LGBTQIA Muslims: “An online imam with background music is hardly the absolute truth”

Three queer Muslims from Central Asia talk about the internal conflict they may feel.
22 December 2021
The Village Kazakhstan

Translated from Russian by Valeria Khotsina

People often find it difficult to believe that religious institutions known for being conservative can embrace sexual and gender diversity. Even though few people associate religion with progressiveness and tolerance, there are also people from the LGBTQIA community among believers. In the following, several queer Muslims from Central Asia tell their stories and their views on sexual and religious identities.

Aida, Astana

On religion

I was born in the south of the country but now live in the capital, I study biological sciences at university. I was brought up by my grandmother for the first few years. My parents worked hard and only made an appearance in my life when I turned five.

My family is quite progressive for a southern region, but also religious. I was taught how to stretch out my arms when praying, to say “Kudai kalasa” (God willing), but I was never forced to wear a headscarf or pray namaz (Muslim prayer) . My father said I was too young for that, and that religion should be approached consciously. However, I still participated in religious activities and observed some traditions, as my parents told me to.

I came to my faith consciously at the age of 16. I had an operation to remove my appendix. It was a very difficult period: slow recovery, anaphylactic shocks. I sank myself into depression — there was nothing left but my faith in God. And then a lot of lucky coincidences happened. For example, one surgeon took a holiday and a more qualified doctor operated on me; I was also lucky to get into a good health centre. I could find no other explanation except that some supreme forces wanted me to stay alive. I started learning surahs (sections of the Quran), reading the Quran and observing the Sawm (fasting).

At that time, I romanticised religion a lot. I used to think that non-believers just didn’t have a situation when they were on the verge of life and death, I believed that everyone should come to God. It’s a bit embarrassing now.

For me, religion is not so much about observing traditions, but rather believing in something supreme. Some people believe in their purpose, in destiny or the universe. My belief in God helps me to live and find my way out of difficult situations, but I am not ready to practise self-denial. For example, I am not a virgin but I am not married. Being law-abiding doesn’t automatically make you a believer.

On queer Identity

I became aware of myself as a queer person in my freshman year of university, but the first shots were fired as early as in my teens. Back then, I admired the looks of famous actresses and would put them as a background picture of my computer. When my peers admired the looks of men, I was reminded that women were no less beautiful. At the same time, I had inner homophobia and rejected my belonging to the community.

I grew up in the noughties: there was no queer education and a lot of homophobic language in the family. I had a default mentality that same-sex relationships were a disease.

There were a few exceptions: the TV series Glee which exposed many LGBTQIA characters and Barack Obama. In 2012, he ran for his second term and publicly stated that he approved of legalising same-sex marriage. Acute discussion started, and I began to realise that same-sex relationships were OK.

Then I went to university and fell in love with a girl. I accepted myself despite my inner conflict — for a while I thought I was biromantic but heterosexual.

My father used to say: “Transgender people do exist. They have their rights, because the state gives them those rights,” so he was always my role model.

On disharmony

I didn’t feel any opposition between liberal and religious values. Probably because my family is fairly secular and progressive. My father never forced my mother to pray namaz or observe the Sawm as he did. He never imposed his views on others and his faith had no bearing on how others were treated. I think this is right because in Islam you are not supposed to insult, humiliate or maim a person, whoever they are. You must also obey the laws of the country in which you live, and you must not play God.

However, I have not told my parents that I am queer yet. I don’t know if I want to be with a guy or a girl for life. If it’s a guy, there is no need to come out. If it’s a girl, I will have to open up to my family. They are pretty understanding people, but it seems they still need quite some education. Right now I’m slowly preparing the ground for coming out.

It’s a different situation with my friends. My current environment is accepting and supportive. After getting to know me, some have even become ardent defenders of LGBTQIA rights. It makes me feel good because real friends don’t just protect you when you’re around. I try to grow apart from people who say, “I disapprove of gay people, but I feel OK about you.” Before I open up to a new acquaintance, I always probe the ground and then expose myself.

On the combination of identities

Recently the Kazakhstani queer-feminist collective Feminita was attacked, then the popular blogger Mereı Jolshy defiantly burned rainbow flags and Pop Its.

I finally realised that when it comes to the orientation you have no choice, otherwise who would choose to be born gay in Kazakhstan?

