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Challenging Homophobia in the Muslim World

Activist Sharjeel Hanif is encouraged by the progress he sees.

Sharjeel Hanif

For many people in marginalized communities, there is stigma and often hatred. But 31-year-old Sharjeel Hanif, a queer Muslim IT specialist, sees the bigotry as a challenge that has only made him stronger.

“Being a minority within a minority has been one of the great blessings of my life,” Hanif explains. “It has enabled in me a sense of empathy for others and curiosity for knowledge that I do not think I would otherwise have. One of my favorite quotes from the Quran is, ‘We have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.’ I think this perfectly encapsulates the American (and increasingly global) experience. While we all have differences, we are here to learn from and appreciate one another.”

Born in Karachi, Pakistan, Hanif’s family emigrated to Houston’s Alief area when he was a baby, so he grew up in the suburbs. He currently resides in Sugar Land and works in IT operations for a major financial institution.

“I have always been curious about the way things work, and my job lets me pursue that on two fronts: understanding technology, and understanding how financial markets work,” Hanif says. “It’s been a journey getting to where I am, and I am grateful for the opportunities I have had as a ‘Generation 1.5’ immigrant.

“That is not to say it has not been without its challenges,” he adds. “Particularly in a post 9/11 America, it was common to hear stories in the community of discrimination, from businesses and homes being vandalized to bullying and harassment of students. That is on top of the very real policies that affected so many people’s lives—the racial profiling of Muslims at home and the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Muslim-majority countries abroad, as well as the negative and stereotypical depictions of Muslims in media and Hollywood. On the latter front, we have come a long way. Today, we can even find queer Muslim characters on television! That representation goes a long way, to be able to see yourself on screen.”

Hanif notes that today’s Muslim American community is generally not as conservative as other minority groups, so they are more accepting of their LGBTQ neighbors.

“In this environment, Muslim American support for LGBTQ+ rights has improved dramatically over the past decade,” Hanif says. “This is no surprise; people are beginning to realize that our collective freedoms are intertwined. Growing up, I would always see the visibly hijab-wearing Muslim woman hanging out with the visibly queer person. This tended to surprise people, but it never surprised me. Both groups of people know what it feels like to be discriminated against or judged, based purely on how they look. That says something to me about what it means to build ally-ship across groups of people.”

Hanif is a member of an offshoot of the UK’s Hidayah LGBTQI+, a leading queer Muslim charity.

“Hidayah is an organization committed to challenging homophobia within the Muslim community and Islamophobia within the queer community,” Hanif explains. “They provide resources to LGBTQI+ Muslims—mentoring, workshops, networking opportunities, and spiritual resources as well as educational seminars for Muslims and the wider community. They have had a large presence in the UK, another country with a growing Muslim community, and are starting to expand to the US. As the US is a much larger geographical area than the UK, right now all of their US programming is virtual. The word Hidayah is an Arabic word meaning ‘guidance.’ I came on board to help get the organization officially launched as a 501(c)(3) in the US, which we are very excited about.”

Hanif is also involved in his company’s LGBTQ employee resource group (ERG). He says it has been a great way to connect with colleagues who may be going through some of the same things he has had to navigate in the workplace.

He is also a precinct chair for the Fort Bend Democratic Party, and he encourages anyone interested in getting involved with political activism work to become a precinct chair as a way to get involved in local campaigns and connect with other folks dedicated to advancing specific causes—something he is adamant about in these times.

“It is no surprise that this same Texas legislature and governor that are banning books about queer people are also banning books about people of color,” he says of the current Republican-controlled state government. “It’s the same folks wanting to ban drag shows [with Senate Bill 12] and gender-affirming care [with Senate Bill 14] that are also trying to prevent legal immigrants, including Iranian Americans, from purchasing homes in the state [with Senate Bill 147]. All of us have to stick together in pushing back against this nonsense.”

Hanif concludes with some final words of wisdom for all Texans: “For the broader community, my plea would be to be patient and aware that the gay Muslim experience is not always going to be the same as the broader LGBTQ+ experience. Show us patience, compassion, and empathy. Our experiences—particularly when it comes to the process of coming out and our relationships with family and faith—are going to be different. But that does not in any way minimize or diminish our queerness. My motto is, ‘Let people be!’”

Learn more about the queer Muslim charity Hidayah at hidayahlgbt.com.

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Marene Gustin

Marene Gustin has written about Texas culture, food, fashion, the arts, and Lone Star politics and crime for television, magazines, the web and newspapers nationwide, and worked in Houston politics for six years. Her freelance work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, Texas Monthly, Dance International, Dance Magazine, the Advocate, Prime Living, InTown magazine, OutSmart magazine and web sites CultureMap Houston and Austin, Eater Houston and Gayot.com, among others.
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