Can a gay and Muslim identity coexist in modern London?

It’s 2017 and it might be starting to look that way. Britain has a large Muslim LGBTQ community where people come together to support the belief that you can be gay and Muslim. The UK’s leading LGBTQ Muslim charity Imaan helps gay Muslims who are forced into heterosexual marriages by their families. More than thousands of gay Muslims are dealing with an identity crisis and charities like Imaan and much more are helping people form the two identities into one.

It is an issue that is affecting thousands of gay Muslims across the country. This topic continuously gets brushed under the carpet. Many people say its ok to be gay and Muslim because there are laws in Britain to support this equality. In Islam, there are no labels against people. The desires are not judged, the actions are judged. Many Muslims don’t even recognise the term ‘gay’.

It is commonly understood that a Muslim should not be proud of their sins, they should keep issues like drinking alcohol and eating pork to themselves, so many Muslims believe that people should not come out of the closet because it is like flaunting and being proud of their ‘sin’. But it might be important to recognise the concept that Muslims can choose to eat pork and drink alcohol, but they don’t choose to be gay.

Many Muslims might find it difficult to understand why gay people have chosen the life that they have. To this day it’s being discussed whether being gay is a choice or not. If being gay is, in fact, a choice, then why do they want to be a part of a religion that categorically condemns the act of homosexuality? Though if being gay is actually not a choice, then maybe people should stop moping around for the religion’s acceptance. After all, it’s a choice to follow Islam. It is entirely confusing for a person to choose between identities, especially when they clash so often. In March 2014, the chairman of Birmingham Central Mosque Dr Mohammad Naseem caused controversy when he implied that homosexuals share a common trait with murderers and paedophiles. In a Channel 4 interview, he openly said “It’s not possible to be both gay and a Muslim. You can choose your way of life but you don’t have to be a Muslim.”

Though Muslim groups can be seen as largely homophobic, it is not just homophobia that is the big issue here. Homophobia derives from how these individuals are incorporated into the obvious interests of their society, therefore maintaining an Islamic attitude. British society is very much fixated on conforming to social norms such as keeping up with appearances, and expressing one’s individuality is frowned upon. The patriarchal society is a major factor because of the strongly defined roles for men and women. If a homosexual woman is appearing to reveal ‘masculine’ traits, she is defying the social norm.

British Muslims may try and seek the ‘cause’ of their sexual orientation and might consequently blame the social environment in the British society. It is no denying that the UK has a thriving gay scene. London’s Soho district is home to the LGBTQ community and many people enjoy their time at the lively bars and clubs Soho has to offer. Brighton is known to have one of the largest LGBTQ communities in the UK and the largest UK pride event is held there. The reason why some British Muslims might blame British society for encouraging their homosexuality is because they aim to attribute the aspects of their ‘undesirable’ identity to external factors. They may feel that the influence of Britain’s bustling gay scene could trigger their homosexual urges and therefore distance their relationship with God.

It’s normal for a British gay Muslim to feel lost in today’s society. For many of them, finding a sense of belonging on the gay scene can also be a challenge due to rising cases of Islamophobia from white British gay men. A research at De Montfort University in Leicester by Rusi Jaspal found that many gay Muslim men may face racism and homophobia from white British gay men and therefore it may produce a negative social and psychological outcome for their identity. If British gay Muslims are unable to find a sense of identity in the thriving British gay scene, then how can they find space in the British Muslim community that condones same sex relations?

Deputy Manager of the London Pride team Jahanara Chaudhry identifies as a gay Muslim. She had a strong opinion on the matter; “I believe a Muslim person can have an outward gay identity due to the fact that the modern world is a lot more accepting and open towards change. However, due to the cultural climate of the UK, it may not be as easily done due to many opposing factors, such as the rise of right-wing fascism, Islamophobia, and rape culture. While there is a lack of normalising sexual orientations within schools, there is a strong opposition to orientations outside of the norm. Once this normalisation begins, there will be an acceptance of sexualities regardless of backgrounds.”

Deputy Manager of London Pride, Jahanara Chaudhry

Jahanara is also a student studying Anthropology and South Asian studies at SOAS University in London. SOAS is known to welcome a diverse set of students, with over half being international because of the courses offered. “Universities are recognisable settings where different groups of people come together” explains Jahanara. “The Islamic society and LGBT society work side by side to expand inter-group contact between the two different groups, especially with those who categorise themselves with both groups.”

British Muslims often have the strain of living two different lives due to the fear of being ‘outed’. The British Asian community is very different to most communities. Journalist Patrick McAleenan described segments of the British Asian community as “conservative” and “impossible” to come out. He also told the Telegraph that, “With the fear of being disowned and shaming the family name, British Asian gay men and women are faced with depression, isolation, and even suicidal thoughts. Many live double lives, hiding their truth from their own families and communities, while secretly continuing with their gay relationships outside.” The identities of British gay Muslims are intertwined and they are told by society that they are equal, but this ‘equality’ is not acknowledged in their community. So ultimately what are they supposed to do? This is one of the many reasons why so many gay Muslims are leading double lives.

Britain’s first Muslim drag queen Asif Quraishi told the Evening Standard “Being Muslim is a cultural identity.” Journalist Asad Dhunna also told the paper, “There is a gay imam who says that deciding between being Muslim and gay is like deciding which arm to chop off.” It seems rather like a lot of gay Muslims are forced to juggle their identities and there is an idea to ‘separate’ the two from each other because they can’t oblige side by side.

Not entirely different to most other religions, there is a strong principle that being Muslim and being gay are two conflicting identities. There is also the notion that if a gay person came out to their Muslim family, they will be disowned because homosexuality is not welcome in a place of faith. Ayub Khan-Din’s 1999 British comedy-drama film East is East had an entertaining but genuine approach on the subject when the main character’s eldest son fled from his wedding to enter a homosexual relationship and was later disowned by his Muslim father. 

1999, ‘East is East’ Directed by Damien O’Donnell

The mother, on the other hand, didn’t identify as Muslim and would sneak phone calls with her son whilst her husband was away. Maybe this is a way to show people that those individuals who don’t identify with Islam are a lot more tolerant of having family members who identify as homosexual?

Many Muslims don’t experience talking about relationships and sex. From a religious perspective, it’s seen as taboo, and from a more real-world perspective, it’s difficult for some British Muslims to even get their point across because they don’t share the same native language as their parents. Wanting to talk about the elephant in the room gets lost in translation.

Can we be hopeful that maybe one day being gay and Muslim will be welcomed in the British Muslim community? There was a beam of optimism coming from the Muslim LGBTQ community as they proudly waved their rainbow flags down the London Pride parade last year, and promised to do it again this year, without any fear, without any anticipation, and only with pride. The Muslim LGBTQ community may not necessitate permission from British Muslims because, at the end of the day, Britain will protect their rights. Gay Muslims have to accept themselves and learn that the British Muslim community does not have the power to seize their Islamic values. Gay Muslims have the choice to intertwine the two identities in today’s society in the UK.