Through Common Struggle, Hope

December 6, 2010

Today’s guest post is a submission from Nico Lang, a regular NPS contributor. An intern at Interfaith Youth Core and a senior at DePaul University, Lang co-founded the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance and is head of campus outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. His previous writing for NPS includes “Talking the ‘Hereafter’ With Atheists and Believer,” as well as posts on his personal journey as a queer agnostic interested in interfaith workabout Park51 and the state of American dialogue and  on the ramifications of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.”

gay muslimsWhen looking back over the year that was 2010, I am constantly bombarded with this phrase from media analysts, news commentators and interests on all sides of the spectrum.  As just about anyone with a television knows, anti-Muslim and anti-gay hate were notable presences in the final half of our calendar year.  “Bullying” became the buzzword du jour, as the media scrambled to respond to an epidemic of LGBT suicides, most notably epitomized by the Tyler Clementi scandal.

However, rather than seeing bullying as uniquely targeting the queer community and queer youth, shouldn’t we also be using it to describe what’s happening to American Muslims?  For me, this year showed that homophobia and Islamophobia are not so thinly divided, that hate binds us all.

In the Muslim case, we started out the year by drawing blasphemous depictions of the Prophet of Islam.  Then Fox News told us “they were building a Mosque on Ground Zero,” and even that “liberal elite” New York Times scrambledto interview people who felt like that gosh darned “Mosque” didn’t belong there.  Now, Newt Gingrich wants to make America safe from Shariah law and, by extension, from Muslims.

Ask yourself: Is this not bullying?

Of course, it is.  This was the year of mid-term elections so bullying and demonizing minorities once again became incredibly profitable for the Right, notably the Pam Gellers and Tea Partiers of America.  Islamophobia wasn’t just spreading across the country.  Groups with an interest reanointing Islam the Supreme Evil had to be spreading it.

Gays understand this phenomenon well, especially those that lived through the 2004 elections.  When a right-wing group wants to drum up support for their platform, that wily homosexual agenda acts as a simple scapegoat.  Although linking Tinkie Winkie’s purse to 9/11 and the downfall of America may a relic of the past, the industry of homophobia is alive and well.  Just ask Tony Perkins, the American Family Association or Sarah Palin’s daughter.

Although FBI data showed that actual hate crimes are decreasing, gays still remain the most retaliated againstminority group in the country, joined by Jews and, yes, Muslims.  Analysts warn that gay rights victories may increase the amount of anti-gay violence across America, just as increased Muslim visibility after Park51 led to unspeakable acts of hate.  After events like stabbing of a Muslim cab driver in New York, many Muslims stated that they had never been so scared to live in America.

Gallup data further proved that their fear is justified.  A majority of Americans now hold an unfavorable view of Islam, and more than a quarter identify as extremely prejudiced against the religion.

At a time when a majority of Americans likewise still believe that homosexuality is a sin, activists like Sherry Wolf believe that our struggles make gays and Muslims natural allies.  Although we surely cannot excuse the anti-gay policies of fundamentalist Islamic countries like Iran, this in no way represents all or even most Muslims, and Wolf states that we must look past these divides to find common ground.  Doing so is crucially important for “any oppressed people, whether…black, LGBT [or] immigrant” to fight for equality for all.

Last Spring, a dialogue between notable Chicago Muslims, like Hind Makki of the Interfaith Youth Core, and members of the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago (SHAC) proved that we can find the common language to be able to articulate our shared struggles.  Discussing the Everybody Draw Muhammad Day controversy, the event’s Muslims and LGBTQA members of SHAC found that our perspectives were motivated by the same thing: a need to feel safe and secure in our communities.

Recently, Hind Makki put it even more succinctly.  Recently, Makki devised a Twitter hash tag around the topic of “Gays and Muslims Have a Lot in Common,” and the response in the affirmative has been incredible.

As a queer activist and intern at Interfaith Youth Core, I find commonality in the struggles of Muslim allies like Hind, who chooses to wear the headscarf at a time when one simple expression of her core identity is sadly unpopular. Although choosing to lead my life as an out queer man led to some harassment and hatred, I can only imagine what life is like for Hind’s queer co-religionists.

Whether Muslim, queer or queer and Muslim, all of us just want to be true to our selves and to be respected for exactly who those people are.  We want to live in a society where we aren’t wedge issues, where we have the ability to create the homes, the families and the communities we so badly want.

What this year has shown us is that we must work together to build them.

This post was originally featured on The New Gay.

NickNico Lang is the Communications Intern for Interfaith Youth Core and a Senior in International Studies at DePaul University. Nico just started up DePaul’s first film club, the DePaul A.V. Club, and represents the lone agnostic among 2010-2011′s Vincent and Louise House residents, who represent DePaul’s Catholic intentional living and social justice community. He is also the co-founder of the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance, an initiative between Chicago’s LGBT campus groups; a writer for the DePaulia newspaper; and head of Campus Outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. Occassionally, Nico sleeps.

4 Responses to “Through Common Struggle, Hope”

  1. Thank you for a thought-provoking post. I certainly see that anti-Muslim bullying and hate crimes share certain similarities with homophobia and anti-LGBT hate crime, and that useful alliances may be built around shared experiences of oppression. On the other hand, I think there are significant differences between the position of Muslims in America and the position of Queer people.

    First, Muslims can collectively draw on religious privilege in order to deflect legitimate criticism of certain aspects of the faith. While all religions are certainly not treated equally, religious discourse per se is still privileged here (as it is almost everywhere) and can serve to stifle discussion.

