Queerness as a First Generation Muslim

The Call to Self

It was 2001 and I was watching the MTV Awards, completely enamored with the showmanship of the performers. My mom had begun frying up falafel in our kitchen and my dad was still on his way home from his 13-hour shift. Admittedly, I probably shouldn’t have been allowed to watch the entire event but I don’t think my parents knew what age restrictions were back then. I stood in front of our second-hand tube TV attempting to mimic the choreography of each set. I was less than five years old learning how to bust it down. Looking back I’m impressed by that little girl. If I had that same rhythm now, I would probably be able to venture away from the back patios of the club that my girls have used to shelter me from the outside gaze.

Back in 2001 though, I wasn’t very up to date with much pop culture so I didn’t know what I was getting myself into just yet. While repeating the steps I had just learned I saw the woman of my dreams descending in a steel cage with a tiger at her flank. In a green chiffon bra and a blue mini skirt, the prelude to ‘I’m a Slave for You’ began and Britney Spears was on my tv glistening. The music video had always been an obsession but this performance… it was art. I took it all in; the choreo, the outfits, the boa.

I had never witnessed anything that made me feel this way, but it was new and exciting. At that point I stopped dancing, I stopped singing. I’m pretty sure I stopped breathing?

The delivery of the message made me feel dirty about even having “special parts.”

That night I dreamt of Britney waiting for me at the gates of heaven, like, not even a joke. To this day it is the most vivid dream I can remember from my childhood. When I woke up I felt “something” not knowing what it really meant but I just knew that it wasn’t a feeling that would go away anytime soon. I simultaneously knew I had to keep these feelings a secret. It didn’t help that by then, my parents had begun having “The Talk” with me about where I wasn’t allowed to be touched. The delivery of the message made me feel dirty about even having “special parts.” I know they were just trying to do their best. Nevertheless, I learned that anything to do with my curiosity surrounding sexuality and my vagina were best kept to myself.

My parents immigrated from Sudan to the U.S. before I was born. We didn’t have much which was never a problem for me then. However, the sex talk with my parents was prompted by always having to stay with one nanny to the next. I hadn’t noticed the pattern until I realized other kids got to spend more time with their parents than I ever could. Even while being cared for with other neighborhood children, I felt isolated. It was a byproduct of surviving through the pursuit of the American Dream.

We’re from the Arabic-speaking region of Sudan where almost the entire population is Muslim. My father was more traditional and, all things considered, my mother was very liberal. Still, they always held on to some values they had grown up with. For instance, “Don’t eat pork”; “Allah is the only God”; “Anything besides being hetero is a pipeline to eternal hellfire.” Five-year-old me was feeling neglected while also harboring a secret that was making her increasingly curious.

I knew that I wasn’t allowed to say anything out loud but that hadn’t stopped me from accepting my queerness as a part of me.

I had been introduced to the concept of sexuality for reasons we don’t need to get into, but as a result, I was never ashamed of my self-discoveries. I knew that I wasn’t allowed to say anything out loud but that hadn’t stopped me from accepting my queerness as a part of me. Though at the time I didn’t have a word for it, I felt like I had put a piece of my puzzle together.

The funniest thing about Islam vs Christianity discussions is the denial that they’re the same religion reiterated. It’s difficult to explain all at once however it’s an argument that has always interested me. In so many words the bible was translated to condemn pedophilia, not homosexuality. The word didn’t manifest until modern translations were funded by the West to condemn homosexuality. So… ya know, let’s just take a breath. Even within Islam, what was once seen as an impossible feat has now become a new wave of inclusivity.

There’s a misplaced fear about children who are curious about concepts that adults perceive as sexual. Sexuality isn’t developed but our attitudes towards sexuality and sex are. For example, toddlers are inherently outward about exploring and exposing their genitals. By the age of four children are experimenting with bodily pleasure while beginning to develop shame around it. They also begin masturbating and experimenting with other kids. By the age of seven to twelve, there’s a desire for privacy, porn, and/or sexually explicit content, and for some, they’ve already experienced a climax.

As we get older we’re mostly just adding the finishing touches to what our constructs of pleasure and sex look like, if it’s even something we want (i.e. Asexuality in some forms; as not all asexual identifying people are avoidant of physical pleasure). Sexual identity comes to light during our psychological and physiological development. It’s more disturbing to conflate sex and sexuality than just letting kids be.

