Living Out Islam: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims

Almost a year ago same sex marriage was legalized in the United States. After the legalization, homosexuality became a more integrated topic of conversation in the media. However, it is easy to forget that legalization of same sex marriage does not solve all of the struggles of LGBTQ persons. There are still communities within the encompassing queer community that need more representation. With all of the recent discourse surrounding the LGBTQ community, there has not been much mainstream discussion on minorities within the already minority community. However, diversity within the LGBTQ community is important and should be discussed. I wanted to research a minority group in the LGBTQ community so I chose to focus on LGBTQ Muslims. In Living Out Islam: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims, Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle brings the rarely heard stories of gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslims to the forefront of discussion by exploring how Muslims reconcile their sexuality with their faith through a series of interviews.

Kugle begins with problems he found in past research on gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslims and challenges previous notions of identity formation. In order to set up his argument, Kugle situates himself in opposition to Joseph Massad’s Desiring Arabs in the introduction of the book. According to Kugle, Massad contends that the “gay and lesbian identity is imposed upon Arab and Middle Eastern societies as part of a ‘gay international agenda’ of American neoimperialism in the region.”[1] Massad faults the “gay and lesbian identity” on an American agenda, which demeans the identities, that queer Muslims form. Massad’s attempts to find blame for homosexuality or to make homosexuality seem “imposed” contrast what Kugle seeks to accomplish in his research.

While Kugle challenges Massad’s work, he also notes that his work is “theoretically indebted”[2] other authors, including Saba Mahmood and Talal Asad. In Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity, Asad invalidates the assumption that religion and secular practices are “contradictory loyalties.”[3] Kugle pushes Asad’s work further by proving that a person can be openly homosexual while still maintaining a deep respect and commitment to Islam. Kugle also uses Mahmood’s theoretical approach from her book The Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and Feminist Subject where Mahmood delves into Michel Foucault’s theory of subjectivity.[4] Mahmood recognizes that individuals have more agency in their lives than writers like Massad attribute them. Kugle draws from both Asad and Mahmood’s arguments in order to further his own argument regarding the lives of gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslims.

Kugle elucidates, “this book documents the lives of the kind of activists who Massad denounces.”[5] In Kugle’s case, “activists” are people who want to change the social relationships in their lives in order to achieve justice. He credits the mere desire to create social change as activism, which makes the term “activist” more accessible to the average person. Reinterpreting the term “activist” is important because by doing so Kugle avoids alienating people who do not want to be in the forefront of the queer activism. Essentially any queer person who struggles with his/her/their plight as a minority is an activist. Living as an out homosexual is difficult in Muslim communities, so he recognizes the interviewees’ bravery whether or not they are actively involved in organizations.

Keeping in mind his definition of “activist,” Kugle interviewed fifteen lesbian, gay, and transgender activists to document an oral history of an underrepresented minority within the Muslim community. Kugle only interviewed Muslims living in countries with democratic constitutions such as the United States, South Africa, Canada, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. While Kugle does have diverse accounts in the book, he limits himself by only focusing on countries with democratic constitutions and therefore neglects the countries with the largest Muslim populations like Indonesia, Pakistan, and India. Another limitation Kugle grappled with in his research was sexual orientation. Kugle does not use the term LGBTQ in the book because he only has interviews from gay, lesbian, and transgender persons and within that group he has significantly more interviews from gay men than lesbians and transgender persons.[6] Despite the fact that Kugle focused only on certain sexualities, his research opens the door for more writers to explore the complex lives of queer Muslims.

Even with such diversity of location, the stories of those Kugle interviewed are all connected through a deep understanding of their faith as well as with their struggles sexualities and gender identities. Each chapter of the book explores a different “mode of activism,”[7] which are “patterns of action, decision, and compromise”[8] that disclose one’s identity formation in the setting of Islamic communities. The structure that the specific modes of activism provide allows Kugle to pair certain parts of certain interviews together in a fluid and cohesive manner that helps the reader draw connections between experiences naturally. Kugle weaves the various interviews in order to give a multi-faceted view of lesbian, gay, and transgender Muslims while simultaneously illuminating a common thread between them.

