The Transgender community within the Muslim Ummah may seem like a new development, but has been around for centuries. The call for more inclusive spaces for fellow Trans Muslims, however, has been steadily rising. Mahdia Lynn, an activist and leader to step up to this call — has been involved in establishing such a space for those who might be transitioning, closeted or in need of support.
Because the Trans community is already heavily marginalized, Lynn has a unique set of challenges ahead of her. We at MuslimGirl had the pleasure of talking to her about her goals in creating the Transgender Muslim Support Network and talking about the gifts and struggles that come with being Transgender and Muslim today.
MuslimGirl: What prompted you to create this space for the Transgender family in the Ummah?
This work is in my blood. I’ve been in the activist world working for safer spaces and fostering trans inclusion, especially in feminist and social justice circles, for the better part of a decade. It’s what I know, it’s what I’m good at — but most importantly, it’s what I’m most passionate about.
Activism also leads to easy burnout. Our communities are vulnerable. Addiction, suicide and violence are harsh realities at the intersection of societal neglect, discrimination and poverty, and I fell in to it.
My life fell apart, bottomed out and in all honesty it didn’t look like I would live to see 25. At the end of the day, Islam is what saved my life. The short version of the story is, “When I was at my worst, I asked Allah (SWT) to keep me alive. When she listened to me, I figured it was probably a good idea to listen too.” I took the shahada a little bit after my 25th birthday.
When I came to Islam, it sorta put me back in the closet. I was already seven years “post-transition” and living far away from where I grew up, so I decided it would be safest to keep my trans history quiet.
I studied Qur’an in the masjid, went to halaqas, started calling that boyfriend-I-was-living-with-after-six-years “my husband” to avoid judge-y glances from the aunties — everything I could to just fit in without taking up too much space. I learned a lot about Islam — it was safe, but it was stressful. Worrying that somebody knows, running the risk of being outed, and constantly checking myself to make sure I was “normal enough,” it’s exhausting.
When I went to the LGBTQ Muslim Retreat in 2014, it was as a queer woman because even there I was afraid to be out about my trans history. It was at the retreat that year that I made connections with other trans Muslims, began to better understand the diversity and dynamism of Islam, and started to open up a little bit. A lot has changed since then — most markedly my husband and I separated and I found myself basically on my own for the first time in my adult life. I moved across the country (again), settled in Chicago to find a really great family of queer and trans Muslims, and started finding the strength and inspiration to get back into activism.
Islam saved my life and gave me purpose. The least I could do was find a way to give back. Like I said, this work is in my blood. There’s no way I could stay away from it for long. So I started doing what I do best, and get back to doing the work of making spaces safer for transgender people. After kicking off in 2015, the Transgender Muslim Support Network is a very young organization but for me, it’s a continuation of the work I’ve been doing my whole life.
I learned a lot about Islam — it was safe, but it was stressful. Worrying that somebody knows, running the risk of being outed, and constantly checking myself to make sure I was “normal enough,” it’s exhausting.
What kinds of services are available through your organization?
The purpose of the Transgender Muslim Support Network is to make connections. That means largely, we’re acting as a referral service. People come to us looking for resources, information, support — they’re looking for community. People come to us, we listen to their story and based on where they are and what they need, we put them in contact with places that can help.
There’s actually a substantial number of groups serving our community (or are at least allied with us), but we’re largely disconnected. It’s as if every organization is acting in a vacuum, like every activist doing this work is the “only Trans Muslim in the world.” We’re doing the research to seek out the people who are making life safer for Muslims like us, and making the right connections.
That’s kind of where we’re at right now. Making connections. I’d like to work on trans advocacy in more conventional Muslim spaces, fostering understanding and inclusion in the masjid, but the fact of the matter is as an organization, we’re in its infancy and the TMSN will grow and shift and change however best we can serve our community.
What are the challenges in creating a space such as this? Do you receive any sort of backlash as a result?
I think the biggest challenges we’re facing right now are the same as every group out there trying to enact change — not enough time, and never enough money. On a grand total budget of $0.00 USD, we’re a volunteer-run operation. The majority of our volunteers are students working through college, giving what little free time they have.
I do most of the referral work from my desk at home in between two jobs and a handful of other volunteer projects. We could always use more help. I’d love to be able to get some money and compensate volunteers for their time and energy. I’d really love to get a real website. Sleep would be nice.
As for backlash, honestly there hasn’t been much. As an organization we’ve been pretty behind-the-scenes and under the radar so we don’t get too much ire from the internet hate machine. This interview may change that… remind me to update the TMSN spam filter settings after this.
