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Embracing Ramadan in the LGBTQ Muslim Community

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Our relationship with the moon is intimate and our internal/external clocks tune into her. Our hopes and dreams hang upon her as we are forever tidally locked.

The moon acts as our guide and for Muslims, no "new" moon is more anticipated than the one ushering in the holy month of Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. Every year, as the moon fades for the eighth time, officials scan the sky seeking the ninth new moon. The slightest visible fingernail in the night sky means that Ramadan is upon us and so begins the most spiritual time of year.

The holy month of Ramadan means everything to Muslims. It was during this month when Islam was born, over 1,400 years ago in 7th century Saudi Arabia. We honor its significance by spending the month engaging in a physical dry fast every day from dawn to sunset. Traditionally a dry fast means abstaining from food, water, smoking, and sex. A time where we self-reflect and deepen our spiritual connection, but most importantly, it's the best time to foster community.

During Ramadan, when sunset comes, Muslims gather to break their fast together. We bond over the struggle, we eat "Iftar" (breakfast, literally), we laugh, we pray, and we make memories. For Muslims who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT), and/or the umbrella term of Queer it can be extra hard to establish community. Because we each hold multiple identities standing at an intersection of being Arab, Muslim, and Queer.

The Shahadah(Declaration of Islam): There is no God but God. And Muhammad is God's Messenger I Photo: Jonathan Olivares
The Shahadah(Declaration of Islam): There is no God but God. And Muhammad is God's Messenger I Photo: Jonathan Olivares

In Southern California, finding a thriving Queer Muslim community can be challenging. There are an estimated 500,000 Muslims living here, out of 2.6 million total in the U.S., but when it comes to identifying those who are part of the LGBTQ umbrella, it's like looking for that proverbial needle in the haystack.

Growing up in a close-knit community of families who attended the same "Masjid" (Mosque) in Los Angeles, I didn't know other queer Muslims. I assume there were others, but none of us were out. All the other Muslim my age had parents like mine, who were relatively new to the U.S., which meant there was a conservative "old country" culture that our parents tried to impart on us. Our shared experiences, being first generation American to immigrant parents, allowed us to develop a strong unique American Muslim identity.

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Being Queer and Muslim isn't as oxymoronic as people might think -- even though others try to police and claim some religious authority over us. Some queer Muslims never feel empowered to come out because of fear, for their own safety, for causing their family stress, for being cast out and shunned by their communities. Being out is a bumpy road to travel. There will always be those monsters who will rear their ugly heads.

For those queer Muslims who are willing to walk that bumpy road, the path can actually lead to a deeper connection to God. As Muslims, we know that there is no hierarchy in Islam and only Allah can judge us. Our relationship with Allah is private and not up for critique. We understand that because our faith teaches us to live with values of truth, justice, tolerance, and compassion, we eventually come to know that Allah loves us, no matter what others say. It can take a long time for queer Muslims to get to this place of clarity and self-realization and some never do. Some get so disillusioned with the faith, because they have heard too many times that there is no room for them at the table of Allah. But some of us know that Allah's table is larger than anything we can comprehend.

Maghrib(Sunset Prayer) I Photo: Jonathan Olivares
Maghrib(Sunset Prayer) I Photo: Jonathan Olivares

This year, Ramadan fell during our hot summertime. In Southern California, that meant over 16 hours of no water and no food on the longest hottest driest days of the year. As an adult, I've come to appreciate the fast, because I now recognize how powerful of a practice it is. By abstaining from physical pleasure for prolonged periods of time, profound psychological breakthroughs can happen. The focus of the fast is no longer about denying the body, but rather of a deeper journey into discovering what the soul wants and needs.

Recently, I spoke over Skype with my friend Terna in Boston, a queer African American Muslim woman. For purposes of anonymity, I will not be sharing last names. When our conversation turned to discussing the benefits of fasting, she shared, "Fasting is about the separation of the spirit from the flesh. It gives me space to connect to my spirit in a deeper way, which can be more difficult when you are constantly paying attention to the flesh."

After the first few days, once the physical body has grown accustomed to the lack of intake, the fast becomes about turning inward, cutting the excess noise out of our lives, and facing our truth. "I start taking inventory of how much I've allowed my attention to be pulled by whatever it is outside of me," adds Terna. The fast eventually becomes about recognizing and affirming who we truly are, what we truly need, and what truly matters to us. The fast slowed us down, forced us to listen, and help achieve a sense of calmness and peace. The fast also changes from year to year. Some years are harder than others. It depends on what's going on with us internally during those times.