I would not choose to belong to the most discriminated group of people. People are born gay, so I realised that God probably made me the way I am for a reason. He loves all his children, so we should all have a place in the world.

I’ve done a lot of research on the topic of orientation and religion. When you search “LGBT+ Islam” on YouTube, a lot of videos are displayed claiming that religion and being LGBTQIA do not form an opposition. Religion can change too. The Catholic Church is making moves in this direction and I hope there will be positive changes in the Islamic world too.

I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but the religious community in Kazakhstan is making it seem like faith and same-sex relationships are two warring camps. By such stances, conservatives push young people away from religion and even from exploring it.

On religious homophobes

I think homophobes who cover their views with religion are really just hypocrites and don’t know what they are trying to defend.

The basic tenets of the religion are no offence, no violence, no killing.

The fact that homophobes break these laws shows that they don’t really care about religion. Maybe they just can’t accept their hatred, so they have found a convenient explanation for it — preserving traditional values. I think some of them definitely belong to the LGBTQIA community themselves, they are just afraid to admit it and sublimate their feelings into hatred because going to a psychologist is taboo in our country. It’s just doublethink.

People often forget that other people have rights too. Many believe Instagram bloggers more than research and scientific articles. You can’t turn someone gay by just looking at them. I’ve seen a lot of heterosexuals, but it hasn’t really affected me. Although I wish it had — fewer people would wish me dead then.

Is being LGBTQIA a sin?

It all depends on who interprets which scripture, the Quran or the Bible. Each person interprets it differently. For example, there is Islamic feminism. It says that the Quranwas interpreted by men, so they did it in a way that benefited them. This interpretation directly affects society.

I can’t think of a section in the Quran where it says that same-sex relationships are a sin. I know there’s a point in the Bible that says that a man can’t lie with a male. But I have also heard that this fragment has been misinterpreted and is actually about the prohibition against lying with a child, against paedophilia.

Love is strongly valued in Islam. It doesn’t matter to whom: brothers, sisters, parents or lovers, or what gender these people are. As long as there is genuine love, these relationships have the right to exist. What Islam is unequivocally against is sex outside marriage. If people want to embody their love, they should get married.

Islam also teaches you to obey the laws of your country. If you live in Europe and by law, people have the right to engage in same-sex marriages, as a believer, you cannot speak out against it and attack these people. Therefore, I think that Islam is quite capable of accepting same-sex marriage.

I cannot give a definite answer to the question of whether same-sex relationships are sinful or not, because religion changes. Hookah was invented in the Arab countries, however, one of the major sins in Islam is harm to one’s health. Nowadays hookah is not approved, along with alcohol and cigarettes. So religion and life are changing. I think there are many more changes in the future.

However, we would rather die of a climate crisis than have same-sex marriages allowed in Arab countries.

I don’t think people will change their attitudes drastically, because it’s part of their worldview, and they are the ones who still cut off fingers for crimes and carry out executions. Even the fact that women were allowed to drive cars in Saudi Arabia was a big sensation.

Asan, Almaty

On religion and sexuality

I was born into a Kazakh-speaking family with many children. There are both “non-observing” and “observing” Muslims in the family. Relations with my relatives are okay, if I keep my distance, I consult them on different issues, help and receive help from them. There are disagreements, for example, about LGBTQIA, about gender equality. But in such a situation someone at the table usually just diplomatically changes the subject.

My views are based on Islamic philosophy. I would not say that I have “come to faith”, I rather think this is a lifetime process. I would say that I am still walking towards it: I study Islam and the concept of “faith” in general and I look for answers in the scriptures, in myself, in the words of theologians. Many things attract and fascinate me about Islam. For example, the prophet’s selfless struggle for faith, freedom and truth against injustice and oppression. I like egalitarianism in Islam and the history of Kazakhstan and Central Asia, which are closely intertwined with Islam. As for religious practice, I pray namaz but do not observe the Ramazan (TN: name given to Ramadan in Turkish countries) because of my health.

