Ameer Khan: I Can Be Holy and Queer

Ameer Khan I Can Be Holy and Queer

Ameer Khan shares her journey of coming out and reconciling her faith with her identity. This story was reprinted with the author’s permission from MissMuslim magazine.

My name is Ameer Khan, and I was brought up by two Bengali immigrants in and around the St. Louis County area of Missouri.

Having immigrated here through many hardships and lots of luck, they brought me up with values of hard work and strict religion. These happened to be very typical Midwestern conservative values, except my religion was Islam instead of Evangelical Christianity. I was always expected to “be a good Muslim” from a young age, and I tried my damnedest to be that good Muslim and make my parents proud. For example, my mother’s strict interpretation of Islam taught me that good Muslims do not listen to music, so I stuffed my fingers in my ears during my 1st grade music class. When the confused teacher asked me why I was standing there suffering through the horrifying sounds of a piano and I explained my reasoning, they allowed for me to sit out the rest of the year from the music class. Instead I would go to a teacher’s office and read books, which I took a huge interest in.

Besides my public-school community, I lived in the St. Louis Muslim community outside of that. The community was very diverse, which I am extremely grateful for. There were many other Bengalis, as well as Indians, Pakistanis, and Arabs from all sorts of different countries, the vast majority of them being immigrant families. So I grew up alongside many other first generation immigrant children. Although the Muslim community was very diverse, most everyone I interacted with was inevitably financially better off than my own family. We did not have much, and while I looked at the other kids with their huge variety of games on their flashy Game Boy Advances, I was taught to be frugal and smart with the little I had. My mom taught me to value myself not based on the worth of my bank accounts, but on the worth of my faith.

In line with this, I joined a pioneer group of students in 5th grade and became a member of the first generation of Huffaz in the St. Louis area. (A Hafiz is someone who has memorized the entire Qur’an in Arabic, and Huffaz is the plural.) I was the first Bengali student person in St. Louis to have memorized the entire holy book of our faith cover to cover, and I was given many accolades for it within our small community. It was two years of rigorous work, but the support I felt from my family and my community spurred me on, as well as my internal motivation to grow in my faith and be a good Muslim.

Then I entered high school, and slowly but surely realized that I was gay. I had heard so many stories of people falling in love, and the stories around how it would look and feel when I fell in love. I thought I had felt it with my minor elementary school crushes on girl, wondering, “Is this love? I think so…” But then I came to high school, and I met Dave.

A huge bundle of energy, a non-conformist, and incredibly intelligent, there was something irresistible about him I had never felt towards anyone before. I told my mom I would stay after school to “study” or “work on my science fair project”, but my real motive was to spend as much time with this beautiful human as I possibly could. I felt so many emotions towards him that I couldn’t define, until I heard the song “True Love” by P!nk. And when I found her description of True Love matched my emotions exactly, I couldn’t believe it.

This couldn’t happen to me, no way. I was a Hafiz. I outright denied that this could be me, even when I realized it fell in line with my newfound habit of being more comfortable watching gay porn than straight porn. So when one day, Dave asked me, “You’re gay, aren’t you?” I realized I had been running away from this truth because it was too painful to embrace. I had to admit to myself that I was indeed gay.

This had a huge toll on me emotionally and spiritually, and much of high school was plagued with me wrestling with God and destiny about this. “Why, God, did you make me gay and put this burden on me?” echoed back and forth in my mind for months on end. I had to admit to myself that I was indeed gay.

Most of the people around me did not know I was gay, and if they did they would tell me what I already knew better than them: I have a mental defect, and the only way I can truly live as a Muslim while also being gay is to simply never have sex, to never find love and be loved and be married, to force yourself into a living hell so that you could find Heaven after death.

This way of thinking had a huge toll on my mental health, and during high school I went through several years of depression and suicidal ideation. I had to burden this pain alone, because I could not tell a soul without getting told either that I would be going to hell, or that I wasn’t actually gay and that my pain wasn’t real. I didn’t trust white American non-Muslims to know what my faith and connection to Allah meant to me or to my Bengali Muslim family, and I didn’t trust Muslims to know the pain of being gay.

I couldn’t tell anyone but Allah about my pain. I yelled at God in the middle of the night, asking why He made me this way while also saying suicide was Haram, why he would put me through hell without providing me a way out of it. I took knives and I carved the letters “GAY” into my chest, and still have the scars of self-harm on my chest and arms. I cried and yelled at Allah because there was nobody else there who would truly listen and understand.

Until I finally found one valuable friend, Azfar, who listened to me thoroughly about both my gay identity and my Muslim identity. We carpooled to Community College classes one semester my senior year, and slowly but surely we grew close and bonded over, of all things, My Little Pony. We loved it because although it was a cartoon meant for kids, it showed us a healthy model of expressing our feelings and a way to be genuine with yourself and others about your own desires and shortcomings that was, quite frankly, not something I had ever had a model for besides the stories of the Prophets. We bonded over this, and slowly I was able to open up to him about the secret that I was gay.