Every Ramadan for the past few years, I've made a commitment to interact more with other Muslims who identify as part of the LGBT and Queer community. Truthfully, there's no better time to make these connections and rather than remain passive and wait for others to reach out to me and build this community, I know that taking on an active role is the only way this community is going to grow.

Host Ramy Eletreby sets up the Iftar (breakfast) with traditional Middle Eastern dishes. I Photo: Jonathan Olivares
Host Ramy Eletreby sets up the Iftar (breakfast) with traditional Middle Eastern dishes. I Photo: Jonathan Olivares

On an evening, over a late night iced coffee in Hollywood with my new friend, Mike, another Arab American gay man, I started asking him about Ramadan's significance to him as a queer Muslim. "Ramadan is the best time to be a queer Muslim," he tells me. "This is the time when all Muslims return to the fundamentals of Islam and question themselves, their choices, their sociological barriers and really remember the teachings of justice, tolerance, equality, peace. All of the core foundations of our religion that are completely bastardized because of politics and social norms and cultural expectations."

Mike insists that his ability to reconcile his sexuality with his faith was never about his relationship with Allah, which he maintains has always been strong, but more about the cultural pressures he felt from other Muslims. "For the queer Muslim community, now is such a good opportunity to own the religion," he says. "This is the time to understand that the religion embraces all of us."

During Ramadan, I also try to connect with Muslims who identify as reverts, people who were raised in non-Muslim households and later chose to practice Islam. Ten years ago, they would've been called converts, but the term reverting is more popular as of late. Instead of converting, they see themselves as reverting to their natural condition, believing that we are all Muslim at birth, which is to be in utter submission, surrender and peace to God.

Jason Velazquez (right), a revert, samples traditional foods with his husband, Tony Follo (left) I Photo: Jonathan Olivares
Jason Velazquez (right), a revert, samples traditional foods with his husband, Tony Follo (left) I Photo: Jonathan Olivares

Being around reverts is refreshing. Unlike most Muslims I know, reverts don't seem to carry as much cultural baggage as the rest of us. That's not to say that they don't have issues stemming from their upbringing but, rather than shouldering the weight of the Muslim world's societal norms, reverts tend to bring a more authentic and objective connection with the faith. Reverts seem to be more attached to the beauty of Islam without all the pressures placed upon them by conservative Muslim families.

My friend Alan, a queer Afro-Latino American Muslim man, grew up in Los Angeles in a household with multiple faiths. He had family members who practiced different forms of Christianity and even had some cousins who were Muslim. When Alan was in high school, he befriended an Arab Muslim woman and through seeing her practice, his interest in the faith started growing. "I happened to have a Qur'an in my house that one of my cousins had left there. One day I decided to pick it up and began reading it because I was curious about what it said, and before I finished it, I was Muslim," Alan remembers. "A lot of the theological questions that I had at that point, that I was trying to make sense, were responded to in a very real way. The overall message that I got from reading the Qur'an was something that spoke to me in a way that nothing else had."

One of my writer friends, Deonna, a white American Muslim woman reverted to Islam over 20 years ago, writes in our Poetry-a-Day group about how she still has to prove her "Muslim-ness" to everyone she interacts with, despite the fact that she has "prayed in more places than most" all across the world. She writes, "If we are honest with our hearts, we are always converting, reverting, subverting." In many ways, the experience of reverts echoes the experience of LGBTQ Muslims. What should be very personal, our relationship to our faith, becomes fuel for others' judgments and interpretations.

There are so few safe spaces that the local LGBTQ Muslim community can exclusively inhabit that any time we gather, it's tantamount to our future vitality. For the third year in a row, I've hosted an Iftar in my home specifically for local Muslims who identify as LGBTQ. It's not a huge crowd that shows up, and that's ok. There are folks who I only see in my home every year and nowhere else. I want that to change. There are always folks who show up who I've never met before. I don't want that to change.

Queer ally Marium Mohiuddin (left) and Shereef Abdou (right) share a laugh I Photo: Jonathan Olivares
Queer ally Marium Mohiuddin (left) and Shereef Abdou (right) share a laugh I Photo: Jonathan Olivares

This year, same-sex marriage passed during Ramadan. It may be just a coincidence, but what if it isn't? Do we need any more signs that our community is meant to thrive? The moon is now fading and this year's Ramadan will just be a distant memory. The fast may be ending, but in just eleven short lunar months from now, we get to do it all again. Hopefully, eleven months don't go by before we all see each other again, so let's go to the beach or on a hike and do something under the sunlight. The moon can't run it all.

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