Sexuality and Islam
The first thing you notice about Sol Alliya Yoga is her gold sparkly fingernails. Her painted hands flutter to her face when her eyes become animated, reaching reflexively to comb through her dark cropped hair.
It’s been two months since Sol left her parent’s home in Punchbowl in Sydney’s south-west after her family struggled to come to terms with her homosexuality.
One night during Ramadan when her family was out for the nightly tarawih prayer, she packed her bags and called her friend to pick her up from her family’s home.
Sol, whose family hails from Indonesia, remembers the moment as a period of high anxiety but also exhilaration.
“I have stuff in the back, stuff in my lap and my heart is just beating really, really fast in the tiny Prius.”
For gay Muslims in the West the heartbreak of navigating sexuality is exacerbated by the complexities of religious and racial identity. Not only can they experience rejection from their communities, but also Islamophobia from the wider society, as well as feeling alienated from a gay subculture that exalts Anglo aesthetics and experiences.
“Why do you even like them anymore?”
Sol’s parents found out about her same-sex attraction after reading her diary.
Although Indonesian culture is open towards sexual minorities, where pop culture is saturated with openly gay and transgender celebrities, Sol’s conservative parents refused to accept their daughter was attracted to women.
Punchbowl is Australia’s Muslim heartland. Sol studied at the local private Malek Fahd Islamic School. Her parents regularly attended lectures of controversial Muslim group Hizb ut-Tahrir and carefully monitored Sol’s friends and movements.
After the diary incident, her parents took her to a Muslim psychologist who promised to perform “gay conversion therapy” and “cure” Sol.
“She told me how she converts all these gay people, and she’s like, I can quote: ‘Even people from Canberra drive all the way here so I can stop them from being gay.’ ”
After three sessions, Sol refused to continue with the therapy, but still clings to her Muslim identity and is open to a relationship with her estranged family.
She says there is an assumption that gay Muslims from migrant families automatically drop their cultural identities when moving in their wider “liberated West” circles.
“I find it so strange when people say once you leave your family you drop them forever and can live your own life,” she says.
Mainstream gay culture often fails to acknowledge the challenges faced by gay people of colour in navigating family relationships, faith and racism, Sol says.
“They really just don’t understand how strong the familial bond is with us. They just don’t get it. Like, why would you ever think about going back? Why do you even like them anymore?”
“Do you still love me?”
For another Muslim woman in Sydney – whom I will call Sana – carving out a space for herself in the queer Muslim narrative is a continuing struggle.
A self-confessed book nerd, she devours American Muslim reformist thinkers such as scholar Scott Kugle, feminist Amina Wadud and gay imam Daayiee Abdullah, all of whom advocate for queer inclusion from a pro-faith perspective.
“I couldn’t understand how a God I understood as loving would be so cruel to one segment of the population, especially if they can’t really change that,” Sana says.
For Sana, the internet has also been a refuge, a way to connect with other young people struggling to navigate a world of shame and secrecy. From Twitter to secret Facebook and Yahoo groups, online communities have allowed young gay Muslims to reach out to each other and talk about spirituality, identity and politics.
The 22-year-old acknowledges her road to coming out has been easier than for other young Muslims, who have been forced to leave home or live painful double lives.
“My experiences were nothing like people who have been kicked out of home and have nowhere to go, or others who were getting into marriages of convenience,” Sana says.
Growing up in the Sutherland Shire in Sydney’s south with an unconventional mixed-culture Indian-Chinese-Malay background gave Sana and her 17-year-old brother a sense of freedom. Unmoored from what can be cloistered ethnic and religious communities, she was spared some of the ostracism experienced by others, but she admits missing the sense of solidarity such groups engender.
Sana’s liberal family always encouraged her and her brother to question and engage with faith, but she admits to still feeling nervous in revealing her sexuality.
She remembers breathing heavily when, at 19, she sat down to tell her parents. She recalls her father’s shocked face and the silence.
“It felt like eternity waiting for the reply. I think my first question was, ‘Do you still love me?’ Then my mum hugged me.”
She says the challenge is compounded by an exclusivist gay scene.
“I felt like they catered to white people or I had to constantly justify why I believe in God.”
Sana, uninterested in the mainstream gay scene centred around bars and clubs, dreams of meeting the right girl in a book reading or knitting club. But she says dating can be difficult in a world where she feels neither fully accepted in gay or Muslim circles.
“It’s still upsetting to know that you can’t really be yourself. You have to live as if your identities are mutually exclusive.”
“Just be proud of who you are.”
Ahmad found losing his religion both liberating and frightening. The 25-year-old says social and family ostracism played a large part in feeling he had no place as a gay man in Muslim circles.
Ahmad still remembers posting a Facebook profile picture with his partner and being the source of gossip.
Like Sol, Ahmad grew up in Sydney’s south-west, in Lakemba, among a large Muslim community. His religious Malaysian-born family placed a premium on Islamic education. At 20, some time after graduating from Malek Fahd, Ahmad went to Syria to study Arabic. It was there, he says, that a shift began.
He went to the Middle East anticipating a renewal in his religious zeal. Instead, what he found in Syria inspired him to take the road he had never imagined he would take – that of living as an openly gay man.
“I was expecting to go the Middle East and find the most religious people. Instead it was regular people figuring their life out,” he says.
The experience made him rethink his relationship with his faith and explore his gay identity. No longer feeling compelled to live a painful life fearing he would somehow give himself away – self-conscious of his demeanour and whether things he said “sounded gay” – Ahmad finally felt he could be free to be himself.
But the revelation did not come without a cost.
“I feel like I lost something,” he says. “I lost that certainty that comes with my religion.”
Growing up, Ahmad understood being gay was taboo. Homophobic comments were rife. He heard of gruesome punishments for “sodomites”, who were to be thrown off cliffs onto spikes for their transgressions.
“One day you get the realisation that all of that is you. That entire bag of homophobia falls on your head,” he says.
Even after his father found gay porn on his computer as a teen, his reaction was to pretend it never existed.
“I always thought I’d be a good Muslim boy. I’ll marry a woman and go through the mechanics of it,” Ahmad says.
But the double life, the stress and the pretending became too much.
Ahmad says family is still integral to his life, despite the tension his homosexuality causes. He now lives on campus at his university and has even brought his ex-partner home for Eid.
“I never imagined in a thousand years I would do something like that.”
He says the challenge for gay Muslims facing places where they experience rejection begins first with finding a place to celebrate and honour the beauty of being different.
“Just be proud of who you are.”
Lifeline 13 11 14
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 26, 2015 as "Sexuality and Islam". Subscribe here.