In 2007, when Iranian president Ahmadinejad declared that ‘we don’t have any gays in Iran’, he was met with widespread media criticism. Yet, much of the world seemed content to believe in the crux of what he was saying: that according to conventional wisdom, there is no space for homosexuality in Islam.
As the West’s issues with homophobia have been publicly examined and challenged by a gay rights movement, gay people in the Muslim world have not had the same spotlight on them. LGBTQ+ movements in Muslim countries are, by and large, defined by their absence. Gay muslims themselves are often thought of an oxymoron. The LGBTQ+ community in Islam does not only deal with marginalization; many don’t even believe in its existence. Thankfully, a new wave of activists is moving to transform this situation.
Muslims across the Arab world recently participated in Moroccan-based Aswat magazine’s anti-homophobia campaign, “Love for All.” To honor International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia on May 17, Aswat put out calls for Muslims to submit pictures of themselves holding signs condemning homophobia. In speaking of the motivations behind the campaign, Aswat writer Maher Alhaj noted that, “We [LGBTQ+ Muslims] are humans like others, we exist everywhere and we deserve to be acknowledged and celebrated within the fabrics of our societies like all other groups in society.”
The dawn of social media has also allowed the spread of resources for LGBTQ+ Muslims that would not have been available a decade ago. Openly gay Muslims have historically tended to be isolated — the Internet as a medium for connections has changed that. One site, I am not HARAAM, has become a meeting place for young Muslims struggling with their sexuality – dispensing advice, resources and support. In addition, it is a place where traditional assumptions of homosexuality in Islam are challenged. The site’s founders proudly declare on the homepage: “We are not kafirs, we are not deviant, our existence is not a sin. This is our space to say: WE ARE NOT HARAAM.”
On a more international scale, things seem to be changing as well. Muslims in Australia were recently polled and found to be willing to come to the table regarding gay marriage. In Washington DC, America’s first openly gay imam, Daaiyee Abdullah, regularly conducts marriages between same-sex Muslim couples. Abdullah is also a member of Muslims for Progressive Values, a Los Angeles based organization that lists civil rights for LGBT people as a goal. Despite criticism from conservative factions, the doors of Europe’s first gay-friendly mosque opened in France last year. And more articles are being written by gay Muslims asking for changes within Muslim communities to help support LGTBQ individuals.
While there are doubtless bounds and leaps to go concerning the acceptance of LGBTQ+ people in different societies, the steps being taken now are still meaningful. As America and the West grapple with legal challenges to LGBTQ+ civil rights, gay people in Muslim societies work towards greater societal acceptance. Twenty years ago, young gay Muslims might had had nowhere to go when dealing with questions about their sexuality. There would be no “Love for All’” campaigns, no safe spaces, and no gingerly shifting attitudes.
A lot has changed since then. With the work of LGBTQ+ Muslim activists, a lot can change from now as well.