by Lamya H
I become visibly Muslim at 14 when I start wearing hijab.
It is not an overnight decision: I’ve been wanting to do it for years. I’m living in a Muslim-majority country where hijab isn’t that big of a deal. A few of my friends do it and my mother, having fought the big battles with my Islamophobic extended family, has already paved the way. It is not unexpected that I will follow suit.
Except, my awkward teenage self can’t figure out how to broach the boundary between the covering of hair and the not covering of hair. Do I have to make some sort of announcement? Do I just walk outside with it on one day?
But, once I bring it up with my mother and politely decline when my father says I should wait till I’m older, once a couple of my friends have see me in it and don’t bat an eyelid, it becomes deceptively easy to put on every morning. It becomes a part of my everyday clothing, something else I wear in variations of my favorite color blue.
Queerness takes more of a meandering route.
I can’t remember ever not being attracted to girls. Some of it is more obvious in retrospect: the 5th grader I had a crush on when I was in 4th grade, the giant poster of Steffi Graf I had up in my closet, the intense friendship with my joined-at-the-hip best friend.
It takes me a while to recognize this as desire. I have no models for these kinds of feelings and it is confusing. I figure I’ll outgrow it.
I don’t outgrow it.
I overcompensate instead. Make myself crush on boys and (painfully, awkwardly) flirt with them. When that doesn’t work, I tell someone.
It’s the act of putting it into words that makes it real. Except it takes me a while to find the language to talk about it, and so I end up resenting words.
Why must “homosexual” have “sex” in it? Must everything revolve around sex?
“Lesbian” is the worst offender. It is clunky and grammatically difficult to use. Am I “a lesbian?” Am I “lesbian?” What about when I lived Not Here where the conceptions of sexuality revolve around acts and not political identities, was I “a lesbian”/“lesbian” there? Why are all the “lesbians” that I know white? And why, dear god, are all the “lesbians” on google image search busty and blonde and naked?
Then I stumble upon the word queer.
It is deliciously ambiguous, flexible, angry and brown. It allows me to talk about myself, navigate my desires, find community. It fits.
But there’s a normal way even to be queer.
This becomes painfully obvious the minute I venture gingerly, reluctantly out into the scene. The scene being ladies nights at gay bars, house parties, the occasional slam poetry show – all alcohol-centered, mostly white events. I am markedly different in these spaces and unable to hide the difference that I wear on my body: my brownness, my hijab, my not drinking are lightbeams signaling my otherness. I find myself embarrassed at how much this makes me crave invisibility, makes me want to be normal in my participation in counter-culture.
The quizzical stares and confusion I can handle, but in the end, the outright exoticization breaks me. At a mostly white lesbian bar one night, a (white) woman standing behind me in line strokes my hijab and when I turn around, leers and says, “Nice.” I am too appalled to do anything but shoot death glares and walk away. I’m done.
But it turns out that less white spaces are not intrinsically better.
At a brown, LGBTQ organization’s writing workshop that is worryingly full of corporate, upper middle class gays, we break into small groups to discuss coming out and family. It starts out fairly innocuously – a woman in my group goes first and talks about how she waited until she was financially independent to come out to her parents, how they were loving and supportive and generally fine with it. I’m up and I challenge the idea that I need to be out to family.
“Where do your parents live?” she asks.
Her face, when I answer with Not Here.
“You should definitely not come out to them, then. I read an exposé of that country by this European woman who married Osama Bin Laden’s brother. Have you heard of it?”
I cannot help but goad her. “No, but does it have a woman with a hijab on the cover and a bad veil pun in the title?”
“Yes! That’s the one!”
She continues on about how her parents were fine with her being gay because they’re Hindu, that Hinduism is so great about gender and sexuality. Islam and other Abrahamic religions, on the other hand, are terrible. I should definitely not come out to my parents because you never know what they’ll do to me.
The Islamophobic imagined narratives of Scary Muslims are inescapable. Our time is up before I can counter that I’m less afraid of what my family will do to me than I am of dealing with the guilt of disappointing them, of making them cry.
In the end, Queer Muslim spaces save me.
It takes me a while to want to find Queer Muslim spaces. It’s the Muslim part that scares me the most: Muslim spaces in general are small and tight-knit, gossip travels fast. My hijab helps me pass as straight, and I’m afraid of losing access to the spaces that are important to my spirituality, my practice of religion.
But I hear about a Queer Muslim mixer. No allies, it says very specifically, which adds a semblance of safety. I muster up every ounce of courage I possess and make myself go.
It is lovely – more people than I expected, warm and friendly. Everyone seems to know everyone else and it is obvious that people care deeply about each other. I am enthralled. I want to know everyone and care deeply for them. I dive headlong into this mission.
I go on a Queer Muslim retreat. Join a collective, a reading group. Go to Dyke March. Skip the Pride march and nerd out with my Queer Muslim friends at a museum instead. We break fast together in Ramadan. It’s overwhelming, exciting – we are all different in our relationships to queerness and to religion, but for once, I feel like I don’t have to be defensive about the identities I wear or justify them. There is a heady sense of radical possibility.
But it turns out that, even in Queer Muslim spaces, the confusion at the intersections I exist on is inescapable.
Towards the end of an evening, a small group of us linger, unwilling to disperse and chance breaking the fragile strands of friendship we have begun to spin. We talk about words: gay and lesbian and queer, and why we identify with them. I vehemently defend queer from charges of vagueness and elitism.
“Wait…” someone says, someone I have spent a good portion of the evening talking to, someone I’ve met in Queer Muslim contexts a few times now. “Wait, you’re queer?”
“Oh, I just. I wasn’t sure. I thought you were a really really good ally.”
Even in these spaces, my hijab is my beard. This erasure cuts me more than anything I have known.
This is not a tragic Queer Muslim Hijabi narrative.
This is not a story about renouncing my identities, about having to suppress facets of myself.
This is not a neo-liberal wet dream, either. Not a story about finding peace with these seemingly disparate parts of me, not a story about coming west and coming out, not a story about being saved.
What it is, instead, is a story of how it did not occur to me that my Muslim-ness and my queerness were supposed to be at war with each other until I started performing these identities in semi-public ways. The exoticization, the Islamophobia, the disbelief at my existence – these are all manifestations of imagined narratives that are projected onto me and do not reflect an innate discordance of being. My queerness and my Muslim-ness do not need to be reconciled mostly because they cannot be disentangled from each other. I can’t remember ever not having been both.
This isn’t to say that I haven’t struggled with my queerness and with Islam, because I have and continue to do so. But when the imagined narratives are stripped away, my struggles are, if not universal, at least familiar: how to avoid disappointing my parents, how to resist assimilation, how to live a fulfilling life. I suspect these will never be resolved, but in the end, this is a story about trying.
In the end, this is a story about living.
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Lamya H is bad at bios. She does social media intermittently at hijabandboijeans.tumblr.com