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Muhsin is one of the organizers of Al-Fitra Foundation, a South African support group for lesbian, transgender, and gay Muslims. Islam and homosexuality are seen by many as deeply incompatible. This, according to Muhsin, is why he had to act. "I realized that I'm not alone--these people are going through the very same things that I'm going through. But I've managed, because of my in-depth relationship with God, to reconcile the two. I was completely comfortable saying to the world that I'm gay and I'm Muslim. I wanted to help other people to get there. So that's how I became an activist." Living Out Islam documents the rarely-heard voices of Muslims who live in secular democratic countries and who are gay, lesbian, and transgender. It weaves original interviews with Muslim activists into a compelling composite picture which showcases the importance of the solidarity of support groups in the effort to change social relationships and achieve justice. This nascent movement is not about being "out" as opposed to being "in the closet." Rather, as the voices of these activists demonstrate, it is about finding ways to live out Islam with dignity and integrity, reconciling their sexuality and gender with their faith and reclaiming Islam as their own. Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle is Associate Professor in the Department of Middle East and South Asian Studies at Emory University. His previous books include Rebel between Spirit and Law: Ahmad Zarruq, Juridical Sainthood and Authority in Islam; Sufis and Saints' Bodies: Mysticism, Corporeality and Sacred Power in Islamic Culture; and Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflection on Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims.
Year:
2014
Publisher:
NYU Press
Language:
english
Pages:
276
ISBN 13:
9781479894673
File:
PDF, 2.27 MB
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Living Out Islam

This page intentionally left blank

Living Out Islam
Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims

Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle

a
NEW YORK UNIVERSIT Y PRESS
New York and London

NEW YORK UNIVERSIT Y PRESS
New York and London
www.nyupress.org
©

2014 by New York University
All rights reserved

References to Internet websites (URLs) were accurate at the time of writing.
Neither the author nor New York University Press is responsible for URLs that
may have expired or changed since the manuscript was prepared.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Kugle, Scott Alan, 1969Living out Islam : voices of gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslims / Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle.
pages cm Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-8147-4448-2 (hardback) — ISBN 978-1-4798-9467-3 (pb)
1. Homosexuality—Religious aspects—Islam. I. Title.
BP188.14.H65K84 2013
297.086’64—dc23
2013023734
New York University Press books are printed on acid-free paper, and their binding materials
are chosen for strength and durability. We strive to use environmentally responsible
suppliers and materials to the greatest extent possible in publishing our books.
Manufactured in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Also available as an ebook

Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments

vii

Introduction

1

1. Engaging Religious Tradition

21

2. Challenging Family and Community

55

3. Adapting Religious Politics

81

4. Adjusting Secular Politics

115

5. Forging Minority Alliances

155

6. Journeying toward Individual Identity

193

Conclusion

219

Appendix

231

Glossary of Terms

235

Notes

241

Bibliography

251

Index

255

About the Author

265
>>

v

This page intentionally left blank

Preface and Acknowledgments

A Muslim is a brother to a Muslim. Let one not oppress
another or betray him. Whoever sees the need of his brother,
God sees to his need. Whoever relieves a Muslim from distress will be relieved by God from distress on the day of resurrection. Whoever protects a Muslim;  will be protected by
God on the day of resurrection.
~The Prophet Muhammad, in a hadith report1

In this teaching about empathy, the Prophet Muhammad succinctly
expresses the ideals of Islam. A Muslim should see herself or himself
in every believer in order to overcome egoism and reach out to others with justice and compassion. See, serve, console, and protect others, he tells us—that is the practical demonstration that one worships
God. Struggling to embody compassion and justice is the way to live
out Islam—yet how quickly we forget.
Muslims began their community as vulnerable and despised outsiders. When they became strong enough to impose their will on others,
they all too often lost sight of their Prophet’s teachings of empathy,
compassion, and justice. This book shares the voices of some marginalized within the Muslim community who call out to be recognized as
fellow believers—sisters and brothers—who are worthy of respect, who
deserve protection, and who demand justice.
>>

vii

viii

<<

Preface and Acknowledgments

Muslims believe that ultimate justice is only received when one
faces God directly, for “the Just One” (al-‘adl) is one of God’s ninetynine names. Until then, while people struggle and stumble in this
ever-changing world, justice is demanded of us. Anyone who takes this
demand seriously must get used to hearing uncomfortable truths in
unexpected voices speaking from society’s margins. This book is about
such voices, those of Muslim activists who are gay, lesbian, or transgender, as they share their stories, insights, plights, and joys. Interviews
reveal how they struggle to form an integral identity, to elicit empathy from their families, to join with others in solidarity, and to live out
Islamic ideals even as they face rejection from Muslim authorities.
This book was written for a wide audience. Scholars and students who
study social change in relation to gender and religion will find the stories and strategies documented here fascinating and challenging. Muslims who question their sexual orientation and gender identity will find
in it resources for their own struggle. Families and friends of lesbian,
transgender, or gay Muslims can find in it guidance, for people who first
confront someone who belongs to a sexual orientation or gender identity
minority often do not know how to react. Lacking information, they may
fall back upon stereotypes and moral condemnation. Parents and authority figures need some way to understand and accommodate their loved
ones who are gay, lesbian, or transgender, and this book is also for them.
This book is not only for Muslims. It is also for observers who want to
understand Muslims as they wrestle with these issues. This book argues
that gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslims can reconcile their identity
with their religious beliefs, though this reconciliation is a struggle both
within themselves and with their community. This struggle is facilitated by support groups built by gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslim
activists. This book presents the lives, struggles, and insights of some of
these activists.
To meet these activists, I received a two-year research fellowship at
the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World
(ISIM at the University of Leiden). This institution’s support—both
intellectual and financial—allowed me to carry out this project and I am
grateful to scholars at ISIM who helped me with insightful discussion
and debate, such as Khalid Masud, Asef Bayat, Martin van Bruinessen,
and Abdulkader Tayob. During my tenure at ISIM, I met transgender,

Preface and Acknowledgments

>>

ix

lesbian, and gay Muslim activists from five nations on three continents,
attended their conferences and spiritual retreats, and learned about
their lives and struggles. Their stories reflect the experiences of countless others who do not have the courage to speak up or who never survived coming of age. Each person interviewed was so sincere and forthcoming with me; I thank these open-hearted people deeply for sharing
with me their stories, which is an act of bravery and generosity.
When I began this project, I was teaching at Swarthmore College,
and colleagues there encouraged me greatly. At Emory University
where I now teach, my new colleagues create an environment that is
secure yet provocative, and I am especially grateful to Rkia Cornell,
Vincent Cornell, Roxani Margariti, Benny Hari, Joyce Flueckiger, and
Gordon Newby for their camaraderie and guidance. Two special students at Emory deserve my thanks: Ayisha Ashley al-Sayyad helped me
to reorganize the manuscript and Jessica Lambert proofread it tenaciously. Jennifer Hammer, my editor at NYU Press, was encouraging
and exacting, and I am obliged to her along with Dorothea Stillman
Halliday and the whole staff.
Writing a book is a unique opportunity to give thanks and there
are many friends, comrades, and beloved ones who encouraged me. I
am deeply grateful to Ben Hekkema, whose friendship made Amsterdam my home while I wrote this book, along with friends like Hans
Veenhuys and Sami Abu Rayhan. In South Africa, my gratitude goes to
Sa‘diyya and her family, and to Fayrose and Ilham. Many in the United
Kingdom were generous with me, including Farah, Mujahid, Ubaid,
Faiz, and Faizan, and I still long for their company. My admiration also
goes to those whose courage to speak has shaped this book—those few
whose interviews are quoted here and the many others who are not
quoted or not interviewed, but who have shared experiences with me.
They remind me of one of my favorite songs, a ghazal by Asadullah
Khan Ghalib, the great poet of Urdu.2
I’m not parked here forever on your doorstep
To hell with a life spent waiting! I’m not, after all, a stone
Why this eternal revolving that bewilders my heart?
I’m a human being—I’m not, after all, a cup of wine

x

<< Preface and Acknowledgments

O Lord, why does time move to obliterate my every trace
On the tablet of the universe I’m not, after all, a misspelling
There should be a limit to torment of your punishment
I may be a simple sinner but I’m not, after all, an infidel

In closing with Ghalib’s poem, I acknowledge my teachers in the Sufi
order to which Ghalib, too, belonged.

Introduction
If I’m going to end up in hell then I’m going
to end up in hell, but God is the judge and not
human beings.
~Fatima, a transgender volunteer with Imaan
in London
Now this is very bizarre, but through gay life I
came closer to Islam.
~Rasheed, a gay volunteer with Habibi Ana
in Amsterdam

The voices of Muslims who are gay, lesbian, and transgender are rarely
heard. Their voices have been silenced in the past. Now if they speak,
they are expected to express contrition. Yet they stand up against
those who denounce them. The quotes above capture the tenor of the
voices of activists who volunteer to run support groups for lesbian, gay,
and transgender Muslims. They strive to live out Islam even as they
acknowledge their sexual orientation and gender identity. The fact that
they speak is surprising to some. What they say will startle many.
This book presents interviews with a range of gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslim activists, weaving their voices together to offer a composite picture of their struggle. Theirs are voices of an oppressed minority group within its religious community, a group which struggles to
achieve liberation from oppression. Their struggle has psychological,
social, political, and spiritual dimensions. Their experiences arise from
diverse circumstances but are unified in reclaiming Islam as their own
>>

1

2

<< Introduction

religion. Their voices are brought together here to offer an “oral history” of the nascent movement to assert their rights and insist on their
dignity. This movement is not about being “out” as opposed to being “in
the closet.” Rather it is about finding ways to live out one’s Islam with
dignity and integrity by reconciling one’s sexuality and gender with
one’s faith.
This volume argues that gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslims can
reconcile their sexual orientation and gender identity with Islam. But
this reconciliation requires active struggle, struggle that is sustained
only by camaraderie with like-minded individuals and the solidarity of
support groups. Activists working with such support groups employ a
variety of strategies to promote social change at many levels, from personal transformation to political assertion to religious reform. Activists’
efforts through such support groups can flourish in societies with strong
systems of legal protection for individual rights, such as in countries
with democratic constitutions. The activists we will meet in this book
all live in countries with democratic constitutions and social systems
with a “secular” separation between political rule and religious belief:
the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and
South Africa.
Muslims constitute a small religious minority in these countries.
These nations’ democratic constitutions grant lesbian, gay, and transgender citizens access to certain rights and protection from oppression,
allowing them the freedom to think, speak, and organize. This freedom allows them to critically engage with their religious identity, family authorities, and community norms in ways that are not possible in
many Muslim-majority countries. This context allows these activists to
make full use of their multiple social positions: they are members of a
minority religious community and ethnic group, but also members of a
minority defined by sexual orientation or gender identity, even as they
are citizens of a secular state. Their modes of activism reveal how they
strive to balance these competing demands and find in this complex
situation resources and opportunities for protecting their rights and
fostering their welfare.
This book documents these strategies or “modes of activism” as
they are made manifest in the life stories of gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslims who volunteer with support groups. These “modes of

Introduction

>>

3

activism” are patterns of action, decision, and compromise. They reveal
the underlying identity formation of gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslims in the context of belonging to minority Islamic communities in
secular democratic states. Before we proceed to engage with their experiences, however, a number of terms need to be clarified, even those
that seem basic—such as activism, subjectivity, sexual orientation, gender identity, and Islam.

