Muslim Americans and the LGBTQ Movement, Or What We Can Do to Counter Islamophobia

Have news channels broadcast the activism of Muslim Americans on behalf of LGBT rights? 42% of Muslims in this country support same-sex marriage rights, as do both Muslim elected officials in the Congress, one of whom is vice-chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus. The Islamic Society of North America has actively supported gender and LGBT equality legislation. When my state of Massachusetts became the first to legalize same-sex marriage, most of the Muslims in my community (some of whom are openly gay, and many of whom actively supported the movement) cheered. Much more progress is needed on LGBT rights in the Muslim American community, but these signs have been encouraging.

While Muslims are far more likely to support equal rights for the LGBT community than conservative Republicans or evangelical Christians, the majority of Americans, misled by talking heads and politicians, believe that “Muslim values” are so backwards as to be incompatible with “American values.” This misperception stems to no small extent from the fact that the Muslim identity of many Americans remains largely invisible to their friends or colleagues: whether we are talking about the 5-10% of the doctors in the United States that are of Muslim origin or the hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Texas, Muslim Americans rarely “out” themselves professionally or socially. Muslim Americans are thus taken for Latinos or Hindus or “immigrants from somewhere else.”

The experience of “invisible” Muslims in American society cannot be compared to the suffering of tens of millions of LGBT Americans in the “closet” imposed by a bigoted society. As violence against more visible Muslims (typically women wearing a headscarf) or the bullying of Muslim children increases across the country, however, there may be some instructive comparisons of kind, if not degree.

While professional organizations like the American Medical Association (given the significant number of Muslim doctors) and even Hollywood could do much to improve public perceptions of Muslim Americans, fundamentally it rests on members of the Muslim community to stop being afraid and let our friends and colleagues know who we are and what we stand for.

In short, it’s time to become ambassadors. Muslims in the U.S. and Europe need to find their own ways of going public. In doing so, it’s important to message that none of us is an exceptional, “enlightened” Muslim; rather that we are typical of many of the Muslims we know.

To non-Muslims, if you’re convinced, please help spread the word. If not, please suspend judgment and ask questions.

God forbid, if some mentally sick person or terrorist slips through and does something crazy, we may face increasing hate, unprecedented political demagoguery, and the further erosion of the liberties that make our country great.

The stakes are high for all of us.

Hassanaly Ladha is Associate Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Connecticut.