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‘We Are Sacred’: As Eid Arrives, How Queer Muslims Curate Community

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Event organizers Hafsa Luvsa, left, and Zara Ahmed, welcome attendees to the Queer Muslim Open-Mic event at Understory in Oakland, California, on March 30, 2024. (Marissa Leshnov/KQED)

Under a Ramadan moon in a downtown Oakland restaurant, a crowd of around 70 people left their shoes at the door and packed inside to break fast together.

At this Iftar, hummus, pita, chicken and rice were passed out, alongside the obligatory chai — as well as vendors selling art, prints and handmade soaps. The main event of the night, however, was the lineup of poetry, music and stand-up comedy, all performed by LGBTQ+ Muslims from around the Bay Area.

The queer Iftar took place just ahead of Eid al-Fitr, the feast of the breaking of the fast that marks the end of Ramadan. Oakland residents Zara Ahmed and Hafsa Luvsa, who met at past queer Iftars in the Bay Area, organized and emceed this open-mic night. The pair also regularly jam out together in a classical band the Naan Biryanis — a play on “nonbinary.”

“We wanted to hold space for our community in Oakland, and in the Bay Area, to invite queer Muslims to come out and join us — because we are sacred,” Ahmed said.

And some performers that night, like Weyam Al-Ghadban, a stand-up comedian based in Oakland, got up for the first time in front of a queer and Muslim audience.

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“I literally almost feel my ancestors — who either were queer in ways we don’t recognize or couldn’t be queer — heave a sigh of relief,” Al-Ghadban said in an interview. “Like, ‘Wow: Look at these fully-expressed human beings.’”

Al-Ghadban said it was a relief not to have to explain every nuance of their life to an audience.

“I’m Arab. Who’s Arab?” Al-Ghadban asked the audience, which was met with several cheers. “Yeah, it’s a really f—ing hard time to be Arab right now,” they said during their set.

Weyam Al-Ghadban performs stand-up comedy at a queer Muslim open-mic event during the holy month of Ramadan at Understory in Oakland, California, on March 30, 2024. (Marissa Leshnov/KQED)

Al-Ghadban’s situational humor did not shy away from the sick rage they said they felt from Israel’s ongoing siege in Gaza, which has killed over 31,000 people.

“How many of you had friends who were like, ‘I just don’t know how to feel … it’s so complicated,’” they asked the crowd. “You know what’s complicated? Polyamorous relationships.”

“I think that Muslim communities are generally pretty used to that feeling of ‘bracing,’” said Zara Jamshed, an Emeryville resident who attended the queer Iftar.

Jamshed also spoke of a “looming ambiance of Islamophobia” amid a recent rise in reported anti-Muslim attacks and discrimination within the United States since the war in Gaza began. In a period where Bay Area Muslims have abstained from food and water from sunrise to sunset, news of what the United Nations has described as an “imminent famine” in Gaza has been ever-present.

Jamshed also spoke of the difficulty of “feeling the visceral hunger of fasting” while “sitting with the knowledge that these folks [in Gaza] are breaking their fast with grass — or barely breaking their fast at all.”

‘Concretely make the community visible’

There isn’t a great deal of data exploring the lives of queer Muslims.

So Queer Crescent, an Oakland-born LGBTQ+ organization, embarked on a major new survey, “Presencing Ourselves,” which reflects almost 700 respondents nationwide.

Messages of support for Palestine are taped to the wall at a queer Muslim open-mic event in Oakland, California, on March 30, 2024. (Marissa Leshnov/KQED)

This would be the largest survey of its kind undertaken in the U.S., according to Queer Crescent. Previously, “there was no documentation of actual needs of queer and trans-Muslims,” said Hamzeh Daoud, a Queer Crescent researcher based in Los Angeles. “People were really going off of our oral histories, our experiences of life — which is [still] valid and valuable.”

Daoud said the project was also aiming to uncover a lack of data seen in previous studies — for example, when Muslim respondents were asked about their opinions on LGBTQ+ rights, but not if they were part of the LGBTQ+ community themselves.

“We wanted to do something that would very concretely make the community visible in a way that you can’t just ignore,” said Daoud’s fellow Queer Crescent researcher, Amara Ahmed. “These people exist.”