Modes of Activism and Theories of Subjectivity
One goal of this book is to demystify the term “activist.” Activists are
ordinary people who strive to change the social relationships around
them to achieve some modicum of justice. Some of those whose stories are related here are leaders while others are supporters, seekers,
or healers. Some ways of struggling are more visible than others, but
activism is not limited to those who appear in the media, organize protests, confront politics, or raise funds. A lesbian Muslim who struggles
to attain an education and economic independence from her family is
an activist. A transgender Muslim who insists on being able to pray in
her mosque despite an imam’s disapproval is an activist. A gay Muslim
who strives to succeed in a secular profession while being open about
his identity is an activist. Anyone who actively struggles with her or his
existential plight is an activist.
This book identifies “modes of activism” through which such activists approach identity formation, religious loyalty, and social change.
These modes are strategies through which they approach a complex
problem; yet unlike strategies that are rationally adopted after calculation, these modes of activism are intuitive and from the gut. Those
interviewed may not rationally think about their modes of activism or
identify them as strategies for identity formation and social change.
They are patterns of thought-and-action rather than plans of action.
This book identifies six major modes of activism:
Engaging religious tradition
Challenging family and community
Adapting religious politics
Adjusting secular politics

4

<< Introduction

Forging minority alliances
Journeying toward individual identity

Though they are listed separately, these modes are not mutually exclusive. Activists combine them according to their personality and situation.
This book is divided into six chapters, each of which focuses on one
mode of activism, analyzing the lives of those whose struggles and decisions illustrate that mode. It shows how these modes of action combine and interweave as the activists make sense of their lives and activities. The everyday struggles of the social activists documented in this
book contribute to the ongoing debate about sexual orientation and
gender identity in Muslim communities. In the academy, this debate
has become even more heated with the publication of Joseph Massad’s
Desiring Arabs, which analyzes the discourse of sexuality and civilization in Arab societies after colonialism. Massad contends that gay and
lesbian identity is imposed upon Arab and Middle Eastern societies as
part of a “gay international agenda” of American neoimperialism in the
region. His contention is polemic and he accuses Arab lesbian and gay
activists in Muslim-majority countries like Egypt and in the West of
succumbing to false consciousness foisted upon them by Western interests that exploit them in the guise of protecting their rights. This book
documents the lives of the kinds of activists whom Massad denounces,
intervening in this ongoing scholarly and political debate. This intervention aims to restore humanity to activists who are struggling to live
dignified and integral lives as gay, lesbian, or transgender Muslims,
even as they are silenced by Islamic authorities and denounced by intellectuals like Massad, who appear more concerned with ethnic solidarity
than with insuring the security and welfare of vulnerable members of
the ethnic groups he purports to defend.
Massad’s scholarship is important in this debate because he claims
the place of the much lauded Arab cultural critic, Edward Said. In Orientalism, Said mobilized the theories of Michel Foucault to argue that
Western colonial powers engineered the creation of knowledge about
Arab and Middle Eastern societies in order to dominate them not just
in terms of political power but also cultural production, artistic imagination, and discursive interaction. Everyone working in the fields of
Islamic Studies and Middle Eastern Studies is indebted to Said, though

Introduction

>>

5

he has been justifiably critiqued for selectively using Foucault’s ideas
while constructing an ahistorical binary opposition between Western
powers and Eastern peoples. Massad claims the mantle of Edward Said,
yet instead of listening to critiques of Said and learning from them,
Massad has exaggerated Said’s theoretical errors. Desiring Arabs claims
to follow in Said’s footsteps, but it jettisons the theoretical concerns of
Foucault in order to sketch a Manichean struggle between postcolonial
Arabs and the Western imperium driven by American military interests
and UN declarations.
This study of gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslim activists—some
of whom are Arabs—complicates Massad’s contentions. It returns our
attention to Foucault by raising issues of subjectivity and agency in the
lives of Muslims who belong to sexuality minorities. There are several
scholars working on Islamic and Arab communities whose engagement
with Foucault is much more useful than that of Massad. This volume is
theoretically indebted to Saba Mahmood and Talal Asad, and the life
stories of gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslim activists it documents
should be read within the context of their engagement with Foucault.
Mahmood and Asad try to preserve the best of Foucault’s theories
while shedding his Eurocentric bias and restoring a humanistic concern
about the rights of vulnerable persons and communities.
From Talal Asad’s work, this book adopts the idea that religious
practice and secular participation—in national politics or human rights
advocacy—are not contradictory loyalties. Asad’s discourse analysis
of secularism finds religious concepts and concerns deeply enmeshed
with secular politics from the early-modern era to contemporary
times.1 His work informs the analysis here of Muslim activists who
question religious custom from the viewpoint of human rights and who
simultaneously critique their secular nation for not embracing ethnic
and religious minorities. These activists’ strategies of complex identity
negotiation cross and recross the assumed barrier between religious
and secular commitments, forcing the one to dialogue and be accountable to the other.
From Saba Mahmood’s work, this volume takes up a renewed engagement with certain parts of Foucault’s theory about subjectivity and ethical formation. Foucault stresses that subjectivity is not a private space of
self-understanding, but that it forms in response to formative practices,

6

<< Introduction

social constraints, and moral codes that exist prior to the individual,
such that subjectivity is best understood as a modality of power. Foucault calls “moral subjectivization” the process of “developing relationships with the self, for self-reflection, self-knowledge, self-examination,
for the decipherment of the self by oneself, for the transformations that
one seeks to accomplish with oneself as object.”2 Many scholars use
Foucault’s theories to emphasize the overdetermined nature of subjectivization—that subjectivities are formed by power relations set up by
discursive formations in society, a process in which individuals have
little choice or agency. Joseph Massad’s work is an example of this kind
of scholarship.
But Mahmood shifts the discussion to underemphasized parts of
Foucault’s theory that allow subjects to exert agency as they react to
moral codes and transform social relations. She writes, “For Foucault,
the relationship between moral codes and modes of subjectivization
is not over-determined, however, in the sense that the subject simply
complies with moral codes (or resists them). Rather, Foucault’s framework assumes that there are many different ways of forming a relationship with a moral code, each of which establishes a particular relationship between capacities of the self (will, reason, desire, action and so
on) and a particular norm.”3 She explains that these ways of forming a
moral subjectivity are manifest in everyday life, through bodily comportment, spiritual exercises, and daily routines. This book draws from
her theoretical approach. The interviews with gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslim activists presented here show how everyday life constitutes the formation of ethical subjectivities that are beholden to social
structures and moral codes while also challenging their norms.
This volume investigates agency and subjectivity formation through
the concept of identity, which is both given and contested. However,
it does not dwell on social theory, but rather focuses on lived experience. The modes of activism that it documents are specific practices
and communal activities through which subjects come to understand
themselves, exert themselves, express themselves, and fashion an effective subjectivity that fosters their flourishing in sexual relationships,
family life, social connections, and political rights. Religious values,
rituals, and ideals are intimately tied to all these fields, which are more
commonly divided into private and public.

Introduction

>>

7

Interviews, Methods, and Limitations
Those interviewed for this book are all members of support groups for
transgender, lesbian, and gay Muslims. There are, of course, many others who participate in these support groups who were not interviewed.
As noted above, the reader should not assume that those interviewed
are exclusively leaders or that the support groups documented are
exhaustive. These groups are all located in constitutional democracies
where Islam is a minority religion and Muslims act within a democratic
political and legal framework. This specificity gives this study focus but
it also creates limitations.
I interviewed activists from support groups with which I was familiar. These activists were volunteers who have shaped those groups. I
employed a “qualitative method” of inquiry, a social science technique
that emphasizes personal narratives for use in interpretative analysis
(rather than a “quantitative interview” to gather specific information
for use in statistical analysis). The interviews were open-ended and
encouraged those interviewed to articulate their narrative of life and
conflict resolution. I asked each activist about issues such as family history, youthful experiences of gender and sexuality, religious education
and theological views, romantic relationships, and activist involvement.
Those interviewed revealed their process of identity formation better
when allowed to narrate their own stories freely, so I kept my questions
spontaneous to spur each person to tell his or her own story in depth.
The interviews left me with hours of recorded conversation that I transcribed and sent in textual form to those interviewed, asking for clarification and permission to use their words in this book. I asked whether I
should change their names or those of persons mentioned in the interview; some requested names to be changed for personal safety or to
protect family members from harassment. Some names in this book are
thus not the actual names of those interviewed.
This book presents interviews with fifteen activists residing in South
Africa, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, the United States, and
Canada. These nations are home to the earliest established and the longest-running support groups. The interviewees are diverse: four are lesbian women, nine are gay men, and two are transgender persons (one
transitioning female-to-male and one identifying as male-to-female).

