Words Matter: On Public Scholars Pathologizing LGBTQIA+ Identities

For a Muslim woman who also happens to be a practitioner of diversity and inclusion, this week has been challenging and overwhelming. For the past few days at work, I have felt an immense sense of sorrow and helplessness in light of the tragedy in Orlando. Simultaneously, as a Muslim, I am astounded by a lack of remorse and refusal to unpack the homophobia, transphobia, and broader anti-LGBTQIA+ bias in our community.
As I attempt to peel back these complicated layers, I must acknowledge Angelique Harris, Professor of Sociology at California State University-Fullerton whose research helped immensely in this response. In a 2009 piece titled: Marginalization by the Marginalized, Harris examined homophobia and heterosexism inside the American community within the context of racialized segregation and oppression.
Muslims face ubiquitous marginalization through media bias, surveillance, and a myriad of other manifestations — from structural racism to blatant inequality. As marginalized people, we commit an injustice by pushing LGBTQIA+ members of our community deeper into the margins. When we banish LGTBQIA+ Muslims from our mosques or put their identities on trial, we end up replicating the political, economic, and social conditions of oppression that we are desperately also trying to dismantle.
Harris writes:

“Homophobia, racism, and sexism are all rooted in the same oppression, with power and subjection being at its core. As opposed to racism dictating a racial superiority, heterosexism dictates a heterosexist superiority; yet the only real difference is that racism is frowned upon and heterosexism is not.”

We can debate for eons about Islam’s stance on a variety of topics — and while this is not an invitation to do so, I have to ask: What made this moment, specifically, the time to debate identities?
As many as 49 people have died. Many more are injured.
In a Facebook post by prominent conservative Muslim scholar Dr. Yasir Qadhi that appeared to have the intention of dismantling and calling into question the blatant media bias towards sensationalism and the dangers of thinkpiecing-before-fact-collecting — his concluding statement also dragged in Islam’s stance on homosexuality and the media’s inquiry about it into the limelight.
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This construction of this sentence is worth noting: “He was a mentally deranged psychopathic American closet homosexual who was battling with his sexual identity.”
Sure, many of Dr. Qadhi’s points are valid, in regards to media bias and a racialization placed on brown and other nonwhite bodies. However, as a diversity practitioner, it’s my obligation to ask — what was the intention behind your post and did you anticipate the impact?
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation listed “homosexual” as an offensive term in 2006. In a 2015 article, Nicholas Subtirelu argued that the term “homosexual” is offensive for several reasons. It focuses on sexual acts of the individual rather than the individual itself and that person’s humanity.
Finally, the word “homosexual” has a long history of being used to pathologize gays and lesbians. In fact, until 1973, the American Psychological Association considered homosexuality a psychological disorder.
Words matter. In using this term and language, the impact of Dr. Qadhi’s posting was that it pathologized homosexuality. It made an identity sound like a medical condition or a psychological issue.

Could we not have articulated sound arguments in response to these issues and biases without additionally putting an already marginalized identity within our community up for debate?

Seven minutes after sharing this post, Dr. Qadhi linked to a YouTube video about “his stance on homosexuality” and noted that this was “the stance of mainstream Islam.”
He stated the Islam’s stance was irrelevant but seven minutes later made it relevant anyway. I thought we were talking about media bias, the racialization of brown Muslim bodies, and the media’s desire to exceptionalize Islam as a religion that is somehow particularly homophobic? Could we not have articulated sound arguments in response to these issues and biases without additionally putting an already marginalized identity within our community up for debate?
There was an opportunity here.
An opportunity to denounce the homophobia that exists in our community, an opportunity to identify and suggest that we create welcoming and inclusive environments for LGBTQIA+ Muslims in our spaces to prevent internalized homophobia and self-hatred, an opportunity to recognize that pathologizing the experiences and identities of vulnerable and marginalized people in a community that is already so deeply vulnerable and marginalized is problematic and irresponsible.
I hope that Dr. Qadhi, whom I fortunately had the opportunity to hear speak some years ago in college, takes some time to reflect on the intentions of his post and the subsequent impact — namely the alienation of LGBTQIA+ Muslims in our community who, like the rest of us, struggle with their faith, identities, and experiences. He missed the opportunity to leverage an enormous social media platform to draw attention to the pervasive homophobic rhetoric that cannot continue to go unchecked.
He also stigmatized mental illness, but we’ll save that for another time.

Update: Dr. Qadhi has since issued another post clarifying and apologizing for not using more “sensitive wording” and navigating the issue of LGBTQIA+ issues within the Muslim community.
Image: Photo from Vigil held by The Muslim American Women’s Policy Forum in Washington, D.C.