While the full findings of the Presencing Ourselves survey will be released in June, Queer Crescent has already shared preliminary insights that address housing, medical discrimination and policing.

Among the findings:

  • 20% of respondents had experienced homelessness
  • Nearly 9 in 10 reported some degree of anxiety around government surveillance
  • Over 90% of respondents told the group that they believed there was a stigma around conversations about sexual assault in Muslim communities
  • 93% said they saw a similar stigma around sexual health and reproductive services within Muslim communities

In regards to the latter results, Ahmed noted that “queer folks do not feel comfortable” talking about sexual health and identity “within their community” — which she said she finds particularly troubling given that “like other populations, LGBTQ Muslims find out that they’re queer at relatively young ages.”

In 2023, a group of American and Canadian Muslim scholars published a letter titled Navigating Differences: Clarifying Sexual and Gender Ethics in Islam, defending their right to denounce “LGBTQ practices, beliefs and advocacy.” With the letter, these groups were now “basically doing exactly what Christian groups have done,” Ahmed said.

A 2017 Pew Research report found that Muslims in America were actually “more accepting of homosexuality” than white Evangelicals. And historically, as queer Muslim scholars have stressed, diversity of gender and sexuality has been observed in the Muslim world for centuries.

Where is belonging?

The researchers say their initial findings also speak to the challenges queer Muslims encounter over exactly which spaces can offer safety and a sense of belonging.

“Conservative Muslims will deny queer Muslims exist,” Ahmed said, but “LGBTQ Muslims will sometimes not particularly want to go to secular LGBTQ spaces because there is distrust about Muslims in LGBTQ communities.”

The Naan Biryanis perform a song using traditional instruments to close out the Queer Muslim Open-Mic event at Understory in Oakland, California, on March 30, 2024. (Marissa Leshnov/KQED)

The early survey results show queer Muslims felt slightly more “belonging” in LGBTQ+ spaces than in Muslim spaces. However, 29% of those surveyed said they didn’t feel a sense of belonging in those secular queer spaces either.

Daoud noted that secular queer organizations can “often engage in anti-Muslim racism in the ways that they uphold white supremacy and the ways that they uphold American liberalism.”

One example of this, they said, is “pinkwashing” — described by academic Sa’ed Atshan as “when supporters of the right-wing Israeli state draw attention to a purported advanced LGBTQ rights record in Israel in order to detract attention away from Israel’s gross violations of Palestinian human rights.”

Event attendees were asked to take off their shoes at a queer Muslim open-mic event hosted at Understory in Oakland, California, on March 30, 2024. (Marissa Leshnov/KQED)

The stances of LGBTQ+ organizations in America have also come under extra scrutiny in the past months — a Human Rights Campaign’s event in New York was protested for its ties to a weapons manufacturer — although queer activists have been pressuring organizations about the treatment of Palestinians for years.

In 2007, the group Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism launched a campaign to pressure the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival to drop its partnership with the Israeli consulate.

Queer Crescent researchers hope the insights found in their survey can eventually be used to form key recommendations for secular queer organizations around inclusivity — and cultural competence — when it comes to making LGBTQ+ Muslims feel welcomed and understood in these spaces.

‘People are poets’

As heavy as many of the survey’s preliminary findings have proved when it comes to how safe LGBTQ+ Muslims feel in 2024, the people leading Queer Crescent say they’ve also found much comfort among the responses.

Daoud said it was especially healing to see how people described their relationship to Islam:

An event attendee browses through handmade soaps on sale at Understory in Oakland, California, on March 30, 2024. (Marissa Leshnov/KQED)

“How they described their belief that being queer and trans is not mutually exclusive to being Muslim,” they said.

Respondents also frequently expressed themselves with some sharpness. One response: “I don’t think Allah is going to look you over before heading to Janna [heaven] and be like, ‘My bad, you’re gay.’”

“People already have the power to validate their own experiences,” Daoud said. “People are poets, man.”

And this is what makes queer Iftars like the one in Oakland feel special for those who gather in these spaces. Toward the end of the night, Emeryville resident Zara Jamshed read from their poetry book chronicling their pilgrimage to Mecca as a trans and queer person.

To the assembled crowd, Jamshed described in verse how they walked in circles around the Ka’bah amid a sea of people:

“I asked Allah if I was a mistake, and Allah said no.”

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