8

<< Introduction

Eight are South Asian, three are Arab, one is Berber, one is African American, and three identify as “mixed ethnicity” (known in South Africa as
“Coloured”). Despite this diversity, all those interviewed share much in
common. They are Muslims as defined by personal identity or spiritual
faith. Many of them strive to practice the rituals of Islam in their daily
lives to the extent and depth possible in their personal circumstances.
The activists interviewed are a minority of a minority but they are a
very insightful few. They have struggled deeply with their consciences,
against their religious tradition, and with their families. Since the early
2000s, their thoughts have become increasingly cohesive due to an
international network of support groups. New technology allows these
groups to organize, share experiences, and compile information. This
network of support groups aims to build a community of gay, lesbian,
and transgender Muslims and to represent their concerns to their larger
Muslim community, their nation, and the wider world of concerned
citizens. For this reason, their voices reveal more than their own stories;
they reveal common patterns of identity formation, shared modes of
activism, and intensifying connections between communities that are
separated in space but united in intention.
The voices of these activists are the heart of this book, but it is written from my point of view as a participant-observer.4 I acknowledge that
any person or group’s apprehension of the truth is always partial, yet
no truth is apprehended without the risk of commitment. My commitment to this movement of Muslim gay, lesbian, and transgender support
groups is this: their voices are valuable, their experiences are irreplaceable, and their struggles are admirable—whether one agrees with their
opinions or not. Therefore, I chose to write this book in a way that lets
them speak for themselves. I have asked questions, elicited responses,
sought clarifications, and made comparisons. While this book analyzes
these activists’ accounts and their theological insights, and contextualizes their political struggles, I have tried to keep my own beliefs as a
Muslim aside in order to better appreciate the diversity of views offered.
My own views are highlighted in other writings, especially in Homosexuality in Islam, which discusses in detail the Qur’an, hadith reports of
the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings, and the shari‘a developed by Muslim jurists in medieval times. In that book I reflect theologically upon
the issues raised by lesbian, gay, and transgender Muslims. Readers who

Introduction

>>

9

are interested in theology can turn to that volume; this book highlights
the lived experience which makes such theology necessary.
This book has limitations. It does not present interviews with activists who identify as “bisexual.”5 Its interviews are only with transgender,
lesbian, and gay activists. They work with support groups for Muslims
who belong to the wider community of different people who identify
with some part of the LGBTQIQ continuum (the acronym stands for
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Questioning). I hope this book will contribute to establishing a firm foundation
for understanding that wider group with all its variations. I encourage
researchers to focus on bisexual, intersex, and queer-identified Muslims
to deepen the work that I offer here. The same tools and techniques of
research that this study has employed can be applied to others to create
a fuller picture of Muslims who belong to the minority group defined
by sexual orientation and gender identity.
The fifteen activists interviewed volunteer with support groups for
lesbian, gay, and transgender Muslims, groups which hold that religious
belief and practice are important for their members. This fact sets this
book apart from others, such as Illegal Citizens by Afdhere Jama, which
offers snapshots of a wide diversity of “queer Muslim” lives globally, and
Pepe Hendricks’s edited collection of stories of “queer” personal narratives from Cape Town entitled Hijab: Unveiling Queer Muslim Lives.
These two books are admirable but they do not focus intensively on reconciling sexual orientation and gender identity with Islam, as this present book does. This book also differs from Brian Whitacker’s Unspeakable Love, which describes the lives of sexuality and gender minorities
in the Middle East, including Jews and Christians as well as Muslims.
By interviewing activists involved in support groups, this book tells a
different story. The experiences of these activists showcase a sustained
struggle to reconcile religious belonging with alienation because of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Identity Formation
The interviews presented here each capture something of the unique
personality of the activist interviewed while also highlighting themes
that many have in common. This interaction between person and

10

<< Introduction

situation gives rise to identity formation, which is the groundwork
for organizing support groups. Identity takes shape in the interaction
between forces at four different levels: individual psyche, family relationships, community defined by religious tradition, and citizenship
defined by national belonging. Distinguishing between these four levels
can help us to understand identity formation, though in reality forces
at all four levels interact as an organic whole in one person’s life. The
interviews demonstrate how these forces interact in the life trajectory of
each person. Their interaction is particularly dramatic for those whose
lives are characterized by social conflict rather than conformity, as are
the lives of many gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslims. Conflict manifests at each different level: as internal conflict within one’s own psyche,
as disagreement over family expectations, as dissonance with the community’s norms, and as argument over national citizenship that confers
legal rights.
Even as this book illuminates wider patterns and repeated motifs, it
rests on the foundation of interviews with individuals with distinctive
situations, unique motivations, and singular life choices. These individuals have consciously resisted the pressure to conform. Their will to
resist is rooted in their individual psyches before it can be expressed in
family, community, or nation. All the interviews highlight how a person
discovers her or his inner personality and conscience and each demonstrates how erotic awakening is an integral part of this process of discovery which is both exciting and dangerous, especially when sexual
attraction leads in directions that family and community prohibit.6
While the interviews foreground the crucial role of individual psyche
in identity formation, the importance of family should not be overshadowed. The individual exists in relation to the family that nurtures her
or him. Therefore, the second level at which identity formation takes
shape is that of the family, as one comes to understand one’s self in relation to parents, siblings, and relatives. As all children do, lesbian, gay,
or transgender Muslims have very complex relations with their parents.
Parents provide positive models for emulation and parents also serve
as negative figures against whom to define one’s own individuality. The
interviews reveal a wide variety of ways in which gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslims relate to their parents. This finding should dispel the
notion that homosexuality and transgender behavior are caused by a

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11

particular configuration of parent-child relationship; examples of such
suggestions are the myth of the overbearing mother, the stereotype of
the father who really wanted a son, or the Freudian simplification that
an absent father causes a homosexual son.
One pattern in these interviews that may surprise readers is the loving appreciation that transgender, lesbian, and gay children often feel
toward their parents, despite the intense disagreements or coercion
that they endure. This should caution us against seeing the formation
of homosexual or transgender identity as a rejection of the family itself
or as repudiation of one’s parents. To the contrary, the interviews reveal
that many transgender, lesbian, and gay Muslims feel deep and abiding
affection for their parents and a profound desire for their parents’ blessing, even if they are rejected, threatened, or ostracized by their families.
Other family members play crucial roles, and in several interviews
grandparents were decisive figures in the identity formation of gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslims. This is only to be expected in cultures
where extended families are valued and generational continuity is cherished. Often, grandparents substitute for parents who are absent due to
practical contingencies or emotional distance. Sometimes grandparents
represent figures of intense spirituality. Many of those interviewed for
this book claim their grandparents—rather than their parents—as their
role models for healthy spirituality.
Because Muslim families are often widespread and close-knit, aunts
and uncles can also play important roles as substitutes for parents, providing relief for a child struggling against a parent’s personality. Some
of those interviewed found support with aunts or uncles even if their
parents rejected them. But the extended family can also cause difficulties, as a young family member has to deal with not just a mother and
father but also a host of adult authorities who observe, criticize, and
control what they see as norm-breaking behavior. In this way, Muslim
families often extend seamlessly into the wider Muslim community.
The family often acts to control its members to preserve family honor,
reputation, and standing in the community (which is often valued more
than an individual family member’s own identity or welfare).
The third level at which identity formation takes place is community,
which refers primarily here to religious community. For most Muslims, individual belief and family affiliation compel them to understand

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themselves as being part of an Islamic community. While in most cases
this is not a membership that one chooses, one must choose how to
practice it. The interviews reveal a great variety of experiences. Some
gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslim activists were enthusiastic members of an Islamic community in childhood: praying in mosque, studying in madrasa (Islamic school or seminary), preparing for celebrations, and volunteering for charities shaped the identities of many of
those interviewed. Many of them mourn the loss of participation in
the Islamic community if they are ostracized for being lesbian, gay, or
transgender. Ostracism can be more severe if they had held authoritative positions such as imam (prayer leader) of a group, as teacher in a
madrasa, as counselor in a spiritual community, or as leader in a student organization. The risk of losing such valued connections to the
wider Islamic community often restrains Muslims from coming out or
engaging in public activism.
Whether or not they play a leadership role in the community, all
gay, transgender, and lesbian Muslims struggle with Islamic discourse.
The interviews show how transgender, lesbian, and gay Muslims have
internalized Islamic discourse and therefore experience conflict over
whether their sexual orientation and gender identity are against their
religion. They question whether behavior based on these identities is
immoral. They do not need family members or religious leaders to
engage in debate, for this debate is already heated within their individual conscience. All the activists interviewed have engaged in debate
through Islamic discourses both within themselves and also with others as members of a community. This debate persisted, often for many
years, before they ever considered joining a support group or taking an
activist stand.
Those interviewed struggle to forge an identity as Muslims while
they live as citizens, for identity formation takes shape also within a
fourth context, that of the nation. Every nation has a distinctive historical chronicle, legal framework, and set of civic values; through these
elements one comes to understand oneself as a responsible citizen.
Nations offer varying frameworks within which citizens exercise political rights and recognize civic obligations. This is especially true with
regard to minority groups defined by gender identity and sexual orientation, because legal norms vary widely from nation to nation even

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13

within the realm of secular democratic states. While gay, lesbian, and
transgender Muslims are national citizens, they are also members of
minorities defined by ethnicity and religion. Most of those interviewed
are also visible members of a minority because they are immigrants
or descended from immigrants deemed “of color” in nations that are
largely of European ethnicity commonly denoted as “white.” Their difference in terms of sexual orientation or gender identity is less immediately visible, though it is no less important in defining their identity.
Their struggle to form an identity depends crucially upon how the
nation as a collective faces ethical challenges such as mitigating racial
prejudice against ethnic minorities, negotiating the status of religious
minorities, or fostering legal reform within a constitutional framework.
The interviews presented here show that lesbian, transgender, and gay
Muslims strive to maintain a delicate balance between solidarity with
their religious minority group and their demand for full citizenship and
legal protection in the nation. This balance is difficult to support, especially when their community is perceived to be under threat as an ethnic or religious minority. The third and fourth levels at which identity
formation takes place—religious community and nation—intersect in
novel ways for Muslims who are citizens of secular democratic states.