As a teenager I realised that I was attracted to other guys, but not to girls. Later I mastered my English and learned about the LGBTQIA rights movement, paid attention to their arguments. I read scientific research on these issues, went deeper into the nuances, the details, realised the complexity and the multifaceted nature of this universe. I studied the history of Islam and religions in general, sociology, anthropology, biology, the history of sexuality — how different peoples at different times viewed sexuality and gender, including in the Islamic world. The internal conflict vanishes when you gain knowledge. If facts matter to you, you begin to realise at the very least that a video of some online imam with sentimental music in the background is hardly the final truth.

Of course, I experienced internal conflicts. Sometimes embittered people speak of “people like us” with contempt or disgust. They think they are talking about someone who is far away, who is “out there”, who is not “among them”, they do not realise they are hurting the person next to them. When one tries to find out the reason for this condemnation, one often gets empty answers: “forbidden”, “against nature”, “unnatural”.

It is not clear where the line is between “natural” and “unnatural”: is it natural to wear clothes or drive a ton of metal while burning some liquid? Is taking pills natural? Is using one’s mouth, tongue, lips for such a perverse act as “talking” natural? Does anyone other than a human being do that?

On relationships and coming out

I am in a long-lasting relationship. We met online, nothing romantic. He supports me in my spiritual search, but he identifies as “a believer, but not a Muslim”. I don’t like this attitude, but I think he will follow my example.

I came out to some family members. At times I feel sad that I cannot share my feelings of separation, crushes, fears and hopes with my mother. Sometimes my parents drop hints that “it’s time to get married“. But for now, I prioritise my parents’ health and my own comfort. I do nothing to harm myself or them, I do not commit a crime to confess to them of what I have “done”. I will answer for my sins to Allah, and I do not need any validation in this matter from my parents — they are educated, but they are not experts in medicine, biology or sociology either. Perhaps I will have to at some point. I am going to solve problems as they arise.

Everyone I consider my friend knows about my orientation. At first, I probed the ground, seeking opinions. You don’t just come up and say, “Hi, I’m gay.”

The friends I’ve come out to have always remained grateful for my trust and for opening their eyes to the fact that LGBTQIA is not about something far away, but first and foremost about the people among us. Among the friends I opened up to were practising Muslims, the reactions were not particularly dependent on the friends’ piety.

I also have many queer friends. Some of them are believers and some are agnostics. I haven’t counted, but I guess there may be more agnostics because, alas, religion has been particularly used to promote sexism, transphobia and homophobia in recent centuries under the influence of European colonialism. 

On homophobia and Islam

I am sorry for the homophobes who commit such a sin and call for violence and cruelty without having the expertise to do so. In the context of an ideology as hostile and extremist as homophobia, which kills, ruins lives, separates children and parents, discriminates, cripples minds and bodies, it seems a sin not to stand with human rights activists.

Homophobia leads to violence and so actively supporting this ideology smacks of sin. But at the same time I do not try to proclaim that LGBTQIA or same-sex sexual contact even after marriage is something permissible. I have been studying the issue. There is some consensus in Islam about the sinfulness of homosexual relations, but no consensus about the punishment or the level of that sin. What bothers me about Muslim homophobes is not that they think it’s a sin, but that they described it as “grave sin”, “the curse of Allah” or “one should be killed for such a thing”.

Killing for such a thing is not the position of Islam, but the NSDAP in the 1940s.

There is a famous hadith that homophobes and transphobes like to refer to. However, just one phrase rather than an entire text: “The Prophet (saws) cursed the women who imitate men and the men who imitate women.” No one, however, is interested in the whole hadith, which tells a whole story, and it is not described dramatically as “men who imitate women“, but a separate Arabic word — muhannat — is used that denotes a certain category of people with a blurred gender identity, which in itself refers to the gender or sexual diversity of that society. A hadith tells the story of a muhannat friend of the Prophet’s wife who had access to both male and female spaces. One day he described the appearance of another man’s woman to an outsider, the Prophet got angry and “cursed” him for that. Do you know how he punished the muhannat? By forbidding him to visit the Prophet’s house. He did not stone him or hang him or kick him, but forbade him to enter his house. Moreover, in other hadiths, Muhammad “curses” someone, but authoritative theologians often explain these curses as mere interjections and nothing more, insisting that curses and profanity, in general, are forbidden.

To call for violence, destruction, discrimination for something that is human nature is not about Islam. At the same time you can consider homosexuality a sin, but drinking alcohol is also a sin, right? But you don’t hear calls for those who drink alcohol to be hanged, shot or driven out of the country, do you? And the immediate harm and danger of alcohol and the fact that it can be “imposed” and “promoted” is proven, unlike sexual orientation or gender identity.

