Almost three years ago I wrote an opinion piece about being bisexual and Muslim. Looking back now much has changed for the better. It surprised me by how much, something I didn’t realise until I re-read the article just a few months ago.
Day to day the changes seem non-existent. It’s with the benefit of hindsight you can see the glacier shift long distances.
Perhaps the most significant change, in addition to now identifying as gay rather than bisexual, is my religious outlook. Back then I understood sexuality through the conservative prism I had been brought up with, i.e. I thought being “actively gay” i.e. having gay sex, was haram. So whilst I accepted being gay and Muslim was possible from a legalistic point of view (as sexuality is something you cannot control), acting upon desire (having sex) was not. That basically meant there was a part of me that still sat, despite the progress I had made up until that point, uncomfortably in my Muslim identity. In other words, I still believed my Muslimness could not and would not fully and properly encompass my queer identity.
For a long time, months in fact, when I thought that would never change. I resigned to hopelessness about faith and sexuality. I prayed, I cried, on so many occasions.
I come from quite a conservative Muslim background, and there has always been a strong emphasis on learning and acquiring knowledge. Or perhaps more accurately, acquiring the “correct” knowledge. As a result coming to a theological harmony was really important to me. For a long time I never thought that would happen. It would seem the Qur’an is clear cut on homosexuality (or more accurately non-heterosexualities), but as I learned, the reality is more complex.
For an essay at university I picked up a book to see if it would be worth reading. Eyes scrolling down the contents page I saw the chapter that would change things for me forever.
The chapter in question is “Sexuality, diversity and ethics in the agenda of progressive Muslims”, by Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle, in Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, edited by Omid Safi. Kugle forensically goes through the Qur’an and Hadith tackling the sticky issues when it comes to Islamic theology.
Kugle’s chapter was my “aha!” moment, when I found the answers I was desperately searching for. This was the starting point. Since then after much thinking, reading, and reflection, I stopped subscribing to my previously held views which had been instilled into me as Truth from a young age.
To put it more bluntly, it is ok to be gay, Muslim, and it is not a sin to have gay sex.
I remember the evening when finishing the chapter. I was in my bedroom sat on my chair in a darkening room at maghrib time, having turned the final pages, not breathing. For some reason the most profound moments in my life have taken place as the sun is setting.
As the Kugle chapter had turned its final pages and the day came to a close, so had a chapter in my life as a Muslim who is reluctantly gay come to an end, and a new era as a queer Muslim had begun - though it didn’t dawn upon me what a truly significant moment it was at the time.
I finally allowed myself a deep breath, and felt nothing. Depression does that to you, creating a delay between knowing that a moment is, well, momentous, and feeling it in your bones. A great weight the size of Uhud had been lifted from my being, though it took a while to feel it.
My coming out journey was dragged out over nearly four years, but I remember that evening very clearly.
It is very easy for ulema (scholars) and others who claim the mantle of guardians of the religion to condemn non-heteronormative sexualities and gender – and of course they do – but no one group or person has the keys to correct knowledge, no matter how much they wail that they do. Islam is collective and individual all at the same time. You can pick up the Qur’an and develop a reading of it for yourself.
The key element for me was, as it still is, having the right intention and making dua for guidance so that I feel I am on the straight and narrow, as it were. I could be wrong about my approach, but I need to have the humility to accept that and change.
One of the greatest and most beautiful takeaways I’ve had had since queering my outlook is that my religious outlook has become far more inclusive and compassionate. I grew up being taught that Islam is inclusive, compassionate. The same people taught me there are limits. Sunni/Shia/Sufi/Deobandi/Barelwi/Wahhabi and so on and on the list goes – there are many boundaries between Muslims drawn in sands across the world by those claiming to preach in the name of Allah.
It was queerness that dissolved these boundaries for me.
Islam is inclusive and compassionate, and it took being gay to fully realise that, and extend it to all aspects of my life, not just the areas where the ulema claimed it reached, and stopped.