Clarifying Terms about Islam, Gender, and Sexuality
As Arabic and Islamic terms are mentioned, they are explained in the
text or in the glossary at the end of the book. Yet some elements of Islam
need to be clarified now. Gay, transgender, and lesbian Muslims participate in Islamic discourse whether or not they play leadership roles in
Muslim communities. The term “Islamic discourse” refers to the foundational texts, shared symbols, legal decisions, and style of argumentation through which Muslims collectively enact their religious identity.
This discourse motivates Muslims’ actions and mediates their conflicts.
It orders the words, images, and thoughts through which Muslims generate their communal self-understanding.
Islamic discourse is defined by scholars, spokesmen, and jurists. Nevertheless it filters down into individual lives through community gatherings, family norms, and ritual practices—in some forms that are traditional and ritualistic and in others that are modern and technological.

14

<< Introduction

Therefore, it deeply affects individual identity and group formation
among Muslim subcultures. The interviews reveal how Islamic discourse impacts the activists’ lives. Most Islamic communities uphold
patriarchal values and justify them by reference to religious texts. Therefore, anyone opposing patriarchal norms must confront these texts and
dominant interpretations of them. One can confront these interpretations by direct refutation, by counterinterpretation, or by appealing to
contradictory texts within the same Islamic discursive tradition (such as
countering hadith texts with Qur’an or countering fiqh legal texts with
Sufi teachings). Qur’an is the Islamic scripture, defined as God’s speech
revealed to Muhammad in the Arabic language that was orally memorized by his followers and later compiled as a book after Muhammad’s
death.7 Hadith are teachings of the Prophet Muhammad—through his
words, deeds, or silent approval—that were observed, recalled to later
generations, memorized, and eventually recorded in copious volumes
as a guide to proper Muslim behavior. Fiqh texts are writings by Muslim jurists in the early medieval era who tried to codify proper conduct
in all fields—from belief to ritual to commerce to family relations and
sexual life. Sufi teachings are spiritual insights from the Islamic mystical
tradition, whose advocates saw it as the “inner dimension” of Islam in
contrast to the “outer dimension” of conduct regulated by jurists.
Lesbian, gay, and transgender Muslims argue through Islamic discourse against conventional Islamic interpretations, and do so with a
variety of discursive agents. “Discursive agents” are people who exert
power by invoking a discourse. Agents of Islamic discourse can be family or community; even lovers can be discursive agents, if one has a
Muslim partner who refers to Islamic discourses to discuss or regulate
one’s relationship. The most important discursive agents are religious
functionaries: people who hold an official office or serve a public function related to Islam. Religious functionaries include a mosque’s imam,
a madrasa instructor, a mufti (authoritative jurist) via the Internet, or a
council of ulama (religious scholars).
This book explores how Muslims deal with diversity in sexual orientation and gender identity, so these terms need clarification. One must
distinguish between sex, gender, sexuality, and sex acts. Sex refers to
one’s anatomical genitalia, through which one is classified as male or
female. Gender refers to one’s expression of social behavior organized

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15

by norms classified as masculine or feminine. Sexuality refers to one’s
consciousness of sexual desire and expression of intimacy and pleasure,
which includes not just one’s “sexual orientation” (whether one desires
sexual contact with a person of the opposite sex or someone of the same
sex) but also more subtle issues like intensity and focus of sexual desire.
Sexual orientation is one crucial element of sexuality. Orientation
refers to the class of person to whom one is attracted for sexual pleasure. A person attracted to those of the same gender is “homosexual”
and one attracted to those of the other gender is “heterosexual.” One
who is attracted to both genders is “bisexual” and one who feels no
attraction is “asexual.” In many modern societies, English terms are
gaining international currency to describe such people. Gay is used as
a self-description for men who are exclusively homosexual in orientation, while lesbian is used for women who are exclusively homosexual.
The terms gay and lesbian refer not just to a clinical psychological
state (homosexuality) but also to a self-conscious identification with a
subculture.
Sex, gender, and sexual orientation define important components
of one’s personality but they say nothing about specific sex acts. One
should never assume that a person characterized by homosexual orientation performs particular sex acts (or any sex act at all). A homosexual
woman might never practice sex acts with a person of the same gender,
but her sexual orientation would still be homosexual. Similarly, a man
might practice sex acts with another man but not be homosexual: the
sex acts might be caused by coercion or necessity rather than satisfaction of yearning for emotional fulfillment. Stereotyped associations of
sex acts with certain kinds of people may not actually accord with the
lived experience of those people.
When we analytically use these terms—sex, gender, and sexual orientation—we find that in society most people are “heteronormative.”
They identify with their ascribed gender and fulfill their sexual desires
in heterosexual relationships. But we also find that there are people
who are not like this: they are unusual in terms of being statistically rare
but they are routinely present in a given population. Diversity in gender
identity and sexual orientation is a social fact. Some societies recognize
them and give them valued roles, while other societies stigmatize them.
Patriarchal societies in particular tend to treat gender and sexuality

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<< Introduction

minorities harshly, perceive them as threating moral order, and try to
suppress them.
Patriarchal societies assert that gender is determined by sexual anatomy, but in fact this is not true. A person who appears like a woman to
observers—whether family, medical doctors, or people on the street—
may identify as a man and feel like a man inside; further, this person
may ardently desire to be seen by others as a man, to such an extent as
to alter appearance, dress the part, or even elect for hormone therapy
and sexual realignment surgery to become biologically male. There are
such people whose sense of gender is ambiguous, who feel that they
are neither “male” nor “female” but rather are both or neither. All such
persons can be said to have “gender dysphoria” or a profound feeling of
disharmony between their assigned gender (as imposed by others) and
their own gender identity (as perceived by the self).8
Transgender is used as a self-description for those who do not identify with the gender that is socially ascribed to them, but rather feel
that they are actually of another gender in terms of their inner psyche.
Trans is a Greek term meaning “moving across.” Transgender indicates
a person who “moves across” from the gender into which he or she was
socialized to the gender with which he or she identifies. If transgender
persons alter their physique, hormonal balance, or sex organs to match
their inner psychic gender identity, they become “transsexual” persons.
Transsexual means a person who “moves across” from the sex organs
with which he or she was born to the sex organs with which he or she
feels comfortable because such organs express his or her gender identity. One can be a transgender person without becoming a transsexual if
one chooses not to alter one’s body to conform to one’s gender identity.9
In this sense, all transsexual persons were first transgender; they felt
like a person of the other gender even before they acted to change their
body to conform to that internal feeling and identity.
Both transgender and transsexual people are distinct from hermaphrodites, a term commonly applied to them. Hermaphrodite is
a term applied to persons who naturally bear both male and female
anatomical features (genitalia or secondary sex features that develop
with puberty). However, this term is now seen as a derogatory popular
term. In the scientific literature, such people are described as “intersex,” meaning that a person has anatomical features associated with

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17

both sexes, female and male. Some intersex people undergo surgery
in order to become either male or female since many societies offer
no ambiguous middle ground. Some transgender people deliberately
inhabit this ambiguous middle ground and they retain features commonly identified as both male and female; such people are commonly
called “androgynous.”
Transgender, transsexual, and intersex describe the variable positions
that people can take with regard to gender as an internal identity manifested in bodily appearance. These clinical terms help us to describe
variable patterns of gender identity and mutability. These terms are relatively recent inventions of sociology, sexology, and clinical medicine.
New terms have become necessary, especially as hormone therapy and
sex-realignment surgery techniques have been invented and improved,
allowing physical alteration of the body in ways not possible only a generation ago.
Sexual orientation is often confused with gender identity in Muslim
communities. The families of Muslim gay men often understand them
to be acting like or thinking like women; similarly they may understand lesbian women to be thinking or acting like men.10 Often issues of
sexual orientation are treated by Muslim communities as problems of
gender behavior, much to the detriment of lesbian or gay Muslims who
understand themselves as women who love other women or men who
love other men.
Though the terms for sexual orientation and gender identity are new,
the patterns of behavior they describe have existed since long ago. Muslims may be familiar with indigenous terms from their own local cultures for people who do not conform to a binary division between male
and female. Islamic history has witnessed at least three classifications of
gender-ambiguous persons: the castrated man (khasi), the effeminate
man (mukhannath), and the nonman (hijra). These categories are discussed in detail because they come up in interviews with Muslim activists. These premodern categories shape how Muslims perceive lesbian,
gay, and transgender members of their community.
The eunuch is a person who was born with male sex organs and
raised as a boy until castrated (usually when enslaved).11 Eunuchs did
not become female: rather they inhabited an in-between position—they
were legally and socially of neither gender. In contrast, the effeminate

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<< Introduction

male (mukhannath) is a person born with male sex organs and raised
as a boy who displays effeminate behavior in speech, gesture, gait, or
possibly dress. The term does not explicitly describe sex, sexual orientation, or sex acts. Rather it describes feminine behavior on the part
of one who is known to be male; it describes transgender behavior or
transvestite display rather than implying any homosexual orientation
or practice of same-sex intercourse. However, in medieval times and
later, the term came to be associated with men who accepted a passive
role in anal intercourse (an association which is not essential to the
category’s definition).12 A parallel category of mutarrajulat existed for
women who behaved like men in speech, gesture, gait, or dress.13 These
“emmasculine women” did not necessarily have a homosexual orientation or engage in same-sex acts.14
Finally, a third indigenous category of the nonman or hijra exists in
Islamic societies in South Asia (in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh). The
hijra is a person born with male sex organs and raised as a boy who, after
the onset of puberty, feels that he is a woman. Cultivating inner identity
with a woman, he abandons the category “man” and takes on female
behavior, name, and dress, and voluntarily undergoes a ritual castration to remove both testicles and penis. Society conceived of the hijra
as neither-man-nor-woman but rather as inhabiting an acknowledged
third gender, that is “neither-nor” and therefore “in-between.” Hijras
leave their families to live in highly structured communities with their
own dialect of speech.15 South Asian observers mistakenly call them
“eunuchs” because both hijras and eunuchs have undergone castration. However, the psychological motivation of a hijra (who voluntarily
undergoes castration after maturity through a ritual and with initiation
into a subculture) is completely different from that of a eunuch. The
hijra’s status and social role is therefore distinct from that of eunuchs
in premodern Islamic societies. Because the hijra feels like a woman in
the body of a man, hijras come closest to transgender (male-to-female
or MTF experience as described by modern terms. In premodern times
without contemporary medical therapies or reconstructive surgery, the
hijra could not physically alter the body to become a woman, though
the hijra could remove the genital organs associated with men and take
on features associated with women, like wearing women’s clothes and
adopting female names.

