Houston group offers LGBTQ Muslims a safe space—and a political voice.
By Josh Inocéncio
After attending a California retreat for Muslims who identify as lesbian, Erum Rani wondered why there wasn’t a group for queer followers of Islam in the Lone Star State.
Earlier this year, along with fellow Houstonians Naushaba Patel and Sean McGlasson, Rani founded the Iftikhar Community of Texas. “‘Iftikhar’ means ‘pride’ in Arabic,” Rani explains. “As I went through the Quran to find a group name, I wanted a word that uplifted queer Muslims. We want to emphasize the love of Islam.”
In 2014, following the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Creating Change conference in Houston, McGlasson formed a private Facebook group as a safe space for queer Muslims. He has since merged that Facebook group with Iftikhar, which pivoted toward a more public profile with its celebration of Ramadan this summer.
The Iftikhar Community of Texas, based at the Montrose Center, offers a place where queer Muslims—and particularly those still closeted to their families—can be open. However, Iftikhar’s leaders have also incorporated activism into their mission. “Because the group is more public now, it has the ability to change a lot of minds,” Patel says. “It’s an opportunity to collaborate with other LGBTQ organizations, religious communities, and Arab groups. We want more visibility.”
Rani, Patel, and McGlasson, who’ve all had to reconcile their faith with their sexuality, agree on one thing about Islam: homophobia lies within Islamic cultural mores, but not in the religion itself.
McGlasson, a white gay man and former Catholic, converted to Islam when he was 19 after studying the Quran. “I grew up around an extended Muslim family, and I had lot of Muslim friends at school,” he recalls. “Basically, I was curious about the Quran. So I started reading it, and it’s hard to explain, but I realized this was for me. Around the same time, I was also coming to terms with being gay. That was a struggle, but I never felt that God hated me.” Although he doesn’t think Islam’s sacred text is antigay, McGlasson says he’s faced challenges from followers of Islam who believe homosexuality is sinful. He adds that it was harder coming out to his mother as a Muslim than as gay.
While the Quran has several passages that depict homosexuality, the meaning of the verses is subject to interpretation and debate. There’s a story about Sodom and Gomorrah, but just as in the Bible, the narrative centers around a gang rape and the sin of being inhospitable—not the morality of consensual gay sex. As Christopher van der Krogt, a history lecturer at the University of Massey, notes, “In practice, homosexual encounters, including with young male prostitutes, seem to have been quite common in Islamic societies. They were no more or less a cause for moralistic concern than other forms of illicit sex.”
Indeed, a recent Pew Center poll noted that U.S. Muslims are more accepting of homosexuality than Christian evangelicals. Nevertheless, stigmas about gay Muslims persist.
Patel and Rani are both Pakistani immigrants who had struggled with conservative Muslim communities in Houston during adolescence. “Originally, I was just going to give in to the arranged-marriage pressures to make my parents happy,” Patel says, recalling how nonchalant she was about the Pakistani custom at first.
While studying for her master’s degree in New York City, Patel began exploring her sexuality. “I remember sitting in a class and learning how everything is on a spectrum. And I realized I must be, too,” she says.
Patel decided to utilize her science background and test her sexuality by dating three men and three women. “I’m a researcher,” she says, eliciting chuckles from Rani and McGlasson. “At first, I was 15 percent bisexual, but then I kept moving further along the Kinsey Scale. For all intents and purposes now, I’m same-gender loving,” Patel says.
“Reconciling my faith with Islam has never been a difficult thing for me,” Patel adds. “But it’s still really difficult with my parents. We don’t really talk about it. I think they’re most anxious about [the reaction from our] extended family in Pakistan.”
Rani, whose father served as president of the Islamic Society of Houston, says she was in the public eye with her family. “I knew who I was at an early age, but I didn’t know how to tell my parents,” she says. “I was in Pakistan when I officially came out to my father. He told me he would love me, no matter what.”
Now that Patel, Rani, and McGlasson have made their LGBTQ group more public, they’re ready to proudly represent their faith and their sexualities. During Ramadan, they hosted an event at the Montrose Center involving food and prayer. Eid, which refers to the end of Ramadan when followers break their fasts, coincided with Pride weekend in Houston. “[Ramadan] is the month during which the Quran was revealed,” Patel says, reflecting on the significance of aligning their public “coming out” with the Islamic holiday. “For me, it’s a month to be more conscious of who I am as a person, and to live more charitably.”
Amid its celebrations, the Iftikhar group has faced backlash from conservative Muslims in Houston. After Iftikhar leaders joined a large Houston-area Muslim group on Facebook, one of them shared an article on a gay Muslim wedding that took place in the United Kingdom. “The post blew up and got more than 1,000 comments,” McGlasson says. “The backlash was largely based on misconceptions on what homosexuality is. But we were just making a point that there are queer Muslims, that we’re here, and that we deserve respect. Just from saying that, we got mostly negative reactions. People told us we were an oxymoron, that we were sinful, that we were pedophiles.”
Rani anticipated the vicious backlash, and was glad that McGlasson handled the group’s response on Facebook. “I’m not sure if I’m mentally ready for all that negativity from our own [Muslim] community,” she says.
But in addition to the criticism, Iftikhar has also received immense support from non-queer Muslims. In fact, the Iftikhar Facebook page jumped from 85 likes to 700 within a week, and LGBTQ Muslims who didn’t know about the group were able to connect after seeing the post about the gay wedding. Even though Iftikhar is based in Houston, the group now has followers from Austin, Dallas, and Beaumont. The diversity of members across the LGBTQ spectrum has increased, too, with more transgender and genderqueer people.
Buoyed by this support, Iftikhar’s leaders are motivated to move the group forward with further political appearances and community events.
The group’s main concern, however, is the increased Islamophobia that all Muslims have endured since President Trump’s election last November. Patel’s parents even wondered whether they should leave the U.S. and return to Pakistan, fearing violence from fellow Americans.
But the Iftikhar leaders, while shaken by Trump’s rise and his extreme policies, remain undaunted. Before they formalized the public group, they appeared at the 2016 Republican primary debate at the University of Houston with signs to protest then-candidate Trump and his Islamophobic rhetoric. They also participated in the airport protests after Trump announced his first Muslim ban in January. And in June, they were at the Equality March in Austin where Patel gave a speech against Islamophobia in front of the capitol.
In short, these Iftikhar Community of Texas leaders are ready to take on any criticism, whether it be from Muslims, LGBTQ people, or Islamophobes.
“I don’t just want tolerance, I want celebration,” Patel says. “I don’t want to be treated like a second-class citizen. I’m not doing anything sinful. I’m a good person.”
To learn more about the group, visit Facebook.com/IftikharCommunityofTexas.
This article appears in the September 2017 edition of OutSmart Magazine.