Parents have been protesting over relationship education, saying it is incompatible with their religious values. Where does the row leave gay Muslims?
For the past month, a primary school in Birmingham has been the site of a battle over education, religious values and LGBTQ rights. Parkfield community school had begun using the No Outsiders programme, which runs alongside relationship and sex education classes, which led to hundreds of parents withdrawing their children from classes.
The school says the lessons are age-appropriate and teach tolerance for different races, genders and sexual orientations. But critics complained that the programme “promotes” gay and transgender lifestyles to children. Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former chief of Ofsted, has now said that the school should reinstate the lessons.
The creator of the programme, the school’s assistant head, had already resigned from a previous school after a backlash over his sexuality sparked by complaints from Christian and Muslim parents. But at the Muslim-majority Parkfield community school, Muslim parents dominate the protests outside the school, putting the community’s attitude towards LGBTQ rights under the spotlight.
Amanullah De Sondy, a lecturer in contemporary Islam at University College Cork, has written about homosexuality in Islam. He says the row has become a flashpoint because Muslim communities feel “under siege” from rightwing politics and Islamophobia and are “looking for something solid to hold on to”.
“The parents who are protesting want Islam to be black and white, but it isn’t,” he says. “Islamic traditions and commentaries are not clear, and they are not meant to be clear, because faith develops in uncertainty. The Qur’an is very fruitful ground for looking at diversity. It is not black and white; it allows for grey.”
Theologically, he points out, it is the story of Lot that is often pointed to as the basis for homosexuality being forbidden in Islam, but he argues this is a misunderstanding of the sin the story is highlighting – which is rape, not consensual sex.
“Every one of us is trying to find our own way of submitting to God, but there is more than one way to be Muslim. This is something these protesters have forgotten.” And he worries that the parents are not considering “that one of those children at the school could be gay. Imagine the trauma they must be experiencing, seeing their parents discuss LGBT issues in this way.”
If anyone knows how this feels it is the LGBTQ Muslims who have been watching the drama unfold. Amid the fury, how do they feel about the way their faith, and their sexual identity, is being criticised?
‘There were rumours that I was going to be stabbed.’
Asifa Lahore, 35, Croydon. Transgender drag queen
“When I went to secondary school, section 28 [a legal clause, since repealed, that said local authorities should not “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship] was very much in force. Homosexuality was not to be talked about in schools and I didn’t see any gay or trans people. I was heavily bullied and targeted by gangs. When I did my GCSEs, there were rumours that I was to be stabbed. I couldn’t tell my parents; I was afraid they would worry – or send me to Pakistan – so my form teacher would keep me back until 5pm to make sure I got home safe. Had LGBTQ education been taught, this wouldn’t have happened.
“I came out when I was 23. My parents took me to see my GP, not out of malice, but because they didn’t understand what it meant to be gay. The doctor explained that although it was religiously and culturally awkward, there was nothing he could do, no medicine he could give me to make me straight. My parents took me to see an imam, who told me that marriage would solve the problem.
“I became engaged to my cousin in Pakistan and I became depressed. Things only changed when my university lecturer introduced me to other LGBT Muslims. Up until then, I had thought I was the only one. After six months, I went back to my parents and told them there was nothing wrong with me.
“In 2016, I realised that I was transgender. I am now Britain’s first out Muslim drag queen.
“What I would say to parents who are protesting is that there is nothing to be afraid of. Just because your children are learning about LGBT relationships, it won’t make them gay. By excluding your child, all you will do is develop feelings of hate and prejudice among them. Children don’t deserve that; they deserve a well-rounded education.”
‘The parents think their children will learn about these things and go to hell.’
Hafsa Qureshi, 25, Birmingham. Administrator
“It would have meant a great deal to me to have had LGBT issues as part of the curriculum when I was growing up. I went through a great deal of self-loathing then, and began to self-harm. Seeing people like me, who were queer and Muslim, would have been very empowering and made my life easier.
“I came out to my sister when I was 13. She was 14 and she said she didn’t really care – she thought I was doing it for attention. Nobody was out at school. There was constant bullying. Somehow, they knew I was a lesbian. In school, people are looking for a reason to pick on you, and the fact that teachers weren’t talking about LGBT issues exacerbated the problem.
“The parents who are protesting seem to be concerned with protecting their children. Being queer and Muslim, I understand their fears; I don’t agree with them, but I understand. They think their children will learn about these things and then go to hell. But they need to trust their own parenting.