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19

There is some overlap between contemporary transgender people
and categories already established in Islamic societies in the premodern
period, but there is no easy equivalence to modern terms. The category
transgender describes both men who feel that they are women and
strive to become women and also women who feel that they are men
and strive to become men. This category depends upon the new reality
that medical techniques can actually engineer the transformation, such
that the transgender person can become transsexual, often to the point
that one is no longer recognizable as belonging to the former gender in
which one was originally socialized.
Familiarity with these terms is crucial for listening to the voices
of the activists interviewed for this book. I have not used “queer” to
describe in one label all varied identities that question patriarchal heterosexuality. In the interests of making this book accessible, I persist in
using the terms gay, transgender, and lesbian because these terms are
more recognizable to general readers than the term “queer.” Queer is
a recent label developed in activist and scholarly discourse to refer to
all these varied kinds of people as one single group—those defined as
“different” due to sexual orientation and gender identity—in an overtly
politicized way to which not all members of those groups subscribe.
Some sociological writings use the term “nonheterosexual” as a clinical label to refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer persons.16 This inclusive list of different identities is often reduced to the
acronym LGBTQ (and it sometimes extends as LGBTQIQ to include
intersex and questioning persons). It is admirable to include all these
people in one “umbrella” term but the acronym itself is cumbersome. In
contrast, “nonheterosexual” has the merit of being a single-word term,
but it has the limitation of being defined as a negation. There are no
actual people who self-identify as “nonheterosexual.” To do so would
suggest that they strive to be everything which heterosexuals are not,
which is not an accurate description of transgender, lesbian, or gay people. This book tells of their struggle to assert their common humanity,
religious affiliation, and spiritual aspiration while also affirming their
difference. The term “nonheterosexual” does not accurately depict the
trajectory of their struggle.
I have limited the use of terms and acronyms that might reduce this
population’s humanity or make them appear irreconcilably different

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<< Introduction

from their heterosexual family members and coreligionists. To further
emphasize their humanity, I have employed recited verses and song lyrics to open each chapter, verses that were mentioned by those interviewed as inspirational. The aspirations of gay, lesbian, and transgender Muslim activists are grounded in the same human hopes that all
share—security, health, self-sufficiency, love . . . and perhaps even salvation. With this background, we can turn to the voices of these activists
and listen in earnest to their narratives that they strive to live out Islam.

1
Engaging Religious Tradition

Remember when you were few and oppressed to the ground
And feared that people would carry you off by force
But God gave you shelter, aiding and strengthening you
And provided for your welfare, that you might give thanks
~ Qur’an 8:26

An integral aspect of being a Muslim is protecting the vulnerable and
helping the downtrodden. This Islamic teaching is both a spiritual discipline and a political imperative. The Qur’an reminds Muslims to remember when you were few and oppressed.1 Muslims revere the prophets who
are sent by God with the theological mission to persuade people to
worship the one single God. But the prophets were sent with the political mission to remove oppression. Through the risks they took and the
consolation they provided, the Qur’an says, God gave you shelter, aiding and strengthening you and provided for your welfare such that those
who dwelt in sorrow are recompensed with joy and those who suffer
in alienation are given integrity. All Muslims commemorate the early
days of Islam when they were oppressed as a marginalized few, threatened, and vulnerable to persecution. Yet when they became a dominant group, Muslims forgot their former marginalization despite this
reminder by the Qur’an. Many Muslims ignore vulnerable minorities
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<< Engaging Religious Tradition

within their community like the poor, the youth, and disadvantaged
women . . . and also Muslims who are gay, transgender, and lesbian.
To remind their community members of this, lesbian, gay, and transgender Muslims turn to the Qur’an for a symbolic affirmation of their
humanity and worth. This is an example of activism in a mode that can
be called “engaging religious tradition.” The activists interviewed in this
chapter demonstrate strategies to engage the Islamic tradition—especially the Qur’an. Two of them are from South Africa where volunteers
have formed support groups in Cape Town and Johannesburg. The
third activist comes from the United Kingdom, where several support
groups coexist with different but overlapping missions. One activist
interviewed is a gay male, another is a transgender male-to-female, and
the third is a lesbian female.
In presenting their lives and struggles through intimate interviews,
this chapter focuses on how Muslim activists who are lesbian, gay, and
transgender confront their religious tradition, find consolation in it,
and challenge some of the theological propositions that were deemed
normative by many Muslims in the past. Let us listen to the voices of
a few activists, from Cape Town and elsewhere, as they engage their
Islamic tradition to encourage fresh interpretation around the issues of
gender identity and sexual orientation.

Muhsin: The Original Nature of Truth
Muhsin is one of the organizers of the first support group in South
Africa for lesbian, transgender, and gay Muslims. Founded in 1998, AlFitra Foundation organized monthly get-togethers, lectures on sexuality and spirituality, weekly group discussions, and dhikr circles. It also
utilized the Internet, providing spiritual and social counseling that
allowed unprecedented anonymity. Muhsin served not just as an organizer, but also as an informal spiritual advisor to those who joined the
group or reached out for help. He took on this role due to his Islamic
education and profound spiritual orientation. While in his twenties,
he dedicated himself to Islamic study and endeavored to earn a degree
in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Karachi. He later
reflected, “I thought if I threw myself into my religious studies then I
would forget about [being gay] or that I would change. . . . So after six

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23

years, I realized it didn’t work. I thought more about being gay—what
does it mean to be gay and are there more people like me around? I was
shocked to find that, yes, in my very own community there are so many.
I realized that I’m not alone—these people are going through the very
same things that I’m going through. But I’ve managed, because of my
in-depth relationship with God, to reconcile the two. I was completely
comfortable saying to the world that I’m gay and I’m Muslim. I wanted
to help other people to get there. So that’s how I became an activist.”2
Muhsin decided early on to become a religious leader in his community. In explaining his decision to pursue a calling as a religious
leader, he reflects, “I think it was very personal and also [due to the fact
that] I come from a very religious family.” He clarifies that his family
was both religious in the social sense and also intensely spiritual in a
more mystical sense. “My grandfather was the imam of the community where I stayed. My mother was the teacher in the madrasa. My
father was a spiritual healer. . . . So I come from a fairly spiritual family.”
His father passed away when he was twenty-one, before Muhsin could
learn the details of his spiritual healing techniques that were granted to
him by being in a Sufi order (tariqa). However, important spiritual lessons were passed along; when asked what was the most important thing
his father taught him, Muhsin answers without a moment’s hesitation:
“Love for mankind.” Muhsin counts his father as an inspiration for him.
“My father never had any enemies. He never followed up his debtors. If
people failed to pay him, he never worried. He said, ‘We’ll sort it out on
the day of judgment.’”
Muhsin never had a chance to talk with his father about being gay
but admits, “I think he suspected, because one day I wanted to go and
work on the building site with my father—my father used to build
houses. But then obviously I didn’t do a good job on the building site,
so my father came home and said to my mother, ‘Halima, I think you
must keep this one in the kitchen!’” Muhsin notes that homosexual orientation among children and adolescents is largely invisible and hard
to articulate, so it is often displayed in gender behavior. Muhsin took
up “feminine” activities and hobbies, which his father largely accepted;
this Muhsin sees as his insight into a son’s latent homosexuality. “I used
to sit and crochet with my mother. . . . A normal father would have
discouraged his son from doing really feminine stuff. But he didn’t.” His

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uncles and aunts on his father’s side of the family were also supportive
with an open and tolerant style of Islamic devotion that did not impose
strictly gendered behaviors on Muhsin.
His mother was also a religious authority in the community, as a
teacher of girls and women at the local madrasa, leading Muhsin to
declare—“I was virtually born in a mosque. . . . My mother was teaching already at the mosque by the time I was born. My mother used to
carry me to mosque in a basket. So I’ve heard Qur’an since the first day
I could hear, and I could memorize Qur’an and hadith since the age of
five.” Muhsin’s interest in religion conformed to his family environment
steeped in scriptural devotion and spiritual healing, but it also challenged religious authority. He explains, “I grew up with the Qur’an. I
think that is why I started, early on, challenging certain things about
Islam because it just didn’t make sense to me. . . . Why do I have to
play with boys when I like playing with girls? [We children were] not
segregated exactly, but it was socially expected that boys only play with
boys. So I was teased a lot as a child, called all sorts of names, because
I was very effeminate as a child . . . our community was just like that. It
didn’t have anything to do with Islam.” On the one hand, his effeminate
nature meant staying close to women in the family and absorbing their
religious devotion. But on the other hand, it meant risking the social
stigma of not being a “normal boy” who would grow up into a “real
man.”
Within this tension, Muhsin grew up empowered by Islamic learning to question the customs of his community. His comment that the
norms of boys’ and girls’ behavior have nothing to do with Islam but
rather reflect community custom shows his critical perspective fueled
by studying Islam. His ambition was to become a religious scholar or
‘alim. He seized the opportunity when The Call of Islam, a branch of
the Muslim Youth Movement that actively embraced the antiapartheid
struggle, sponsored students to pursue madrasa training in Pakistan.
The Call of Islam selected Muhsin as one of the six to be trained as
imams.3
Intense devotion is a common pattern among transgender, gay, and
lesbian Muslims, especially in the period before they acknowledge their
inner difference. The devotion is fueled by expectation that prayer will
be a “cure,” and out of desperate hope that ritual will keep one distracted