I had a pretty positive perception of sexuality while growing up. Despite my mother’s best efforts, I was always curious about it. Not only did I like exploring pleasure, I liked understanding why and how others perceive pleasure. I was watching porn, exploring what a vagina was, and what my vagina was like. Because I wasn’t able to ask questions, porn and other “pertinent” content became my teacher. Now I realize how many of us, regardless of sexuality, went through a similar experience.

I was always good at finding what I wanted… Never that good at hiding, though. I remember the day our old box of a computer froze, then swarmed me with lesbian ads. I saw what true horror looked like in my mother’s eyes while shaded with shame for only so long. I still wanted to know more, though, so I went back to the drawing board to strategize. By that I mean I taught myself how to clear my search history.

I typically enjoy(ed) lesbian content. After a brief phase of confusion about dildos and thinking vaginas had secret penises way, way up there I knew that I wasn’t only attracted to hetero sex. I also wanted to know what it was about this integral part of human nature that made adults feel so much shame.

Retreating to porn and GGW was enough then but I knew I would eventually want to experience what I had spent all this time watching.

Late at night, I would sneak out of my room to find the channel airing Girls Gone Wild commercials and while the narrator was demeaning women, they still seemed to be having fun. The glimpses of underboob through the static on the screen made my heart flutter and I would go back to bed buzzing. By then I wondered if I would ever meet a queer person or if I would ever be able to openly express myself. Retreating to porn and GGW was enough then but I knew I would eventually want to experience what I had spent all this time watching.

That desire never subsided but a monumental point in history occurred. It was 2004 and I was about seven years old. Massachusetts legalized gay marriage. My parents shook their heads in disbelief as if the world descended into chaos. My father went so far as to say that America offered too many freedoms and that this would never happen in a Muslim country. He was partially right about the second part, even though I knew how awful people could be within the constructs of religion and upholding archaic cultural dynamics. I saw a snippet of my future though; both my desires and fears. With what were once butterflies becoming moths in my stomach, I kept my mouth shut.

As I got older I kind of just grazed over my sexuality. I still watched porn and I still hid my identity but by the time I reached middle school I was confronted with a reminder. I had lived in the Middle East at the time. Most brown folk will tell you that many of us spend a year or two overseas due to our families’ penchants for contractor jobs. Having experienced life in America compared to a very censored culture I was always on edge. Not only because of my sexuality, but because of my race, my body, and my ethnicity. I was able to build a group of friends that were as close as any collection of eleven-year-olds could be.

At the end of the year a member of our group sat me down during break; She was gay. As she shook and pained, I felt relief. I wasn’t the only secretly queer person at school. Her family was Muslim and very prominent in the political landscape so I knew how much of an honor it was to receive the news first. Immediately I hugged her, telling her it was okay and she wasn’t going to lose me as a friend. The rest of the friend group did not respond as openly. Some were put off by fear, some because of disgust, the rest because of the status quo. That day I saw what it was like to be brave in a culture that mirrored my own.

Fast forward to my second year of college in the States. By that point I’d had my first public displays of affection with a femme, I came out to everyone in my year, and I had a girlfriend I cared about very much. I introduced her to my mother even; First as a friend and eventually as my girlfriend.

The thing about it all is that I think I’ve come out maybe fifteen times to my mother, never to my father, and everyone else is just a free for all. College allowed me to be around others who were radically fluent and it opened me up to both the possibilities and realities of the world. Being queer and raised Muslim is a rollercoaster of experiences, some of which can be dangerous but there is hope yet.

First-generation Muslims are afforded an ability to be more openly expressive than our motherland counterparts.

It’s 2021 now y’all. Social media has connected us to pages like The Queer Muslim Project and artists like artqueerhabibi. These examples provide us with representation and perspective to our experiences that once felt so isolating. The growing normalization of our identities has even helped lift the death penalty for homosexuality in Sudan. Hopefully, there will continue to be incremental changes as these countries rebuild and rehabilitate after being relieved of western occupation but this is a huge leap from where we were twenty years ago.

First-generation Muslims are afforded an ability to be more openly expressive than our motherland counterparts. With that comes a responsibility to at least begin to live in our truth. Had I known that there were queer Muslims I don’t think I would have batted an eyelash at coming out to my parents, but who knows? These matters are always a bit more complicated than they should be. But what if it  was as basic as we allowed it to be?

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