“We are able to have a safe space where we can discuss equality for LGBTQ+ Nigerians, which is a fantastic thing. But let’s remember our brothers and sisters in the North, for whom merely daring to love in secrecy can be a death sentence, if outed—not to mention convening like this! We have a greater responsibility to do more to save them,” declared the MC, in a closing remark.
I sat aghast, because my instantaneous reaction was a thought to myself: “I am not at a fundraiser in Bel Air, where oblivious rich white people are making a show of their benevolence by saving abstracted African babies in order to assuage their guilt.”
I was at a one-day conference on Human Rights and the Law, organized by a prominent NGO based in Lagos—Nigeria’s commercial capital, and perhaps its most diverse city. I’d hoped the MC would have availed themselves of the requisite information that would prevent them from coming off as a benevolent saviour.
Admittedly, the makeup of both attendees and organisers was at least 99% non-Muslim. Everyone, from the main speaker to every speaker on the various panels that ensued over the course of the conference, appeared to be non-Muslim. This is not to say they were Christian—a very Nigerian misconception which assumes, if one doesn’t believe in one monotheism, that they must believe in the other. One panelist was very particular about not being mistaken for anything but an atheist. “I am not agnostic,” she insisted to my delight, “I am an atheist.”
The composition of the conference did not come as a surprise to me. Knowing what I know about how the mere attendance of such gatherings can be scandalous enough to ruin many Northern-Nigeria Muslims, it was a given. The lack of effort put in by the MC, was what surprised me. The comment, and the nods of agreement I saw when I looked around the room, left a feeling of exhaustion in me.
I felt exhausted because the statement echoed the liberal trope of the benevolent saviour, and piggybacked on the idea that LGBTQ+ Muslims are an endangered species who must be saved, lest they wither from existence. Doubly so, on looking around the room and realising that this is a widely held belief among the LGBTQ+ community—and in my home country, no less.
At the conference, I raised my concerns immediately, reminding everyone to do away with the saviour complex if the goal was to be better allies to queer Muslims. They should inquire, and do as advised, instead. “It is easy to say, ‘but when a hand of allyship is outstretched, queer Muslims clam up,’” I said, “but perhaps you are reaching out that hand of allyship to the wrong kind of queer Muslim, or in the wrong manner.”
I write here about two kinds of ‘gay Muslims,’ whom I believe hold unique beliefs on Islam that may be the lone ray of light at the end of the tunnel of oppression that queer Muslims are buried under. Neither of these is the ideal gay Muslim to mainstream Islam.
The good gay
Who is the ideal gay Muslim? The ideal gay Muslim is one who does not partake in any same-sex sexual activities—essentially a celibate gay Muslim, or better yet, one in a marriage of convenience. They may falter in their dedication to not act on the ‘sinful’ impulse of their sexuality, but what marks them apart from the imperfect gay Muslim, is in how they immediately repent and chastise themselves, if they do falter. The good gay Muslim is guilty and never stops reminding themselves of it. They’re miserable, and proud of it, because they believe their salvation lies in this burden of misery.
Then, there are the un-ideal gay Muslims. I identify two groups here; keeping in mind that Muslims are not a monolith, this grouping is strictly to make it easier to get activism off the ground in ultra-conservative societies, like my hometown of Kano State.
The first is the gay Muslim for whom their queer identity stands separate from their Islamic identity. This group studies and deeply reflects on Qur’an 10:41 which says, “If they deny you, then say, “My deeds are mine and your deeds are yours. You are free of what I do and I am free of what you do!” — Dr Mustafa Khattab, The Clear Quran translation.
These gay Muslims see themselves in the injunction to choose one’s actions, and they stand by the consequence of displeasing Allah. They cherry-pick their way through the Qur’an, a book that can easily be repurposed to justify anything, from ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ to ‘hound the unbelievers till there is no more unbelief and all faith belongs to Allah alone.’ They decide to choose life and love. Every now and then, they seek Allah’s forgiveness, with some guilt. They’ve come to terms with the nature of their sexuality and will hear nothing else, yet will nonetheless occasionally bow to that small internal conflict that pushes them to seek Allah’s mercy. They will likely close up at any suggestion that Islam may need reform so that they feel better accepted in society.
The second kind is the non-practising cultural Muslim. They are only a ‘gay Muslim’ if and when they expressly demand they be addressed as such. For this group, their sexual identity trumps everything else, be it an injunction in the Qur’an, or sayings or deeds ascribed to the prophet ‘Hadeeth’. However, because they were raised within and invested in Islamic culture, they refuse to let go of that part of who they are. This group, if given the opportunity, will embrace reforms.
The answer is secularism
Islamic jurisprudence files homosexuality under the same category of offences as adultery. However, no verse in the Qur’an prescribes death by stoning specifically for the ‘sin of homosexuality.’ Muslim scholars, not being easily daunted, use deductions—‘qiyas’—to arrive at punishments they deem fit for the ‘crime,’ ranging from lashings to death by being thrown off the side of a high raised building, or by stoning.
Neither of the two kinds of un-ideal gay Muslims presented here would want to be subjected to such punishments, for varying reasons. The first kind, because they don’t see homosexuality as anything more than a mere sin, no different from lying, which therefore requires only personal repentance directed towards Allah. The other kind, because they don’t care for jurisprudence at all. For these reasons, both will embrace the intercession of a secular justice system where available. But despite the extent of its secularity, the Nigerian state, with laws like the SSMPA, is not famous for its defence of the rights of queer Nigerians, Christian and Muslim alike.
I stood then—in that huge hall, full of well-meaning people grappling to understand how best to assist queer Muslims, who they fear face greater homophobia than, say, their Christian counterparts—as I do now, by what I still believe is the best way to assist queer Muslims in Nigeria: the strengthening of institutions of secularism.
Queer Nigerians, Muslim or not, face discrimination from state and non-state actors every day. The greater tragedy for the kind of queer Muslims I write about here is that they face discrimination, not just for their sexuality, but also for the way in which they choose to practice their faith. Discriminated against by their Muslim brothers and sisters for cherry-picking or outright rejection of harmful doctrines, and scorned by non-Muslims who fail to grasp why they would choose to continue to align themselves with a faith that would have them dead, without hesitation, given the right resources and motivation.
It will have to do, for now, to let queer Muslims speak for themselves and choose the course of their journey to freedom. The only thing any ally can do is to listen, and do no more than is asked of them.