I identify as a queer Muslim. I actually really wish it was easy to say I’m just Muslim, that we didn’t have to add this ‘queer’ part… that it just wasn’t even something that was so important to claim in the service of making space for ourselves. I’m actually quite a private person. It feels like having my business out in a certain way that is in deep contrast to how I know myself to be. I do [say] it because I know it’s important in shifting people’s perspectives about what it means to be a person of faith and non-heterosexual. But it’s uncomfortable.
I’m also a dervish, which means I follow the mystic path in Islam. That means that I belong to a particular Sufi order, and I have a shaykh and, insha’allah, I’ll be taking on leadership within the community.
What I want people to know is that being non-heterosexual and a person of faith has never been a source of conflict for me.
I’ve never personally experienced in myself any kind of sense that I needed to sacrifice one or the other, or that they were incompatible, or anything like that. It continues to baffle me, actually, that it should be such a source of contention for those who would insist that it’s not possible, that you have to leave your religion if you identify as non-heterosexual of some stripe. It doesn’t make sense to me. It’s like a cognitive dissonance.
Because it’s never been a source of conflict for me internally, I actually feel like that makes it more possible for me to really advocate for others. The advocacy for me is not political. What I strive for is to assert that everybody, every human being, has full access to their relationship with God. Period. That’s really the bottom line. It’s the first line, the middle line, and the end. The bottom line. That’s what "Coming Out Muslim" is about for me. That’s why I do that show, that’s why we use our real names. That’s why I choose to be visible in this way that, if I were left just to the dictates of my personality, I wouldn’t.
Everybody has full access to their relationship with God, period. That’s the message I really want people to understand.
I often tell people, “Well, all of my prayers have been answered.” I feel like, if God was displeased with me in some way, then my life would be shit. But it’s not. And actually I get to continue to live in alignment with what I understand to be my purpose. I receive dreams. I feel very loved, actually, by God. I feel very loved. And seen. And valued. There’s no kind of trouble to identify or point to.
In Islam there’s a verse in the Quran that says that Allah is closer to you than your own jugular vein. Which means that God of course knows you far better than you would ever know yourself. Your jugular vein that you’re not even aware of almost 100% of the time. I’m thinking that if Allah’s closer to me than me own jugular vein, as the Creator of my whole being, then there’s nothing that God doesn’t know about me. There’s nothing that God hasn’t put in me in some sense. So, this thing about sexual orientation is just so insignificant in the scope of that, in the scope of our creation.
I ask the question, “If God is closer than my own jugular vein, how could I despise myself?”
The place that I do struggle, though, is looking at the way that societal expectations or familial expectations have impacted me. The expectation coming particularly from a Nigerian context, is that by twenty-something you should be married, if you’re a women. There’s the whole suite of rituals that go with that. And I wish I had access to those. There’s a spiritual element, and part of the spiritual element for me is the witnessing by community and the support of community and the celebration of community. And the support of the community going forward in your marriage.
For me, a marriage is primarily in the spiritual realm. Yes, the legal aspect is great and it’s important and I’m grateful that people fight for that. And I know that getting married in a courthouse would not be sufficient for me.
I also feel like you still have to fight everywhere you go to assert that this level of commitment is legitimate in your life. It’s not like you get married once and then... everywhere you go people are happy for you. No. Everywhere you go, or a lot of places you go, especially if you travel as I intend to, there’s this kind of [calculation]: ‘Is it safe to talk to this person? Will they understand?’
I don’t want to get into an argument or have to defend anything. It becomes complicated and it’s not simple. And it grieves me. I just want it to be simple. I really do.
Sometimes I find myself imagining what it would be like to have a ‘beard,’ to do an arrangement. That’s something I’ve thought about actually for a long time, probably 7 or 8 years at this point, that maybe that’s a real possibility that I have to look into in order to be able to go to Nigeria and feel safe and not constantly be explaining something and dealing with the gossip and this and that. [It's also about] getting to have experiences that I won’t get to have otherwise. So that’s something I think about.
I feel like it would make a lot of things easier for me, as somebody who lives in a non-American context. But I’m like, “God, how would this work actually?” The funny thing is, a few months ago, I wasn’t even thinking about it. And I feel like God just dropped somebody into my lap, you know? We started talking and it actually felt like encouragement. So, I don’t know what will happen with that but we’ll see.
I’m pretty much moving in the direction of taking on spiritual leadership. My target is queer folks who feel like they’ve been sort of forced out of the faith, and holding space for them to re-engage safely and in a loving way that helps them feel supported to come as close—or not—as they want to. So that they have choice about it.
Just last night, actually, we hosted a fast-break meal, and a couple of people came who have really gone away from Islam in the last few years of their lives and felt like they couldn’t engage, or that there was an incompatibility or something. And before they left, I was able to invite them to pray. It was an invitation, and they took it. And to see the impact that that made on them to be able to try something, and not to remember 100% this or that, but to have the space to do that and to re-engage. The result is that now they want to hang out and go over prayer stuff. And that’s cool. That’s great. I want people to feel like they can do that, you know?
So as I step into this spiritual leadership, not all the people I interact with are going to be queer Muslims. [I intend to] hold in myself such a level of lovingness and compassion that I’m able to withstand or bat away whatever freak-out they may have when they realize that I’m not heterosexual.
There’s so much enculturation with the ways that we’re engrained with homophobia. I feel like all of us are walking around with it, and it comes up sometimes—for some more than others. I want to be really able to hold that in terms of my own inner spaciousness, to be gracious even with that as I take on leadership.
The last thing I want to say is that I want ease.
I don’t like fights and fighting and this energy of grittiness. But I do understand that part of my role is to be a warrior, a warrior with the most loving of intentions and the most loving of motivations. I want ease in my own life and I want ease for others in having full access in their relationship with God and to live as they are called to.
We all have a calling and we all have a purpose, and I just want to be somebody who is facilitating space for people to do that and to have that, and to do so peacefully—or at least not with more struggle than whatever their path itself calls up and requires.
That’s my commitment.
This text is condensed and edited from a conversation Terna recorded on Sunday, July 14, 2013, in Pennsylvania.