Over time, he played a role that mirrored the role of a therapist, an occupation our immigrant Muslim community didn’t find important or valuable or worth the little money our family could ever scrape together. He was able to help me sort through my own thoughts in my own religion in a way that has laid the foundation for where I am today. He helped me to accept that God had a reason for creating me the way I am, and that my “test” is not to live stifled by shallow interpretations of a book with thousands of years of context haphazardly interpolated. Rather, my test is to be humble and genuine, accepting and understanding, even in the face of those who will humiliate me and do not afford me respect.

In the middle of sorting out all of these identity issues in my mind, I entered St. Louis University. The first two years of attending college were slow and rather similar to high school since I still lived with my parents. I focused mostly on studies and keeping to my two friend groups, my biomedical engineering friends and my Muslim friends, both of whom I was closeted to.

Near the end of my sophomore year I grew close with an upperclassman who happened to be gay, and he helped me to become more confident in myself and my identity, even though he was atheist. By the end of the year I had come out of the closet to my close friends, and again later on stage at an MSA spoken word poetry event with about 500 Knoxville and Midwestern Muslims in attendance. It was exhilarating to finally begin living as myself. I got connected to a Facebook Group for queer Muslims, and I was able to connect with HUNDREDS of other people who also had similar experiences as me. And for so long, I thought I was the only one!

By this time, I had also been accepted to become a Resident Advisor (RA) for my junior year. However, my parents had really made living at home difficult for me, as they did not know how to accept me nor did they try to be supportive. Instead, they argued with me about how they knew who I really was and I didn’t, they minimized my pain, and they reminded me frequently of the fate of the People of Lut. I lived that summer under my parents’ roof, counting down the days until RAs could move into their dorms, so I could leave that suffocating environment. When I finally was able to move in I bonded with my fellow staff members, and particularly with my boss Jeff. I found a sort of acceptance that was completely foreign to my strict conservative Muslim upbringing, and it was a breath of fresh air that I desperately needed. I knew that Allah had sent me to this staff to help me grow as a person.

My junior year I was always running on eight cylinders, but although I was often tired I loved it because I was in such a powerful period of growth. The Muslim Student Association, my friend group since freshman year, began to drift apart from me because of my coming out. They would also argue with me about my identity, about the “biological evidence for gay people” being weak, and they had “no problem with gay people” but they weren’t OK praying behind or next to one of them (me), or sitting in halaqas with me, or spending the time to check in on me, or letting me dress in skirts or feminine clothing without making hurtful glances or comments – and the list went on.

By senior year I had left a leadership position on their board entirely because of this gradual alienation. My first two years at SLU I was primed to take the role of presidency, but after coming out as a trans woman few people would vote for me. However, outside of the MSA and general Muslim community I found a powerful spiritual presence in Campus Ministry, which up until this point I had not been interested in because they were not Muslim. I connected deeply with Campus Ministers, and eventually ended up going to the US-Mexico border with them on an immersion trip, where I saw firsthand how deeply justice work and faith must be intertwined.

I could not point directly at one thing that made this happen, but the combination of becoming an RA, pushing myself outside of my comfort zone, and meeting incredible new people in Campus Ministry during my junior year opened my eyes to the systems of injustice all around me. The idea of intersectionality, of all struggles for justice being part of the same, greater movement for liberation, was something new to me, but it made so much sense.

Upon introspection, my own identity was intersectional, having an immigrant family, being from the LGBT community, and being Muslim. Before I had only known about the marginalization of the Muslim community in America, because that’s what my Muslim community emphasized. But slowly I begin to learn about the systematic marginalization of the African-American community, the struggles of the LGBT community, and about how the currents of history continue today and are muddled by propaganda and our own socialized blind spots. I learned vocabulary that I had never even thought of before, such as white supremacy, savior complex, intersectional feminism, and pinkwashing. I realized I myself had many unaddressed traumas due to these systems that failed so many people like me.

I joined Black Lives Matter and on-campus activists in their protests around police brutality. I pushed myself outside of my comfort zone over and over again. Somehow, I became politically active after not having any interest in it before. And I realized, with the help of my extremely supportive boss Jeff who I had many long conversations with, that I wasn’t actually a gay male, but rather a genderfluid trans woman, a model of understanding that fit my experiences more accurately than just “gay male”.

There are many identities that fit under the Trans Umbrella, and there is no one “right” way to be a trans woman. I would loosely define it as someone who doesn’t feel at home living within the typical gender binaries of male and female. I had always been a male by default, but never sat quite right with the term. I realized upon reflection with my boss Jeff, a level of reflection I could have never achieved living at home with my parents, that I had always wanted to be more feminine, but never really felt entirely male or entirely female.

