Weaving Our History Back Together
by Mahdia Lynn
The LGBTQ Muslim Community isn’t an infant. It’s a phoenix.
People will say that LGBTQ Muslim organizing is a culture in its infancy. In fact most people had no idea the phrases “LGBT” and “Muslim” could be paired with one another until last summer when a troubled and hateful man used half-baked ideas about religion to justify taking the lives of 49 souls. It was the seventh night of Ramadan: Latinx night at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando.
That week, the name of our community was on the lips of every reporter. Breaking news for the day: LGBTQ Muslims Exist. When the cameras turned our way we told you our stories. Many of us came out of the closet that week (I did). We met with mainstream Muslim leaders and talked about reconciliation. We talk about making mosques safer for people like us. They will have forgotten about us by the end of the week. In gay neighborhoods we went to vigils; stood beside our siblings in the LGBTQ community and strangers thanked us for being such great allies. Publicly grieving, trying to process this perversion of our faith, this poison turned inwards and then violently out; we were grieving, reaching out for our community to support us, and community responded as if we were poison ourselves.
For many, the LGBTQ Muslim Movement was born that day. A conversation was started, as if it had never been brought up before. Queer and trans Muslims were on the map, and began advocating for ourselves in ways entirely invisible before last summer. In Chicago, we opened a mosque, run by queer women and trans people, a one-of-a-kind community. We named it Masjid al-Rabia—A women centered, LGBTQ affirming community center; radically equal with advocacy/education initiatives. By the time our holy month came back around we found ourselves with a prolific prison ministry and programs for LGBTQ Muslim youth. Our first Ramadan as a mosque has been full of new and earnest work in ways never seen before. Everything beautiful and new. With no elders to look towards, we find ourselves in uncharted territory.
Only, this isn’t new.
None of this is new.
The LGBTQ Muslim Community isn’t an infant. It’s a phoenix.
We have no history to look towards because our history keeps being erased. Our history is one of dormancy, followed by a flourishing of advocacy and support, followed by a snuffing out through violence and threats. We desperately write ourselves into the margins, we’re here we’re here, before some poisoned power erases us again.
The direct ancestor for Masjid al-Rabia was Al Fatah Pesantren, an Islamic school and mosque for gender and sexual minorities in Yogyakarta. I remember reading articles about the school and imagining, yes, it’s possible. When we are drowning and no one else will support us we can build ourselves a lifeboat and thrive. Shinta Ratri, the madrassa’s director, is dedicated and compassionate advocate for her community. When the world turned a blind eye, she built something new and beautiful. For once, I had someone to look up to who was like me, a model of possibility that resonated so strongly I felt radiant with purpose.
By the end of 2016, I became one of that tiny handful of transgender women in the world to publicly run a mosque. Before I would be leading prayer with our community for the first time in Chicago, the transgender madrassa and community hub Al Fatah Pesantren was shut down under threat of violence by the Islamic Jihad Front.
Before Masjid al-Rabia could even open its doors for the first time, the community that inspired us to action had been shuttered in ignorance and spite.
This isn’t new. It is history in a cycle of erasure and reconstruction. Our history, forgotten and reinvented. A phoenix, in an endless cycle of death and rebirth.
What I know is a piecemeal oral history supplemented by meticulous online research.
I know that before MASGD came to be, the Al-Fatiha Foundation was once the only LGBTQ Muslim organization in the world (with chapters in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.). It's last event was held in 2005 and it closed permanently in 2008.
I know that before then there was a group called the Lavender Crescent in 1970’s San Francisco. For all my research all I can find is the name—the names and actions of our elders has been lost to time.
I know that even today we act as if amnesiac, forgetting that less than a generation ago our community was nearly wiped out by state negligence during the AIDS crisis.
This is what else I know:
I know that as Al Fatah Pesantren closed its doors there is a group in Pakistan building a trans-led mosque from the ground up.
I know that there are at least eight progressive, pluralist and inclusive mosques currently operating in North America.
I know that as soon as one branch of our movement is cruelly snatched away, a new branch grows in its place.
I know we cannot let ourselves forget our history if we want to build a sustainable movement.
Let us tie the disjointed strings of our history back together: time and time again we rise up to support our community. Leadership begets leadership, and our elders are here to teach us. Let us see ourselves for what we are: a flourishing community of people who thrive despite so much striving to tear us down. Let us see we are no longer building anew in a vacuum. The act of disconnecting us from our own history is violence enacted by poisoned authority. We have millenia of history to uncover. We have to fight to learn about—and learn from—our elders.
It is our job to tie the strings. To weave our history back together.
This new world we find ourselves in could be our last rebirth. With support—from the greater LGBTQ community and from the Ummah—we can grow into something beautiful, and dynamic, and unforgettable. No longer a sea of shooting stars, here and then disappeared and then here again. No longer scrambling to piece together our history. No longer alone. A phoenix from the ashes, breaking the cycle of death and rebirth and just living, soaring, iridescent and pure.
Mahdia Lynn is a speaker, educator and writer. She is the director of Masjid al-Rabia--a women centered, LGBTQ affirming mosque and advocacy organization in Chicago--and is a prolific advocate for disability power and LGBTQIA+ Muslim inclusion.