Aliyah’s Choice: The LA Times’ Profile of a Lesbian Muslim

It wasn’t but several years ago when a Google search for “gay Muslims” or “lesbian Muslims” turned up few results on actual people, mainly just pages on why homosexuality is a sin in Islam and perhaps one or two articles, usually focusing on men. Since then there’s been an increase in profiles on people who struggle to reconcile — or not reconcile — the two identities. Films like Parvez Sharma’s A Jihad for Love (2007) and the Channel 4 documentary Gay Muslims (2006) have added to coverage on the topic.

Aliyah on her wedding day. Image via LA Times article.
Aliyah on her wedding day. Image via LA Times article.

Recently the LA Times ran a story on 22-year-old Aliyah Bacchus, who faces this struggle. Writer Erika Hayasaki introduces the topic thus: “Aliyah Bacchus returns home to offer a choice: Accept her sexuality — as she has — or lose her forever.” She recounts Aliyah’s story: wearing the abaya to high school, her unhappy marriage at 17, and her realization and identification as gay.

Hayasaki tells Aliyah’s story in third person, her diction literary and descriptions detailed. Considering the personal nature of the mini-biography, which describes Aliyah’s thoughts and feelings, there is a surprising lack of direct quotes from Aliyah herself.

The dramatically-told story builds up to final confrontation. Aliyah tells her aunt (who raised her after her mother died) that she loves a woman, a non-Muslim at that. Her aunt’s disapproval of homosexuality has not changed. Hayasaki writes,

“Salam o aliukum,” her aunt tells her. May the peace and blessings of Allah be with you. I’ll pray for Allah to forgive you, she tells Aliyah, before getting into her van.

This phenomenon reminds me of one described by blogger Muslim Hedonist, now Crypto-Muslim:

Just as we were taught to be; be as nice as you can to your relatives, but don’t compromise Islamic principles. Support people as much as you can, but withhold from wrongdoers the pearl of great price—acceptance, belonging. In the end, you hold them at arm’s length.

Aliyah leaves, and flies to Arizona with the woman she loves. She hasn’t communicated with her family since.

Building up to the final conversation that determines a lifelong decision makes a dramatic story, but it leads to a predictable ending. Who really expects a conservative family like Aliyah’s to accept a daughter living as a lesbian? You don’t even have to be someone who arranges her 17-year-old daughter’s marriage to be opposed to her being gay. And the added factor of her aunt’s view of homosexuality as fundamentally immoral doesn’t help matters.

The problem with articles on gay Muslims is that they often paint a distinct binary of the Muslim identity as constraining, conservative, and judgmental, and the gay identity as free, liberating, and natural. There’s a reality that developed this stereotype, but it’s not quite that simple. When a gay Muslim throws off her Muslim identity because it conflicts with her gayness (as some Muslims do), it’s not as though all the problems of being gay disappear and life is suddenly easy. And it’s certainly not as though families, if only they weren’t Muslim, would accept a gay child. It’s true that many Muslims and many immigrants don’t view homosexuality favorably, but it’s not a position that’s unique to these communities, even when it may be more prevalent in them.

Aliyah now. Image from Jennifer S. Altman for the LA Times.

Aliyah now. Image from Jennifer S. Altman for the LA Times.

This story presents an ultimatum, but it shows family, not Islam, as pitted against Aliyah being gay. There is no mention of Aliyah leaving Islam — in fact, the article notes that she, along with her non-Muslim partner, fasted during Ramadan, and tries to lead an upright, charitable life. Hayasaki makes no judgments on Aliyah’s religiosity or what constitutes true Islam. Near the end of the article, there’s a reference to two bottles of “red Russian champagne.” There is no explanation of whether these are Aliyah’s or Stella’s and whether Aliyah drinks alcohol.

