Contents Under Pressure: A Queer Muslim Unsilenced

By Rahim Thawer

Being both Muslim and queer always seemed like mutually exclusive identities to me. The ideological clash meant I simply could not be both. This wasn't a satisfying way of looking at the world - I didn't think I should have to repent for being a certain way. I began asking some big questions in high school and then really started to assert my own identity after moving away to university - somehow the academic space away from my family just allowed for it. It was a scary time of grappling with mixed messages and internalized fear and stigma.

In high school, I looked for answers within the cultural/religious framework that was familiar to me - prayer and deciphering texts. By my second year of university, I was distancing myself from my faith community. I was active socially, but lived in emotional isolation. I experienced constant fear around who might find out what about me, which undoubtedly had to do with internalized homophobia and a strong sense of guilt at leaving my close-knit Ismaili Muslim community. Guilt and shame are very deep seeded things. They come from the external world and make us hate ourselves for not being able to live out a certain image of normative life.

SILENCE is the theme in this photograph. It depicts this time in my life when I felt stifled, without role models to reflect my identity/experience back at me to say "you're normal" or "you'll be okay". Instead, I wanted to change who I was. Thanks to all that internalized whatever (guilt, fear, shame, stigma), the silence began to come from within and external validation wasn't helpful.

Following a year or two of depressive episodes, I began seeking more sanctuary in academia and discovering queer spaces. My queer self began to be normalized, empowered, and more vocal. I found an actual voice.

My experience of oppression around sexuality seems to supersede that of feeling marginalized for being Muslim (though I can easily identify Islamophobia and racism all around me). I have at times put distance between myself and the label "Muslim" because admittedly, it makes me anxious at times. But so does "atheist"--they each come with so much baggage. Perhaps reconciling identity is a life long process; it's certainly very involved and at any time can tap into social, emotional, and familial triggers.

I've settled on identifying with my Muslim identity on a cultural and political level (given my North American context). Being queer has become more than same-sex attraction and taken on a politic of recognizing intersectional identities. I'm not interested in erasing or forgetting all of the positive things that came out of my cultural community either. I interact with my faith community on a cultural and ritualistic level.

I don't have to conform to one way of being anything, either queer or Muslim. And that's ok, because I say so.

Rahim Thawer is a Toronto-based community organizer, HIV/AIDS & queer activist, and social worker. You can find him on twitter at @RahimThawer. Very many thanks to Yalda Pashai for permission to use her stunning photograph.