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Finding a balance between religious & sexual expression

Finding a balance between religious & sexual expression

In this series we talk to openly gay people from different faiths about their expereince with religion.

Disclaimer: This article contains personal opinions and experiences. The views expressed do not speak for all members of a community, religion or faith

Abdul Rahman Khan or as he likes to be called, Rahman was born in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. He got a Bachelor’s degree in Pharmacy from Ghaziabad and then completed his Masters in Quality Assurance from Manipal University. Since 2016 he has been working at a Pharmaceutical & Healthcare company in Bangalore and is a practicing Muslim. 

In many Islamic countries like Afghanistan, Brunei, Saudi Arabia and UAE homosexual activity is considered criminal and can result in a death penalty. The Supreme Court of India decriminalized homosexuality in 2018 but many Islamic religious institutions and leaders have continued to voice strong opposition to this decision. I was eager to hear about the real world experiences of an openly gay man practicing a religion that even today has a hostile stance against the LGBTQ+ community. 

Q.1) How religious are you ?

“That’s a very important question. Usually there is this really typical stereotype that Indian’s have. If somebody is going to be religious then they have to be conservative. I am not someone of that sort. I have a balance in my life. I can go to a party, dance to death, smoke, drink and come back home; if I have something religious to do the next day I will do that as well. I like to keep a balance. I can’t be so religious that my entire life becomes only about doing Namaz[1] and fasting and not doing anything else.

1 – Daily obligatory standardized prayers that are a physical, mental and spiritual act of worship

When I was really young a Maulvi told me, ‘When Allah has sent you to this planet, he wants you to do everything.’ In urdu we say that you have to balance deen (way of life) and dunya (temporal world), you have to balance your religion as well as the worldly things that you have to do to survive. So, I like to keep a balance of both. I go to the mosque, I do my Namaz on time, I fast, but when I want to drink, I drink also. I’ll go and have a blast at a pub also, so there’s nothing that limits me.”

“It is not written anywhere that I’m not allowed to have fun”

I followed up to get a better understanding of how involved Rahman is with the practice of his religion. He informs me that because of work it is not possible for him to offer Namaz 5 times a day. He does manage to do so 3 to 4 times a day. He explains that offering Namaz gives him a sense of connection to Allah, which helps him feel less alone when he is away from family. He likens giving prayer to yoga and says it fills him with positivity. 

Q.2) What is your relationship with the Muslim community like ?

“I’m a very social person, I love to interact with people. I love to learn about them. The same applies here as well. I have a very good equation with whoever I have met in Bangalore. I am also a part of two Muslim queer communities here, where we specifically look for queer Muslip LGBTQ people, that are burdened under this Islamic sterotype. We help them come out to their parents. I have a very good equation with the Muslim community and haven’t faced any sort of discrimination. Nobody from the community has done anything wrong to me ever.

Q.3) In your understanding what does the Quran say about homosexquality ?

“I have always kept one thing in my head, when I was born I didn’t decide my sexuality, I was too young for it. I didn’t even know if I was a girl or a boy, when I was a day old. So, I was born this way. An entire family has a gene pool, when a new kid is born the genes come from that pool. The pool is common and from there you borrow your characteristics. So definitely the gay gene was there in the pool and some people get it and some people don’t. I’m one of the people who got it. So definitely I was born this way and so Allah can never call it haram[2]. There is no meticulously written document that says that acts of homosexuality are haram. There have been Ayats[3] in the Quran that people have interpreted based on their own agenda. It is never written straightforwardly that homosexuality is haram. 

“It’s only haram or halal when you have the right to choose”

For example, if you are going to eat chicken, you can choose to eat a haram chicken or a halal chicken. There, you can make a mistake but when you have no control over something how can you say its haram. If you were born this way then Allah wanted you to be this way. That’s what I believe and that’s what I’ve been telling whoever asks me this question.

2- any act that is forbidden

3- word that refers to verses in the Quran

Playing devil’s advocate, I ask Rahman a follow up question. 

