where do queer muslims go during ramadan?
Many LGBTQ+ Muslims are forced to create their own safe spaces.
Image via imaanlondon.com
Ramadan -- the holy month in which Muslims across the world observe 30 days of fasting from dusk till dawn -- starts on 15 May. More than just an exercise in self-control, Ramadan is also a time for charity and prayer, as well as a chance to take stock of your life and better yourself as a Muslim. At the very core is the idea of family -- being with the ones you love and cherish.
But what happens when you’re a Muslim person who also identifies as LGBTQ+? How does the experience of the holy month change when you have to factor in that your sexuality isn’t in accordance with the religion you’re following? More so, for the growing number of openly queer Muslims observing Ramadan, who and what is out there for them during a period where the most important things are unity and togetherness?
For Asifa Lahore, best known as the UK’s first out and proud Muslim drag queen, and who last year came out as transgender, the five pillars of Islam have always been an integral part of her identity and upbringing, just as much as being a part of the LGBTQ+ community is. So for her, Ramadan has always a family affair.
“I’m aware I come from a place of privilege in that I’m able to break my fast [known as Iftari] with my family, or choose to have a queer meet-up and open my fast with friends,” Lahore says. She credits both her profession as a drag performer and the fact she’s always been vocal about her sexual identity as the reasons she’s able to spend Ramadan with her family. She knows this isn’t always an option for LGBTQ+ Muslims. “My family have been on a journey and have come out with me in a sense,” she tells me. But even so, she still comes up against resistance from wider family members and people from within the local community.
“If I look at them as a person of faith and as a fellow Muslim, then I have to respect my elders, and if they’re not accepting of who I am then that’s fine. They don’t have to break their fast with me, I’m okay with that. I’m aware and respectful of other people’s barriers.”
"Many specialist charities are based in London or other big cities. This means many queer Muslims who live outside these areas -- where LGBTQ+ awareness and respect is typically even more limited -- are not able to use these services."
For Adam Dar, it’s a different story. This year will be his first Ramadan since coming out as gay to his family. He describes the experience of coming out as “not good”. Because he still lives at home, his parents choose to ignore the reality of him being gay. “They’re in a state of denial at the moment,” he explains. When asked whether he’s anxious about his first Ramadan as an out gay man, he tells me: “I’m still immersed within the wider community so I don’t feel like much will change. The lengths they’ll go to deny I’m gay is astounding.” Ramadan has never been a difficult experience for him as he’s already attended a number of dedicated LGBTQ+ Iftaris in the past. “They’re a lot more accepting and inclusive and you’re able to have in-depth conversations with other queer Muslims. It’s also nice to be around people just like me,” he says.
One significant problem, however, is that they’re not on his doorstep. He’s had to travel from his hometown of Birmingham to cities across the country, including Manchester and London, just to be able to spend a part of Ramadan with other queer Muslims. And if these Iftari parties, as they’re commonly referred to, aren’t organised by mutual friends, then it’s usually the work of charities and community centres. One such is Imaan, which considers itself the UK’s leading LGBTQ+ Muslim charity. In the past Imaan has hosted Iftaris across the country and provided a space for gay Muslims to open their fast, pray and interact with others.
Along with Imaan, there’s also the Inclusive Mosque Initiative (IMI), which runs dedicated evening prayers during Ramadan for queer people and aims to provide prayer space for people of all genders, both during and outside of Ramadan. Beyond offering religious counsel, these charities are also vital in providing safe havens for many queer Muslims who live in fear of their lives every day. “We had one gay man who would tell us to call him if we didn’t hear from him when he got home in the evening, because he never knew what could happen,” Faizan, a trustee at Imaan, explains.
The work being done by these small organisations highlights the serious lack of space for queer Muslims. Many specialist charities are based in London or other big cities. This means many queer Muslims who live outside these areas -- where LGBTQ+ awareness and respect is typically even more limited -- are not able to use these services. Faizan says that the charity understands the importance of reaching queer Muslims far and wide, but Imaan, and other organisations like them, are still charities with limited resources and funding."
"Yes, we receive a lot of backlash from the Muslim community for the way we follow Islam, but then we also receive Islamophobia from within the LGBTQ+ community. It can be very hard and carries a lot of pressure” – Asifa Lahore
With grassroot operations struggling to reach everyone, one might expect there to be support offered from within the LGBTQ+ community to help queer Muslims during a challenging month like Ramadan. But both Dar and Lahore say that instead they endure continuous criticism from non-Muslim LGBTQ+ people who question why they still choose to follow a religion at all. “Most LGBTQ+ Muslims are caught between various identities. On one hand, yes, we receive a lot of backlash from the Muslim community for the way we follow Islam, but then we also receive Islamophobia from within the LGBTQ+ community. It can be very hard and carries a lot of pressure,” says Lahore.
It’s a similar case for Tara Hussain, who identifies as a bisexual Muslim woman. She says she receives backlash from non-Muslim LGBTQ+ individuals on her decision to observe Ramadan, based solely on their preconceived understanding of what Islam is about. “But because I’m not visibly Muslim [she doesn’t wear a headscarf] I don’t experience it as much as other queer Muslim women I know.”
It’s clear that many LGBTQ+ Muslims have taken it upon themselves to create their own safe spaces where they can observe and celebrate Ramadan. They want to see more done by the wider community, so those still battling between faith and sexuality know where they can go. “I don’t have much hope for the Islamic community if I’m honest, because they’re never going to do anything for their LGBTQ+ members,” Dar says. Instead he wants the LGBTQ+ community to listen to the experiences of gay Muslims, to better understand the importance of their faith, and why they choose to still observe and respect various elements of Islam.
Lahore believes the secret lies in increasing visibility and welcoming allies into queer Muslim spaces. She says her dream would be for Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, a strong advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, to include queer Muslims during the Eid celebrations that take place in Trafalgar Square. “It could be something as simple as a prayer or a gentle nod to the LGBTQ+ Muslims. Just some acknowledgement would be so special.”
For any queer Muslims worried about spending Ramadan alone or with family and relatives who don’t accept them, Lahore’s advice is simple. “Reach out to us, find out where the next Big Gay Iftar is, utilise services like Imaan and have that heart-to-heart experience with fellow queer Muslims, because Ramadan is basically about family. And we’re all family.”