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from acts that are a “sin.” However, beneath either of these extremes is a
spiritual depth in Islam that is real and authentic. As Muhsin expresses
it, “Homosexuality is not just about sex. We have very spiritual people among us. I pray five times a day, read the Qur’an, fast, and attend
mosque regularly.”4
The very name of the group he helped to establish, Al-Fitra, reveals
an emerging theology of liberation among Muslims who are transgender, gay, or lesbian. Fitra is an Arabic term meaning one’s “essential
nature.” It is used in the Qur’an to describe how God created all things,
distinct in their individuality yet making up a harmonious whole. So
set your face toward the moral obligation in a true way, according to the
essential nature granted by God, upon which God fashioned people, for
there is no changing the creation of God! That is the original and steadfast
moral obligation, but most of the people do not understand (Q 30:30).
Most Muslim theologians read such a verse dogmatically, to assert that
Islam is the “original and steadfast” religion, al-din al-qayyim, which
uniquely conforms to the requirements of human nature that is the
same for all people. However, lesbian, gay, and transgender Muslims
read it differently—though just as literally—to assert that God creates
each being with an original nature that cannot be changed, and that the
“original and steadfast” religion is to return to God in harmony with
one’s own nature. They hear the Qur’an affirm this, even if living and
worshiping in accord with their inner nature contradicts the surrounding society, for most of the people do not understand. Most Muslims
from these minority groups assert that their sexual orientation and gender identity are essential components of their personality. It is an innate
quality they were born with or an unalterable characteristic from childhood before rational cognition.5
Muhsin affirms that he was born with a same-sex sexual orientation and realized he was different from the age of five. “I was sixteen
before I realized they called it gay, and came out of the closet years later,
at twenty-nine.” His story confirms a common pattern of a disturbing
feeling of difference that sets one apart in childhood long before it can
be recognized in concepts, articulated in language, or accepted in one’s
heart. “Because of my sexuality, I became withdrawn as a teenager. I
spent a lot of time crying and resenting myself for who I am. I could
have used that time constructively. I lost my teenage years because of

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that. There is a positive side to it, though. If I had not had that experience, I would not have had the desire to save other teenagers from the
agony of resenting themselves for who they are.” For lesbian, gay, and
transgender Muslims, then, spiritual growth is about stripping away
the accumulated layers of “false self ” (imposed by family, society, and
religion but through which they survived childhood, adolescence, and
often the first phases of adulthood) in order to free a “true self ” that
had long been buried but through which they can sincerely turn to
God. The inner drive to recover this true self from under a family and
social life that feels like constant lying is so important that some risk
coming into open conflict with their surrounding society. While some
keep this search for a true self hidden out of fear, others cannot accept
dishonesty and face the difficulty of a bewildered family and hostile
community. Muhsin explains that his intense engagement with Islam
increased the pressure on him to marry; he relented to this pressure
and fathered three children at a young age. But Muhsin relates that by
age twenty-eight, “It was very hard, but the conflict within me was so
great that I had to tell them the truth.” He tells that his mother fainted,
while his wife was shocked.
That truth was very difficult to grasp while he was growing up, even
though its existence as part of his character was so deeply rooted as to
be unavoidable. In Cape Town’s “Coloured” communities, where most
Muslims lived, there was a subculture of effeminate men called moffies who expressed a local variant of gayness. Moffies lived openly and
were an accepted part of the community, especially in fashion design
and wedding planning. Muhsin recalls their role as he was growing
up: “It was an honor to know a moffie, actually, because they’re pretty
entertaining. The sexual part of it they never questioned—I guess the
community never wanted to know of it.” The element of homosexual
orientation was not emphasized, but rather subsumed under the more
overt display of gender-inverting behaviors. Moffies were common in
preapartheid Cape Town, and persisted even after “Coloured” communities were broken up and resettled. In his local culture there was recognition of different roles focusing on gendered behavior, but there was
no explicit acknowledgment that this involved same-sex acts.
However, for Muhsin growing up, same-sex acts were important and
had a great impact upon his self-understanding. “I had sexual contact

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with boys since the age of five, but I thought that these are just playing. . . . ‘Let’s play house-house—you be the mommy and I’ll be the
daddy, and we have to go to bed now.’ I didn’t think it was anything
bad.” However, by the age of twelve, his childhood was ending and he
began to feel attracted to another boy at school, attraction both sexual
and psychological with romantic depth to it. When asked if he realized
during this experience that he was “different,” Muhsin answered, “Yes,
I did realize it then, at age twelve. [I thought], ‘Oh, this is something
wrong because this is something that only girls do—girls fall in love
and talk about boys.’”
This period of realization coincided with a deepening of Muhsin’s
religiosity. When asked how he coped with the slowly dawning realization that he was attracted sexually to boys and drawn in friendship toward girls, he answered that he studied hard and became very
religious. “I threw away all my jeans and sweaters and started to wear
only kurtas. After age twelve, I became very religious. I was like a hermit. . . . My mother actually encouraged it. She thought I was going to
become some great imam.” This withdrawal was actually a new kind of
engagement. It allowed Muhsin to connect with his mother, the parent whom he felt was more distant and judging, with a new intensity.
“That was the time when I opened up my own madrasa. Actually, my
mother had her first heart attack when I was twelve. I was very close to
my mother and thought, ‘Oh my God, my mother is going to die and
she has so many responsibilities’ . . . she prepared people for the hajj
and gave fiqh (Islamic law) classes to adults during the night and during
the day she would teach the children. So I took over, and told her, ‘Don’t
worry, I will teach the class for the children.’ I had about thirty students.
Then after a year, it [grew to] fifty students. . . . [I was] helping children
to read the Qur’an and memorize, and also fiqh—about how to pray,
make wudu‘ (ablutions) and istinja’ (purification after using the toilet).”
Deeper religiosity also allowed Muhsin to interact with other boys in a
structured and safe environment.
His love of teaching and his immersion in religious learning deepened when Muhsin attended higher training at the University of Karachi’s program in shari‘a studies. Upon completion of the six-year course,
one is named an ‘alim (religious scholar). Muhsin completed four years
of the training before returning to South Africa. His time in Karachi

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was complicated by his relationship with his wife, who was unhappy
far from home. It was also complicated because Muhsin fell in love
with a man in Karachi, a relationship that was fulfilling but frustrating. Between his wife’s unhappiness and unsettling memories of his love
affair, it became difficult to remain in Pakistan to complete his course.
Despite not completing the full course, his studies gave Muhsin high
status and respect when he returned to Cape Town. He took up teaching positions at two madrasas, and was known there as mawlana (our
master), a title of respect for one of learning and piety. But this increasing social status led to increasing inner tension around his sexual orientation. “They used to call me mawlana at school. I used to hate that
title. . . . Then they called me imam (leader) when I was at the other
madrasa, and I thought, ‘No, if you guys knew who I am, you would
not want to call me imam.’” Despite this tension between how he saw
himself and how others in the community saw him, Muhsin poured his
heart into teaching, drawing up Arabic syllabi for the schools, organizing plays for children, even cooking for madrasa functions.
Muhsin was walking a delicate line between pursing his religious
devotion and accepting his homosexual nature, his inner fitra. It took
many years to reconcile his outer community status and his inner life.
However, Muhsin eventually decided to divorce his wife and “came
out of the closet” as a gay man. As he spoke out about being both a
gay man and a pious Muslim, madrasas terminated his employment.
He relied upon his own resources to make a living as a tailor and dress
designer for weddings. With this independence, he intensified his activist commitments to create an alternative community for lesbian, gay,
and transgender Muslims. “What was important for me [to address] is
that people were getting sucked into this gay culture and subsequently
losing their Islamic identity.”
To understand this concern, one must remember that this was 1996,
soon after the fall of apartheid and the very year that South Africa formally adopted its new progressive constitution. Under that new dispensation, prior criminalization of homosexual acts was dramatically lifted.
Protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation
became a basic inalienable right. Mainstream lesbian and gay institutions flourished—in human rights fields and in nightlife venues—and
Cape Town earned itself the reputation of being a cosmopolitan city

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and the “gay capital” of Africa. But beneath all the glitter, gay and lesbian life was predominantly for the “white and prosperous.” In contrast,
Muslims (mainly from the “Coloured” and “Asian” communities—as
they had been classified under apartheid) were only slowly emerging
from the ghettoization imposed upon them. In general, Muslims were
exploring cautiously how to participate in the now-open environment
of democratic South Africa. Those with secular and professional education took positions in government, the universities, and civil society.
Those with less education or more religious loyalty were hesitant, concerned that secular opportunities would destroy communal solidarity
and Islamic piety. At the same time, issues like drug use, alcohol abuse,
and sexually transmitted diseases like HIV were receiving increasing
media attention and generating public fear. Muhsin, like many others,
was fearful that in “coming out of the closet,” gay and lesbian Muslims
would be swept into a secular and profligate lifestyle that was attractive
but dangerous and that ultimately would not lead to a spiritually fulfilling life.
He and the others who first discussed instituting a support group for
lesbian, transgender, and gay Muslims wanted to assert their independence and rights as gay and lesbian people, while keeping firm their
communal loyalties as Muslims. They intended to foster the internal
sense of well-being that can only come through spiritual growth. Muhsin had returned from Pakistan to find that apartheid had fallen, but
now “[Muslims were] going to clubs, Muslims were starting to drink,
taking drugs, the incidence of HIV among Muslims [was increasing],
people [were] sleeping with one another without being moral about
it. I just thought that these are not the qualities that the Prophet came
with—these are not qualities that make you a Muslim. So I felt that my
cause is to help people to understand that they can be Muslim and can
be gay and can be moral as well.” He was equally concerned that ignorance and homophobia among Muslim communities was driving people away from their own religion. Gay and lesbian Muslims were turning to secular institutions, Christian churches, or entertainment venues
because their own religious community allowed no space for them.
By 1997, Muhsin and a small group of friends created Gay Muslim
Outreach and had about one hundred members in Cape Town.6 This
first informal organization grew. Leadership positions were formalized,

