| Arts & Culture
Queer Life How My Community Showed Me I Could Be Both Muslim and Queer
“It was this Islam, the Islam of authenticity, community, justice, and love, that showed me how to be a truer version of myself.”
Growing up, I always wanted a little brother. Someone to tease, teach, tend to—someone who could look up to me. In college, our Muslim community had an informal sibling match to help freshmen navigate their first forays into college life. The moment I was assigned a “big bro” as a first-year, I couldn’t wait until it was my turn to be one.
Once I was a senior, I received an email with a name—Mohammad Ramzan, my little brother. Soon after meeting, I asked him to list his top five loves in the world. It was a light-hearted ice breaker. I expected foods, places, celebrities.
“My mom is the number-one love of my life,” he replied. I remembered to call my mom later that night.
A bright-eyed, joyful West-Coaster, with a heart wider than the smile that never seemed to fade from his face. He had a unique love for and knowledge of his faith. Deeply curious, he enjoyed seeking out Islamic philosophy. Deeply loving, his classmates lit up in his presence. He was endearing, adored by all who met him.
When I first received the email saying Mohammed Ramzan was my little bro, I looked him up. Google turned up a wide-angle shot of him beaming as bright as the sunny sky behind him, an oversized rainbow flag draped over his shoulders.
Mohammed was gay. He was out and he was proud. He was also the first queer person I met who looked like me, who worshipped the same God as me, who understood the same culture as me—families, food, movies, language. Seeing that photo lifted something in my chest, revealing a tightness I hadn’t known was there, the oddly painful relief of inhaling when you weren’t aware you had been holding your breath your entire life—painful, yes, but invigorating.
There’s a silence and stigma in Muslim communities around queerness, a lack of visibility that led me to believe it was not possible to be Muslim and gay. I conflated identity with community. This perceived mutual exclusivity meant that I never felt whole within either, that I couldn’t be both.
In my first few months of college, my insecurities around not fitting in held me back from engaging with the Muslim community. But now, as a senior, I spotted Mohammed at every event, his smile as wide as ever, hand outstretched as he enthusiastically introduced himself or leapt to hug his friends.
In some ways he reminded me of myself. Muslim spaces often segregate by gender; this was something I never felt comfortable with, as I often got along better with girls. Mohammed and I were chatting on the predominantly men’s side of a table. A lull in our conversation was interrupted by his hesitant but hopeful smile.
“If it’s all right, I’m gonna go sit with the girls.” I watched as he livened up on the other side of the table, or was I watching myself? How often I had felt the same way.
His confidence astonished me in other ways. At a lawn barbecue put on by Muslim students, he told me about his night out in Boystown, followed by the lessons he learned in his latest independent Quran study. Those were two things I never expected to hear about in the same conversation. That was Mohammed though, a vibrant blend of complexities. But there was nothing complex about it. It was effortlessly simple. He could exist in both worlds and embrace every part of himself as a queer Muslim.
It was effortlessly simple. He could exist in both worlds and embrace every part of himself as a queer Muslim.
Mohammed once asked me if I was gay. He didn’t hush or shift; nothing set this apart from any other ordinary question. I said no.
“Oh,” he paused. His face dropped, the first time I saw his smile fade. It was back almost as fast as it had vanished. “OK!” he added quickly, continuing the conversation.
There was disappointment in that pause. I don’t know if it was the disappointment of thinking he’d found someone who shared his experience, only to be wrong. Maybe it was the disappointment of being right, only for me to tell a lie, to hide behind the mask I had grown accustomed to wearing.
I’d given this response before. Over the years, people I met for the first time felt it appropriate to fit me into a box, to extrapolate my sexuality from my interests, the register of my voice, the way I expressed myself. They may have been right, but I pushed back.
Difference in expression didn’t define sexuality, and I leaned into that. I built up a self-important image: I could represent the diversity of expression possible among straight men. I could be different, “a straight man for the twenty-first century.” I could embrace my difference, be unapologetic about the way I spoke, the way I moved, the company I kept. My queerness was an inconvenience, and self-delusion the answer.