More and more often we seem to be relying on scientists and factual information, and in predominantly Muslim countries like Kazakhstan, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, there is a growing awareness among people about what sexual orientation is and why things are more complicated than Ken and Barbie. I would be even more worried about the fate of LGBTQIA people in predominantly Christian countries like Poland, Belarus, Russia, which almost always rank much more deplorable in tolerance ratings than Kazakhstan, Turkey and Kyrgyzstan.

Amir, Bishkek

On orientation

I knew from an early age that I was different from other boys: I looked rather feminine, I played with dolls. But it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I became aware of the existence of gays and lesbians. I was bullied at school by other boys. They called me a poofter and other offensive words. I wondered what they meant and asked my mum about it. That’s how I found out that there was a group of people who were attracted to their sex.

I didn’t socialise much with my peers, so I had to learn things from more advanced teenagers. I learned the word “virginity” in ninth grade, at age 15, when a classmate was bullied for allegedly not being a virgin. There was no sex education or the internet, and newspapers and magazines didn’t discuss such things.

By the time I was 17 I realised I was definitely not heterosexual. I realised there was nothing I could do about it and it was a natural part of me. I was born and raised in a small town where I felt like I was all alone. After finishing school I went to university and moved to Bishkek.

On coming to religion

I was part of a regular secular family. We considered ourselves Muslims, but I came to religion consciously when I was at university. We studied subjects in Arabic with a bias towards piety, including Islam. The professors were from Arab countries, leading an appropriate lifestyle. A certain lobby must have formed at the university, but we didn’t realise it.

As I studied religion more deeply, I began to pray namaz five times a day. My brother and mother saw me do this, and eventually, they began to pray namaz too. I wasn’t the only one at university: many girls started wearing the hijab by their sophomore year. I remember that even my Russian classmates embraced Islam at some point. I don’t want to call it propaganda; it seemed to us that everything happened organically and naturally.

I was 18 years old at the time. The period when you start to think about identity, to reflect and analyse yourself. I had no problem accepting my new identity as a Muslim. I did what the five pillars of Islam suggest, except for attending the Hajj. That is a more technical matter, I didn’t have the opportunity to go to Mecca at the time. I observed the Sawn, prayed namaz five times a day, paid zakat (alms) and said the Shahadah (an islamic oath).

On the internal conflict

I had been in harmony with myself since childhood, but after embracing religion, I faced a new challenge.

I remember one of my classmates asking the teacher about same-sex relationships. The teacher replied that if two men engage in lust, it makes the throne of God shake.

He didn’t explain where he got these words from, I don’t know if he was quoting any hadith. Despite this, at the age of 19, I took his statement to heart.

I started having identity issues. I repressed myself and thought I was wrong if God didn’t accept me. I felt that I could not combine two identities. Approaching graduation, I started living a more secular life: I stopped praying namaz and observing the Sawm. I had not renounced my faith, but the daily reading of namaz five times a day reminded me that there was something wrong with me.  I did not want to torment myself.

I lived like that until I was about 30. At the same time, I was involved in doing LGBTQIA rights activism. I once attended a conference for queer Muslims where not just people with the two identities came together, but also academicians, professors who had studied the topic in depth. That’s when I realised that I could live and combine my identities.

If God created everything and he is not wrong, then it turns out that he created LGBTQIA too. So if such people should not exist, then God is wrong?

In this case, the whole concept doesn’t work. It turns out that we also have some mission in this world.

Now I openly identify as a Muslim. I go to Friday prayers, I read the Quran to my friends’ families when someone dies, but I don’t pray five times a day. I don’t think not following a particular tradition makes you less of a believer. Faith and religion are very intimate topics. Everyone has an individual relationship with God. You don’t always need institutions, authorities and special establishments.

On the coming-out

Unfortunately, my parents died early and I did not have time to tell them everything. I didn’t come out to my brother and other family members and I don’t think it’s necessary. When my mother was alive, she was worried that I was not going to get married. Every visit I had ended up talking about getting married. Since her death, my brother hasn’t reminded me of it, but I’m not going to explain to him why I’m still not married. If he asks, I won’t lie.

