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Between two communities: Being queer and Muslim at Princeton

<h6>José Pablo Fernández García / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
José Pablo Fernández García / The Daily Princetonian

I’m a queer Muslim. 

I don’t think I’ve ever said that out loud, at least not like that. Some people know I’m queer. Others know I’m Muslim. But it’s difficult to say both of those things together, not in middle school when I realized I was queer, not in my relatively liberal Muslim household, nor in my socially conservative high school environment. I thought that Princeton would be different. I was wrong. 

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I have never been fully “out.” My reasons for being in the closet at Princeton were many. Generally, I was anxious about being out in a school where I did not yet have any support and had not found a safe space, no matter where I turned. Additionally, my immediate and extended family are incredibly homophobic, and I feel that their knowing would have incredibly harmful effects on my life. 

Throughout my time here, I have tried to find a home for myself in Princeton’s Muslim community. While I have great friends within the community, the community itself and many of its members have been alienating and have turned me away both from finding the religious community I want and the community support I need. 

As a first-year student, I had great difficulty making friends. Then, a Muslim student I knew from class invited me to a Muslim Student Association (MSA) mixer. Through the group, I made fast friends, though I always felt a bit awkward. My family may have espoused and upheld certain Muslim values like modest dress, strict gender roles between men and women, and the importance of prayer and fasting when possible, but the strictness to which the MSA adhered to these values was often off-putting. I was one of few women who wore less modest clothing; I was a loud and outspoken feminist. Meanwhile, one member of my friend group once told me she “did not believe or understand feminism.” And of course, I was in the closet. 

Once, during an informal discussion about politics, a former MSA student leader remarked that all Muslims should hold the same conservative values, including a conception of “marriage between one man and one woman.” I rebutted that not all Muslims believed in that rigid structure of marriage, but was told by other members of the group to “let it be.” In a different instance, another student leader made a transphobic joke and I watched as other MSA members laughed in agreement. In Muslim spaces, I felt that I couldn’t defend my own queerness even if I wanted to — even if they had known. 

Just like being queer in Muslim spaces felt risky, being Muslim in queer spaces felt difficult as well. The LGBT Center (now known as the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center) staff and student leaders were generally kind and supportive. They often tried to help me, and their workshops were a highlight of my freshman year, including my favorite “Mom, I’m Gay,” a workshop on coming out. However, as a closeted student, it was hard to feel comfortable spending time in the LGBT Center when I was not out on campus. I did not want to have to explain to friends that I had made there that I did not want to be known as queer outside of the center. In addition, I was worried about being seen at LGBT Center events by students I wasn’t yet out to. 

Additionally, I recall multiple instances in which students were openly Islamophobic to me in queer spaces, further alienating me. During a dinner in my freshman year, a fellow queer student told me that “all Muslims are backwards and homophobic.” He then proceeded to describe the ways in which Arab countries punish gay men, including capital punishment. While it is true that some Arab countries still carry out these horrendous practices, it had nothing to do with me, a non-Arab Muslim student who was born and raised in the United States. The conversation left a bad taste in my mouth, and I only felt further pushed away from the queer community. 

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In a double whammy instance of Islamophobia and homophobia, a former friend from my freshman year, a devout Christian, told me that in their view, both Muslims and “homosexuals” would end up in hell. I thought about discussing the situation with a peer mentor, but I didn’t want to out myself to them either. 

I felt completely alone. 

As the semester went on, I began to feel more weary about being in the closet entirely. However, when I sought the advice of some queer friends, I was told to cut out the MSA entirely if they would not be supportive. I was scared. What would I do without a religious community? Who else would I meet for late night prayers or fast with during Ramadan? Who else would remember to wish me an Eid Mubarak if not for my Muslim friend group?

One tradition that kept me going during all of this was weekly dinners I would have with some of the friends I had made through the MSA. At one of these dinners, I broached the subject of sexuality with a quiet mention of “Love, Simon” as a recommendation for our movie night. I wanted so badly to come out. I thought that the movie would be a good segue. I’ll never forget what my friend said: “That actually makes me uncomfortable. I’d rather we didn’t talk about that.” 

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She didn’t say gay, or queer, or anything of the sort, but I knew what it meant. It was the end. 

Then March 2020 came around. I found myself hurriedly packing my bags to make the next flight home where, unbeknownst to me, I would spend the next year and a half — only furthering my time in the closet. 

Over that year and a half, I distanced myself greatly from the MSA and my friend group within it. As I dealt with being closeted at home, and once again being sequestered into my family’s conceptions of womanhood, I still sought the religious support of an Imam in the community. 

Unfortunately, he was not affirming when it came to my sexuality. In a moment of great discord in my family during COVID-19, I came out to the Imam and asked for his help. I was looking for someone to tell me that my feelings towards women and my conception of myself were not wrong. Instead, I received a mostly one-sided discussion, where I was told that while my feelings were natural, acting on them in any way was Islamically forbidden. He assured me that I could and would continue to have “deep friendships” with women, even if I could not act on my feelings. 

I was crushed. Not my Muslim friends, nor my Imam would accept me. For a year, I turned away from Islam entirely. I focused on getting closer (virtually) to my newly found friends in other communities, other clubs and activities. I found queer students who I could relate to, and look up to. I reconnected with my friends from high school, by virtue of all being quarantined in the same town. 

I tried not to think about my faith. When we returned to campus, I greeted Muslim friends cordially but without zeal. When Ramadan began, I let it pass without another glance. 

Then Imam Sohaib passed. 

At that moment, I wanted nothing more than the community I was so lacking. I wanted to run back to my Muslim friends and mourn with them, hold space with them for the Imam that I had so dearly loved just as them, despite our differences in ideology. I’ve been trying to find my way back ever since. 

It hasn’t been easy. While there are so many first years and sophomores that have changed the culture of the MSA, I would still feel uncomfortable being in the same space as those I know to be homophobic. I have great supportive friends now, from all faith traditions, and I refuse to be with people who will not be supportive.

Progress has been slow. I joined an online community for queer Muslims, affectionately called the “Muslim Fruit Bowl.” I discovered Hidayah LGBT, an advocacy group based in the UK, which gave me a source of information for finding out more about queer Muslims around the world. While I know of a few other queer Muslims, I have found queer students who I can relate to in other faith traditions, or who come from more conservative backgrounds. 

For the queer Muslims on our campus, and around the world, I just want to say that we exist. We are and have always been queer Muslims. If you search online, there are plenty of sets of scripture which will defend this, as many that will refute it, but I don’t need scripture or an Imam or the Muslim Student Association to tell me who I am, or who I will be. 

Editor's Note: The ‘Prince’ made the decision to publish this piece anonymously due to privacy and safety concerns for the author. 

Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at prospect@dailyprincetonian.com.

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