Despite knowing the desires that I tucked away, I found ways to dilute their truth. Those moments, the pace of my breath quickening at the sight of a jogger, sweat glistening, the muscles on his back flexing effortlessly—they didn’t matter.
From an early age, I desexualized myself. If I didn’t think about physical desire, I wouldn’t have to confront my own sexuality. If I ignored physical attraction, the affection I felt towards girls was enough to negate everything else, enough to convince myself I could be straight. If anything, I thought, sexuality was fluid. This twisted acknowledgment of a queer framework would give me room to live a straight life.
It was winter. The university sent out notice that a student was missing in a rowing team accident. Minutes later, a friend texted me asking if I was okay. I was confused. What reason did I have to be affected personally? Then another email—from our Muslim chaplain. The student was a freshman in our community: Mohammed Ramzan.
I remember the emergency prayer session organized by the Muslim community, the freezing rain that soaked my clothes. I remember thinking these were the same drops mixing with the water he waded through. I remember thinking at least tears would have been warmer than this on my face.
Students sat cross-legged on the ground, some in tears, others in prayer. We recited Quran collectively—Surah Yaseen: Mohammed’s favorite chapter, the heart of the Quran. I thought about him. I thought about his faith, the one thing we could all hold on to in these moments of uncertainty, connecting us to him through the distance and the unknowns. I thought about his queerness.
In hindsight, I wish I could draw a neat connection between these ideas. His queerness was erased, but it was also equalized. It was known, and yet members of his faith community didn’t leave him. They didn’t forget him or abandon concern for him. He was deserving of every supplication and every outpouring of love.
Our communities erase the parts of us that make them uncomfortable, but they also have the power to say, under the covenant of our faith, we are one community—no exceptions. Does that happen always? No. But it was happening in this small room.
Hours later, we received confirmation that Mohammed had passed away. Before sorrow, more selfish thoughts began to fill my head. How much he and I still had yet to do. How much more we still had yet to learn about each other. All of it now became “what if’s.”
Mohammed loved our community, and we adored him. But it didn’t come without rejection and a deep loneliness either. He told me how he struggled to connect with the Muslim men at school. I wish I could tell him I did too. I wish I could tell him that just because we couldn’t relate to the heteronormative masculinity of those spaces, it didn’t mean we didn’t belong in the larger community. But it was he who taught me that. In the face of those challenges and disconnects, he never betrayed himself.
What if he didn’t have to believe he was the only one like him? What if I could’ve been a better comfort, big brother, and fellow queer Muslim to him? What if I had told him, yes, I’m gay.
In the months after Mohammed’s death, I embarked on a reporting project featuring queer Muslims and the challenges around that identity. I thought about him as I wrote, but I didn’t personalize the effort. I believed I was writing in order to open up this conversation and acknowledge these intersecting identities, bringing visibility to a long erased slice of our community. But a buried part of me wished I could have seen visible queer Muslims sooner, wished I could see myself.
The story brought me in contact with community organizers, religious leaders, and everyday people navigating queerness and their faith. I met Muhsin Hendricks, a gay Imam in South Africa. He came from a religious family, had a strong foundation in his faith, and struggled at first with his sexuality. He married a woman, hoping that it would fix him. He now considers himself blessed to have grown up with both his Muslim and queer identities, positioning him in a way to advocate for this community.
Hendricks runs Al-Fitrah , an organization that serves as a place of worship and offers support services to queer Muslims. It’s named for the natural way Allah creates someone.
“If an identity is a divine intention, then you have to accept it,” Hendricks told me. “People feel closer to Allah, they feel more connected to their spirituality, and they feel that their life is more authentic.” Sexual orientation or gender identity are only parts of what make up our whole identity, parts of our fitrah, or nature, that we have to accept in order to live as a complete Muslim.
We speak against the religious shame that forces people to reject their sexuality, but what of the reverse? In not embracing my authentic sexuality in the face of Hendricks’ words about our faith, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of shame. Is it shame that’s wrong, or the direction that shame leads us in? What is shame, if not the rift between what we are and what we wish to be?
