Amidst the public mourning on social feeds in the days after the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, I encountered a particular, heartbreaking form of grief from queer Muslims, grappling with an attack on their sexual identity while also preparing for an Islamophobic backlash. “We have to brace ourselves for what’s coming,” said Lali Mohamed, at the end of a long conversation less than 48 hours after the violence. Mohamed, 28, is a community activist from Toronto, and he identifies as black, gay, and Muslim. “My blackness is important,” he said, “because so often when we talk about queer Muslims, we talk about Desi Muslims. By naming ourselves we refuse to be erased: for me that’s important work.” Lali shared his story with me, and he also talked about how the ripple effects of Orlando — from policy to policing — may end up oppressing the very same people that need the most protection.
LALI MOHAMED: I was born in Germany but I spent my first seven years in Europe, between Germany and the U.K. I often joke that there was never really a closet for me: I came ‘out’ out of the womb as this queer, quirky kid. But when I was 10 I knew that I was different. I didn’t have a language for it; schools didn’t talk about it, my family didn’t talk about it. At 16, I started identifying as gay to myself, and to a few friends. I grew up in [the Toronto neighborhood] north Etobicoke — that wasn’t necessarily a place where you come out. At 18, I started identifying publicly as gay and queer.
Growing up, it was a prominent narrative that Islam had no room for gay or queer people. That it wasn’t a religion for people like me. It’s something I heard in mosques, in my family, in school, in my community. They would always reference the Surah Lut [a story about a prophet to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah], and the very first time I read it I realized, for me at least, this was never a story about queer people. It’s about violence, sexual assault, unkindness; it’s not about me. Islam is not a monolith: we bring our lived experiences and our ideas around justice to readings and interpretations of the Qu’ran. My love for another man isn’t about violence: it’s rooted in, what I consider, a transformative love. So I reject that interpretation of the Qu’ran. But you grow up in a world that tells you there’s something wrong or amiss about queer sexualities. That was tough. But by 18, I had reconciled it: I was really okay with identifying as both queer and Muslim.
Some people never reconcile it. Some people take years and years. The story that dominates media is about these poor struggling queer kids who are trying to reconcile their faith, but there are some of us who are proudly Muslim and queer. It is an individual journey. I recognize that naming yourself can also leave you open to violence; homophobic, anti-black, Islamophobic. And this is further complicated if you’re trans or a woman. Why it wasn’t hard for me? I’m not entirely sure. I’m very lucky, and I recognize there’s a lot of privilege that comes with that. I watched my black Muslim mother live an incredibly bold and brave life; I saw her survive racism, misogyny, and anti-immigrant sentiment when she arrived in Toronto, and that gave me permission to be my truest self. It moved me at a really young age.
“Islam is not a monolith: we bring our lived experiences and our ideas around justice to readings and interpretations of the Qu’ran.”
I don’t feel like I need to choose one over the other, and I don’t need to account for this one man’s violent act. The push and pull I do feel [in the time after the Orlando attack] is more of how we can use this moment to have an honest conversation about the state of queer and left politics. How are queer, left people using this [moment] to erase and further marginalize the experiences of black and Latinx queer and trans people. Pride Toronto has stated that it will be increasing security at Pride. But what does that do? We know that the police consistently harass trans people of color, poor kids, street youth, black people, undocumented people; so who exactly will feel safe or safer with the increase in police security?
I’ve never felt safe. I don’t believe I can ever get safety in a white supremacist world. But I think we can cultivate spaces for healing, where there’s pleasure and joy; but people have to work toward actively creating and keeping those spaces. Dance spaces and clubs are really powerful for that. Queer and trans people of color have been really proactive in trying to map out a future that is more livable and more just, a future where we don’t have to leave parts of ourselves out. I wish black and Latinx queer and trans folks didn’t have to be so resilient — I’m glad for it, but that also means you’re surviving through oppressions.
The lives of black people and Latinx people are intimately connected to death and violence. Most people can grieve or they’re given the space to mourn, but I immediately started thinking: Oh my god, myself, my Muslim friends, queer people of color, we have to equip ourselves for what is going to be — what always is — a violent and xenophobic [backlash]. You don’t want to be right about these things, you know?
I don’t ever pray it away, because I know that I’m not accountable for the actions of one man. I think calls for Muslims to denounce this are rooted in a particular type of racism. When white men go into schools, malls, and movie theaters and gun down people, Christians and Christianity aren’t called to account for it. It’s a myth that allows our countries and people to rationalize violent foreign policies, racist immigration policies, and the ways in which we treat brown folks.
You can see the backlash manifest already. At vigils across Canada, the U.K., and the U.S., there are accounts of queer Muslims being harassed. Today, I was walking on Church Street [in Toronto’s gay village] and there was a white man wearing a shirt in broad daylight that said, ‘It’s not Islamophobia. They really want to kill us.’ It reminded me, again, that I don’t belong. Of course, I want to say something but it’s a safety thing for me. I don’t have the faith in the Church and Wellesley community to show up for me. This man was allowed to walk in the gay village without anybody confronting him.
I was really lucky to find a community. In Toronto, a lot of it is gathering around kitchen tables, or the El Tawhid Juma Circle that happens every Friday. I also attended a three-day LGBT Muslim retreat in Philadelphia a few years ago that I found online. There was about 77 of us from the U.K., the U.S., and Canada. It was one of the most powerful moments in my life. It was a space where I could speak with other people who straddle the same intersections that I do: openly, candidly, and with great humor. I felt a little less alone in the world.