A global movement is challenging stereotypes and redefining what it means to live at the complex intersection of Islam, sexuality, and gender. Despite the struggles of isolation and Islamophobia, LGBTQ+ Muslims are determined to fight for their right to worship and love freely without sacrificing one identity at the expense of the other.
Same-sex relationships between adults technically have been legal in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion to oust Saddam Hussein. In practice, however, LGBTQ+ Iraqis are subject to discrimination, family and community shunning, and murder by militia members.
In 2015, Amir Ashour fled his home in Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan after receiving death threats for his activism in the country. After obtaining asylum in Sweden, he launched IraQueer, the first civil rights organization for the LGBTQ+ community in Iraq.
“The response from the government has been violent. That’s why I can never go back to Iraq,” Ashour says. “None of the work that we do is 100 percent safe. Not for our colleagues, contributors, or organizations working with us. But it’s a cause that is affecting our lives.”
IraQueer is an anonymous network of 600 people who do advocacy work and write essays, security guides, sexual health and education guides, and a review of LGBTQ+ human rights violations in Iraq. They publish in Arabic, Kurdish, and English.
“The fear of spending the rest of our lives hiding our identity and not living our truth was so much bigger than facing the consequences of starting IraQueer,” Ashour says.
Mahdia Lynn discovered her Muslim community condemned LGBTQ+ people in 2015, during Caitlyn Jenner’s highly publicized gender transition, and she knew that the acceptance she felt in the community was conditional.
As a bisexual, transgender Shi’a Muslim, Lynn needed a place to practice her faith without discrimination, and she knew she wasn’t the only one.
In 2016, Lynn established Masjid al-Rabia to provide that safe space. Masjid al-Rabia is a women-centered, LGBTQ+ inclusive, sect-diverse mosque in Chicago, and one of the few mosques where women lead prayer.
“The idea that there are people who can’t have access to that just by merit of being who they are, and by merit of being within a society that is unaccepting, is a cruelty that I couldn’t stand,” Lynn says. “It’s a moral prerogative to do whatever we can to make our spaces accessible for everyone.”
In two years, Masjid al-Rabia has expanded into education advocacy, digital programming, outreach for LGBTQ+ youth during Ramadan, and a program reaching out to incarcerated queer and trans Muslims in 39 states.
“Our mission is spiritual support for marginalized Muslims, and we strive to foster a community that doesn’t leave anybody behind,” Lynn says.
Taylor Amari Little
Despite being warned by close friends to “be careful” with her LGBTQ+ Muslim activism, Taylor Amari Little is using social media to her advantage — creating an international community of support for those living at the intersection of both identities.
Queer Ummah: A Visibility Project highlights the experiences of LGBTQ+ Muslims — creating a digital space to tell personal and traumatic stories of marginalization. Many of the photos featured in the project are abstract, hiding the storyteller’s face to protect the identities of those who aren’t safe enough to be public about their sexuality. The project was featured in 2017 as part of the “Perpetual Revolution” exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York.
“We wanted to hold space for folks who have endured trauma, whether personal or collective,” says Little, who lives in the Detroit area. “My goal is to make sure that people are able to safely explore their relationship with themselves and with everything outside of themselves.”
Little also serves as an organizer for the Islamic Healing Space of A2 & Ypsi — a safe space that moves among various community halls in Detroit for LGBTQ+ Muslims to gather and heal their trauma together.