America is struggling to come to terms with a national tragedy this week after an ISIS-affiliated gunman barged into a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida early Sunday morning and shot dead 49 people — a horrific event that amounts to the bloodiest mass shooting in American history. LGBT and Muslim groups are both working quickly to respond to the massacre, with Pride Parade participants marching on to honor the fallen and Muslim groups donating thousands of dollars to aid the surviving victims.
But as millions of Americans search for ways to make sense of it all, members of another often forgotten community are finding themselves wrestling with how to react: Muslims who identify as bisexual, transgender, lesbian, and gay.
This dual-identity subgroup, which one self-identified queer Muslim told ThinkProgress numbers “in the millions worldwide,” was suddenly thrust into the spotlight after officials announced the Orlando shooter had pledged allegiance to the militant group ISIS, ostensibly justifying his record-setting rampage with warped Islamic theology. Politicians such as presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump were quick to point to the shooter’s religion as justification for anti-Muslim policies such as banning Muslim immigration, implying the gunman’s virulent homophobia was a direct product of his faith.
But within hours of the shooting, the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD) released a statement refuting attempts to use the situation to pit Muslims and LGBT people against one another — and rejecting that the two communities can ever be divorced in the first place.
There was this kind of triple horror for me when I heard.
“This tragedy cannot be neatly categorized as a fight between the LGBTQ community and the Muslim community,” the statement read in part. “At moments like this, we are doubly affected. We reject attempts to perpetuate hatred against our LGBTQ communities as well as our Muslim communities. We ask all Americans to resist the forces of division and hatred, and to stand against homophobia as well as against Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry. Let us remember that the actions of a single individual cannot speak for all Muslims.”
This complex, multi-layered form of shock was echoed to ThinkProgress by a number of queer Muslims over the course of several interviews. Eman Abdelhadi, an LGBT rights activist in New York City, said she was terrified both by the shooting and the potential Islamophobic backlash it could trigger.
“There was this kind of triple horror for me when I heard,” said Abdelhadi, who is also a PhD student at New York University studying gender in American Muslim communities. “Initially there is the horror that human lives were taken, and then the horror that queer lives were so dispensable, and then the horror that one of my identities [Islam] might get attacked as a result.”
For Sahar Shafqat, a political science professor and founding member of MASGD, news of the tragedy was coupled with preparations for an iftar, a traditional Muslim service held during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan to celebrate the end of the daily fast. Her friends asked if she planned to cancel the event in light of the attacks, but Shafqat and her partner decided to hold it anyway, wishing to mourn the tragedy in a sacred space.
“We went ahead because if there was any moment we need each other, it is today — we need to grieve together and grieve in a space where we can be our full selves,” she said. “We held hands, we said some prayers … We gave each other a lot of hugs. And there were a lot of tears.”
Another group of LGBT Muslims in New York City also gathered for their regular iftar — where they do not divide prayers by gender as many Islamic communities do — on Sunday. As the group circled up for an hour-long Quran study session, the atmosphere was thick with grief.
We held hands, we said some prayers … We gave each other a lot of hugs.
“We were upset — two members were very upset,” Farhat, one of the participants in the iftar who identifies as a gender queer Muslim, told ThinkProgress. “There were some tears shed. [This attack] involved the intersections of so many things … We discussed what can we do with self care tactics to cope.”
Indeed, the tragedy was uniquely vexing for members of the Muslim LGBT community, a small but increasingly vocal group in the United States that faces discrimination both for their faith and their sexual identity. Abdelhadi and others, for example, insisted the shooter did not represent Islam in any way — “He wasn’t even a practicing Muslim,” she said — but noted that the Muslim community does wrestle with internal homophobia. She said queer Muslims are in a unique position to help their religious communities confront anti-LGBT bigotry — just as several other American faith groups work to do the same.
“Within our [Muslim] community we need to address that there is homophobia — without pretending that Islam is inherently homophobic, or that homophobia is unique to our community,” she said.
N. Ahmad, cofounder of Queer Muslims of Boston, agreed that the Islamic community should tackle homophobia head-on, and added that many American Muslims are already primed to embrace LGBT people. U.S. Muslims are actually more supportive of same-sex marriage than other religious groups such as white evangelical protestants: An April 2015 poll from PRRI found that 42 percent of American Muslims support marriage equality, compared to 28 percent of white evangelicals.
“I think there are a lot Muslims who are allies or would be allies, but who just haven’t felt comfortable bringing up this topic,” said Ahmad, who graduated from Harvard Divinity School and lives in the Boston area with his partner. “I think there are a lot of silent supporters, so they may also feel empowered [by the response to the tragedy] to speak up against homophobia.”
I'm gay and Muslim. I want to tell the LGBT community that the Orlando shooter doesn't reflect my faith as a Muslim.
— Shawn Ahmed (@uncultured) June 12, 2016
Several LGBT Muslims recounted to ThinkProgress stories that showcased how the two communities can draw strength from the shared experience of discrimination in the United States. Salem Almaani, an LGBT advocate who was participating in an AIDS prevention bike ride in California when the shooting occurred, said he awoke in Los Angeles Sunday morning to text messages from LGBT friends asking if he was okay and insisting they did not view the actions of the shooter as representative of Islam.
For Almaani, the moment was a moving reminder of how much the two groups have in common — and why he is able to claim both identities at once.
Islam teaches compassion and loving one another, and if you look at the LGBT community we all look out for another.
“Islam teaches compassion and loving one another, and if you look at the LGBT community we all look out for another,” he said. “There is a higher level of understanding and forgiveness, in terms of Islamophobia, from the LGBT community. I mean, this is a community that has endured so much discrimination, so they have compassion for people in the same situation.”
Although the LGBT Muslims ThinkProgress spoke with represented a spectrum of sexual identities and relationships with Islam, almost all expressed frustration with one particular part of the national response to the tragedy: historically anti-LGBT and anti-Muslim politicians who they say are using the shooting to implicitly demonize Islam.
“I think American society has tendency to try to escape the things it creates,” Abdelhadi said. “When people who oppose having bathrooms be accessible to transgender folks, when people who oppose even the simple effort of marriage equality … are suddenly standing up saying ‘We won’t tolerate this violence’ to make a point about Islam … they’re already trying to use this event to avoid complicity.”
For Shafqat and queer Muslims, such tidy distinctions ring hollow. For them, there is no firm distinction between their LGBT and Muslim identities, and they mourn for both groups during the shooting and its aftermath.
“One of the biggest issues [in the response to the tragedy] is the complete division of LGBTQ on one hand and Muslim on the other — speaking as if these are two distinct and separate communities” Shafqat said. “That has never been true, and is absolutely not true now.”
“If people realize that this is completely false … I think it will cause folks to fundamentally rethink how they view this tragedy,” she said.