    Second, you understandably skate over the relationship between Islam and state-sponsored oppression of queer people, but I think the issue deserves more than simply the call to have us “look past the divide”. The extraordinarily brutal response to homosexuality in many Muslim and majority-Muslim nations, which involves imprisonment, fines, corporal punishment and sometimes even execution, needs to be addressed and tough questions have to be asked of the religious tradition. It doesn’t seem plausible to me that religion is incidental, nor does it seem responsible simple to “look past the divide”.

    Finally, the link you make between the choice to live as an out gay man and the choice to wear a headscarf troubles me profoundly. We generally recognize that one has a choice about one’s religious beliefs. We do not have a choice when it comes to our sexuality. It seems therefore legitimate to critique displays of religious devotion in ways it would be inappropriate to criticize displays of love and affection. This equation may itself be an example of religious privilege at work.

  2. Nico said


    I think that your critiques are absolutely legitimate and necessary to the piece. They are issues that I’ve been thinking about and continue to think about.

    For me, the issue of gays in majority Muslim countries would be more sensitively handled by another post. I knew that it would appear as if I were “skirting” the issue, and in some ways, I am for now.

    I felt a need to briefly address that topic, as the article seemed incomplete without it. This article is part of an ongoing project for me on Islam and homosexuality (I’m actually looking at doing a Fulbright research project on exactly that subject), and I want to do a considerable amount of research before I even begin to address to oppression of LGBT persons in majority Muslim countries. Although I feel somewhat educated on the issue now, I have so much work to do before I can responsibly speak about such unimaginable oppression.

    (For now, if you haven’t seen “A Jihad for Love,” the great documentary by Parvez Sharma, you must absolutely do so.)

    However, I think that in the West, the relationship between Muslims and gays plays out very differently than it does in the majority of the Muslim world. Because of the relative tolerance offered in the States, I feel that this almost commands us to start the conversation with Muslims here. We might not be able to change the mind of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but we have a duty to attempt to engage our neighbors.

    As far as the head scarf vs. livin’ out ‘n proud issue, I think it’s all a matter of what you deem “choice” to be. Like just about every other queer I know, I believe that I was born this way, whether imbued by God or just damn good genes. However, I feel empowered by knowing that I choose every day to live openly as a queer man. For me, there’s a huge difference between the two. Many LGBT men and women will never make the decision to do the same, to respect the people they were born to be.

    Living out is difficult, and my visibility as a queer man has brought me harassment. Holding hands with my (now ex-) boyfriend in the relatively liberal Chicago elicited stares from passers by. Cars would slow down to gawk at us.

    The experiences are not identical, but I feel so much commonality with my veiled female friends. They are targeted for oppression every single day by their difference, by their decision to honor the women they feel they were born to be. Many people view the veil as a form of oppression, but in listening to the opinions of the Muslim women I know, I’ve found that most heatedly argue that the veil is commonly misunderstood. Almost all of them view it as a symbol of empowerment.

    As a an agnostic humanist, I do not claim to completely understand that, but there are parts of their journey I do understand. Which I feel is the more important part.

    Although the guiding forces in living out as Muslim and a gay man are incredibly disparate, I think that there’s so much we can learn by looking at the middle of that Venn Diagram. I completely agree with you that we cannot overlook our incredible divides, but unfortunately, I’m not writing a book on the topic just yet. I wish that every one of these short little blog rants could be as precise and detailed as I want them to be. (I’ve written 2000-word pieces on this and similar subjects; they’re immensely frightening.)

    However, I’m workshopping my next couple pieces on this issue, and your criticisms have been immensely helpful to me in thinking about what I want to write.

    For that, I sincerely thank you. Honestly, there’s nothing I love more than thoughtful, well-reasoned criticism. (Especially when it isn’t wrong.)

    (And since we are now Facebook friends, feel free to message me any other comments or critiques you have. Or voice ’em here. Either way, stay in touch.)

  3. Thank you for a very thorough and engaging reply. I don’t have much to say in response, except to the headscarf / veil issue.

    I think here some power theory comes in handy. Generally, power theorists have recognized two “faces of power” – the first is the power to get someone else to do what you want them to do, and the second is the power to determine what is up for discussion, even in a more democratic forum. The theorist Lukes posits a third “face” of power, though: the power to shape other people’s very desires, such that while they are acting in accordance with what they “want”, what they want has itself been shaped primarily by outside influences.

    I have a suspicion that in some cases the decision to wear a veil (more than just a headscarf) is a case of the third order of power at work. A religious ideology, suffused with cultural, social and psychological power, makes some people think that what they want to do is go about with their face covered. This is not the same at all as with living openly as gay, which is now accepted to be the revelation of an inner authenticity, not the byproduct of social pressure – indeed homosexuality asserts itself even after extraordinary attempt to stifle it.

    The question, if this is a reasonable account of some people’s experience, would be how to respond? I certainly would not wish to ban the veil – that is an unacceptable infringement on individual liberty. But I would want to engage in very pointed discussion about what it symbolizes for women to go about their lives with their faces covered. In short, their is a further question after “do you choose to wear this?” – “WHY do you choose to wear this?” Some why’s are legitimate, and others may not be, and I think we need to engage that.

  4. Nico said

    I absolutely think we need to engage that, too.

    I’m actually working right now on something of an interview project with Muslim girls who have chosen to take the veil, as a way to gain further insight on the issue. As an International Studies/Islamic World Studies kid, I’m rather familiar with scholarship on the issue and am hoping to gain better insight as to the role it plays in their lives. I want to stop just speaking FOR Muslim women, as so many on both sides of the issue do, and want to instead include their voices in the discussion. I think it’s more fair to them.

    Also…I may or may not Facebook message you some really interesting material I found in my research. Fascinating stuff.

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