The article is accompanied by a photo (above right) of a crosslegged Aliyah, laughing. In contrast to the wedding picture (above left) provided as related content, in which she is dressed in all white, only her face showing, in the recent picture Aliyah wears a tank top and sweatpants. I don’t want to linger on clothing too much, since it’s an over-discussed topic as it is, but I wonder: was the tank top, which shows a bit of her lower back as well as the usual areas tank tops don’t cover, chosen specifically to illustrate a drift from conservative Islam? In the story, Hayasaki describes Aliyah’s post-abaya look as an ankle-length black trench coat, sunglasses, piercings, and tattoos. Perhaps there could be some elaboration on how Aliyah’s self-realization led to the new look, especially since in high school she had stuck to the abaya “as if daring the world to take her on.” It can’t be as simple as “all lesbians have tattoos.” Did she lose the hijab/abaya the same time she cut her hair and said goodbye to her husband? Does it reflect a rejection of letting her family decide for her?

Despite the fact it reads like a novel, Hayasaki’s article is a good one, giving a peek into the struggles of being gay and Muslim and showing that one can attempt to reconcile religion, if not family. I would be interested in reading more about Aliyah, in her own words. Beyond this article, I’m curious if there’s a perhaps a story somewhere of someone who isn’t forced to choose between two strict worlds. Where are the Muslims who are gay and, though they may struggle, don’t give up on their families or their religion?

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  • http://DeadAmericanDream.blogspot.com Broomstick

    that article really, really pissed me off.

    How about mentioning many gays and lesbians who have also been disowned by their conservative white CHRISTIAN families, Jewish families, and Southern families????

    I’ve known gays and lesbians, who are WHITE AMERICAN, struggling with family problems because of their sexualities.

    American media, once again, rearing its ugly, racist head against Muslims!!!!

  • http://www.stop-stoning.org Rochelle

    At Broomstick:

    To be specific is not to be racist.

    Just because an article focuses on one particular community or situation, without comparing it to all the other communities or situatinos out there, does not mean its racist.

    To be racist would be to imply in the article that homophobia is a Muslims-only problem. This article did no such thing. It provided one person’s perspective of a personal experience.

    I’m getting a little frustrated at the critique that just because something wrong happens in the one community it means we shouldn’t talk about all the other communities in which it occurs.

    There are many, many media portrayals of Jewish, Christian, Atheist members of the LBGTQ community. Man, if I had a nickle for all the stories about the conflict between Christianity and homosexuality! Those articles don’t say “Oh by the way, some Muslim/Jewish/Southerners disown their gay daughters, too.” It’s understood that the article is about the particular, not about the general.

    I understand the need to be defensive — there is a lot of racism and Islamaphobia out there. But if we truly want Muslims to be treated equally in the media, we need to display both positive and negative aspect about their communities without assuming that those positive/negative aspects are essential to their Muslimness! If an article talks about how great this Muslim community cooks or how well educated their children are, we shouldn’t attribute this to their Muslimness, anymore than we attribute child abuse and abuse of women’s rights to any essential definition of Islam or the West.

    We can’t ignore or block any potrayals of Muslims going through difficult and complex situations just because it happens in other communities, too.

  • Sobia

    I have to agree with Rochelle. I did not find this racist/Islamophobic. And if one doesn’t know about the homophobia in religious Christian or Jewish circles by now then one has been living under a rock. The thing is we already know about homophobia in other circles. And as Melinda pointed out this article did not say that Islam was homophobic nor that Muslims were, but rather that Aliyah’s family was. This was a story about Aaliyah, not a Jewish, Christian, or Hindu woman.

    Great critique Melinda.

  • http://hijabchique.blogspot.com celeritas

    There are two lesbian Muslims who I can think of, Irshad Manji and Dr Ghazala Anwar. You can learn alot about Irshad Manji on her website http://www.irshadmanji.com/ so I won’t speak about her here.

