Being Gay AND Muslim (Part 5 of “Being Me”)

“How can I acknowledge the existence of a God who denies the existence of my love?”

I’ve shared two individual posts in this series about being gay and about being Muslim as two separate parts of me. The biggest issue I’ve had, and the reason why understanding intersectionality is so crucial, is because these two pieces together have compounded the issues I’ve faced with my mental health. Being gay would be one struggle, and being Muslim would be another if in isolation, but together, the struggle is magnified.

If we go back to my plant analogy (click here), these are the two main plants I can’t seem to bring together. On the one hand, my religion has taught me so many great things and made me the person I am today. It’s taught me morals and given me guidance and security. On the other hand, my religion fueled the fire of shame that had to do with being gay. It made me feel isolated and wrong, or like I didn’t belong in the community that I always thought I could call my own.

When I was young, my mother told me I could marry anyone I wanted. She said it didn’t matter if they were Ismaili or Muslim, as long as they treated me right and we loved each other. I just had to make her one small promise in return: that we would get married in a Khane (mosque) in accordance with the laws of our faith (which basically was just agreeing to be good to one another). I agreed without missing a beat – it seemed easy enough.

Fast forward about a decade, and I’m trying to determine how I can come out to my mother, and break the one promise I had made her. You see, homosexuality is not accepted or recognized in my religion, so I’d never be allowed to marry a woman.

I’m sitting in the backseat of my uncle’s car, trying to get enough courage to tell her who I really am, and I don’t remember half the words I sputtered out. I remember two words distinctly though: “I’m sorry.” I started crying and said “I’m sorry I can’t fulfill the one promise I ever made you.” I felt like I had deeply failed her, like my sexuality was so bad, and like I was letting her down and disappointing her. Luckily, my mom is an absolute saint and she accepted me immediately because her love for me is stronger than anything else, but I was still sorry. In fact, I still am sorry. A part of me will always be sorry, even though I know it is not my fault at all.

The difference is, now I’m angry too. I’m angry that a religion that has always taught me to love and accept others can’t extend me the same courtesy. I’m angry that it has built a wall of shame and guilt around my heart. I’m angry that I feel forced to pick between two halves of myself. I’m angry that I feel like I have to pick one over the other, when both are who I am. I am angry that ignorance and tradition is prevailing over love, and it’s not right. I’m angry that when I go to Khane, I have to hide my sexuality, and I’m angry that if I had an Ismaili girlfriend or wife, we wouldn’t be able to hold hands or stand close to each other the way straight Ismaili couples often do in Khane.

The Ismaili community is so heteronormative, that many opportunities within the community are reserved for straight couples, and I would automatically be excluded from consideration. Homosexuality is not discussed within the community, and queerness is often ignored or made to seem like it doesn’t exist at all. In fact, my sister’s non-Ismaili boyfriend is acknowledged more within the community than I would be. A non-Ismaili can get married in our mosque, yet I can’t despite me actually being an Ismaili. So how can I be a part of this community when I fundamentally disagree with how they treat the queer community? How do I reconcile these differences when I feel deeply connected and disconnected at the same time?

I don’t understand how my relationship with God has anything to do with who I share my life with, and I don’t understand why people care. Religion (in theory) has always been about making people better, more thoughtful members of society. It’s been about creating welcoming communities and living by a moral code that we can be proud of, but somewhere along the way that got thrown out the window to favor devisiveness and the fragmenting of peoples’ conflicting identities.

When I first started to articulate this to my friends (or tried to) a lot of them told me to abandon my religion, because why be a part of something that doesn’t accept me? And on the flip side, when I briefly touched on it with my family, they told me not to pay attention to that part of my religion because I was loved and accepted by them. But you see, I can’t do either of those things, because you don’t get to pick and choose, and I can’t pick one of the other. Instead, I have to create space where all of me can exist, and frankly, it seems pretty impossible.

In Zadie Smith’s ‘Feel Free’, she talks about these “impossible identities”, and when I first read this bit, I cried so hard because it put into words what I had experienced my whole life. She says “It seems to me that people experiencing impossible identities – who find it impossible to imagine being, fore example, Muslim and gay…can build up a terrible tension within themselves.” That tension within myself has been a large culprit in creating a mentally unsafe environment inside of me. She goes on to say “we know that in the real world impossible identities are too often resolved in violence. The rope inside us is pulled so taut, strung between such apparently incompatible places, that we feel we must cut it. Most often this violence is internal: we kill some part of ourselves.” She’s right. A therapist once asked me which part of myself I needed to die when I attempted suicide. I didn’t understand what she meant at first, but now I do. I learned that my whole life I had been trying to kill bits and pieces of myself, until it got to be too much. When I wasn’t trying to destroy the Muslim part of me, I was trying to destroy the gay part of me. When I couldn’t destroy either, I tried to destroy all of me. The next part of Smith’s piece acknowledges that “we ignore we are gay, or smart, or masculine, or melancholy, or scared. We cut that bit out and live in a mutilated way. That is an intimate tragedy.

I don’t know how to make this impossible identity of mine work. I don’t know if I can 100% accept both, and although that doesn’t seem fair, maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s just something I have to work on for myself forever. What I know now is that I can’t kill either, and it’s not okay that society expects me to. They are both a part of me in varying capacities, and to abandon either would be to abandon myself, which I have no intention of doing again. I’m learning and I’m growing towards myself. I hope that you, and the rest of our society, can do a bit more to grow too, so that in 10 or 20 or 50 years, our “impossible identities” won’t seem so impossible anymore.

Keep Surviving by Living.

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