The first chapter introduces the first mode of activism, which is activism through “engaging religious tradition.”[9] Here Kugle focuses on the stories of a gay man, a lesbian woman, and a male-to-female transgender woman. He questions all three about their experiences with religion and sexuality, specifically how important the both are to their identity formations. All three participants stress the significance of Islam in their lives and present nuanced interpretations of the Qur’an that allow for self acceptance of their sexual orientations. One of the interviewees, Muhsin, who is an out gay man, spoke extensively on ways to interpret the Qur’an to be accepting of one’s nature. Muhsin helped start the Al-Fitra Foundation, which one of the first support groups for gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslims in Cape Town. Kugle uses this passage from the Qur’an to demonstrate how Muhsin chooses to read the Qur’an:

‘So set your face toward the moral obligation in a true way, according to the essential nature granted by God, upon which God fashioned people, for there is no changing the creation of God! That is the original and steadfast moral obligation, but most of the people do not understand.’ (Q 30:30)

Most people interpret “original and steadfast” as referring to the Islam and subsequently a universal human nature but many gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslims see it differently. They believe God makes each person with an original nature and that nature cannot be altered. Then the “original and steadfast” religion is to “return to God in harmony with one’s own nature.”[10] With this interpretation one’s sexual identity becomes an unalterable part of them and therefore a homosexual person is following the Qur’an by being true to their nature. This example of activism by engaging religious tradition is just one of many unique ways that gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslims justify their sexual identities and their commitment to Islam.

Kugle captures how his interviewees employ both an open minded and analytical approach to the Qur’an, which again offsets assumptions that gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslims have to choose between their religion and sexual identity. Kugle focuses on the Qur’an as his primary evidence as he unpacks the passages that Muhsin, Nafeesa, and Tamsila (the third interviewee in this chapter) bring to his attention. The focus on the Qur’an and testimonies from real people as the main sources contributes to the authenticity of the book. Kugle dispels previous perceptions of how gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslims engage with Islam, particularly the assumption that queer Muslims must leave Islam in order “to live with dignity and pursue social reform.”[11] Muhsin, Nafeesa and Tamsila all prove that it is possible to have a non-heterosexual identity and remain a devout Muslim. Kugle also uses this chapter to uncover where the stigma surrounding homosexuality comes from in Islamic communities. Trans woman, Nafeesa, simply states, “Show me that the Qur’an says being gay is not allowed in Islam!”[12] Nafeesa has a point since nowhere in the Qur’an does it explicitly condemn or approve homosexuality[13]. With the new interpretations of the Qur’an, Kugle makes the reader question where the stigma comes from if the Qur’an does not present an opinion on homosexuality? Muhsin, Nafeesa, and Tamsila agree that the shame surrounding homosexuality comes not from Islam but from the dominant interpretations of Islamic tradition.

The Islamic community is the main focus of the second chapter, in which the mode of activism is “challenging family and community.”[14] This type of activism is different from the previous chapter since it more actively engages family expectations rather than Islamic tradition. This chapter delves into how personal relationships are affected when someone comes out in an Islamic community. Nargis, a lesbian woman in Cape Town, South Africa, describes her struggle with her parent’s control over her after they discovered her relationship with another woman. Nargis notes that it was the “prospect of community shame”[15] that drove her father to withdraw her from university and isolate her from society. Her family used the Qur’an and shariʻa law to argue with her about her sexual orientation so Nargis joined support groups like The Inner Circle and The Triangle Project for solace. Nargis used religion to help her come out again to her family by using the example of Sufi woman, Rabiʻa of Basra who never married due to her love of God. The use of religious tradition helped Nargis’s family understand her sexuality. Kugle notes that for many gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslims, Islam is important as “a symbol of family cohesion and care.”[16] The coming out experiences of queer Muslims in Islamic communities are difficult due to the stigma surrounding homosexuality but Kugle points out the that the emergence of support groups like The Inner Circle and the Al-Fitra Foundation help create new Islamic community where religion and sexuality are not at odds. Disowned gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslims often recognize members of their support groups as “found families.”[17]

Kugle’s interviews and analysis provide the reader with an insight into of the lives of gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslims today. Many of the people Kugle interviewed had been disowned by their families because of their sexuality or gender identity. While Kugle brings awareness to their pain, he also focuses on how they got to where they are now in terms of self-acceptance. The answer for many of them was religion. Kugle cleverly anticipates our outside assumptions from the beginning and works at disbanding them in order to provide an authentic perspective on the intersection between religion, sexuality and gender identity. I think that Kugle’s sharp analysis of the Qur’an contributes to the persuasiveness of the text. Where the Qur’an is used by some Islamic communities as a reason to reject homosexuality, Kugle interprets the Qur’an in a way to justify a person’s nature, which encompasses sexuality and gender identity.

 

[1] Kugle, Living Out Islam: The Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims (New York: NYU Press, 2013), 4.

[2] Ibid, 5.

[3] Ibid, 5.

[4] Ibid, 6.

[5] Ibid, 4.

[6] Ibid, 21

[7] Ibid, 3.

[8] Ibid, 3.

[9] Ibid, 21.

[10] Ibid, 25.

[11] Ibid, 53.

[12] Ibid, 39.

[13] Ibid, 25.

[14] Ibid, 55.

[15] Ibid, 61.

[16] Ibid, 78.

[17] Ibid, 40.

Work Cited

Kugle, S. A. (2013). Living Out Islam : Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims. New York: NYU Press.