On Friday May 31, 2013, the Washington Post published an article about a retreat for LGBTQ Muslims and their partners that had taken place the weekend before. Along with five other individuals who were present at the retreat, the article included a section about me. Amidst positive reactions coming my way from friends and long lost acquaintances, I struggle with my own mixed reaction to the article. For a community whose identities, needs, and struggles are too often invisible within society, it is indeed a cause for celebration to be featured by a high profile media outlet. Yet, I worry that the article misrepresented me, and presented the LGBTQ Muslim community and the LGBTQ Muslim Retreat through a narrow lens.
The title of the section about me, "The Immigrant Experience," felt misleading. While I feel connected to the immigrant experience, that phrase does not accurately capture my identity or my experience. My father is from Somalia and my mother is a white American whose family has been in the United States for many generations. Though I was born in Somalia, I was born a United States citizen. This, along with the fact that English is my mother's primary language and that she was raised to navigate American society, has privileged me in a way that most immigrants and first generation Americans do not experience.
I want to make clear: when I speak of the challenges of being a refugee, I include the experiences of many of my Somali family members, but not my own.
The piece also states that when I came out to my family, I "felt pushed away by the Somali community." Astoundingly, I asked the reporter to say that I was rejected by some Somalis — not all of them. I have not had a blanket experience of homophobia from Somalis (or Muslims, for that matter). I conveyed to her that these are complex and nuanced experiences — ones not easily summed up by a reporter on a deadline with a tight word limit. The multiplicity of reactions from straight Muslims — including outspoken LGBTQ allies and supportive Muslim families — is not captured in the article.
Beyond my personal story, I feel that the article paints the Muslim LGBTQ community as somewhat of a novelty. Why should our gathering be described as a "somewhat surprising event"? Why should the existence of LGBTQ individuals be any more surprising in Muslim communities than in other communities? The reaction is connected to the Islamophobic notion that Muslims are backwards and intolerant.
The author also writes that, "(Many folks said that they face Islamophobia from inside the mainstream LGBTQ community)." But why the parentheses? Islamophobia is not an aside. The LGBTQ movement is led by and serves primarily white cisgender gay men. The implication is that the specific ways in which homophobia intersects with other forms of oppression are peripheral. I find this to be a core reason why LGBTQ Muslims have chosen to gather — to build a community and a movement in which our experiences are valued as central. Islamophobia not only impacts our lives within the mainstream LGBTQ community, but in mainstream American society as well.
I am also frustrated by the title of the article: "At Muslim LGBTQ retreat, attendees try to reconcile their faith and sexuality." When I was coming into my sexual identity while attending university, I was not struggling to reconcile those things nor did I question whether Islam had a place for me. The title also does not capture the breadth and depth of reasons why this is an event that I have now attended three years in a row.
The reasons I attend the retreat are community, activism, and spirituality. I feel blessed to belong to the LGBTQ Muslim Retreat family, and now the Queer Muslims of Boston family, especially since I have felt — like many others feel — like I’m the “only one.”
At the retreat, we challenged each other on issues of privilege and oppression and worked to create an inclusive community. This past year I attended an illuminating workshop on religious diversity within Islam that challenged my own ignorance about Shi'a Muslims and last year a white antiracism caucus was held. Some workshops over the years have focused on building activism skills such as community engagement and coalition building. Others emphasized spirituality and theology.
I have found that often stories about LGBTQ folks, especially those of color, focus on the sensational negatives — the rejection, the depression, etc. Maybe these are the parts of our collective story that editors believe will tug at the heartstrings of their readers. But as I shared in an email to the reporter, I believe "the core of why the retreat should be highlighted, is that it's a site of positivity, strength, and inspiration."
Islam is a vibrant religion with a rich history of questioning and debate. It’s a faith with a multiplicity of interpretations and lived manifestations. It provides believers from all walks of life with an example — the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) — who challenged the status quo in his society, upset traditions and norms, and pursued the betterment of the world while loving God fiercely. It’s a shame that the Washington Post article didn’t see the Muslim LGBTQ community in that dynamic light.By Kaamila Mohamed