This year’s Sydney Mardi Gras gave many people the opportunity to say something about the issues that concern lesbian, gay, bisexual, intersex and transgendered (LGTBI) people. Most floats in the parade voiced their support for same-sex marriage.
Muslims Against Homophobia, a recently-formed support group for queer Muslims in Sydney, made a groundbreaking appearance in the parade. It said something equally important and urgent: “Queer Muslims need acceptance!”
There is much stigma attached to homosexuality in Muslim societies. In some Muslim nations homosexuality is still criminalised, and is even punishable by death in some, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In the past, most Muslim societies were sexually permissive, and were even viewed as lascivious by colonial Western nations.
Some Muslim countries, especially those in the Middle East, had a widespread homosexual culture that tolerated sexual relationships between men.
But the moralistic colonial authorities, mostly strict Christians, disapproved of sex between men and banned it. More recently, with the rise of harsher forms of Islam in conservative Muslim circles, homosexuality is now viewed mostly as a sign of Western decadence that poisons Muslims.
Most Muslim societies do not recognise homosexuality as a different identity, but what they generally stigmatise and criminalise is sexual intercourse between men.
There are many social and political obstacles, which make it hard and impractical to advocate queer rights in these conservative societies, where different identities and subcultures can’t usually freely flourish.
Although sex is a natural part of life according to Islam (unlike Christianity, which traditionally promoted celibacy) it is generally strictly regulated to take place only between married heterosexual couples.
The most important obstacles of all are the repressive regimes in most Muslim countries, which do not provide mainstream people with rights and freedoms, let alone minorities like queer people.
But despite this gloomy picture, homosexuals in these countries, which don’t usually allow their people to express their diverse identities honestly and freely, generally live in secrecy and network quietly - unlike out-and-proud Western homosexuals.
They avoid getting into trouble by leading a double life, some managing a heterosexual marriage and a same-sex relationship at the same time.
In Turkey, a secular and more liberal Muslim country, Istanbul’s homosexual community has a pride week and a gay and lesbian parade in late June every year as part of a niche counter culture.
Homosexual rights in Muslim countries will be probably achieved as part of a general struggle for civil rights in these nations — just like the civil rights movement in the US in 1960s, which also triggered the homosexual rights movement.
But progressive-minded Muslims can also make a difference. For instance, today some Muslim scholars like Scott Kugle interpret the Koran in a progressive way to include and accept different groups like homosexuals.
Groups such as the US-based Al-Fatiha (www.al-fatiha.org), an organisation that promotes acceptance and justice for queer Muslims, also have an important role to play.
On the other hand, just like the headscarf issue, the ideological use of Islamic homophobia by some hostile Western groups to demonstrate that Muslim societies and communities are less civilised and incompatible with Western values doesn’t help queer Muslims, but only exacerbates Islamophobia.
However, Western groups, in particular Western queer groups, can make a difference by genuinely understanding the specific needs and circumstances of different Muslim homosexual groups and by cooperating with them to promote homosexual rights.
As Arab-Australian scholar Samar Habib points out, most queer Muslims in Australia are very reluctant to talk in public about their real identity since most of them are still in the closet to their families, unlike those in the US and Canada who have come out.
The lack of any gay-support groups makes this harder.
Muslims Against Homophobia aims to fill this gap and establish a generous platform to support queer Muslims in Australia, inspiring progressive Muslims everywhere to speak out against homophobia. This is the only way to make a real difference!
[Alice Aslan is a Sydney-based writer and social anthropologist. She is the author of Islamophobia in Australia and formed Muslims Against Homophobia, which proudly took part in the March 5 Sydney Mardi Gras Parade for the first time.]