Q.4) Though you can’t control being born a homosexual, you can control your decision to act on those feelings. What would you say to that mindset ?

“In my personal opinion, you might be able to suppress or control your urges but do you want to? I’ll give a very small example, while we are fasting (for Ramzan) you can’t eat during the day but Islam also says that you can’t even imagine eating food because that also spoils your fast. If you imagine eating food, biologically the digestive enzymes in your mouth will start secreting because that’s how hormones work. So even if you aren’t eating but are imagining it, the entire digestive process is taking place in your body. Similarly even if you can suppress the will in your body but you are imagining having sex with a man, then how is it different?  And nobody can control their thoughts completely, if we could control our thinking we could have controlled anxiety, depression, everything. So that’s what I feel, if you cannot even control thinking about it, why do you want to control it physically? It’s just the next level of something, thinking about sex and then doing sex. Why should I control myself, when the entire race has the right to do what they want to do? It’s a very personal opinion, but if you think like this I think it’s totally valid. If you feel like doing something then you should just do it.

At the start of our conversation Rahman shared his coming out story. In 2016 he called his mom and very casually told her that he was gay. She did not ask him too many questions and was ‘very cool’ about the situation. His mom even shared the news with Rahman’s father who then gave him a call. There was no drama or intrusive questions, no discussions about conversion therapy. Rahman credits this positive reaction from his parents to their education and exposure. His mother is a lecturer and father a professor. He believes that in their profession they interact with so many students and must have come across homosexuals before. So, his coming out was easier for them to deal with. I asked Rahman if he ever felt the need to “come out” to the Muslim community?

“I never told anybody, it was a very slow process for me. I took all the time I needed because I wanted to be really confident when I said this allowed. But I have never gone ahead and come out to a specific community, that I am this person. I don’t feel the need. For me the parameters of the Muslim community have always been being together, following the scriptures, do whatever your religion asks you, but my personal life is my personal life. You share things that are common; you do Namaz together, you do iftar[4] together, you fast together but there has to be some aspects of my personality that are very sacred to me. These should only be known to the people who care for me genuinely and who are related to me in some way. My sexuality has always been a very private affair for me. I want only people I care about and people I feel would understand to know about it.  This is not a public announcement, how does it affect them?”

4 – the meal eaten after sunset during Ramzan

Q.5) Do you feel any sort of fear or apprehension about being persecuted or not accepted by your religious community ?

“Actually, that fear was never there because I know they will never accept. See,

You’re afraid of something when you have expectations

For example, if you’re waiting for your results and you expect certain marks then you’ll be scared that will I get 90% or not. Here, I don’t feel that because I know that they are never going to accept and so I am not fearful about it. There are very few people in the Muslim community that will understand that your sexuality doesn’t have anything to do with what you contribute to the society. My parents are the only people in the Muslim community that I told, becasue they had the right to know, becasue they are my parents. I knew they would understand.

I am not scared of any consequences. Our country is a democratic country, 377 has been decriminalized, so nobody can do anything to me legally. The rest of the things you can control, theft, robbery, murder are things you can’t control. But this I can, nobody can touch me legally and I have the backing of my family. Even if the Muslim community stands against me, I do have people to take care and support me. That’s why that fear has never been there, because I already know nobody is going to accept and so I don’t tell anybody and I don’t acknowledge such questions. If someone asks me, ‘Why aren’t you getting married you’re already 26?’ I simply say I don’t feel like getting married. People can have their own assumption but they will not get a direct answer from me because I don’t believe they have the respect for it and so they have no right to know.”

Q.6) Have you met anyone from the the muslim community who is also on the spectrum and what do you know what their experience like ? 

I have never met any other Muslim from the LGBTQ community who has a happy story to tell 

like me. I have only heard of torture, trying to change their mind, taking them to maulvi’s for conversion therapy. The same old tricks, telling them that it is haram, you will not go to jannat[5]. I have a friend in Bangalore who has a terrible life. He has been taken to so many therapists and has so many anxiety attacks. The only thing the family cares about is his conversion. They are not thinking about the damage that can be caused to his mind. When he is 40 or 45, all he will remember is the torture he went through in his 20s and 30s. He won’t have any good memories from those years. They are basically eroding 20 years of this life. Whatever they are hoping to correct, they will not be there to see the repercussions of it. Parent’s do not realize that after their life is done and they are gone their children will still suffer here.”

