Thursday, January 26, 2012

Queer Muslims, Jews and Christians

Queer Muslims showing their pride (BBC image)
A recent panel discussion I attended on coming out in communities of faith blew me away. It was lo-fi: five folks willing to share their stories and 10 of us there to listen and ask questions. The panelists included one queer Muslim woman raised in the southeast United States, a lesbian aetheiest raised in Iran, a Conservative Rabbi and her gay brother, and a gay evangelical Christian.

I knew the least about what it means to be queer in Muslim and Middle Eastern communities, so those women's stories struck me the most. The woman raised in Iran until college, J., told us that while young college educated Iranians are comfortable speaking about gays and lesbians in an intellectual sense (and that one of the Green Party's issues to discuss was homosexuality), the state is murderously repressive. Like, literally you can be condemned to death for being queer. However, the government will pay for you to have a sex change, because homosexuality is seen as so abhorrent that it is better to change your body so that you can 'pass' as heterosexual. To survive, many lesbians and gays do elect to have sex change operations. J. estimated that 70% of the transsexuals in Iran are lesbians or gays who have decided to surgically change their bodies because the bodies and romantic desires they were born with could be punished with death.*

Given the cultural reinforcement that it is better to be trans than lesbian or gay, when J. began realizing her attraction to women during college in the U.S., she assumed she was trans. She fought with herself internally for a while before being able to come to terms with the fact that she was attracted to women and she loved her female body.

While J. was being raised by aetheiest parents in Iran, K., who was born in the Middle East, was being raised in a very conservative Muslim community in the southeast of the U.S. Because the immigrant community there is so small, for K. to come out to one person outside of her immediate family would mean she would be out to the whole community. The 'guilt by association' mindset could have the effect of having her family ostracized by the community. I am glad to report that K. and J.'s parents have not rejected them, but neither have they embraced their daughters. Both families tell their daughters to be extremely discreet, asking that they not be "selfish" and be their queer selves openly. K. and J. are out to friends and colleagues, but they are not out to many of their family members and family friends.

I admire these women so much, and am so impressed at the activist work they do, both at a personal level and at a community level. They each partner with other people from Islamist countries to do anti-LGBT discrimination work in their local faith communities. I am really looking forward to the day when I can write about them by name because that will be the day that their Muslim family and friends have learned to accept and embrace who they are.

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*Please note: In no way am I (or J.) implying that trans people in the US (or other countries) who have surgery are just people who can't handle being gay or lesbian. This is an insane exception to the rule where the Iranian regime gives gays and lesbians very bleak choices on how they can survive: they can go totally underground (with the threat of death always present if found out) or they can opt for surgery to lead somewhat more free lives.

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