Queer Muslims, Islamophobia and mental health in the wake of Christchurch
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Three members of the Muslim LGBTQIA+ community speak of how they reconcile their identity with their faith.

Queer Muslims, Islamophobia and mental health in the wake of Christchurch

by Cindy El Sayed See Profile
Sydney NSW, Australia
2nd Apr 2019
Queer Muslims, Islamophobia and mental health in the wake of Christchurch

On the evening of 18 March, I gathered at town hall with a grieving collective of activists, radicals and queers, against the backdrop of the tolling bells of St Andrew’s cathedral. A man handed me a candle silently and I lit it against someone else’s flame.

Speakers from the LGBTQIA+ community gathered congregated at the south side of the enormous building while the grey sun cast a weak light upon us. A Jewish lesbian professed her solidarity and love. A Christian queer man discussed the parallels between the Orlando massacre and the recent Christchurch shooting as he offered up a prayer.

Once again, the queer Muslim community was caught in an ambiguous, anxious feeling of not belonging to any group, and at a loss as to how to direct our grief. We are caught between a queer identity and a Muslim one, when they are considered to be mutually exclusive.

The complexities of racism and Islamophobia are being well articulated in the media after Christchurch. In a recent study, Murdoch media has been found to have published 2891 anti-Muslim articles in a single year. In such a hostile environment, our Muslim community is seen as a homogenous, with the action of one person attributed to the entire group.

Mainstream media is flooded with this sentiment, and the propaganda seems to fit within an overarching theme of “othering”. Edward Said’s work explores the process through which the West tries to ‘other’ Muslims. The white gaze has to fabricate an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ binary to dehumanise and stereotype anyone who is different.

Sara Ahmed has written extensively on binaries between West and the ‘other’, especially in the context of queer theory and Islam. This binary view implies that if the West is liberal, then the ‘other’ must be conservative. According to Ahmed, intervention or war in the Middle East, based on the pretence of freedom of rights, is akin to “white queers saving brown queers from brown straights.” Ahmed succinctly states that “when homophobia is attributed to Islam, it becomes a cultural attribute. Homophobia would then be viewed as intrinsic to Islam, as a cultural attribute, but homophobia in the West would be viewed as extrinsic, as an individual attribute.”

This is why when we look at Queer Muslims, their existence sometimes seems impossible. When Muslims are portrayed as a one- dimensional racist caricature, they are not afforded a complex, human identity. How can they even exist without admitting that human beings are diverse in every single way, regardless of cultural backgrounds, religions or gender expressions?

53 studies across North America, Europe, Australian and New Zealand found that mental health outcomes for Muslims are poor. These studies suggest that racism, hatred and discrimination are keys factors in lowering outcomes and were linked with psychological distress, depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, fear, PTSD, self-harm, and less frequent attempts to seek health care. Similarly, the wider LGBTQIA+ community experience poorer mental health outcomes compared to the rest of the population, also due to social stigma.

Charlie*, who is 25-years-old, transmasculine and queer, comes from a Malay-Desi background and lives between Australia and Singapore. They suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder, Dysthymia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Complex PTSD.

“My depressive episodes are triggered by not being able to express myself fully due to my parents’ faith. I have also attempted suicide – because I am unable to live the life I want”, said Charlie. They feel no ties to their cultural community are a non-practicing Muslim. “I am unable to believe in a God that chooses to abuse me and my life this way”.

Amira* is a 21- year- old non-binary lesbian, second generation Lebanese-Australian, currently living in Sydney. She was forcefully outed to her mother, and had to move out of home quickly with the support of friends.

“I have struggled with mental health quite a lot, I have depression, anxiety and PTSD. I feel a lot of it stems from my strict Muslim upbringing, and the way I was taught not to question religion and god, so I felt it all repressed. I felt like there was no option to be gay and Muslim”, she explained.

Amira felt let down by her experiences with a therapist. Having attended sessions for nine months, she wasn’t making progress with a white therapist who had a hard time understanding her upbringing in a Muslim household. “I constantly had to be explaining and making the counsellor understand certain things that I could/couldn’t do”.

“My relationship with Islam is quite complicated and I feel as though I am at a crossroads with it, I’m not practicing but I do implement certain aspects of Islam in my life. Since I was young it was instilled in me that anything but Islam was wrong and hell is where we would go, so shedding/unlearning all those lifelong teachings is a process and it’s something that I’m still working through till today.”

The support of Sydney Queer Muslims has helped Amira find a safe space to meet with members that are part of the Muslim community. “It’s a safe space where you can connect with people of common experiences. I look forward to fostering and helping to create more LGBT+ cultural communities. The support I received from the individuals there was extremely helpful and important to how I am today. I believe that understanding and compassion is key in inclusivity”, she said.

Sarah* is 27, lives in Sydney’s West and identifies as a genderqueer lesbian. Sarah’s preferred pronouns are she/her. “But does it make sense that I don’t actually mind being referred to as he, him or they either? Pronouns aren’t strictly attached to how I express my gender?”, she asked.

Sarah’s experience with accessing mental health services has mostly been positive, except for one interaction that really stands out.

“A psychologist treated me with kindness until I felt comfortable enough to admit I “wasn’t straight” and that I self-harmed as a result. She stopped mid-sentence and did not know how to continue the session. She could not comprehend I was Muslim, queer and that I self-harmed from the struggle of trying to be both. It was one of the most alienating experiences of my life”.

On her experiences of gender, Sarah vividly remembers having to wear a dress to a wedding, which triggered her anxiety.

“I have less trouble accepting my sexuality and whilst that is an issue in itself, gender expression has been a greater battle for me. A more recent strain on my mental health has been the struggle to reconcile gender expression, sexuality and Islam”, she said.

Sarah recalls the tension that she experienced in mainstream orthodox Sunni Islam. She initially believed the homophobia she encountered in that community represented mainstream Muslim beliefs. However, she came to understand that her spiritual bond was “between me and God, with no one else bearing an opinion of our bond. Whilst many things in orthodox mainstream Sunni Islam don’t and can’t apply to me right now, the proximity I gained to feeling at peace inside was the happiest time for me. I’m on my journey to gaining that closeness and strengthening my religion whilst still expressing my sexuality and gender”, she explained.

Sarah has come to a place where she can coexist as a Muslim and a genderqueer lesbian but acknowledges that some community attitudes can be harmful. She calls on the community to stop spreading fear, to make room for the acceptance of diversity and to come from a place of loving each other.

She is hopeful about the future, especially when it comes to making some Muslim communities more inclusive of LGBTQIA+ people. For her, this change will come with increased awareness and education.

“We should have workshops, seminars and information sessions that merge the concept of Islam, sexuality and gender expression. There should be an acknowledgement that not all Muslims will have the same sexual orientation and it that is completely ok.The mental, emotional, physical and spiritual safety of LGBTQIA+ Muslims needs to be of a higher priority. This needs to be of higher importance and come without the condemnation and hateful judgement of our fellow brothers and sisters”.

*Names have been changed to protect identity.

Learn more about Sydney Queer Muslims.

Sydney Queer Muslims
Cindy El Sayed

About Cindy El Sayed

Cindy is a social work and international relations student who is passionate about anti-racism and the LGBTQIA+ community. She loves writing about all things intersectional and screaming into the void about the mess that is politics.

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