This past Memorial Day weekend, I attended a retreat for LGBT Muslims in Philadelphia just as I had done in 2011. When I had first gone last year, the idea of such an event happening was both bizarre and exciting for me, and I was mostly in a daze the entire weekend.
The retreat this year still left me in somewhat of a daze, but for different reasons. I have now been mostly out of the closet for nearly 2 years, and I feel that I’m finally starting to understand my place in the larger LGBT community as well as just how the community works in general. I’ve learned that there are many different groups that have branched off from the LGBT acronym, and new terms and identities are constantly evolving to represent the complexities of who we are as human beings, especially ones who have to fight so hard to be heard apart from the cisgender, heterosexual mainstream.
With those thoughts in mind, I embarked on my second retreat with the LGBT Muslims I had met last year and formed close bonds with. From the moment I stepped into the main event building, it felt like I was returning home. We had all done a great job of keeping in touch through Facebook since last year, and the anxiety I had last year over approaching everyone was nowhere near as significant. Although I was happy to see everyone, I couldn’t help but ask myself: Now that I’ve joined this community and I know it’s possible to be both LGBT and Muslim, what could the retreat possibly offer me this year?
Yes, I know that question sounds ridiculous and I should be grateful that I have such an unbelievable opportunity to be in such a supportive space. With that said though, I kept wondering what new things I would learn this year and take back with me when I returned to California. I knew there were still many things for me to learn about the people I had met last year as well as the new attendees this year, so I wanted to make sure to connect to the people I hadn’t gotten to know as well and see what new things I could learn about this community.
What stood out to me halfway through the weekend is how fortunate not only I was, but each of us were to be in such a space. I always saw the organizers of this retreat as brave, heroic individuals who paved the way for people like me who were scared to explore their sexuality when they come from such condemning backgrounds. However, someone challenged this idea of mine when they told one of the organizers over dinner “Wow, it seems like Muslims are the most successful group within the LGBT crowd after hearing all the great professions and education everyone here has!”
The organizer and I both knew this wasn’t true, and that’s when I realized that even the people who I thought were courageous in making this retreat possible were just as fortunate as I was. Although they had to pave the way for me, they still had resources and opportunities to make such an event happen, whereas that is still definitely not the case for most LGBT Muslims. I suddenly remembered talking to people I knew from the Middle East who were gay and lived in constant fear and paranoia about their sexual orientation being discovered. I also have come to know people from the Middle East who have had to flee to the United States and are entering heterosexual marriages for citizenship. It is this latter group that I thought of more so. I had heard many stories of people like this who were struggling to support themselves, bouncing from one housing situation to another, entering sex work and other dangerous professions because nothing else was available. I suddenly became saddened to think that although there was a safe space for the 70 people at the retreat, there are still many more people like us out there who were not so fortunate.
Instead of dwelling on the negative for the entirety of the weekend though, I was inspired by the outreach people I met had been doing. Many of the people at the retreat were in activism to create resources and opportunities to give LGBT Muslims housing, political asylum, sexual health resources such as HIV testing and healthcare, and community centers and meetings to create safe spaces regularly for people who identify as LGBT Muslims.
Upon leaving the retreat this year, the major revelation that came to me was that I was incredibly privileged to have the resources that I do, and that now is the time to partake in the amazing work my peers at the retreat had started to extend such resources and opportunities to those less fortunate.
The author is a queer-identified college student with a Yemeni Muslim background.