“These parents are doing their children a great disservice. They are going to enter a diverse workforce and meet queer people. I find these protests hurtful, but I know that what seems to be hate comes from fear, and that slows down the conversation. I don’t expect to see these protesters at Pride, but I do expect tolerance. I feel caught in the middle between the Muslim community and the LGBT community, when, instead, there needs to be dialogue.”
‘I hear people saying “It is our tradition.” Maybe it’s time we broke this tradition.’
Khakan Qureshi, 49, Birmingham. Support worker for homeless people
“If I had had sex education like this in school, I wouldn’t have been bullied and scared. As an Asian man, it is amusing to see that most of the negative comments come from younger Muslims. I hear people, born and bred in this country, saying, ‘It is our tradition’, to which my reply is: ‘You’re younger than me – maybe it’s time we broke this tradition?’ We need to end the negative ideologies.
“My take is that Islam embraces everybody, but we live in a patriarchal society and men had twisted the word of Islam to gain power. Same-sex legislation has only come in, in the past 20 years, but these protesters are pushing us back into the closet. We need role models, whether they’re south Asian, Black or BME.
“My parents showed me what unconditional love is, and what being a good Muslim looks like.
“It was traumatic when I came out. I was 22 and had met my partner, Trevor. Mum was upset at first, but then said: ‘If I don’t share in this, your happiness, what kind of mother would I be?’
“My dad found out a few months later. He was one of the founding members of Birmingham Central Mosque. He talked about community and status – there was so much animosity that I stepped away from him. A year later, he called me. He realised he had to put his prejudice aside.
“I follow a spiritual path now, more than a strictly Islamic one. My partner and I have been together 27 years. On her deathbed, my mum said to him: ‘You are a blessing to Khakan. Out of all my seven children, the most loving and happiest relationship seems to be yours.’”
‘I discovered there is a place for me in Islam. I won’t allow anyone to take that from me.’
Ferhan Khan, 34, London. Queer Muslim activist
“I don’t know why these protesters feel so insecure. Knowledge is power – but they don’t want to empower their children. Instead, they legitimise control and call it religion.
“If I had had queer role models as a child, I would have been able to enjoy my 20s, knowing that there was nothing wrong with me. Instead, I feel like I have been robbed of my life – it was taken from me by homophobia.
“Every human being deserves to be loved. When you have a secret within you, that makes you feel you are unworthy of love. That’s a powerful way to silence someone.
“Growing up, I was very religious, but I was taught to fear Allah. When I came out at 15 it was a very difficult time. My parents thought it was a phase. They had an arranged marriage and met on their wedding day, so for them marrying someone you desire was not important. To them, you suppress desire to make things work societally.
“After I came out, I told myself I wasn’t Muslim. I went to university and avoided Muslims. But in the white middle-class crowd I fell into I felt constantly invalidated for being Pakistani, and that I had to minimise that part of my identity. This drove me back to Islam and the discovery that there was a place for me. I allowed myself to be Muslim – now I will not allow anyone to take that from me. The only one who can do that is Allah.
“We need to give queer Muslims a voice. Let us go into the schools and talk to the children. Give us the brief, the resources and the platform – if you really care.”
‘I would cry on my prayer rug: “Give me cancer or anything. Please make me straight.”’
Afshan D’souza-Lodhi, 26, Manchester. Editor-in-chief of the Common Sense Network
“There is an assumption that when you talk about sexuality you have to talk about sex – but you can just talk about love. In fact, to explain why a man and a man can’t be together, you would have to explain genitals and that shifts to a conversation that no one wants to have.
“I always knew I was queer. The second time I tried to kill myself I was 16. I was googling Qur’anic quotes and ‘queer Muslim’. Every scholar I found said this is a sin. I would plead and cry on my prayer rug: ‘Give me cancer, give me anything. Please make me straight, please don’t make me fancy women.’
“When I first met another queer Muslim, it made me feel that I was allowed to exist. The reason that I am so out and proud is that if I can stop one person killing themselves, it will be worth it.
“Gay people have said Islam is homophobic. By saying that they have discounted gay Muslims and closed the doors of gay spaces to us and that means we have nowhere to go. But there is no single line in the Qur’an that says that homosexuality is a sin. I don’t buy that it’s OK to be queer as long as you are not acting on it, because you’re asking someone to be alone for ever. God is love, and he is compassionate. Why would he ask that of us?”
In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected]. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.
This article was originally published in The Guardian.