Freedom to Love

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Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Muslims strive to reconcile their sexual orientation with their religion. Ab Syahid examines their plight in a global context.

At the tender age of seven I watched a music video on MTV with two of my older brothers. In it, a stunningly beautiful woman rollerbladed leisurely on a boardwalk. Then she was riding a roller coaster, singing calmly while everyone else screamed their lungs out. The music video was Fantasy by Mariah Carey. I thought I’d seen an angel; my heart skipped a beat and brimmed with ecstasy. That was when I came to know that I was one of the ‘normal’ ones. But what is ‘normal’? Normal is when a man is attracted to a woman and vice versa. Right?

‘Finding a cure for homosexuality is like finding a cure for ageing. There’s no medicine that could possibly change my sexual orientation,’ asserts Yusra Dayana*, a 26-year-old Muslim woman in Singapore. ‘I didn’t wake up one day and decide to change my sexual orientation. I truly believe I was born this way. It’s natural and people need to accept it. There’s homosexuality in animals as well, but I don’t see people getting all riled up about that.’ She states further that being ‘out-and-proud’ can make her feel as though she is bathing in a fountain of freedom one day and drowning in a reservoir of discrimination the next.

Yusra’s experience of both societal acceptance and rejection was mirrored recently by two very different kinds of announcements. In May, an American pastor in North Carolina detailed his plans to rid the world of homosexuality during a sermon. In a widely circulated video posted to YouTube, he proposed fencing up all the gays and lesbians in the world – apparently under the mistaken belief that homosexuality breeds homosexuals.

Less than two months later, American television journalist Anderson Cooper revealed that he was gay. The news hit headlines, but prompted very little shock and even less criticism. In fact, his announcement was met with considerable mainstream support, praising him for paving the way for LGBTs who hide their sexual orientation. Perhaps even more noteworthy, however, were the numerous yawns and ho-hums from folks who considered the announcement less than newsworthy.

I’ve led a difficult life being a gay Muslim. But society is slowly welcoming us with the warmest embrace.

A report by Marie von Hafften in the Global Post describes the situation of lesbians in Morocco, a Muslim country considerably more liberal than most of its neighbours in the region. One of those interviewed, 20-year-old Sarah, has been hiding her sexual orientation all her life. Laws punish any ‘lewd or unnatural acts’ between members of the same gender with fines and prison sentences, and most Moroccans remain firmly opposed, pointing out that homosexuality is haram in Islam. Sarah was attacked by an ex-boyfriend three times, but her fear of state laws kept her from reporting the abuse to authorities. According to the Global Post report, a ‘solution’ for some lesbians is to marry a gay man. This would serve to appease the parents of both individuals, who would then be able to continue leading their secret lives. But Sarah and her girlfriend, Maria, seem to have no plans to go down that route, remaining steadfast in their views. ‘There is no limit to love in our religion. For us, there is no limit for love,’ says Sarah. But she concedes that she knows others who, bombarded with opinions that being both Muslim and homosexual is impossible, lose their faith in God or even renounce their religion altogether.

Firdaus Noordin*, a 25-year-old account manager from Singapore, believes that one can be both homosexual and Muslim. He chooses to lead by example. ‘I pray five times a day, I don’t make any fitnahs. I try to be a good person, be selfless, give when I can, treat others like how I want to be treated. I hope that suffices. But if I do all those things, and also fulfil the five pillars of Islam, and I’m still destined for hell for that one aspect of me that should never matter, then it’s truly out of my hands,’ he laments. ‘I’ve led a difficult life being a gay Muslim. But society is slowly welcoming us with the warmest embrace,’ he says with a smile.

Discrimination against LGBTs has generally decreased over the decades. Not so long ago, they were subject to widespread verbal or even physical harassment. Nowadays, social norms have evolved. Once-obscure gay pride marches have grown into massive celebrations attended by people from all walks of life and sponsored by companies such as Google, Toyota and major banks. The conflict between religion and homosexuality, however, persists. It is stated clearly in the Qur’an and hadiths that homosexuality is not only frowned upon, but is a valid reason for ostracism.

A few weeks ago in Singapore, I wore my pink shirt and stood amongst the crowd of 15,000 at PinkDot 2012, a celebration of the freedom to love. I got a little emotional; overwhelmed by how ‘normal’ everyone was and how openly they accepted heterosexuals like me who attended the event out of sheer curiosity. After mulling it over, I believe that intolerance of LGBTs is largely due to our upbringing. Many have grown up with the story of Adam and Hawa, about a man and a woman who started humanity. Things wouldn’t have worked out if they had been homosexual, so the argument goes. This reasoning tends to be used by religious followers who have strict interpretations of their scriptures. But anecdotal evidence, at least in Singapore, suggests to me that more and more young Muslims accept homosexuality – a marked departure from the views of previous generations.

Other struggles for acceptance and equal rights mirror the situation that LGBT communities find themselves in today. Throughout much of history, women were treated like second-class citizens – denied education, job opportunities, the right to vote and the chance to have a voice in politics. In short, they were (and often still are, admittedly) denied the right to self-determination. These social inequities exist not only in Muslim countries, but the world over. But attitudes are changing. Albeit gradually, women are finding it possible to stake their rightful claim as equal members of society.

Another such example is the American civil rights movement, championed by Martin Luther King, Jr. After all the suffering that the African American people have been through, one of their own is now calling the shots in the White House. Indications suggest that the storm is now beginning to subside for the LGBT Muslim community. Although their struggle is still in its infancy, each new day brings them a step closer to acceptance. Mariah Carey can’t ‘save’ us all.

* Names have been changed at the request of interviewees.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Aquila Style.

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