When Rafa Kidvai first became a parent two years ago, it was during the initial isolation at the onset of the pandemic. While they yearned for a place to talk about parenting with other queer Muslims, there was a lack of supportive communities for new parents who shared similar identities, both online and in person. So Kidvai, along with two others, created a group called Rising Stars: A Network of Support for LGBTQI+ Muslim Parents and Families, hosted by Queer Crescent, a nonprofit centering LGBTQ+ Muslims.
Like Kidvai, many queer Muslims can be doubly isolated, facing xenophobia and Islamophobia, as well as anti-queer discrimination, even from within their own families. However, queer Muslims are finding opportunities to connect with each other across the country by joining like-minded online communities that can provide safety for people who may still be closeted in their offline lives.
“There’s this assumption that you can’t be queer and Muslim,” said Fazeela Siddiqui, a Brooklyn-based attorney and co-founder of the LGBTQI+ Muslim Parenting Network. “But that’s obviously not true.”
Kidvai said they wanted a place to talk about topics like navigating pregnancy or how to bring up using gender-neutral pronouns with their family, but they also wanted to be able to discuss the day-to-day parts of parenting with other queer Muslims.
“[Being a] queer Muslim is part of the fabric of the conversation sometimes, and not necessarily the explicit conversation,” they said. “A space for parents to talk about parenting isn’t the most radical idea, but we have been so siloed and unable to have these conversations that I’m excited for the parts where other people will see you and your mundane parenting journey.”
Community organizers say that in addition to providing a way for queer Muslims to connect with each other while experiencing different milestones and navigating life in both their own communities and America at large, these spaces are helping to broaden what it means to be Muslim in America.
“We are refusing to be a single identity,” said Wazina Zondon, one of the creators behind Coming Out Muslim. “We are owning the nuances and textures and hyphenations of our identities.”
There weren’t many organized community spaces for queer Muslims when Zondon debuted Coming Out Muslim in 2011, so an organic community space formed around the play as many people stayed after the performance. Now a decade later, organizations like Queer Crescent, The Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity and Masjid al-Rabia have provided much needed safe online and in-person community spaces and more opportunities for queer Muslims to visibly embrace and explore their gender and sexuality. Being Muslim in America already carries with it dangerous stigmas and pressures, but for queer Muslims especially, finding resources and opportunities to be themselves and explore their identities among understanding peers can be fraught.
Living under surveillance and stereotypes
Visibility for queer Muslims can be a double-edged sword. While being out can make it easier for queer Muslims to find each other and form communities, it can also make them targets for abuse, violence, or worse. Shenaaz Janmohamed, the founder of Queer Crescent, said that queer Muslims are often either invisiblized or hypervisiblized and exotified both within and outside of their own immediate communities. She created Queer Crescent in 2017 because queer Muslims needed a dedicated space to be “seen and witnessed, and not watched as our communities are often watched and surveilled,” referring to the sense of invaded privacy and mistrust that many Muslims in the U.S. share due to state-sponsored surveillance programs such as the New York Police Department secretly surveilling Muslim communities or the arbitrary profiling and arrests of Muslim Americans after 9/11.
Janmohamed said that because of the extreme violence that many Muslims face across the nation and world, including the detention of Muslim Uyghurs in China, it can be difficult to express the challenges of the more mundane parts of life, such as parenting, relationships, and career and personal development.
“It can feel comparatively hard to register your struggles when so many other people experience such a level of violence simply because they’re Muslim,” said Janmohamed.
In fact, the increased violence directed at Muslims in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban was the original impetus for Janmohamed to create Queer Crescent in Oakland. The group first met in person, but eventually transitioned online because of the pandemic. Janmohamed said that Queer Crescent’s programming has stayed online because it allows people from areas across the U.S. to join, and, in addition to being more accessible to disabled people, an online format also provides community members with more confidentiality.
Other queer Muslim organizations offer similar resources. Masjid al-Rabia was founded in 2016 as a women-led and LGBTQ+-affirming mosque in Chicago that offers virtual programming. The Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD) is an advocacy and community group created in 2011 in Atlanta. MASGD is fully online and hosts community nights, movie screenings, writing workshops, Eid celebrations, Ramadan events, and healing spaces. According to Eman Abdelhadi, a coordinator at MASGD, participation at their virtual events has ranged from a hundred to a handful of participants.
Abdelhadi said that for many participants, it’s their first time being in a space with other queer Muslims. She said that throughout the pandemic, their virtual programming has allowed people to continue building meaningful relationships when they might be in living situations that are less accepting of their identity.
“For a lot of people it gives them a sense of relief from either being in Muslim spaces that are not affirming of their queerness or being in queer spaces that are really Islamophobic,” said Abdelhadi.
Creating found families and hopes for the future
Janmohamed said the biggest challenge facing many queer Muslim communities and organizations is not having enough staff or resources to provide support for as many people as frequently as they would like. Building trust and confidentiality is another challenge when holding support groups online, but Janmohamed said Queer Crescent has a process where people apply to a support group through the organization, including one-on-one meetings with the organizers to confirm that applicants share Queer Crescent’s values before they can join.
Rising Stars, the support group for LGBTQ+ parents, has had four sessions so far, which Janmohamed described as “powerful.” Many people who joined the group seeking support are now hoping to organize and be leaders themselves in more queer Muslim spaces.
“It’s so clear that [queer Muslims] are thirsty to be seen,” they said. “A goal that I have is to see queer Muslims really leading and feeling supported to bring their intersectional and rich life experiences to lead and transform our cultures in ways that we need.”
Siddiqui described the spaces like Rising Stars that they are trying to create as “gently radical.” In a world that targets people for violence merely because they’re Muslim and queer, spaces that rest on foundations of care, empathy, and mutual support can also be revolutionary.
“Having a community and space [for] queer Muslim parents is such a unique, exciting, and powerful act of community care, self-love, and resistance,” she said.
Queer Crescent is currently raising money for Black & Pink National, an abolitionist organization, to help formerly incarcerated LGBTQ+ people reenter their communities. It’s also partnered with organizations that are fighting against Islamophobia in various ways, such as Vigilant Love, an advocacy organization that fights against Islamophobic policies; Heart Women and Girls, which provides resources for sexual health and for survivors of sexual violence; and both MASGD and Justice for Muslims Collective, which are also organizing against Islamophobia. MASGD also created programming to address issues like anti-Blackness in Muslim communities and has dedicated spaces for Black queer Muslims to ensure the community is serving everyone’s needs.
All of these efforts are working toward the ultimate goal of forming a Muslim community that not only affirms LGBTQ+ Muslims, but also fights against racism, classism, and other “isms.” Janmohamed sees these support groups as one step toward building this type of environment, hoping that through their work, others can see more options and more possibilities in what it means to be Muslim.
“I am interested in bringing my family and my kid to a place where I feel seen and valued in parts of me that are beyond my queerness,” Janmohamed said. “I want to be in a place that does not uphold anti-Blackness, that does not exclude disabled people, that is not thinking of Muslimness as a very narrow idea.”
For Zondon, sharing community for the last decade with other queer Muslims has helped her heal some of the past fear and shame she had been holding on to. Zondon hadn’t realized how lonely she had been or how difficult it was for her to trust others because of those past experiences, but now many of the people she has met through a LGBTQ+ Muslim retreat and other social events have become her choosen family and, as an adult, her network.
“We still carry these bruises and these fears and this shame of: we could be found out,” Zondon said. “When more of us start saying ‘yes, I exist,’ we become a ‘we exist.’ And we become a queer ummah (community).”