In many cases, closing that rift, the kind of dual acceptance Hendricks preaches, seems impossible. Many of us grow up or find ourselves in Muslim spaces that are homophobic, deny our existence, or label us sinners. Or we find ourselves in queer spaces where socialization centers around sex and alcohol, where whiteness dominates, and our identity makes us feel either unwanted or exoticized.
The prevalence of these spaces would have us believe we can’t love both, we can’t even be both. Peace of mind, or even survival, means leaving one or the other. That’s a personal choice, but the external judgment and the realities that necessitate that choice also breed self-hate. We start to judge those amongst us who engage with faith as not being queer enough, or we completely subdue and reject our sexuality as a testament to our faith and to the detriment of our mental health.
“If an identity is a divine intention, then you have to accept it.”
In doing so, we do no service to our fellow queer Muslims. We reinforce the pervasive narrative that queerness and Islam are at odds with one another, perceptions thrust upon us by both the white secular gaze and the conservative Muslim framework. We internalize the notion that we who live at the intersection of queerness and Islam must live in some state of tension, an internal anxiety that embracing both is an effort to reconcile two incompatible concepts. This narrative says that these identities lessen each other, that queerness makes us bad Muslims, and that adherence to Islam limits our sexuality.
But these identities don’t necessarily need reconciliation in the first place. It was Islam and my relationship with faith that slowly paved the path for me to embrace my sexuality. Islam, in the words of Imam Hendricks, called upon me to submit to God and submit to the authenticity of the way God created me. Islam, in the example of Mohammed Ramzan, was a source of love and solace, a community that could be claimed alongside the joy and pride in queerness.
It was this Islam, the Islam of authenticity, community, justice, and love, that showed me how to be a truer version of myself.
I found myself reflecting on all of this, and on Mohammed, this past Ramadan, the Islamic holy month with which he shared a name.
Through spiritual reconnection, I recognized the ways in which faith and my experiences with people like Mohammed and Imam Hendricks supported me on the journey toward authenticity, and how much had changed in the three years since I met them. They challenged me to confront the parts of my identity I had ignored. Their words and their examples chipped away at the wall of self-delusion I had constructed for myself.
It took only a pair of eyes to bring that wall crumbling down this year. At once comforting and inquisitive, they put me at ease and put me on edge. Each glance promised new beginnings; every tender look threatened no return. I lost myself in those eyes and, every time, found myself in them again. Was this what it felt like to be seen?
I remember he didn’t ask if I was gay; he asked if I was out. His confident assumption made me hesitate, not sure whether to deny myself again, as I had with everyone before him. I didn’t. We talked about our relationship to queerness and Islam. My authentic self was revealed to him, and only him. For the first time, it existed outside of myself. It was real.
Before him, I hadn’t even imagined ever coming out. Soon, I came out to my close friends. I was releasing my grip on the only part of me I hadn’t allowed to breathe.
The peace I had found in embracing my authenticity more completely could only be described as that kind of comfort sought out through the spiritual. It was an endeavor in faith to embrace myself. My queerness was bred, fostered, accepted, and loved within the framework of Islam. In turn, it sparked a desire to reconnect with my faith.
Ramadan ended and brought with it my first Pride. Together, they gave me the opportunity to invest in these two identities and communities, build upon their intersection, and find joy and solace in who I am. New friendships with queer Muslims offered space to engage in spiritual reflection, celebrate our sexuality, and support each other in life’s most mundane and climactic trials.
As we, as a community, grow more visible and look to move beyond the important yet simplistic narrative that “we exist,” there are many more cliches and narratives that we can begin to deconstruct. We must expand and add to the joyous cacophony of queer Muslim voices. There is so much love and community, so much purpose to be found and challenges we must address.
Despite the realities that create fear of rejection by our communities, these two facets of my life are neither at odds, nor do they even require reconciliation. They both inform my identity. I am a more authentic, open, and loving member of the queer community because of Islam, and I am a more thoughtful, reflective, and devoted Muslim because of my queerness. It’s through each that I learned to love the other.