Activist Faisal Alam advocates for LGBT+ Muslim communities

(Faisal Alam discussed his experiences growing up as a queer-identifying Muslim. By Oscairy Tavarez)

Muslim queer-identifying activist, speaker and writer Faisal Alam visited Framingham State on Jan. 30 to deliver a talk titled “Being Queer and Muslim in the Trump Era.”

Sponsored by Arts and Ideas, the event drew approximately 50 people to the Ecumenical Center, kicking off the Duty and Disobedience series for the spring semester.

Alam commented on the scene while looking at the stained glass windows. “So, we’re in a church/chapel. It is kind of ironic … for a queer Muslim to be here talking about Trump,” he said with a smile.

Xavier Guadalupe-Diaz, professor of sociology, invited Alam to the University. Guadalupe-Diaz learned of Alam through an event his husband attended at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“While many of the problems we’ll hear about today have been with us for many decades, centuries, many millennia even, they have been undoubtedly exacerbated by the current social and political climate in this country,” said Guadalupe-Diaz.

He added, “Migrants, refugees, the planet, the power of labor in the working class, blacks, Latinx people, women, trans people, queers and Muslims today are living under threat by a corrupt administration driven by extremist nationalism and white supremacy.”

Alam echoed Guadalupe-Diaz’s statement regarding the social problems in the United States today.

“We are living in unprecedented times, yet not unprecedented times at the same time,” Alam said. “The level of xenophobia, misogyny and hatred that we’re seeing today coming out of this administration and by Americans all over this country is not new.”

Alam gave an overview of the acts of Muslim-targeted discrimination during the course of Trump’s administration – most notably the “Muslim Ban,” perpetuating anti-Muslim and anti-refugee narratives. Alam mentioned the increase since Trump’s election in hate crimes targeting both Muslims and the LGBT+ community, by which he and other LGBT+ Muslims are doubly affected.

Alam referenced statistics from Pew Research Center on the diversity of the Muslim population in the United States – nearly six in 10 Muslim adults are first-generation Americans whose backgrounds are comprised of 77 different countries around the world.

He also mentioned the long history of Islam’s presence in the country – beginning with enslaved Africans from Islamic kingdoms and the significant number of black American Muslims.

Alam, who is of Pakistani descent, talked about the common misconception of most Muslims being from the Middle East, which often leads to the conflation of the Muslim and Arab identities. He said because of the great diversity of cultures within the Muslim world and the American Muslim population, many different opinions will exist in the religious debate on LGBT+ issues.

According to Alam, the issue of homosexuality has often been overlooked in Islamic contexts, but LGBT+ Muslims are “coming to the forefront and are asking for their place within the faith – not only here in the United States, but also abroad within predominantly Muslim countries.”

He addressed the changing nature of the American Muslim population as the number of first- and second-generation Muslims in the United States increases and its members’ views of Islam start to shift toward what Alam considers progressive values.

“There is a growing community of Muslims in the United States as well as western Europe that is reclaiming Islam and saying that not only should LGBT Muslims be welcomed within our communities, but that we should also have a conversation around gender, sex and the place for a woman in religious spaces,” Alam said.

Alam was the founder of Al-Fatiha, an organization that advocated for LGBT+ Muslims in America. At the time of its founding, Al-Fatiha was one of the only groups of its kind – its namesake the first chapter of the Quran, symbolizing the organization as a first of sorts.

He said the internet played an instrumental role in networking and gathering information. From Muslim student organizations’ emailing lists, Alam was able to gather a substantial number of members, which surprised him.

Although Al-Fatiha disbanded in 2008, from its pillars later came an organization known as MASGD – a play on the Arabic word “masjid,” or mosque – which stands for Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity. Alam has been a MASGD board member since 2012.

But before Alam became involved in his activism, he was closeted and confused, he said.

Alam spent his early childhood in Pakistan before immigrating to the United States at age 10. He grew up in rural Connecticut, where he was one of five students of color at his high school, and the only Muslim.

He said he knew from a very young age there was something different about him – compounded with the feeling of being “the outsider” as an immigrant and minority.

“I became very religious in high school,” Alam said, suggesting that he did so to compensate for his repressed sexuality out of perceived obligations from his upbringing. “It was like, that’s it, there are no gay Muslims. The end.”

Alam moved to Boston to attend Northeastern University. During his time there, he joined its Islamic society, but also discovered Boston’s gay scene.

“I started living a dual life where I was ‘brother Faisal’ who was the secretary at Northeastern University’s Muslim student association, and then at night I became ‘club kid Faisal,’” Alam said. He said the constructed “schism” of his double life took a harmful toll on his mind and body.

After a breakdown, Alam decided he could no longer live that way and decided to seek out community by creating Al-Fatiha.

Though he was ultimately outed to his family through interviews about the organization, he did not waver in his identity even through their displeasure – nor did he renounce his faith.

“It didn’t make sense to me that God would instill feelings inside of me that would lead me to hell,” Alam said, reconciling his religion and sexual orientation. Alam now describes himself as more spiritual than religious, but maintains his Muslim upbringing is integral to his identity socially and politically.

Alam spoke of other organizations like MASGD that support progressive interpretations of Islam that allows for the acceptance of LGBT+ Muslims, such as Muslims for Progressive Values, as well as mosques that do not practice gender segregation.

Senior Dana Lobad said, “ I am Muslim. … People have this one-dimensional view of who is a Muslim, so I think it’s super important that they got to hear from a gay Muslim that told them there are other gay Muslims and organizations that advocate for LGBT Muslims.”

Alam said, “I really did think that I was the only gay Muslim in the world. And now, 22 years later, there are still people who think they are the only gay Muslim in the world.”

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