The Lesson Is Clear: It’s Time for Meaningful Inclusion
48 hours before Omar Mateen opened fire in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, I was leading Friday prayers for around a dozen LGBTQ Muslims at the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference.
In my sermon, I spoke about Surah al-Asr, the 103rd chapter of the Qur’an, which says that to thrive we need to have faith, do good in the world, support one another to hold firmly to the truth, and have patience. These verses have another implicit message: we can’t do this alone. We need one another.
I had no idea how soon we would be reminded just how true this is.
I didn’t know Omar Mateen, so I can’t know what was going through his head when he decided to shoot more than a hundred people, mostly Latinx, at a gay bar. I don’t know whether he was struggling with being gay himself or whether, as his father has indicated, he was deeply offended by homosexuality. What I do know is that he reportedly had a history of domestic violence and anger issues. He also was not known to be particularly religious. These traits are common to many perpetrators of violence and they set him apart from most Muslims I know.
I converted to Islam at 14, and I've been a devout follower for three decades. When I started to grapple with my gender identity in my 20s, I began to struggle with my faith. I heard over and over – from more non-Muslims than Muslims -- that one could not be queer or trans and Muslim. For a time, I felt like my identity was fractured.
In Muslim space, I discovered you can hide a lot under a long dress and head scarf. Things became harder once I transitioned. When I took my children to holiday celebrations, a close friend approached me, concerned that I was no longer wearing a headscarf and assumed it meant I was no longer religious. Other friends looked away as I passed them with my short hair and men's button-down shirt. My ex-husband told my son that I was condemned to hell and insisted he agree. For a time, I withdrew from my religious community entirely. Yet I knew that these views were not representative of all Muslims. There were others, including my former in-laws, who expressed surprise when they saw me -- but then embraced me. A local mosque became aware of my work and explicitly invited me to join.
In non-Muslim space, I could conceal my faith because I don’t look like the stereotype of a Muslim. At queer events, I often kept silent about my Muslim identity out of fear of Islamophobia. While I didn't lose queer friends over my faith, I discovered that some believed I was an exception, a "good Muslim" that stood in contrast to all those other "bad Muslims," and assumed that their comments about other Muslims didn't affect me.
As a transgender Muslim, I know personally what it means to be a devout Muslim who has struggled with an identity that I was told conflicted with Islam. I’ve supported many other people who have experienced that struggle, as well. Neither I nor they acted on that struggle by killing others. If anything, like all LGBTQ people, we are at greater risk of turning that struggle against ourselves.
According to the CDC, LGBTQ youth are twice as likely to attempt suicide. A quarter of transgender youth attempt suicide. That isn’t a coincidence. The LGBTQ community has made progress in recent years, but we continue to face prejudice on a daily basis. In recent months, homophobic and transphobic rhetoric has increased, as a result of legislation like North Carolina’s HB2, which prohibits LGBTQ non-discrimination laws and requires transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds to the gender on their birth certificates. The most hateful rhetoric often comes from people who justify their words and actions in the name of religion, cowering behind a brand of Christianity that most Christians don’t recognize.
Add to that pressure the Islamophobia that Muslims in the U.S. face. A study by David R. Hodge, Tarek Zidan and Altaf Hussain in the Social Work journal in 2015 showed that Muslims have an increased risk of depression, especially if they are facing personal harassment. More than 60% of that study’s respondents reported they had been treated with suspicion and nearly 40% had been called offensive names.
Whatever Mateen’s personal motivations, his actions didn’t happen in a vacuum. Vocal anti-LGBTQ sentiments have been everywhere recently. Mere days before the Orlando massacre, a woman identified by media as a “conservative Christian” set off a bomb in a Target bathroom in Evanston, Illinois, in response to Target’s gender-inclusive bathroom policy. On the same day as Mateen’s attack, an armed man was apprehended en route to the LA Pride Parade. Within hours of Mateen’s attack, statements appeared on social media applauding the massacre of “filthy gays.”
As an American Muslim newly out as trans during the 1990s, I avoided Pride events out of fear of being an open target for homophobes. When I was at queer events, I was often silent about my Muslim identity, out of fear of Islamophobia. To this day, the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity does not disclose the location of our events to non-participants, and uses a P.O. Box in order to reduce risks to our members.
To be an LGBTQ Muslim in America today is to feel vulnerable even in spaces that are supposed to be safe havens. As LGBTQ people, we are vulnerable in a society where homophobia and transphobia are persistent, vocal and sometimes violent. As Muslims, we face a daily barrage of messages in traditional and social media that ascribe to all Muslims the beliefs and actions of a few unbalanced individuals. We are, like all Americans, at risk in a country with inadequate gun-control, where the right to bear arms trumps the right to personal safety in public spaces like nightclubs.
LGBTQ Muslims know what Surah al-Asr teaches is true: we need each other. Our community sustains us, gives us space to worship in an environment of acceptance, and grants us opportunities to connect with other LGBTQ people without fearing the shadow of Islamophobia. It was connecting with LGBTQ Muslim community that helped me to deepen my faith, by countering the prevailing narrative ̶ which I heard from more non-Muslims than Muslims ̶ that LGBTQ identities and Islam could not co-exist.
As I have continued to study Islam, read the Qur’an and deepen my faith, I have come to understand that the underlying message of my faith is one that invites us to acceptance of the great diversity of the people with whom we share this miraculous planet -- and of our own experience as part of that diversity.
I can’t know what motivated Mateen or whether he was, as some suggest, struggling with his own sexual orientation. What I do know is that this tragedy illustrates with painful clarity that it is time for there to be vocal and meaningful inclusion of LGBTQ people in our places of worship and our society ̶ both within and beyond the Muslim community.
Tynan Power is a transgender Muslim and interfaith spiritual leader. He is a steering committee member of the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity. He was born in Washington, DC, grew up in Florida and currently lives in Massachusetts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tynanpower.
An edited version of Tynan's editorial was published by the Washington Post on June 17, 2016 under the title "As a trans Muslim, I used to feel vulnerable all the time."