“There aren’t a great deal of spaces for LGBTQ+ Muslims observing Ramadan. We have to make it ourselves. It’s growing though.”
It’s 8 PM on a Saturday in the middle of Ramadan, the month-long fasting period observed by Muslims, and I’m at a church hall in Central London. The walls have been draped with rainbow flags and around 80 guests—who span ethnicities, faiths, and nationalities—sit on cushions dotted over a huge rainbow flag that covers the floor.
We’re here for Big Gay Iftar, an event that brings the mainstream Muslim community and queer Muslims together to break their fast with a traditional evening iftar.
Held in conjunction with LGBTQ+ Muslim support group Imaan, Big Gay Iftar is the brainchild of Asad Dhunna, a gay British Muslim and the director of communications at Pride in London. He had the idea for a community-broaching iftar in June 2016, shortly after the Orlando massacre, a mass shooting at one of the city’s gay nightclubs that killed 49 people.
“I’d planned to have about six friends over to break fast that weekend and then the dreadful shootings happened,” Dhunna recalls. “I came to realise that the only time you saw ‘LGBT’ and ‘Muslim’ in the same headline was at fatal events. I realised I had to do something about it and build bridges.”
A church in Waterloo offered Dhunna and his co-organisers use of their space and Asma Khan, founder of celebrated Soho Indian restaurant Darjeeling Express, supplied the food. “We had a little funding from Pride in London,” Dhunna adds, “and so the first ever Big Gay Iftar was born.”
Two years on, and the event is just as vital for LGBTQ+ Muslims who may be estranged from their families because of their sexuality or gender identity. It can be one of their only safe spaces in which to observe the holy period.
“In Ramadan, people feel the need for a family, a community, a place of worship much more keenly than they do the rest of the year,” Big Gay Iftar co-organiser Masuma Rahim says.
Crucially, the event offers a rare opportunity for queer Muslims’ spirituality to co-exist with their sexuality.
“It’s almost easy to forget how nice it is to feel represented in this environment,” agrees attendee Sam, a student and gay Muslim. “I’ve seen a lot of queer Muslims driven out of their faith. You see a lot of people coming to events like Big Gay Iftar and think, ‘Oh, I’m allowed to take part.’ It’s so wonderful to see.”
Four speakers take their places at the front of the room and the evening’s proceedings begin. Over the next hour, we hear talks on social issues and identity clashes impacting British Muslims today. Rahim closes by telling the room: “This event only exists because we have been senselessly tormented, persecuted, and killed. Tonight is for them and in their memory.”
Islam is often criticised for its hostility towards gay people, a prejudice that can stem from interpretations of the Quran. Jahed Choudhury, one of the first Muslims in the UK to have a same-sex marriage, was banned from his local mosque and received death threats following the ceremony. Other gay Muslims in Britain face being pressured into heterosexual marriages and even contemplate suicide. Earlier this year, Coronation Street became the first soap to feature a lesbian Muslim character, played by Bhavna Limbachia. She revealed that in order to prepare for the role, she met Muslims who feared undergoing gay conversion therapy if they came out.
“There’s so many great iftars,” Dhunna says. “But the difference with Big Gay Iftar is that it is specifically addressed to bring healing to the LGBTQI community.”
As we listen to the speakers, civil rights activist Majdeh Khouri and teacher Haifaa—both of whom are Syrian refugees—have been preparing a three-course feast that pays homage to their home. In huge vats, they stir harak osbao (a lentil and pasta stew from Damascus), rice with green beans, and a yogurt and cucumber salad. Having fasted for more than 17 hours, I can barely contain my excitement.
At 9 PM, it’s almost time to break our fast and my belly rumbles in anticipation. A man calls the adhan, the Muslim call prayer, and Haifaa and Majdeh begin distributing the food to helpers who stream in and out of the kitchen carrying plates. Bottles of water and dates are passed around the room, the traditional snack Muslims across the globe break their fasts with.
I’m seated next to a Jewish LGBTQ+ couple, a white Muslim convert, and a veiled woman. Although we’re strangers at the beginning of the night, we soon strike up conversation, discussing everything from Brexit to Kyrgyzstan over the course of our meal.
I begin by spooning mint yogurt over my rice and green beans and take a bite of fried Arabic flatbread covered with pomegranates. It transports me back to breaking fasts with family in Beirut, feasting on elaborate plates of fattoush. I look around the room, which reverberates with excited chatter, and realise that we all share the same euphoria at finally being able to eat after a day of fasting.
When Big Gay Iftar offers such potential to unite two marginalised communities—Muslims and LGBTQ+ people—it is notable that no mosques offered to host the event. Tonight’s location is disappointing, attendees tell me, but not surprising.
“There isn’t a big support in our masjids [in the UK] for our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters,” says Amina, a solicitor. Kiku Basu, a trans woman and political and social activist also in attendance tonight, agrees: “The difference between Big Gay Iftar and a regular mosque is that this is a safer, friendlier space. It’s a good place if you’re struggling with your sexual identity or gender.”
For Rania Hafez, a lecturer, the wider Muslim community’s reluctance to make room for queer Muslims was the reason she came tonight. Muslims can be better allies, she stresses, in spite of the Quran’s stance on homosexuality. “I felt compelled to come here because we don’t do enough. I don’t think Muslims realise that they’re needed and that they can do more.”
The Muslim community may struggle to welcome its LGBTQ+ members, but progress has been made in recent years. A recent poll found that US Muslims now support same-sex marriage, while Britain hosted its first Muslim same-sex marriage last July. These steps are a vast improvement on a 2009 Gallup poll which showed that British Muslims have zero tolerance towards homosexual acts.
Ten o'clock approaches, and the room beings to clear as attendees head into a nearby space for evening prayers. Meanwhile, piping hot masala chai and plates of maa’moul, a traditional Levant dessert made with semolina pastry, are passed around. I down my frothy tea, savouring the hint of cardamom, and pounce for another pastry.
Between bites of maa’moul, I ask Dhunna whether spaces like Big Gay Iftar will soon no longer be necessary, given the slowly increasing acceptance of LGBTQ+ Muslims in Britain.
“We have to have separate spaces at first so that people feel welcome and that they can be themselves,” he explains. “I think eventually those spaces will start to merge. But the only way to make that change is to be the change.”
Conversely, Rahim tells me she’d be “delighted” if Big Gay Iftar didn’t exist in years to come: “If one day, we didn’t need it anymore, that we’re redundant, then the battle has been won. We kid ourselves that the battle has been won. It hasn’t.”
As I slip on my shoes and leave the church, the organisers begin to take the rainbow flags down from the walls. I think back to Dhunna’s parting words.
“The concept of being out, loud, and proud isn’t one that’s very dear to the Muslim community. There is quite a long way to go. But we’ll get there.”