You shouldn’t need a college degree to assert your gender. You shouldn’t need a million surgeries and the right clothes to be respected for who you are.
Is the platform only online, or are there ideas to develop physical spaces or events as well?
The TMSN is only online at the moment, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t amazing things happening here on the ground. We have a pretty big (and always growing) LGBTQIA+ Muslim family here in Chicago. Oftentimes our events have more trans participants than cis. We hold Friday prayers and have dinner together twice a month, we spend the holidays together, and in general we’ve come to build a strong sense of community and mutual support.
A few of us have been working with other progressive organizations in the city and, insha’Allah, intend to have a permanent space for women-centered, LGBTQIA+ affirming and sect diverse Jummah prayers by the end of the year. There are amazing things happening here in Chicago. I’m very excited for the future.
Lynn and Zaynab Shahar, theologian and co-founder of Third Coast Queer Muslims, at the Chicago Dyke March
The Trans community has historically been one of the most attacked and targeted amid LGBTQIA+ spaces, even outside of religious affiliation. What can we do to ensure a greater presence and acceptance of non-conforming Muslims?
Stand up! The biggest thing you can do to support transgender and gender-nonconforming Muslims in your community is by sticking up for us and letting the world know you are here for a diverse, accepting Ummah.
When trans people stand up and assert ourselves we can risk abuse, excommunication, violence or worse. Many people can’t come out of the closet or assert their rights because they stand to lose everything in the process. Ask yourself, “What do I have to lose by standing up for trans people?” Remember that “being an ally” is something you do, not something you are.
My life fell apart, bottomed out and in all honesty it didn’t look like I would live to see 25. At the end of the day, Islam is what saved my life.
You can sit around in circles and share opinions with people who already agree with you until you’re blue in the face — until you start having those hard conversations with people in your community, until you start showing trans people know you’re here in the fight with us, you’re not really any help at all.
What is the importance of pronouns, and how can people be more inclusive and willing to be get educated so as not to misgender anyone?
I’m just going to use myself as an example here:
Let’s say we’re friends at the masjid. I decide to disclose my trans history to you, because I trust you and feel safe enough to talk about it. But then, ever since that moment, you start to misgender me — maybe not even intentionally, but it happens because this trans thing is just so confusing or complicated or whatever. But by misgendering me, you’re doing a lot of stuff that even if unintentional, can be really damaging.
- For one, it’s disrespectful: What you’re saying by misgendering me is “I don’t respect you.” It’s saying you know more about who I am than I do. It’s saying that you don’t see me as the person I really am, that this space is not safe for me. It’s a spit in the face.
- For another thing, it’s triggering. For a lot of trans people, pronouns can be wielded as a weapon. Whether your intentions are ill or not, my body remembers the violence it’s experienced at the hands of people who called me “he” and “it.” I’ve been getting aggressively misgendered by people who mean me harm for years and years, acquiring scars in the process. It may not seem like a big deal to you, but there is no way I can separate those memories, the very real fear of violence, from being called the wrong pronouns.
- Most importantly, it’s dangerous. I live in a country where “trans panic” is a valid legal defense in a murder trial. That means I could be killed on the street in cold blood, and the mere fact of my trans history would be reason enough for my murderer to walk free. I live in a world where at least 48 trans women were murdered in Brazil in January alone. Transgender people — trans women of color especially — are facing a pandemic of violence. Remember when I said just a second ago that I have scars at the hands of people who misgender me? Those scars aren’t figurative. When you misgender me in mixed company, if the wrong person hears, you are putting my life at risk.
By choosing to use the wrong pronouns you’re not just being disrespectful, you’re subjecting trans people to a very real risk of violence. You’re outing someone in a world where “being out” can be legal grounds for justifiable homicide.
And! It’s just rude. Don’t be rude. In general, people are more willing to apologize for misgendering a dog than a human being. Don’t be that person.
Lynn giving a talk on Gender and Trans Inclusion at the annual LGBTQ Muslim Retreat
Can you talk about even within the trans/non-binary community how there is a wider acceptance of cisgender-passing binary trans people as compared to those without adequate resources or finances and how that’s a major issue particularly in the Muslim community?
Okay. This is a big one, so I’m gonna break it up into a few pieces:
- ON BINARY & NON-BINARY TRANS PEOPLE IN THE MUSLIM COMMUNITY:
I don’t think anybody would disagree with me when I say the mainstream Muslim community is a highly gender-normative and gender-segregated environment. For some people of trans experience, that’s perfectly alright. Many binary (meaning, identifying solidly as male or female) trans people are invested in maintaining that system, but sort of widening the door to accommodate trans experience. Recognizing trans women as women and trans men as men, but otherwise not really changing the system. I think this model is a little easier to swallow for many, because it doesn’t call the system in to question.