I mostly socialise with people from the LGBTQIA community. For my colleagues, since I am involved in activism, it is perfectly normal. It is also natural for them that I am a believer, there is no stigma. As part of our organisation’s activity, we run a separate project for queer Muslims. We hold training sessions to harmonise the two identities.

The clergy in Kyrgyzstan have prejudices, so they only approach the issue from the perspective of sin. I see no point in engaging in a dialogue with orthodox religious figures, so I work exclusively within our community.

On queer Islam

To get a sense of queer Muslims, we first have to understand who Muslims in general are. Many people think that only those who follow all the rules of Islam can be considered Muslims.

But we have to take into account that in Central Asia we are not 100% Muslims. Any Kyrgyz or Kazakh is considered a Muslim by default at birth. Some are more orthodox and follow all the traditions. Some consider themselves Muslims, might observe the Sawm, but do not see a problem with eating pork, drinking or smoking. For me, it is enough that a person identifies as a Muslim. I don’t think there is any hierarchy from super-Muslim to slightly Muslim.

Almost every Kyrgyz considers themselves a Muslim, which is why there are plenty of Muslims in the LGBTQIA community. Another thing is how important the identity is to them. I supervise those queer Muslims for whom faith plays a big role in life and who struggle with harmonising their two identities.

We don’t have clear statistics on how many people in the community believe in God. There is a common perception that LGBTQIA equals secularism. The fact is that a large proportion of people, like myself at some point, thought or heard that the religious community would not accept them. So consciously or not, they gave up their faith in God. It is human nature to choose the easier path. Especially since people have the freedom to choose

On homophobia in religion

The piety of the Kyrgyz is a rather complex subject. We used to be pagans, Tengrians, atheists. Now we seem to have decided that we adhere to Islam, but at the same time there are many atheists, Baptists, even followers of religious sects in the country. Many identify as Muslims but have little understanding of the topic. Just like that teacher who talked about the shaking of the divine throne, but did not cite the source. Because of such inaccuracies, we seem to play Chinese Whispers — someone said something, that person passed it on to someone else, but no one verified the information.

Religious leaders or simply homophobes often cite hadiths as an argument against LGBTQIA. Hadiths are stories related to the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Each hadith raises a specific issue and provides an answer that a Muslim can be guided by. Some hadiths do call to kill men for having sex with other men. But I believe that hadiths should be approached critically because of the many contradictions they contain. For example, some hadiths say that the Prophet Muhammad forbade them to be written down.

One collection may consist of hadiths that proclaim opposite things. For example, there is a question of what to do if an animal is molested. One says that both the abuser and the animal should be killed. The next one says that the animal should be killed and the abuser should be kept alive but punished.

The fact is that they started to write down the hadiths several hundred years after the Prophet’s death. Those written during his lifetime were destroyed because the Prophet wished so. He understood that people tend to twist and invent things. Sorry, but after so many years one can forget and twist everything.

The Quran mentions some connection with LGBTQIA in the story of Prophet Lut. In the Bible, he is called Lot and is mentioned in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot was sent by Allah to a village where there was sexualised violence against women, men, strangers. We are talking about promiscuous violence, but for some reason, it is treated as homosexuality when related to men and as violence against women. There are no stories of mutual romantic sympathy between two men in the Quran, only stories of violence. Academics and professors who study the subject consider this story to be a weak argument to consider same-sex relationships a sin.

Even if some hadiths spoke positively about same-sex relationships, I would still be sceptical because there are a lot of inaccuracies in them. It is different with the Quran. To deny the Quran is to deny the whole religion, for it is the main book of Muslims.

In the Quran, I haven’t seen a rejection of various identities. There is a surah about figs and olives. The olive has one seed and the fig has many. The olive seed is the embodiment of the fact that all people are one. The seed in a fig represents that people are all different and that is our beauty. The Quran calls on people to love each other as brothers and sisters. Islam brings love and kindness, but people have turned it into a terrorist religion associated with monsters.

On the future of queer Muslims

Islam is a relatively young religion. Judaism and Christianity once denied LGBTQIA too, but now we see the Pope saying people should be tolerant.

Why can’t a similar thing happen to Islam? It is much younger than Christianity, so one day attitudes towards LGBTQIA will likely change.

This article was originally published here

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