Overcoming Homophobia: Come to know one another

The massacre of patrons in a Florida nightclub at the hands of a Muslim homophobe shines a harsh spotlight on Islamic beliefs about homosexuality and concomitant bias against the LGBT community. This topic is controversial and difficult for many Muslims because of conditioned views, inculcated by social and religious institutions, that same-gender sexual relations are perverse and wrong. Like their Christian counterparts who cite the Bible to condemn homosexuality, many Muslim fundamentalists quote the Qur'an to the same end. Yet the overriding message of both Bible and Qur'an is that we are all children of the same loving and compassionate God, called not to condemn but to love and support each other in the life journey to our common Source. The simple truth is that if our relationships with our holy books get in the way of our relationships with each other, they will surely be in the way of our relationship with God. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) famously advised, "Even if the religious judge advises you about earthly matters, first consult your heart."

As a young Muslim, I was taught that homosexuality was an unnatural "addiction" but that one should be compassionate toward homosexuals. In my early years as a spiritual counselor, I thought it could be cured by a combination of divine grace and persistent inner work. One day a Muslim family brought their gay son to my office, hoping I could help heal him through spiritual practices. With great fervor I worked with him for many weeks to set him on "the right path," but to no avail. Our work seemed to bring him closer to God, but he still felt the same-sex attraction. At a certain point, sensing his pain, I let go of my agenda and was finally able to listen to him. For the first time I heard the depth of his anguish: His mother wanted to commit suicide; his father was ready to move the family to another state; he agonized over the pain he was causing his loved ones; he did not want to be gay but could not help himself despite heroic efforts. Something opened in me: I moved, as Sufis say, from knowledge of tongue to knowledge of heart. I finally recognized that his sexual orientation was not a matter of choice but a natural disposition.

The refusal to countenance anything but heterosexual love has caused deep anguish to countless generations of people whose God-given natures simply don't conform to the "norm." The rate of depression and suicide in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender population is unusually high, as is the incidence of crimes against them. The violence perpetrated against them in the name of religion and righteous indignation is horrific and absolutely un-Islamic. It is our spiritual duty to become mindful of the consequences of our homophobic biases.

For my part, I came to realize that whereas I had been advising my gay client to apply himself diligently to seek help from God and do the inner spiritual work to overcome his dysfunction, it was I who needed to heed my own advice. I needed to pray in the words of the Qur'an, "Open for me my heart" (20:25) and "O God, advance me in knowledge" (20:114).

Expansion of consciousness is a sacred duty and there can be no limit to our capacity for compassion. How do we accomplish this? The first step is to put aside the hurtful stereotyping of homosexuals as people who are damaged and perverted. We need to connect with them on a human level and make space in our hearts to acknowledge that all humans long for love and relationship in different ways.

It is also important to let go of exclusive interpretations of our sacred texts and ask how gay Muslims interpret verses of the Qur'an about homosexuality. Like their Jewish and Christian counterparts, they point out that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Qur'an is not about homosexuality but about male assault and rape. And, like all decent people, they condemn these acts of violence. Like most heterosexuals, they also believe in the sacredness of union based on love, respect, and tenderness with their same-sex partners. They believe that out of a need for diversity, God created them as they are. They did not choose their orientation; God chose it for them.

Over the past few decades, American society has evolved to a similar viewpoint, that sexual orientation is inborn and morally neutral. Poll numbers show that even some fundamentalists have modified their views and now accept gay people's rights to same-sex marriage. What has led to such a profound shift?

Social scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, in their groundbreaking book titled American Grace, attribute the change to a "bridge" formed by a gradual realization among conservative Christians that they have been working and socializing with gays, sometimes for years, without realizing it. As political and social conditions changed and homosexuals felt safer in disclosing their same-sex orientation, the rigid moral judgments of their heterosexual friends and colleagues lost their harshness because personal relationships of mutual respect had already been established. People all over America found that they knew and liked gay and lesbian people--they just hadn't known them as such. Thus, although verses in their scripture have not changed, attitudes have shifted. In a New York Times op-ed commenting on the authors' findings, Robert Wright writes, "The meaning of scripture is shaped by social relations."

Putnam and Campbell's "bridge" would be right at home in the Qur'an! God created diversity among humans for one primary reason, says the Holy Book: "that you might come to know one another" (Qur'an 49:13). Polls indicate that some forty percent of American Muslims have indeed gotten to know their gay neighbors, colleagues, and relatives enough to support their right to same-sex marriage. It is time for all other Muslims and Islamic institutions to follow their lead and overcome homophobia by obeying the sacred injunction to know each another with love and compassion. It's the right thing--the Qur'anic thing--to do!