If it wasn’t for the kindness of strangers in the holy month of Ramadan, I never would have been able to leave my husband.
It was a hurried affair. I took a flight out of Oklahoma, “just to visit family for a while.” It was only once I landed in Detroit that I told him I wasn’t coming back. In a single phone call, my life became whatever I could fit in a ratty carry-on suitcase and whatever I could afford with a few hundred dollars of secreted-away savings. My parents wouldn’t help (mom said I was throwing away my one good chance as a normal life). My old haunts were empty, my old friends disowned me or moved away. I decided Chicago would be a safer place to build a new life, so I took a bus to a new city with brief half-baked plans where to stay or where I might find a meal.
I was homeless. I was free.
Ramadan is really a great time to be homeless in the city. You had a good excuse when you couldn’t find a meal during the day, and there’s almost always a community iftar nearby come sundown. Mosques were packed with polite smiles and kind women who would gladly share a meal, a bed, in exchange for a story. I was lonely and broken so I told my story and the kindness of strangers filled my heart and made it feel like I could keep going. They made it feel like I could have a real life again.
Women at the mosque were happy to help the lonely, broken divorcee, far from home. None of us would admit it but it was all rather transactional: they fed me, gave me clothes, gave me a place to stay and I gave them the juicy story of a broken woman breaking free. I was never gratuitous with the details but all they had to know was I had to leave, I had no choice, so I escaped and found myself here. They fed me biryani, they fed me pizza, they gave me fast food gift cards and I gave them my story.
Of course, the story was a lie.
I needed to eat. I needed a roof over my head. I couldn’t risk telling the real story.
That I was never legally married to my “husband”; I couldn’t risk disclosing I had been living unmarried with my boyfriend after seven years. I couldn’t mention that the state wouldn’t recognize our marriage, that the reason we didn’t have kids was because I was transgender. I could never share the real reason I left: that I just couldn’t pretend to be an average Middle-American housewife anymore. I left because I could no longer pretend to be all the things that life needed me to be. I left because I couldn’t lie anymore.
And you all made me lie again.
I let you assume I converted for my husband because I couldn’t risk admitting I came to Allah a desperate addict, barely alive. I let you assume I was straight and cisgender, remembering the long list of queer and trans women I know who had been kicked out of their community or worse after being outed. I let you assume I was “normal” because “different” isn’t allowed in our community. I said I was just like you because if I wasn’t, I might not survive.
A year passed, another Ramadan came around. It promised to be much of the same: living out my two separate lives - the mild-mannered Muslimah building a new life for herself after a bad break, and behind closed doors the bisexual transgender activist working to make the world safer for women like me. Another year of forced lies so I could have a safe place to pray, a community to find refuge in.
Then Orlando happened.
This time last year, in the wake of the Pulse massacre in Orlando nearly every news source in the country broke the news: “LGBT MUSLIMS EXIST." Faces of prominent LGBTQ Muslim organizers were plastered across the internet, detailing our lives and defending our faith. In one week I was interviewed five times and I turned down even more. In Chicago there was a summit between mainstream Muslim leadership and LGBTQ Muslim community organizers. Many of us — myself included — came out of the closet that night and spoke frankly with local leaders about the realities of our experience. There was a lot of talk about reconciliation and moving forward together. There was hope for something better, and a safer community for all of us.
I mean to ask this sincerely: Of all the words spoken last summer, of reconciliation or inclusion or cooperation, what has actually come of it?
For one, we were all out of the closet. That cat could never go back into the bag. After the cameras had turned away, after a few months passage since this supposedly community-changing summit, it became clear that nothing at all was going to change on the Muslim community’s part.
On the LGBTQ Muslim front, of course, everything changed.
We took a gamble, came out of the closet that we might help make the ummah safer for people like us. After that week, after a few certain words in front of certain company, instantly the mosque was no longer a safe space.
In an effort to make our community safer, the lie that kept me safe was shattered. The connection was made between my day-to-day life as a cisgender-passing normative young woman and my online work as bisexual transgender activist, and never again would they be separate. Many of us across the country were going through similar transitions. It became more apparent that the status quo was unwilling to accommodate us and if we wanted spaces that were inclusive and affirming for all, we would have to build them ourselves.
After the summit, we had an iftar at my new apartment in Rogers Park. Over a dozen of us, exhausted from interviews and events and making sure our friends and family were safe, we sat at a long dinner table and broke fast together. For dessert, a cheap store bought cake with home-made icing letters: Coming Out Mubarak.
This Ramadan, I am doing everything I can to ensure no one is spending our holy holiday alone. I am doing everything I can to make sure no one has to live out a lie just to feel safe. I want a Ramadan where all can be themselves, wholly, embraced by the light of Islam. Where LGBTQ Muslims are not just visible, but affirmed and supported.
The mosque wasn’t safe anymore so we built our own. A women-led, LGBTQIA+ affirming pluralist community where no one is turned away. A space built on accessibility, inclusion and a passionate love for Islam. People skype in from across the country. We send care packages and letters of support to incarcerated LGBTQ Muslims. We’ve created an entire month of Ramadan programming for LGBTQ Muslim youth. We learned that living out our truth is dangerous, so we do whatever we can to make it safer for people like us.
I had to lie if I wanted to stay alive. So now, I work to make sure people like me can be wholly themselves - faith and all - and still have a community to call home. This Ramadan, things will be better.
Many people make a big game of visibility. We act as if “yes we exist” is a solution in itself. The fact of the matter is visibility without follow through often leaves a person in a more volatile, less safe position than when she was “invisible.” For many years, it was invisibility that kept me safe. I could live my life quietly, without risk (though constantly under the grating anxiety of some sister “finding out”). It felt like the only way I could have a chance at a normal life was by playing a part and letting the real me out in short bursts behind closed doors.
My experience is not unique. It’s repeated countless times by other Muslims with marginalized experiences and identities. Visibility is a first step but if we do not have safer, healthy communities where difference is celebrated, it means nothing in the end. Let’s help foster an ummah that is supportive and diverse.
This Ramadan, let’s not just talk about inclusivity or religious pluralism. This Ramadan, let’s follow through. Let’s build something better.
Here's a few things you can do to Follow Through this Ramadan--You can become a pen pal with incarcerated LGBTQ Muslims, participate in Masjid al-Rabia and Everyone is Gay's collaborative Longest Days, Sacred Nights campaign for LGBTQ Muslim youth, and you can participate in events with Masjid al-Rabia across Chicago as we build a better community together. Together, we can make this holy month safer and affirming for ALL Muslims. Let's follow through.
Mahdia Lynn is a writer, public speaker and community organizer. She is the director of women-centered Masjid al-Rabia and coordinator of a pen pal program for incarcerated LGBTQ Muslims with the Black and Pink Crescent. Mahdia is an advocate for a vision of Islam that centers feminism, disability power, prison abolition and economic & racial justice. A professional chef and educator, Mahdia lives on the stolen & colonized land currently recognized as Chicago.