“That is not us, that is not our culture,” my father would reply when asked what he would say if one of his three Muslim daughters were to love another woman. It’s a recurring joke among my sisters and I – Mimi being “the straight one” since Mina’s coming out as bisexual over a year ago and my refusal to come out as any specific sexuality just last year. To this day it is assumed that the three of us will go on to marry Muslim men, and make our parents grandparents.
The day of the Orlando Shooting at Pulse Nightclub was the first time I felt any emotional connection to a tragedy beyond “If the killer is Muslim, our lives in America will only get worse from here.” This time, I saw myself in the 49 people killed, as one of the victims. I undulated between hopelessness and fear, before mourning the loss of people I had never known personally. I felt even worse knowing that two communities I am a part of are now going to be pitted against each other.
I sat, horrified, questioning how I can occupy those two identities at the same time. I wondered if my sexuality would end my relationship with God, or my religion would make me any less a member of the Queer community. I was speechless, tired from years and years of defending my religion to combat ignorance. And for the first time, I understood what it meant to be afraid because of your sexuality.
I doubted myself for years. After a few times of hearing that it’s simply impossible for me to like women, I believed it. I believed that because I am a good person, a good Muslim, and I believe in God, that I wouldn’t be one of the “unlucky” people to have to fight for a right to marry, have children, or even enjoy a night out. I looked down on gay people. I pitied them, decided I “don’t have a problem” with them, but I essentially believed that a good Muslim could not be gay. This in itself was, simply, homophobia. I hadn’t realized it but my own internalized homophobia and belief that I was “immune” kept me from accepting myself as a queer Muslim until I was 18. I had several high school crushes on girls that I spent time pushing to the back of my head, but felt relieved every time I got feelings for a boy, because it meant I was “normal”.
Fast-forward to freshman year at Penn State. It was a lot easier to accept my sexuality, and really, myself in general. Being in a bigger school, you’re not given one label that’s stuck with you throughout the years as I experienced in middle and high-school. However, it wasn’t until I sat in on an LGBT+ Shabbat that I realized I had never come to terms with the clash between my religious upbringing and my sexuality. Then came the research. The story of Lut (Lot) and every other passage that could have pertained to homosexuality was dissected and ingrained into my memory, and after turning to the Quran before falling back on what I was told since childhood, I realized I don’t have to feel guilty. I am who I am, no one can take that away from me.
There is a great difference between a Muslim who reads Quran, follows its teachings and tries their best to learn firsthand, and a Muslim raised without the Book, using teachings from parents and other elders. An unfortunate fact of learning religion by word of mouth is that the core religious teachings get lost along the way, and what’s left is someone’s personal biases with traces of a religious reference here and there. The second-hand teaching of religion can breed hate if the teacher is hateful. For the same reason, it can also breed the intolerance we see in Christians and Muslims every day. Whether it’s attacks by Muslim terrorists or Christian terrorists killing church-goers – hate is learned.
In the case of my own sexuality, my ignorance wasn’t something I projected outward. I was accepting on the outside, parading myself as an “ally” and patting the backs of queer friends with a ten-foot pole while refusing plainly and bluntly that I needed to accept myself just as they did. In the wake of the Pulse shooting what hit me the hardest was not that I could have been any of those men and women, not that I would have to again represent my religion as well and as proud as possible, but that Omar Mateen’s vicious attack stemmed from the same internalized denial and homophobia that I experienced, and that countless other queer Muslims experience. There is a culture of homophobia within those who practice Islam that gets in the way of the greater purposes of our religion – love and peace.
I am scared. I am scared as a Muslim in the world of Donald Trump and his supporters who would easily have my family sent far away after making a life in the United States, and some who want to kill me. I am scared as a queer woman who some people also want to kill. I am scared as a young person trying to figure out who I am even without threats to my safety. But before I am scared I am determined. It is up to today’s generation of young Muslims to become an example of tolerance and peace, beauty and love. I truly believe that Muslim millennials have the ability to change the world. We are the generation returning to the Quran, we are the generation questioning things like the patriarchy, homophobia, and sexism. We are the first generation of Muslims who have had to be “on the front lines” receiving hate, ignorance, and judgement for a terror attack that happened when we were in elementary school. We know the damage done by the generations before us, and we will not continue it.