and meaningful community activity. Of course, I can attend iftars, and Ramadan is about a lot more than fasting. Still, not fasting for Ramadan, one of the 5 Pillars of (Sunni) Islam, hits me hard. 
I replace my fast I do something Islam suggests as an alternative remedy to this difficulty: I donate to a anti-poverty anti-hunger organization sufficiently to cover the cost of feeding one person for the entire month (there is a list of permissible reasons for not fasting for Ramadan). I continue to maintain the Ramadan tradition of striving to be mindful about my containing my anger, refraining gossip, increasing my charitable works and spiritual reflection, etc. I also think about other things I can add in to my life, or something else I can give up (even a food item). Ramadan is still deeply meaningful for me, even if it is a bittersweet moment. 
Mostafa, MOROCCO

Ramadan for me mostly represents an ego check. While I appreciate the meaning behind the luxury of choosing hunger and thirst, it empowers me by reminding myself that I have choice. Choice in words, actions, and even thoughts. This year I plan on fighting isolation and leaning on my queer Muslim family for support. Reading Quran, making my prayers on time, and reminding myself that everything, even the most concrete of things, is nothing but temporary. Appreciate what you love, and remain steadfast in the face of your challenges. 
Fadi, Place of origin, PALESTINE

I was born in Sudan and grew up in the diaspora, moving from Sudan to Yemen to the USA. I lovingly refer to my lifelong immigrant status as that of an "exported bratty personnel", or expo-brat for short. I also grew up in a household full of opposing opinions in general, and covering the whole spectrum when it came to religion especially. My father, a staunch atheist, does not fast and had me believing until I was 5 that there is such a thing as the 'lizard fast' (where you get to drink coffee and water all day and hide in the shade like a lizard...don't ask about his naming logic, but suffice to say realizing this wasn't true was the equivalent of Christian kids figuring out Santa isn't real). My mom identifies as "culturally Muslim", and used to fast mostly to loose weight, but once we moved to the USA I think partly also to piss off her colleagues who made her work every Christmas. My extended family is deeply conservative (you know the 'everything is haram' type), and since we grew up in a compound home we are all much more involved in each other's lives than is probably healthy. But healthy is such a subjective word, don't you think? 
I always fasted here and there, but I didn't start fasting regularly until I got married. It started out of solidarity with my husband at the time, but quickly became something I enjoyed doing for myself. I never did it like everyone else, but it was also never about anyone else for me so I had no issues with following my own rules. I would juice daily, eat vegan for the full month, and cut out alcohol, practice obscene amounts of yoga everyday, as well as meditate all month on a certain subject or emotional crisis. Since my marriage was falling apart slowly over a couple of years, there was plenty to meditate on. It was my fasting that kept my sanity thru the hard times actually and gave me the perspective I needed. 
This year I am in Cairo for Ramadan. This hasn’t happened since i was a kid. I thought I would find this magical, like when I was a kid, but instead I find it deeply oppressive. I hate feeling bullied into anything, especially emotional spaces. There is a wave of hysterical faith that is oh so very external and so showy that takes over the country. I am happy people find solidarity in each other, but I don't want to feel like a criminal if i decide not to fast. Because it is a CHOICE. My drinking water on the street should have no bearing on your ability to maintain your equilibrium. And if it does challenge it, then you should be working extra hard on balancing yourself, not yelling about my water bottle. 
So this year in solidarity with all my Muslim brothers and sister who choose to NOT fast, I am with you this year. My fast will commence later on this year in my own private time when fasting returns to being about me and not everyone else. 
—Expo-Brat, SUDAN

Ramadan is a time for me to slow down and self-reflect, by getting me to change my daily routine and experience my days from a different lens. It is also a chance to reconnect with my community and chosen family, seeing them on a almost daily basis for the breaking of the fast and prayers. For me, my Ramadan’s in New York have been some of the most spiritually fulfilling ones I’ve had in my life, whereas in the past, it felt more perfunctory and social. I think it’s partially due to the fact that being in such a fast-paced city, and having to be a little more thoughtful on how I spend my time and energy. 
Anonymous, SYRIA

This year Ramadan holds a particularly special significance to me- as an African-American convert to Islam, I just returned from my first trip to the Middle East. I recently spent a week in Israel, wherein I was able to visit both Jaffa and Jerusalem and viewed the Dome of the Rock.  My experiences in Israel were conflicting for me as a Muslim, as I was hesitant to spend money in the country and was frequently looking for opportunities to interact with the few Palestinians whom I encountered.  While in Jaffa, it was a joy to say “As Salaam Alaikum” to the Muslims whom I met, and it was a rewarding experience to make fajr salat [first of the five daily prayers] in a local masjid [mosque]. 
I believe the trip to Israel prepared me mentally for Ramadan, and I look forward to spending this month in remembrance of Allah, rereading the Qur’an, and learning more about the political situation in Israel (particularly the Palestinian disenfranchisement).  This month I look forward to drawing closer to Allah, and to recognizing and honoring the countless blessings that Allah Subhananu Wata’Allah has provided me with throughout this past year.  I also look forward to communing with my brothers and sisters during this Ramadan, and to spending time in the masjid each day for prayers.  Because I am a convert to Islam, and my family practices Christianity, I look forward to spending time with friends and community members during this holy month.
Lyric, USA

Kamal Fizazi is a writer, activist, lawyer, policy wonk, strategic planning and program consultant, and all-around good guy who spends his time thinking about and working on issues of human rights and equality, diversity and inclusion, democracy and social justice, equity, gender, sexuality and public health, faith-based anti-oppression efforts and interfaith organizing, and Lord only knows what else. @kamalfizazi,

Links of Interest
Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity,
Retreat for LGBTQIA Muslims & Their Partners,
Inclusive Mosque Initiative,
Safra Project,
The Inner Circle,
Muslims for Progressive Values,
Global Queer Muslims Network,
Philadelphia Trans Health Conference,

Articles & Websites
#WeAreNotHaram — the hashtag that united PrideMonth & Ramadan
5 Muslim Countries Where Gay is Legal
Website with various news reports and information on Islam and Homosexuality
Stances of Faith toward LGBTQ Issues — Islam, Sunni & Shia

* It's worth noting that there are official, public LGBTQ organizations in the following Muslim-majority countries: Albania, Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Indonesia, Kosovo, Lebanon, Malaysia, Palestine, and Turkey (this list is not exhaustive, there may be more, and there are unofficial networks in other countries)
** Transgender people have certain rights and legal status in Muslim-majority countries they are still fighting to get in the West. For example, in Bangladesh and Pakistan, there is a "third-gender" option available on all official papers. 

Related: The Balancing Act of Being A Queer Muslim
Previous: Upcoming Interfaith Initiatives in Ramadan

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