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but all the activists who ran it were volunteers and became tired, while
many people were content to join its activities without taking up any
responsibilities. It lapsed into inactivity after a year. Then in 1998, Muhsin and others revived the organization under a new and more Islamic
name, Al-Fitra Foundation. Muhsin explains why the term was chosen
from the Qur’an as the name for the revived support group: “The message then was to let people know that [homosexuality] is not a pathology, that it is [one’s] nature—you were either born that way or even if
you were conditioned to be that way through society, it was when you
were too young to have a decision in that. So it is part of your fitra—
your nature. That’s why we called the group Al-Fitra. . . . We chose an
Arabic name [because] it was closest to being Muslim. Instead of calling
us the Gay Muslim Support Group, we wanted to Islamize it a little bit.
So we chose an Arabic word. Also there was no equivalent word in English to describe the nature of a person. Al-Fitra was the perfect word.”
Al-Fitra continued to evolve along its first steps and continued to
operate in Cape Town until 2000. That year, a small group of gay Muslims in Johannesburg opened a chapter there, in South Africa’s bustling
metropolis. However, the Johannesburg chapter devolved into a social
club rather than a support group, and many who joined were reluctant to address Islam within the group or engage with the wider Muslim community. This organization in Johannesburg, which had called
itself Gay Muslim Outreach, soon dissolved, but it had brought together
a small band of serious people in that city. Soon they regrouped and
joined with the Cape Town project, Al-Fitra, under the umbrella of a
new name, The Inner Circle. This support group continued Al-Fitra’s
focus on developing an Islamic spirituality for gay and lesbian Muslims
through structured discussion of the Qur’an, but balanced this with
more informal social gatherings. Muhsin explains this delicate balance:
“I think it’s important to have some forum where people can just feel
that they can be their own people, because they can’t be themselves outside. You need a place where you can be gay and you can be Muslim
at the same time. But what was very important is to know God—to be
responsible, to know your responsibility toward God and toward your
community and toward yourself, to build your self-esteem and to know
that you belong somewhere, that you have a place in Islam and a place
in this world. That is more important than your sexuality. Your sexuality

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is just a facet of who you are, it is not you . . . and we have to realize that
we are going to leave from here [this world] one of these days. We are
not going to stay here forever. So are we accommodating that journey
forward? That was the message of The Inner Circle.”
The group that evolved into The Inner Circle had chosen an Arabic word selected from the Qur’an as its name—al-fitra. This symbolic
move caused some resistance from gay men from Muslim backgrounds
who refused to join the group; they disagreed with its message that one
could be both gay and Muslim. These objectors would go partying and
live a secret gay life while insisting that Islam condemns homosexuality
and objects to gay Muslims building a support organization for themselves. Though Muhsin and others dismiss this as false consciousness
and hypocrisy, the issues are clearly complex. The very existence of a
gay and lesbian Muslim support group is threatening for those who
lead double lives or who do not want to confront the narrowness of religious orthodoxy.
These issues, of course, center upon one’s interpretation of the
Qur’an. Many Muslims, whether hetero- or homosexual, do not read
the Qur’an personally. They may recite it for prayer but they do not read
it for meaning. Those who do read it personally often do not feel authorized or empowered to interpret the Qur’an deeply. Muhsin, among
others, feels that it is the responsibility of each Muslim to read and
interpret, from her or his own perspective and experience. Anything
less is shirking one’s duty.
Muhsin believes that the Qur’an does not directly address homosexuality. It neither condemns nor approves of homosexuality in explicit
terms. It does speak about male assault and rape of other men in the
story of the Prophet Lot (at Sodom and Gomorrah), but it does not
address homosexuality as sexual orientation or homoerotic relationships as expressions of emotional commitment and care. Such homosexual relationships are something new for which precedent is not
found in the Qur’an or in the Prophet Muhammad’s example. Therefore, principles must be drawn from the Qur’an to guide one’s behavior
in homosexual relationships, just as principles are drawn out to apply
to any host of new situations that Muslims now confront. “There were
lots of things that we have now that were not in [existence at] that time.
So, maybe the case [of a loving homosexual relationship or same-sex

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marriage] was not presented to the Prophet at that time. So we don’t
have a clue as to what the Prophet would have done in that case. The
clues that we can take are that there was no persecution of gay people,
gay people were working in the house of the Prophet at that time, and
the Qur’an speaks about ghayr uli al-irba min al-rijal [a phrase from Q
24:31] recognizing that there were people [men] who were not attracted
to women.” In this statement, Muhsin makes reference to three little
known facts about Islam. The Qur’an makes reference to men who
are not attracted to women, allowing such men access to the women’s
quarters of Muslim homes, a reference that might refer to gay men. In
addition, the Prophet Muhammad allowed such men to visit or serve
his wives in his home.7 Muhsin also refers to the fact that there is no
known incident in the life of Muhammad when the Prophet punished
any woman or man for homosexual orientation or same-sex acts.
Not all lesbian and gay Muslims want to hear this message. Some
want to avoid religious discussions, believing that Islam condemns
them and cannot change as a tradition. Others feel that Islam is what
their families do, which in most cases excludes and threatens them.
Muhsin admits that many people who could benefit from the support
group do not come out of fear of the word “Islam.” In response, he
argues, “We are saying [the group] is not religious, it is rather using
spiritual tools toward personal development.” Thinking of Islam as a
set of teachings for personal development certainly challenges narrow
perceptions of Islam, which are just as common among homosexual as
they are among heterosexual Muslims.
“If people can understand what true Islam is,” insists Muhsin, “they
would want to come back to it.” But what is true Islam? “It is that personal relationship with your Creator: your responsibility toward [God]
and toward your fellow human beings. [It is] having values and morals, knowing that there is a journey ahead back to God. [It is] knowing that Islam is progressive and not dictatorial or dogmatic, but that
ritual has a meaning in Islam.” With his emphasis on ethics and principles, Muhsin resists reducing Islam down to arguing about the shari‘a
or classical Islamic law. He sees the shari‘a as having failed to evolve,
and therefore betraying the progressive dynamism of Islam. As a postapartheid South African, he says proudly that “I think our constitution
is more Qur’anic than the shari‘a is!” It is his mission to help himself

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and other Muslims to free themselves of narrow interpretations and see
the Qur’an’s universal message in its depths. Seen in this way, it gives
guidance for the development of gay and lesbian Muslims, just as it
does for heterosexual Muslims, goads them to overcome fear, inspires
them to care for themselves and others, and ultimately includes them in
its announcement of God’s unlimited compassion.
This is Muhsin’s conviction, and it is also the message of the support
group that he helped to establish. This message meets resistance from
within the wider Muslim community. In South Africa, there are strong
currents of “progressive Islam” which were energized by the multiple
oppressions of apartheid. In Cape Town, there are mosques which are
organized around progressive spiritual and political interpretation of
Islam, like the Claremont Main Road Mosque. Yet not everyone there is
willing to extend a progressive interpretation to inclusion of gay and lesbian Muslims. Furthermore, there are many Islamic institutions which
openly reject any progressive interpretation in the name of “defending
the shari‘a.” Some such institutions have gone on the offensive against
the support group that Muhsin helped to establish. An Islamic community radio station, The Voice of the Cape, invited Muhsin to participate
in a broadcast “dialogue” about Islam and homosexuality. However, the
dialogue was a diatribe, since before he was even allowed to speak or
answer questions, Muhsin was introduced on the program not as an
‘alim (one who has knowledge about Islam) but rather as a zalim (one
who is an unjust oppressor). On the air, Muhsin was subjected to abuse
and ridicule, but in retrospect Muhsin concedes that the invitation was
a trap into which he willingly stepped. Yet to spark a genuine dialogue,
one sometimes has to bear abuse and suffer oppression. When asked
what verse of the Qur’an resonates most with him, Muhsin answered,
“Yes, my favorite is Summon them to the way of your Lord with wisdom
and good counsel, and argue with them by means of what is more wholesome (Q 16:125). It speaks about not getting angry or involved too much
when you try to convince people about what is appropriate. If somebody argues with you, you try to show him better rather than get angry
[in retaliation].” When asked if he is able to achieve such restraint, he
laughs, “Yes, after years of practice!”
Muhsin’s story is one of personal courage and religious conviction,
through which he was able to negotiate with his family. He lives in Cape

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Town with his male partner, having left Johannesburg to be closer to his
teenage children and family. Not all are blessed with such inner courage to face a hostile family and community, and certainly some families
are more hostile than others. Of other members of his support group,
Muhsin reports, “One lesbian committed suicide because her family did
not accept her. We have a few married men in the group who fear reprisals if they should come out.” The wall of fear and intimidation is very
dense. Lesbian, transgender, and gay Muslims confront the attitudes
of parents, family, community, and religion that are all interwoven. In
their life stories, fear of “going to hell” for being homosexual or transgender is juxtaposed upon fear of disappointing parents, fear of being
disowned or attacked by siblings, and being shunned and shamed by
their community. The strength that Muhsin has to overcome prejudice
within his family and community comes from his early involvement
with the Muslim Youth Movement (MYM) and his later role as a community member and educator at the Claremont Main Road Mosque in
Cape Town, which was deeply shaped by MYM visionaries.
The Claremont Main Road Mosque became a center for antiapartheid activities in the 1970s under the inspiration of the MYM and Qibla
movements. It also reorganized the division of space to promote gender justice and the greater participation of women, encouraging a more
comprehensive sense of religious inspiration for social activism on all
fronts of injustice.8 The Claremont Main Road Mosque adopted English
as the language of sermons and engaged in democratically open debates
about scriptural interpretation and ritual norms.9 Its members saw themselves as a vanguard institution willing to take risks to stand up for what
it sees as the progressive spirit of the Qur’an against the authority of custom: it came under “tremendous criticism for the creative and innovative manner in which it addressed a range of social issues . . . result[ing]
in a self-awareness of being a unique mosque leading the way, not only
for mosques within the country but also for mosques throughout the
world.”10 Muhsin perpetuates this sense of courage, even after he was
asked to leave the Claremont Main Road Mosque, which judged his
being a visible gay Muslim to be too risky. The Inner Circle community
embodies this courage on a communal level, drawing strength not only
from Muhsin but also from each and every member.

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At The Inner Circle’s annual retreat in March 2005, I was privileged
to meet thirty members of the organization and to conduct interviews
with them. Listening to their stories places the legal and theological
issues in much-needed depth of human experience that others, both
non-Muslim and nonhomosexual listeners, can understand. One of
the participants, whom I call Nafeesa, was raised as a male but identifies as a female—she is therefore a male-to-female (MTF) transgender person. Nafeesa was not working toward medical therapy to alter
her body to replace male tissues and characteristics with female ones.
Rather, Nafeesa is content to “act” the part of a woman through speech,
gesture, and dress. Nafeesa is satisfied for others to see her and treat her
as a female, without feeling the need to physically alter her body. From
her own perspective, Nafeesa also demonstrates the strategy of engaging religious tradition.

