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Essays on queerness, Islam, and Arab identity

April was Arab-American heritage month. Throughout the month, Options Magazine made an effort to find and read work about a variety of queer topics related to Muslim and Arab communities.

Highlighted and linked here are two stand-outs: a column published by digital LGBTQ+ outlet Them about trans Palestinian-American chef Marcelle G Afram, and the inaugural feature story for Acacia Mag, a deep and complex piece called "Navigating Culture Wars" which features the voices of queer Muslim Americans.

Options has provided cursory summaries of each piece, but both are excellent, enjoyable reads worth the intellectual luxury of reading in full.

Traditional Palestinian dish called "maqlouba."
Traditional Palestinian dish called "maqlouba."

This powerful feature written by Leo Kirts forThem is part of a recurring column called Tender about "all of the beautiful, delicious, and liberating ways that LGBTQ+ people work with food."

It is about 39-year-old trans Palestinian American chef Marcelle G Afram, who has worked in Washington, D.C. kitchens for nearly two decades and in 2021 launched Shababi, a pop-up catering business featuring Palestinian cuisine made with locally grown ingredients. Afram, who was kicked out of their house at 17 after coming out as queer and later reconciled with their family as an adult, spoke poignantly to Kirts both about being queer and about being Palestinian.

“My self-expression as Palestinian came about because I found myself as a trans person,” Afram told Kirts. “I was so far removed from my identity even as an Arab person, so this evolution has a lot to do with me unlearning the biases that were impressed on me as I am reclaiming my narrative.”

They came to the realization they were trans during the Covid lockdown period of early 2020, started testosterone treatment in August, and then received top surgery by November of the same year. They told Kirts the changes they felt in relation to their queerness and personal identity also caused reflection on being a "closeted Palestinian," saying:

“There's just no more time to waste. How much less pain would I have been in my life if I saw anybody like me, trans or Palestinian, who wasn’t villainized? The two just go hand in hand for me — transition became about reclamation and no more lies.”

Afram's pop-up reflects this politically liberated mindset, and their cooking and business practice are overtly political, with a focus not only on celebrating Palestinian cuisine  – something their family avoided doing as new Arab immigrants to the United States, and even more so after 9/11  – but also on advocating for Palestinian liberation from Israeli occupation.

After the catastrophic events of October 2023, Afram and several other Palestinian chefs launched an initiative called Hospitality for Humanity, authored a pledge for food and hospitality industry workers to publicly demand a ceasefire and to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement which was signed by thousands of people, and organized a month-long dinner series in Brooklyn called Tadhamon! (“solidarity” in Arabic) to support Palestinian chefs.

In the Palestinian liberation movement, writes Kirts, "Afram has found community with others who organize not in spite of being queer but because of it."

This point is especially significant in light of propaganda campaigns that aim to leverage allegations of homophobia to undermine solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. Since Israel’s bombardment of Gaza began in the wake of the October 7 attacks, Afram told Kirts they have seen frequent allegations of Arab and Muslim homophobia online "as Zionists and liberals ignore the experiences of queer and trans Palestinians living under occupation."

A Muslim man prays.
A Muslim man prays.

Mian's piece about the complex realities of life for queer Muslim Americans is the inaugural feature story for Acacia Mag, a brand new political and cultural magazine which intends to brings together writers, thinkers, and artists of and with the Muslim left "to converse about the path forward for our communities in the face of rising global fascism, climate catastrophe, and raging inequality."  

Much of Mian's reporting centers on an open letter published in May 2023 by a group of Muslim scholars and preachers which is titled, "Navigating Differences: Clarifying Sexual and Gender Ethics in Islam," and its effects on queer Muslims who face homophobia inside and outside of their homes, cultural spaces, and faith communities.

The open letter, signed by hundreds of scholars including well-known American and Canadian Muslim theologians, was written to denounce “LGBTQ practices, beliefs, and advocacy” from an Islamic point of view and defend the right to do so. Mian points out that while the clerics who authored the letter presented themselves as representing a diverse range of theological schools, of its 293 signatories only nine were women and only two represented Shia organizations.

Mian platforms a variety of queer Muslim voices in his piece, as well as some allies, offering readers valuable insights and perspectives from members of queer communities who are not always platformed or considered even in this country's more progressive and queer-positive cultural spaces. He spoke to a number of academics, scholars, activists, and queer Muslims about their reactions to the statement in the course of working on this magazine feature, and reported, "What I heard over and over again was disappointment, but also that it wasn’t surprising."

Many of the people Mian spoke to acknowledged the reality facing queer Americans regardless of their faith background or cultural origin: skyrocketing incidents of bigotry and violence. One queer Muslim man he spoke to, a physician who lives in California, said, “At a time when a lot of transgendered and queer youth are essentially being attacked across the country, at a time when their lives are at stake, [this open letter] is incredibly tone-deaf.” 

Another woman, a 29-year-old community organizer based in the Midwest who identifies as queer and Muslim, said she has noticed homophobic rhetoric and sentiment rise in her mosque over the past five years, and that she has seen the increased focus on anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric rub off on her own father even as he moves to the left on other political issues.

Mian goes on to expose in some detail the growing overlap between certain Muslim institutions and the Christian nationalist right wing, with mutual homophobia being one of the strongest points of overlap. He also points out that prior to 9/11 and the subsequent "War on Terror" and its political ramifications for Muslim Americans, many Muslims were reliable Republican voters due to their conservative social values.

He points to one recent instance where the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), traditionally a civil rights group, partnered with Moms for Liberty on a book banning campaign in a Maryland school district. In another instance, CAIR joined Catholic and Protestant groups in Michigan in opposing an amendment to add sexual orientation and gender identity and expression as protected categories under the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in employment, housing, and public services, among other areas, based on religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, and marital status.

Mian's full feature is well worth reading; it delves thoroughly into the complexities of identity politics, Islamophobia, homophobia, the politics behind theological interpretation and the production of ideology, anthropological and scriptural evidence of homosexuality throughout the history of Islam, the influences of colonialism and nationalism on modern iterations of Islamic law, and the fickle and shifting alliances of different minority groups as they gain and lose power in the American political system, where solidarity can be surprisingly hard to come by even when facing the same oppressor. Read the full feature here and look for more insightful work from Acacia Mag in the future.


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