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This Ramadan, queer and transgender Muslims made their own community

Shahamat Uddin   

This Ramadan, queer and transgender Muslims made their own community
  • During Ramadan, Muslims gather to break fast and honor community practices.
  • This year, queer and trans Muslims created their own celebrations to rethink tradition and feel connected.

On a chilly evening in late March, New York City's LGBT Community Center was filled with the warmth of belonging. A crowd of more than 100 Muslims — dressed in traditional dresses and robes in vibrant teal, rich brown, and bright red — set the room abuzz with chatter as they waited for the official call to Maghrib prayer, the set time for breaking fast during Ramadan.

Juicy dates, a symbol of abundance, were scattered on each table, as they would be at any Islamic iftar, a gathering where Muslims observing Ramadan eat and break a period of fasting. Among the dates were brochures reading "There is no one way of being Muslim," along with affirmations to help guests embrace the intersection of queerness and Islamic faith.

Many guests at The Center said these welcoming messages could be rare. "I've never been anywhere like this," Armana Khan said.

From March 11 to April 9, the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Muslims worldwide gathered for acts of togetherness. They held iftars in crowded makeshift tents at local recreational centers, stood shoulder to shoulder in mosques, and prayed late into the night to deepen their Islamic practice.

But for queer and transgender Muslims, this practice of ummah, or the connectedness Muslims feel while exercising their faith together, has often made them feel excluded from traditional Ramadan celebrations.

For Khan, a 30-year-old transgender Pakistani Muslim living in Queens, New York, childhood trips to the mosque were tinged with discomfort and dysphoria because of gender-based separations.

"It was always really uncomfortable being on the men's side, and all I wanted to do was go to the women's side and be with my sisters and friends," Khan said. "Especially during Ramadan when we went more frequently, it became a place where I felt isolated."

Though Khan maintains a spiritual relationship with Islam in her everyday life, she can't remember the last time she participated with other Muslims in public. While attending The Center's queer iftar, Khan said she finally felt welcomed, not ashamed, in both her Muslim and her transgender identities.

The iftar — which included prayers led by a queer Muslim community member named Shiffa, and joyful drag-queen performances — was just one of many ways queer and transgender Muslims fostered community this Ramadan.

Reimagining togetherness and faith during Ramadan

Many queer and transgender Muslims said they'd felt isolated from traditions that emphasize togetherness, like praying at community mosques, fasting for Ramadan, or performing the Muslim pilgrimage called Hajj.

While over 30 majority-Muslim countries criminalize queerness in some capacity, many Islamic scholars disagree about whether Islam "accepts" queer and transgender people. Each scholar, institution, and government leads with their own interpretation of and perspective on Islam.

Sophia Uppal, a 28-year-old who's nonbinary, described their relationship with Islam as complicated. Some of Uppal's favorite childhood memories include waking up early to their mom preparing sehri, or the meal Muslims eat before sunrise to prepare for the day's fast.

But they said they'd also felt disconnected from Islam for so long because of the expectation to adhere to a heterosexual and cisgender lifestyle. "My mom would dress me up in hijab and clothes that did not feel aligned with me at all," Uppal said. "Now it's sometimes a deep trigger when I see gendered Islam forced upon me."

Both Uppal and Khan look back on their Islamic upbringings and recall feeling pressured to conform to generations of tradition and subjectively interpreted religious texts. At first, these teachings — like the interpretation that if a person was queer or transgender they couldn't be a Muslim — made Uppal and Khan feel excluded from their communities. But infusing queer and transgender experiences into Islamic tradition has helped Uppal and Khan create new relationships with their Muslim identities.

At the iftar, Khan reflected on how she reconciled her queer and Muslim identities during Hajj, one of Islam's five pillars.

"When I went on the Muslim pilgrimage of Hajj, I continued to have very LGBT thoughts in my mind," Khan said. "I wondered, 'If God really hated me, why would he keep these thoughts in my mind and at his holiest place, nonetheless?' I realized then it was because God allowed me to be in his house the way that I am. Otherwise, he wouldn't have invited me to Mecca or even to Islam."

For Dena Igusti, a 27-year-old Indonesian Muslim, gathering with fellow queer people every day during Ramadan allowed them to reconnect with the community aspect of Islam they enjoyed when growing up.

"This is my first Ramadan where I've had every iftar exclusively with other queer Muslims, and it reminds me of the small community gatherings I had growing up," Igusti said. "We don't gather in an optic way but in a real deep sense of care for each other. It has really solidified my relationship with Islam and continued to show me the beauty of my faith."

Fostering a more inclusive Muslim community around the world

While there are very few examples of queer Muslim religious leaders, Imam Daayiee Abdullah, 70, the executive director of the Mecca Institute, and his ethos — "We don't tell anyone they are a Muslim; they tell us" — have been a guiding force for queer Muslims worldwide who are seeking to build community.

The Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity began hosting inclusive virtual and in-person events for all kinds of Muslims in response to the widespread exclusion of queer Muslims from Islamic-identified spaces.

"MASGD spaces are not spaces where we're going to ask you to tell us your whole backstory about your devoutness to Islam or how you came into the faith," said Mx Yaffa, an indigenous Palestinian who's the executive director of MASGD. "We're not going to ask you the flip side either: about how queer you are or what part of the spectrum you fall upon."

MASGD aims to foster inclusive spaces, especially during Ramadan. This year, the organization launched a calendar to catalog the many queer-Muslim-focused Ramadan events hosted around the world, like queer Taraweeh and Jummah prayers, iftar events, and Chaand Raat celebrations. Hosting organizations included Queer Crescent, Queer Shia Collective, Masjid al-Rabia, the Halal and Queer Collective, and others.

At its inception in 2013, MASGD was one of the few organizations in the world that emphasized ummah for queer and transgender Muslims, but now it's one of dozens.

Queer-centered Ramadan celebrations highlight the beauty of layered identities

At The Center's iftar, when Shiffa delivered the adhan, or call to prayer, the crowd went silent.

After attendees broke their fast, they joined together in song and dance and enjoyed drag performances by queer and transgender Muslims from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

"To be in an Islamic space where I didn't have to question if I was Muslim enough or if people supported my trans identity was radically transformative," Khan said.

Being surrounded by fellow queer Muslims this Ramadan, Igusti said it was evident that their queerness is naturally complementary to their Islamic practice. Igusti added that each side of their identity continued to reveal different but inseparable parts of the other.

Yaffa similarly said these inclusive community events served as reminders of how each side of their identity strengthened the other.

"To me, Islam has never been this contradictory thing to everything else that I am. My identities amplify and elevate each other," Yaffa said. "I'm a better queer and trans person because I'm Muslim, and I'm a better Muslim because I'm a queer and trans person."

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