I looked to the stories of other trans people on YouTube and on my campus to hear about how they realized they were trans and saw similarities between our stories. I educated myself on what criteria I needed to meet to be a trans woman, and I was taught from the get-go that the most important thing is if it feels right, like it fills in a gap in your sense of self and relating with the world, then you’re onto something. There was an emphasis on saying that your experience, however that looked like, was valid and yours to claim and interpret. And the more I listened carefully, the more I realized I was probably trans myself.

So after much reflection, I came out, giving my identity the name of “non-binary genderfluid femme”, which means that I can feel either masculine or feminine and though I lean towards being feminine, I don’t want to be designated as either male or female entirely. This is a lot for people to wrap their heads around, so most of the time I simply say I’m a trans woman and leave it at that. Many non-binary individuals use “they/them” pronouns when they are being referred to (example: “This is Mary. They are non-binary. They teach a math class.”), but since coming to my self-realization I have always felt more at home using she/her pronouns than using they/them pronouns.

This identity came with being freer and empowered enough to be myself around SLU campus. In this case, that meant I wore more feminine clothing around campus, like skirts, that (as mentioned before) drew the criticism of other MSA members until finally I felt alienated and distanced from the group I felt such a strong attachment to before. It was a tradeoff that was worth it to me, because I had, Alhamdulillah, created strong friendships with supportive people outside of MSA that embraced me for who I was – unlike MSA.

After coming out of the closet and living as my true self inside and out, I met so many other trans and queer people around St. Louis and even from outside of the city and was able to hear so many different stories and journeys to where they are today.

I will transition here, pun intended, to speak of the experiences of others in the queer and trans community. Although their experiences may be quite different, their struggles are intertwined.

Many of these queer and trans people had similarly been isolated and alienated from their religious groups and had either left their religion or had left their religious community because of not finding the support to thrive as a trans Catholic or a gay Muslim. Many in the trans community truly want to be connected to God, but cannot because they are made to be so alone. They feel unwanted by Muslims, and thereby unwanted by Allah or unwanted by even themselves. Depression and suicide rates are obnoxiously high in the transgender community in America, with the only reported attempted suicide rates being around 40-50% of transgender people. This means that the rate of actual successful suicide attempts, where the person completes killing themselves, are not reported – making the severity of this percentage even higher.

On top of being taught by society to hate themselves, the trans community faces a huge rate of bullying, at school and at workplaces, as well as push from legislators to criminalize aspects of trans existence! This includes using the bathroom where trans people feel the most relaxed, receiving access to medical transitioning medication and/or surgeries, and removing legal workplace discrimination protections. If that didn’t sound bad enough, the queer and trans population also have disproportionately high rates of homelessness compared to the general population (~40% of homeless youth are LGBT, although they make up <10% of the general population) specifically due to the phenomenon of families kicking out or disowning their child for realizing their identity within the LGBT population.

With all of these factors in mind, it is extraordinarily hard to find trans people thriving productively in this society. But keep in mind that those who do, have likely been privileged in their own way. They may have been able to remain in the closet until financially and socially convenient, or have a supportive family or friend group, or have had medical insurance that provided them access to transitioning, or have had legal protections to protect them from being discriminated in the workplace. Their success is almost never because of their transness, but despite it and because of other factors.

Back to my own story:

Having grown up in St. Louis Missouri, I had never even known that other trans Muslims even existed! Much less have a positive role model to ask about how to view my own experience without defaulting to mainstream Muslim stories. So my coming out as trans didn’t really have a Muslim model to go off of. I came out as trans in a supportive campus environment, with my boss and staff actively supporting me as they realized I needed it. But none of them were trans. Then again, I found trans Muslims on Facebook, and used that as the medium to find community with those struggling to balance these two identities that never were opposed to each other.

And then when I began reading literature such as Brother Scott Kugle’s “Homosexuality in Islam,” I realized that there were so many queer interpretations of Quranic and Biblical figures, and even documented transgender Sahabah of Rasulullah (SAWS) (companions/friends of the Prophet), that everyone simply glazed over and ignored the existence of!

I saw these, and then slowly I realized: I can be holy and queer. I can be close to Allah, connected, humble and loving and obedient, and transgender.

Realizing the importance of all of these social justice issues made me see my role as a Muslim, a believer in a just and merciful and loving Allah, in a completely new light. I realized that I myself contributed to these systems by not directly addressing the microaggressions and assumptions around me that contributed to those systems. My purpose in life, my role as a good Muslim, was to stand for the oppressed, not to stand in their way.

This slow realization helped me in my role as the President of the Interfaith Alliance, a role I have been blessed to be in and one that I take seriously. It has inspired me to talk to my legislators in St. Louis and also in Washington, DC, to take action for justice, such as passing the Dream Act or bringing awareness about the modern-day Rohingya Genocide. It has inspired me to challenge myself to learn how to accompany and empower those who are marginalized, however that may look like.