5 – paradise

Q.7) In this type of situation what keeps people from walking away? They could find a modicum of peace away from their families ?

“I’ll first tell you my point of view. If I was in such a situation, I would have walked off. I don’t know how I would have managed but I would have left. I think why most people don’t do that is, ‘fear’. The fear that I was saying I don’t have, most other Muslim LGBT+ people have that fear. The way I was brought up, I was taught that at some point I have to leave and go out into the world to explore. So I learn that family bonds are close knitted but they are also flexible and agile. I always knew that someday I would leave to explore. For most people in the Muslim community the education levels are so low that the culture gets very deep rooted. You can’t think of anything else but your religion. So it becomes very difficult for them. They are mentally not ready for them to be away from the family. Sometimes families are also very protective. Even if a person leaves they will find a way to bring them back. I mean you’ve heard of honour killings. They may use emotional blackmail, I’ll do this or that if you don’t come back and a lot of people fall prey to it. So I believe you have to be very strong if you take the decision to leave. I believe the parents also are not going to do anything, they might cut off all ties or abandon their child. But you can only take such a step if you are ready for it. Most people are not ready to take this step. In such situations you need support, either form the LGBT community or friends. If you get that support maybe more people will take the step to be independent.“

Q.8) Do you think there is an infrastructure in place for people to get the support they need ?

“The infrastructure is there and it’s growing but access is something we need to work on. Sometimes even when the access is available people are scared of approaching an organization or a support group. They are worried that their identity will be revealed or someone will recognize them and out them to their families. That’s the biggest challenge. The help is available but it’s up to individuals to take that step and figure out their own approach.

Q.9) What do you think the situation will be like in the future ?

“I think things are getting better in terms of acceptance but it’s getting worse in terms of toxicity. The mindset of the LGBTQIA community is getting worse. For example, first our struggle was just to come out to people and tell them what we are. Now there are a thousand checkboxes that you have to check. First you have to come out and let people accept you. Then you have to come out as a stylish person, then you have to come out as someone who speaks fluent english and is eloquent. This keeps increasing every year.”

Q.10) Do you think this pressure  and expectations originate from outside the community or from within ?

“Within the community for sure. Because we have become so fabricated that reality has taken a back seat.  I used to read poetry at this local LGBT event, but I started to realize that apart from the first row, nobody cares. They only care about what you are wearing, who you are going with. So why should I perform here? I’d rather just perform at an event that is not labeled for any community. The acceptance I think is going to get better but the toxicity within the community will get worse and I’m really scared what’s going to be the final outcome of this.”

Final Thoughts

Rahman has a very pragmatic approach to his religion. He recognizes the limits of the Muslim community and has made peace with their attitude towards LGBT people. He chooses to invest his energy working with organizations that help people from his religion that are struggling with their sexuality  and has found a way to distinguish between his relationship with his faith and his relationship with other practitioners. 

There is a common belief that as a LGBTQ+ person you are required to ‘come out’. That if you choose to keep your sexuality private in certain groups that you are somehow not fulfilled or ashamed. I’m curious to hear more opinions on the matter, does a person’s choice to keep their sexuality private, either at work or in their religious community, mean that they are somehow living an inauthentic life? 

Personal Take

I read somewhere, “Religion is not a buffet, you don’t get to pick and choose what to believe in.” I remember thinking at the time it was a funny line but over the years I’ve come to realize how problematic that sentence is. 

It’s important for us to always question and reason our beliefs and ideologies. Particularly when it comes to religious text and dogma. As times change and the world evolves, it’s necessary to question what you are being told and to ‘pick and choose’ what is meant to be literal and what is open to interpretation. I hope in time, like Rahman, more people will come to have a more balanced view of their religion.

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