Trigger warning: this post includes mention of suicide and violence.
When Sarah Hegazi was imprisoned, tortured, and eventually exiled from Egypt because she raised the LGBTQ pride flag at a concert in 2017, her courage sparked controversy and inspired many.
Hegazi is one of the reasons I dared to take rainbow LGBTQ+ gear while visiting my family in Egypt this winter break. It was subtle enough with a rainbow hat, which was quite a bad idea in Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s military state in hindsight. Yet, I couldn’t help but think of the power a rainbow could have — the fact that activists like Hegazi have fought for it, lost everything because of it, but still kept their voice loud about the urgency of equality. It’s why we must normalize expressing pride, safely, on any country’s soil.
Unfortunately, this year, Hegazi died by suicide in Canada. As an Egyptian Muslim feminist and an LGBTQ+ activist, I’m still heartbroken by Hegazi’s death. I don’t want it to be in vain. I’ve often pondered what we could do when we’re so powerless to oppressive regimes, the dominating conservative interpretation of Islam, and deciding whether it’s worth sacrificing our physical and mental well-being to ignite social change.
Because let’s be real: Hegazi’s story is not uncommon. It’s a reminder of the trauma our culture inflicts on the LGBTQ+ community for merely existing. Many LGBTQ+ Muslims continue to suffer in silence while surrounded by a culture of suppression, regardless of their country. Muslims in the LGBTQ+ community fear their safety, family rejection, and in some cases, imprisonment if they choose to be as open about their sexuality as Hegazi was. We cannot continue to debate LGBTQ+ people’s humanity or ignorantly label various sexual orientations as “Western inventions.”
We cannot continue to debate LGBTQ+ people’s humanity or ignorantly label various sexual orientations as “Western inventions.” Whether you realize it or not, enforcing a culture so intolerant of LGBTQ+ people is continuing colonialism’s legacy.
When Western countries colonized African countries, they instituted oppressive anti-equality laws, including anti-LGBTQ+ laws. They later amended their anti-equality laws and turned around to say, “Look at how backward they are. Aren’t you glad to have us white savior countries where you could be ‘free’?” Whether you realize it or not, enforcing a culture so intolerant of LGBTQ+ people is continuing colonialism’s legacy.
We need to do better. We need to make Muslim spaces more inclusive to our LGBTQ siblings.
With so many interpretations of Islam, we have allowed the ultra-conservative narrative to dominate Muslim culture. I interpret Islam as a socially progressive religion that has room for everyone, not just those who fit social norms. This is not to say that you and I must have the same interpretation of Islam. Instead, don’t let your biases stand in the way of equality for others.
Our culture, and my country, failed Hegazi, but we as Muslims don’t need to continue failing other LGBTQ+ Muslims, whose lives and existence matter. Here are a few ways to ensure our generation and the generations that come after us create a safer and more inclusive world for LGBTQ+ Muslims.
Be a safe space for someone to talk to.
When someone confides in you, show your support, and more importantly, listen. Although it may seem like the bare minimum, being there for someone and checking in on them could impact someone’s life more than you think.
Don’t stay silent.
Normalize calling people out on their homophobia in every setting, whether in your social circle or through your activism. If someone uses homophobic language around you, call it out. If an anti-LGBTQ+ law is being introduced in your state or federally, and it’s safe for you to go, show up.
Allow LGBTQ+ Muslims to exist without having them explain their existence to you.
Although it’s always good to gain more knowledge about something, it takes a lot of emotional labor for someone to tell you how they could be LGBTQ+ and a Muslim. Unless someone voluntarily gives you their personal story, try researching these topics before inflicting further emotional burdens on someone.
These are some simple steps I’d love to see more people take. The intersection between religion and LGBTQ+ rights has always been nuanced, but let’s try.
Remember, not every LGBTQ+ story is the same, and being “out” doesn’t mean you have to be out to the whole world. You’re not alone. Whether you’re out to yourself, one person, a selective group, or everyone, your existence is valid, and I hope we’re all able to help you see that you matter and are just as Muslim as everyone else.
If you are struggling and in need of resources, please consult the following for more resources: Coming Home to Islam and Self Guide, PFLAG’s resources for Muslims, and the Muslim Alliance’s resource list.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Hotline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.