For years, Maryam found herself waking up in a cold sweat at night with one thought going through her mind: How on earth was she going to make her sexuality work with her religion and culture?
"For a long time, I was split in two parts: one Muslim, one lesbian. They were at such odds with one another that I fell into depression," says Maryam, a 22-year-old trainee lawyer from Nottingham, focusing on human rights and justice. "I felt like I was losing my connection with God and it scared me."
Can Islam and homosexuality ever co-exist? In 2014, it might be starting to look that way. Long believing that she had to pick between her sexuality and faith, Maryam is now part of an increasing number of LGBTQ Muslims that are subscribing to the belief that you can be both Muslim and gay.
"My journey of reconciling my faith, sexuality and culture has been beautiful in its diversity, but it's also been trying. I've considered suicide," she says. "It took me a long time to get to the point when I finally realised that I can be both Muslim and queer, but now love who I am."
Most of the 11 self-identifying LGBTQ Muslims I interviewed for this piece are like Maryam: confident that they are able to reconcile their faith and sexuality and increasingly opting to live their lives openly in a community where it is assumed that religion and homosexuality cannot co-exist.
While sex is still a taboo subject generally in many British Muslim communities, there are five references in the Qur'an stating that homosexuality is forbidden in Islam. Many also cite the basis of the Qur'anic story of Lut to condemn homosexual behaviour.
But while many no longer feel that they have to choose whether to be either Muslim or gay, there still remains the problem of visibility within the LGBTQ Muslim community. I ask Maryam whether she considers herself an anomaly as a visibly queer Muslim. "No, I don't. You wouldn't think it, but in the UK there are thousands of us."
She's may not wrong. Now, this is some pretty intense extrapolation, but 2013 statistics showed that one out of every 100 people in Britain identify themselves as gay or lesbian. And with just over 5 percent of the UK being Muslims, that might mean there are 32,000 gay or lesbian Muslims living in Britain.
So where are they? They may congregate in outreach groups, but not many can claim to have seen openly "out" Muslims in mainstream society. It's little wonder when you consider that the relationship between Islam and the LGBTQ Muslim community has long been problematic. According to a 2009 Gallup poll, Muslims in Britain still have zero tolerance towards homosexual acts.
In March this year, Dr Mohammad Naseem, the chairman of the Birmingham Central Mosque, came under fire for suggesting that gay men and women are comparable to murderers and paedophiles. He stated in an interview on Channel 4 News that "it's not possible to be both gay and a Muslim. You can choose your way of life but you don't have to be a Muslim."
Many growing up in an Asian household can remember the East is East scene when the eldest son, Nazir, felt forced to leave his family and community to live as an openly gay man. But for many gay Muslim male subjects I interviewed, this is now seen as a more archaic view. They are not prepared to subscribe to this idea that they have to leave their family to live the life that they want.
Faisal, a 25-year-old accountant from Uxbridge, says he "used to struggle a lot, although now I accept that I was born this way. My parents are aware of my sexuality and although we don't talk about my lifestyle, they haven't condemned me." He comments on how unfortunate it is that so many LGBT Muslim men and women are "forced to get married against their will by their families", saying, "there is simply no justice infrastructure in place".
But while it may seem that coming out and living your life openly is the biggest hurdle to overcome for British Muslims, Claire, a 28-year-old Birmingham-based Muslim convert, says it's only the beginning of the struggle. "As an LGBT Muslim, I face discrimination in the gay community. They say I cannot be gay and Muslim but I can. No one can judge you for who you are – you decide that."
Claire also observes this hostility within the Muslim community. Recently engaged to her partner, she says she does not attend the mosque as she is constantly told by male worshipers that they are "better for her" than her partner. "What we want as LGBT Muslims and women is to be treated like humans," she says. "We want to have the same rights to go to the mosque to pray and learn and to be a part of the Muslim community."
Scripture interpretation continues to be a divisive subject. This is the view taken by many of the male subjects I've interviewed, including Omar, an activist and charity campaigner from Bromley. He says that, although there are references to homosexual behaviour, he believes it is contextual for the era in which it was written and that "there is nowhere in the Qur'an that forbids homosexuality".
"It is up to only Allah – not mortal mankind – to judge me, and as Allah is forgiving I have nothing to worry about"
Who does he think is at fault, then, when he is condemned for being both Muslim and gay? "It could be the fault of the hadiths that contradict the Qur'an, the fault of the literalists, or the people who claim themselves as Muslims but their actions are not. They misinterpret the Qur'an to indoctrinate people to believe that it is wrong."
How does he cope with accusations that he's picking and choosing his religion as he pleases? "The way I see it is that Allah made me," he says. "It is not Allah that rejects us, it's those in the Islamic community. I am quite happy to openly say I am a gay Muslim man and, as far as I can interpret, it's not a sin. If I have got it wrong it is up to only Allah – not mortal mankind – to judge me, and as Allah is forgiving I have nothing to worry about."
Can we be optimistic that it will one day be widely acceptable to be Muslim and gay? While it remains to be seen whether Muslim communities will ever be able to reconcile homosexuality and religion, it's clear that the LGBTQ Muslim community are no longer prepared to stay silent. The Safra Project, a support group set up in 2011 working with Muslim women identifying as LGBT, is, in fact, set to have Britain's first female lesbian imam.
Claire says that people often ask her how she has the confidence to be a vocal queer Muslim woman. "How can I not? You can't control who you are attracted to any more than you can choose your eye colour," she says. "And even though it's a little isolating at times, given other people's belief systems, I wouldn't change it for the world."
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