Nafeesa: True Self or Made-Up Life
Though Nafeesa belongs to the same community as Muhsin and volunteers with The Inner Circle, she takes a more sarcastic and humorous
approach to her Islamic religious tradition. She does not see herself as
a religious reformer. Yet as a community member she has some important insights into religion, insights which arise from her organic social
experience of conflict with her religious tradition and the community
authorities that uphold it. Nafeesa’s identity developed considerably
since puberty, when she—as a boy—first felt attracted to other boys and
thereby came into conflict with her Islamic upbringing. A person raised
as a boy might feel sexual attraction to other males because he, deep
down beneath all socialization, feels the self to be female and not male.
This analysis refers to Nafeesa as “she” because this is how she refers
to herself, despite the fact that her family raised her as a boy named
Muhammad. She grew up in an intensely Islamic environment though
now, in her early twenties, she does not take religion so seriously. She
shrugs off the obsessions of her fellow Muslims with a laugh. Nafeesa
wears her religious identity very lightly, enjoys poking fun at “orthodoxy,” and is content to practice Islam in her own way without much
concern for communal norms.

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For Nafeesa, Islamic identity is something she inherited from her
family and imbibed from her “Coloured” community in Cape Town.
Her “Islamicity” owes nothing to Arabs and the ideological reform
movements so active in Arab communities. Nafeesa is very outgoing
and theatrical, always cracking jokes both at herself and at what she sees
as the hypocrisy of others. This is not surprising, since her daily social
interactions center on convincing people that she is a stylish woman,
despite an appearance that she admits is ambiguous. When I asked to
conduct an interview with her for this study, her face lit up—“Oh, my
whole life is an interview with everybody who can lay their hands on
me! It’s always strange . . . well . . . interesting meeting me. And then
you are eager to know me, because this is so new for you, because I’m
carrying it off so well. People say, ‘Wow, she’s so natural! How does she
do it?’ And they want to know why and how!”11
Striking people as “natural”—looking and acting as much like a feminine woman as possible—is her goal. She enjoys the challenge of having
to persuade rather than simply having people assume. In her mid-twenties, Nafeesa works freelance as a make-up artist. Her love of theater is
not surprising, considering that her whole childhood and adolescence
consisted of radical role-playing, with reality never being what everyone else assumed it to be. Nafeesa explains, “I was a typical little girl
trapped in a boy’s body. I was very close to my mom . . . because I’m
the only son. . . . Well, I was the only son—rephrase that, please! I have
three sisters—two older and one younger. . . . They both see a lot of
each other. I won’t say I’m an outcast, of course, but I’m very distant. I
tend to keep to myself. I don’t go back home much to visit. There was
a time when I didn’t go at all, but then they came to apologize for not
accepting me for who I want to be.” Nafeesa refers to an incident when,
at age nineteen, she was thrown out of her parental home. “I was given
an ultimatum: ‘Either you make use of the door or you stay and follow
my rules in this house!’ It was more my mother sitting on my father’s
head. She forever wants a son. And till this day, she’ll probably pray for
me to be [a gay man]. Unfortunately, it’s not working. . . . She says she
accepts me for being gay, but she doesn’t understand why I had to wear
female clothes. So she doesn’t mind me being gay, she just wants me to
look like a boy, so she can say, ‘That is my son.’ At this point, she can’t
say that. She can only say, ‘That’s my OTHER daughter . . . that’s my

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son-daughter.’ But she doesn’t say that—she still insists, ‘Oh no, that’s
my son,’ and very nonchalantly. But she’ll tell people she’s got a son who
lives like a woman!”
Despite her failure to live up to basic expectations of her mother,
Nafeesa insists that since birth she has been different—in her words,
“queer.” The process of discovering the dimensions and depths of that
feeling of difference took some time and painful experience; the search
for terms to conceptualize it took even longer. However, her identity
formation happened early in her life, which might be due to her fearless character or to her effeminate behavior that she could not or would
not hide. “When I was very young, I always knew that I was gay—that
I was interested in males. At fourteen, I was still in denial. At sixteen,
I decided to accept myself. At eighteen-turning-nineteen, I came out
to my parents. I was starting to cross-dress at that time and to go clubbing. . . . At an early age, I was very mature and had to distinguish
between pleasure and work. So at work you have to look like somebody who’s working and because you’re a boy you have to look like a
boy. That’s what I thought then, but now it’s another story.” But before
she worked outside in society and had the liberty to dress as a woman,
Nafeesa played the part of a conventional Muslim boy.
In childhood, Nafeesa worked at a mosque as the only son of the
caretaker, her father. After secular school came Islamic school in the
same mosque where her father worked, followed in the evening by
helping her father during dars (sessions of adult religious education)
or dhikr (sessions of group meditation) late into the night. Her life was
divided between the sphere of family-work-community—where she
had to behave like a boy—and the theater of friends-parties where she
could experiment with dressing and behaving like a girl. As she matured
and gained confidence, she began to assert that the secret world, out of
view of her parents and the Muslim community, was her real world. It
was expanding to crowd out the old false world in which she had been
raised to perform.
Of course, that led to a dramatic conflict. Her mother insisted that
Nafeesa quickly marry a woman in order to become a real man. If she
refused, she would be sent off to madrasa far from home as both a cure
and a type of banishment. In Nafeesa’s view, many gay or effeminate
men were exiled to madrasa as a quick family solution to the problem,

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or chose to go as a form of pious flight from a difficult reality. “You
know, there’s always this [dynamic] that when you’re starting to ‘behave
like a little moffie’ they send you away to Dar al-Ulum (madrasa) just to
take you out of the area, so that you become a straight person.” Nafeesa
admitted that not all religious teachers in the madrasa institutions were
gays-in-hiding. She knew several who were, and had faced a family discussion of whether to send her away, too.
Nafeesa resisted being sent to a madrasa and then refused an
arranged marriage with a loud rebuttal. “When I was eighteen and
coming out, my mother just didn’t know how to handle it. She wanted
to get me an arranged marriage. I said, ‘Hell no, darling! Over this dead
body! I would rather kill myself.’ I’d rather lower my iman (faith) and
kill myself than do something like that. I said, ‘You wouldn’t like your
daughter to be embarrassed, hurt, crushed every second night by her
husband who behaves like a [woman] . . . or to catch her husband wearing her own wedding dress!’” She tried to appeal to her mother’s sense
of outrage, if one of her daughters ended up married to a closeted gay
man who lived a lie. In this way, Nafeesa argued that she herself should
avoid being the “man” in such a sham marriage.
As Nafeesa tells her life story, she always comes out triumphant with
brutal logic and a fabulous witty remark. But reality must have been
much more difficult. Marrying just to preserve her family’s honor is a
sin in her view, as it would cause social discord. Nafeesa compares fasad
(personal corruption) and fitna (social discord) to explain that she is
choosing the lesser of two evils, both of which are condemned in the
Qur’an and Islamic ethics. “I’m afraid I can’t do that [marry a woman]. I
would never be able to! You know, there are a lot of males who get married and that would be murder to me. . . . That is not going to work—
it’s going to be fitna (social discord). I’d rather love in fasad than cause
fitna!” She explains that she would rather love in ways that others see as
dissolute and corrupt than live a life that consists of lies that harm others and cause social discord. She would rather choose the first even if
others would see her as righteous for choosing the second.
Such a discussion shows that Nafeesa, despite her breezy and brash
manner, thinks deeply about ethical issues in light of her Islamic education, even if she arrives at conclusions that startle her parents and
community. “I’m a very logical person. If the shaykh or the imam were

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talking nonsense on the minbar (pulpit) or in the dars (lessons), I will
question him afterwards. Or I’ll ask one of my khalifas (madrasa teachers), and bring it up again. If I don’t find any clarity in it, then I just
don’t believe it. . . . And the same with my sexuality—when people were
saying to me, ‘No, you can’t be gay,’ I said, ‘Bring it to me in the Qur’an!
Show me that the Qur’an says being gay is not allowed in Islam!’ They
couldn’t. They brought up Sodom and Gomorrah and I said, ‘That was
how many years back? That was long before the Prophet’s time and the
Prophet [Muhammad] is the best—so it was different in HIS time. I’m
a follower of the Prophet Muhammad, salla allahu ‘alayhi wa sallim
(peace and benedictions be upon him) and not of Nabi Lut (the Prophet
Lot). I’m sorry, so I’m afraid I can’t pay attention to that. I do believe Lut
was one of the prophets, but I’m not a follower of his.’ They said, ‘How
can you say something like that when you are a Muslim and you’re
supposed to . . . ’ I told them, ‘No, because [Muhammad] was the last
prophet and I believe he was the last and the best prophet, that’s why
I’m a Muslim.’ They couldn’t answer me.’” Nafeesa’s point is, from the
perspective of Islamic jurisprudence, convincing. Even if one assumes
that the Prophet Lot forbade homosexual acts (as most Qur’an interpreters do), it does not follow that an ancient prophet’s teachings have
legal validity in the Islamic dispensation. This is especially valid since
there is no evidence that the Prophet Muhammad ever addressed a case
of homosexual acts or behaviors with moral denunciation or criminal
punishment.12
Nafeesa’s ad hoc theological arguments may have silenced opponents
in a friendly debate, but did not work with her parents. They were less
concerned with theology than with upholding cultural norms to avoid
public scandal. “In Cape Town, being a cross-dresser means that you are
probably going on the road, being a prostitute. That is the assumption,
especially the old school—I mean my parents and what they learned
from their parents. It was an older generation’s knowledge, where if you
see a guy dressed up like a female, then he’s probably one of ‘the girls
standing on the road.’ It was difficult for my father to see me in female
clothes, because he thought, ‘This child is a prostitute.’ What I had to
clarify first was to convince them that, ‘Just because I’m cross-dressing
doesn’t mean that I’m wanting to hurt you. No, it’s because I’m comfortable. I was a Muslim boy all that time, so I’ll just be a Muslim GIRL

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<< Engaging Religious Tradition

now—so there is no difference. It’s just that I feel more comfortable in
female clothes.’ Then they showed me the DOOR!” She was nineteen
when she was thrown out of the house.
Facing this social and financial disaster, Nafeesa fell back on Muslim
friends whose parents and elders were more accepting of her than her
own parents were. Nafeesa turned her personal disaster into an opportunity to assert that she was really a woman. She stayed with a friend
and her family: “It