Many people (not just trans people and not just non-binary people, mind you) look toward a de-segregated Muslim community that is gender equal, and accommodating for people who don’t identify within the gender binary. More spaces and organizations are using this model, and it’s been a really powerful step toward making our communities safer for all trans people.
I don’t think it’s wrong to advocate for trans inclusion in traditionally gender-segregated spaces. I personally feel very strongly about protecting women’s space as a source of support and resistance in the face of patriarchy, and most of my work in the past 10 years has been about building a more dynamic and inclusive understanding of “womanhood” within feminist praxis.
Remember that through all the talk about transgender people in the media and in politics, we are real people — not theoretical exercises or political talking points, but human beings.
But at the end of the day, any explicitly gendered space is going to be excluding people. We need to find a way to make our communities safer for everybody, regardless of whether their gender identity fits neatly into the right box.
- ON TRANS PEOPLE WITHOUT RESOURCES OR FINANCES IN THE MUSLIM COMMUNITY:
I often tell people that when I feel out-of-place in Muslim spaces, it’s rarely on account of gender. Nine times out of 10, it’s class disparity. “Progressive Muslim” space here in the U.S. is largely an upper/middle class game, and there can be a lot of unchecked stuff around that. You shouldn’t need a college degree to assert your gender.
You shouldn’t need a million surgeries and the right clothes to be respected for who you are. Trans people (especially trans women, especially trans women of color) are subjected to homelessness, unemployment and food insecurity at significantly higher rates than cis people. Sure, some trans people are rich, but they don’t speak for the rest of us. And the rest of the Muslim community can’t expect every trans person to experience life like Caitlin Jenner to be acceptable. Again, we need to work to make our communities safer for everybody.
I’d like to point out that when we have these conversations, we’re facing down an insidious intersection where misogyny meets white supremacy. It’s a systematic devaluation of women’s agency and devaluation of black and brown bodies, playing out to decide what kinds of people are acceptable and who isn’t allowed at the table.
This is a problem both within the trans community and on the outside looking in. At the end of the day, I am close to the most palatable version of “being transgender” there can be — I’m a white woman who transitioned early, passes for cis, presents in a very normative way, and provides her arguments in academia-friendly “unaccented English.” It’s easy to let people like me in the door and call yourself progressive. That’s not inclusion. It’s the same old sexism, racism and transphobia, parading as “acceptance.” Respectability politics will get us nowhere. We need to be better than that.
Any last thoughts for the cis or non-transgender people reading this?
Remember that through all the talk about transgender people in the media and in politics, we are real people — not theoretical exercises or political talking points, but human beings. There is a political element, especially in the U.S. right now, that is using fear of the monstrous-mythical “predatory transgender” to mobilize voters. As my cherished colleague Red Durkin has pointed out, More United States senators have been arrested for sexual misconduct in bathrooms than trans women, yet state governments continue to pass anti-trans legislation making it illegal for us to have normal bodily functions, violating federal law and human rights in the process.
Whether it’s as Muslims, or as transgender people, we’re facing the same reality in this country: We face an epidemic of violence while politicians try to legislate us out of existence. At the end of the day, we’re just trying to survive, and maybe make it through with a shred of dignity.
What kind of advice do you hope to give to closeted or questioning Trans Muslims currently struggling right now?
Yes, it’s possible. You’re okay. Being trans and Muslim is a heavy hand to be dealt, but it’s not impossible. There are so many of us living it out every day. We’re here for you. You’re not alone.
Our faith does not belong to the bigots. Never let anyone tell you it’s a contradiction to be a transgender Muslim. We’ve been around since before the times of the Prophet (did you know there are six different genders in Classical Jewish Texts?) , we were there when Muhammad (PBUH) was walking the Earth (have you heard about Umm Salamah’s gender-nonconforming friend Hit, who was allowed to enter both men’s and women’s space?), we’re here today and we’re damn sure still gonna be standing here tomorrow.
I’m not going to pretend it’s always easy. I will assure you, and I mean this with all of my heart, that it’s worth it. Whatever happens and wherever your path leads, there is family to have your back and provide support.
Above all trust in yourself, and trust in Allah (SWT). We’re here if you need us.
Trans Muslim Support Network volunteers taking a selfie after Eid prayers in the park, 2015
The Transgender Muslim Support Network can be found here:
Images provided by Mahdia Lynn