    Dr Ghazala Anwar, Pakistani-American-New Zealander, is less well known than Manji however she has had a very interested career. Her academic life is especially interesting in that she was fired by Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission from her role as deputy deen of Islamabad’s International Islamic University and deen of the usul-ud-din programme. This was justified by arguing that she lacked Arabic expertise however she was only dismissed after “some of the students found a pattern in her comments and ran online searches to uncover a shocking reality”. This reality was that Dr Anwar had said at conferences that:

    “Hatred or denigration of those whom God made different whether
    in gender, sexual orientation or religious belief and practice ensues from putting other than God at the centre of ones’ heart and worship.

    “Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Muslims are to be judged by the quality of their faith, the purity of their intentions and the goodness and selflessness of their actions as any other Muslim or human being.”

    She has also reportedly lead mixed prayer at a conference for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender,Intersex, Questioning Muslims & their Allies, and attends conferences on this subject regularly.

    Dr Anwar returned to New Zealand where she had moved to from the USA to take up the Religious Studies Chair of Islam at the University of Canterbury which was dis-established when the Arts College came under financial pressure due to budget cutting.

    Although no longer working as an academic Dr Ghazala Anwar is still very active.

    She contributed to a book Heterosexism in Contemporary World Religion: Problem and Prospect that seeks to provide religious antidotes to heterosexism.

    She has been involved in the Cool Schools Peer Mediation programme which operates through-out schools in New Zealand supported by the New Zealand Ministries of Education and Health. The programme teaches conflict resolution skills to students and teachers across the school and trains a select group to become school mediators, i.e. they are available to mediate conflicts that arise at school. The Peace Foundation has also introduced the programme to schools in Australia, Fiji and Pakistan, and has interest from other countries.The programme is secular, but relates very much to values in the world’s key religions including Islam. In this context, the Peace Foundation has adapted the programme for use in Muslim schools and/or Muslim countries drawing from key teachings in the Koran.

    Although Dr Anwar has had many struggles she has never chosen to be either lesbian or Muslim but both and I think she has a lot to teach us. I especially like her reply to those who objected to her view in Pakistan:

    “This controversy provides us with an opportunity to exercise our conflict resolution skills, to develop rules by which we can discuss and disagree about topics that might be sensitive or volatile, and to resolve the issue in a manner that our relationships are enhanced.”

  • Sarah

    great analysis. i had the same reaction to the two chosen images showing two ‘different’ aliyahs. not only does the clothing in one look confining and in the other look freeing, but in the first one she’s inside with blinds drawn, head tilted down, and in the second she’s outside on a bright day, head up and smiling. perhaps this juxtaposition does accurately reflect how her life has changed, or perhaps it oversimplifies and falls back on the stereotypes, but for sure the choice of these two photos was not random.

    when you think about how powerful two images like this can be, it’s no wonder people obsess over the clothing issue so much (i don’t like to dwell on it either). ya it’s just clothes, but with the value we humans put on clothing and what it says about a person, it’s no wonder no one can seem to shut up about the topic.

  • Nakia

    I’m lucky enough to know some gay and lesbian converts to Islam.They are in a unique bind, as few believe that anyone who is gay or lesbian should or even can choose Islam, reducing Islam to a matter of who one sleeps with.

  • http://bifemmefatale.livejournal.com bifemmefatale

    Kazakhstanis are often Muslim–where does it say Aliyah’s partner is nonMuslim? When she met Aliyah, she was wearing a headscarf.

  • Pingback: A gay Muslim, tested, by faith and family « Muslim & Lesbian

  • Asmaa Al-Jummah

    salaam Alykum

    I cant believe that she baned her religion and taked of the hijab. I am a muslim lesbian. I am proud of who I am. But she did come out of the closent to her family , Which I cant never in million of years do. Even if I do ever come out I will never banded my religion or take of my hijab which represents my religion.

    [This comment has been edited to fit within moderation guidelines.]

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    @ Celeritas: Thank you for your information on Dr. Anwar. I agree that we could all learn a lot from her.


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