Sexual Health and LGBTI Muslims
By Tawseef Khan, Lawyer and Activist
A few years ago, something terrible happened. I learned that one of my friends from the United States was in hospital. The revelation sent a large and disparate community of queer Muslims, both in the USA and Britain, into a tailspin. Over the following days – bit by bit – the details came out. Our friend had been living with HIV for years but we didn’t know it. Our friend was undocumented, but we didn’t know it. He hadn’t accessed medication. He kept everything a secret until it was too late. His death sent shockwaves of pain and trauma to the community of people that knew him.
I tell you this story because it touches on themes most pertinent to a conversation on LGBTI Muslims and sexual health: fear and stigma, shame and secrecy, immigration status, poverty and access.
LGBTI Muslims and the ‘High-Risk’ Nexus
We Muslims are a complicated bunch. When it comes to sexual health, Queer Muslims exist at the nexus of many high-risk communities. We’re LGBTI (obviously!), but we’re often also undocumented (asylum-seekers or migrants without immigration status), people of colour, socio-economically marginalised or MSM (men who have sex with men but do not identify with minority sexual identities). And that’s why talking about sexual health within the LGBTI Muslim community is so important.
But it’s not enough to point out our high-risk status. We also need to under why that’s case – and why it’s so difficult to address the sexual health in this particular community. In my opinion, I’d say there are two main reasons for this: taboo and invisibility.
In Muslim communities, we love avoiding things. Talking about sex is one of them, if not the biggest. We stifle conversations about sex and sexual health. In schools, for example, many Muslim families suppress, resist or withdraw from education on sex. At home, we rarely foster environments where these things can be spoken of with openness and self-empowerment. Sex isn’t spoken of; it just happens – and only when you’re married, and only with a monogamous partner (who’s a virgin!). Along the way, you’re supposed to just ‘figure out’ what it means to have a healthy sex life. So from this you can understand why sexual health isn’t prioritised. Put most simply, in many Muslim communities, it isn’t perceived as relevant.
The consequence is that it’s common for Muslims to grow up in that kind of environment and internalise the squeamishness and wilful ignorance that exists around all things related to sex and sexual health. When you add the additional taboo of sexual identity to the mix, we see that it’s even more difficult for LGBTI Muslims than their straight and cisgendered counterparts to find safe and judgment-free spaces to work out the tenets of safe sex.
I mean, if you don’t know that sexual health is a thing, how can you establish what it means to be safe and access the appropriate support? Or if you’ve been taught that these things should not be discussed, surely you’re more likely to overlook or ignore the subject altogether? Or if you’ve faced rejection; if you’ve been told repeatedly that your sexual desire is illegal or immoral or inconsistent with God, the tendency is – is it not – to hide your sexuality, immerse yourself in shame, and make choices that are uninformed, and possibly unsafe?
Taboos discourage knowledge and self-empowerment; they foster ignorance and stigmatisation. To address them meaningfully, we must realise that our solutions are not simply rooted in better sexual health services or information. They lie most critically in breaking down the walls that encourage silence. Central to this is the work that Queer Muslim activists are doing to facilitate open dialogue in their communities on sexual health and diversity, whilst also pushing for the mainstream acceptance of LGBTI Muslims.
Accessibility vs. Invisibility
One of the other issues on this subject is access. I acknowledge that it is a challenge getting LGBTI Muslims to access information and services on sexual health. Some of the reasons for this I have explained above, like poor knowledge, taboo and stigmatisation. Access is complicated further by socio-economic and immigration status, and linguistic abilities (we can’t assume that residents speak our national languages). But the challenge of addressing LGBTI Muslims’ sexual health needs isn’t explained by these reasons alone, nor is their ‘high-risk’ status.
The biggest barrier to LGBTI Muslims accessing sexual health support is invisibility. And that is my primary motivation for writing this piece. LGBTI Muslims are a high-risk community because they are invisible to the very services that are set up to help. This may be a fairly shocking statement, but the reality is that those very services are not reaching LGBTI Muslims like they should be. And that is because LGBTI Muslims are consistently erased from the conversation.
Consider the fact that when we talk of high-risk communities, we rarely talk of Muslims. Consider also that when sexual health services plan their outreach, they very rarely examine how and whether their programs will reach LGBTI Muslims.
As with most things in the LGBTI community, services are constructed around white, middle class, gay men, without considering the differential needs and experiences of people who are of faith or colour, undocumented, female, socio-economically marginalised, bisexual, trans or intersex. I have witnessed myself, for example, the way much sexual health outreach is conducted in LGBTI bars and clubs, without evaluating whether Muslims, who face barriers to accessing those spaces, will benefit.
We have to ask ourselves, who is in those spaces? If you don’t drink, will you benefit from that outreach? Will you benefit if those venues are marked by racism and Islamophobia? Will you be reached if those venues have selective and prejudicial door policies? Will you be able to access that space if you are undocumented or poor? If you express your sexual identity in a way that is different to normative, Western constructions, the likelihood is that most outreach programs won’t make their way to you.
And the truth is, these support services don’t know how to reach LGBTI Muslims. They haven’t done the homework and they haven’t really tried. They haven’t absorbed the reality that the traditional ways of ensuring LGBTI people are able to access sexual health support may not work for LGBTI Muslims. And we need organisations to do better, initiatives to be better. As the high-risk status shows, LGBTI Muslims are being seriously neglected.
LGBTI Muslims are erased from countless conversations. But their sexual health needs show that we must engage passionately in their struggle for acceptance within the mainstream LGBTI and Muslim communities. This will help dismantle silence, taboo and stigma, and foster open, empowering conversations on safe sex. But that’s not all. Critically, sexual health services need to realise that they aren’t doing enough. They must stop ignoring LGBTI Muslims and start reaching out to them, using initiatives that are new, creative and thoughtful. The current methods are insufficient. Their lives are at stake.
Tawseef Khan is a lawyer and activist from the UK. Follow him on Twitter @Tawseef_PhD.
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Photo: Muslims Against Homopobia and LGBT Hate