Our bodies are all read within social and political contexts. But, some of us are never read as anything beyond bodies.
By Vanessa Taylor
“Thank you for coming,” a white person told me as they eagerly shook my hand. We were at Pride 2016 and I was the only visible Muslim around. Only moments before, I was harassed by the usual anti-Pride protesters who plagued the area, their insults centered around my being a Black Muslim woman. A crowd gathered with no one offering any substantial assistance or support. The person detouring so far off the sidewalk to find me where I sat, shaking my hand as if I was a rare encounter, reminded me why a crowd would sit by and watch as I endured abuse.
I almost asked why they were thanking me. I wanted them to name their assumption that I was a stranger in this space. Perhaps they assumed this was my first time around the LGBT+ community and that I just had to sit in order to take it all in. Not because, while fasting, I had been called a whore, a terrorist, and more by white men trying to intimidate me as they moved closer, and I needed to recover because enduring this harassment is physically draining. I wanted them to name why, even with the assumption of my not belonging, they would single me out to thank. I wanted them to explicitly name why I represented the Other.
Although a hijab is a transgression within the United States, it is not the correct type of transgression to be read as queer.
Pride of 2016 was not the first time I experienced this, nor will it be the last. At other events, I have entered LGBT+ spaces conscious of how people watch me, as if they’re waiting to see what I will do. I seem to exist only as ignorant ally, just dipping my toe, or as outright enemy, but I am never seen as having the capacity to be a valid member of the community. Because, although many LGBT+ spaces consider themselves radical for occasionally acknowledging Stonewall, these spaces have often come to reproduce the same state politics that perpetuate discrimination and violence against queer people.—in particular, an Othering which stems from anti-Blackness and Islamophobia.
Part of the joy of Pride is the ability to “be yourself”. You are allowed to push back against boundaries, to come as you are, to come as you want—or you should be. When I entered Pride that year, I left my house wearing an abaya because it was also Ramadan. I would need something to pray in later. After arriving at the gates, I consciously removed the black abaya, because I knew keeping it on would frighten people. The myth that all Muslims are heterosexual and inherently homophobic persists, which creates a sort of exceptionalism of queerness. Suddenly, only those in the West are capable of embodying it, and everyone else is simply an ally or waiting to have our queerness discovered by a white savior. When I enter LGBT+ spaces wearing an easily recognizable hijab style, my body and the way it is clothed, becomes perceived as a threat. And if I am not an enemy, then I must be properly taught to deviate. Because, for anything to be deviant, there has to be a normal way of being first. Although you are welcome to be yourself at Pride, it must fall into a pre-approved selection of selves.
In “Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times”, Jasbir Puar writes, “queerness as transgression (which is one step ahead of resistance, which has now become a normative act) relies on a normative notion of deviance, always defined in relation to normativity, often universalizing.” Here, Puar outlines how a transgression (of heteronormativity or of Americanness) becomes conceived of in a very specific way that, in turn, imposes regulations on what transgression, or queerness itself, can or cannot be. Although a hijab is a transgression within the United States, it is not the correct type of transgression to be read as queer.
As the current LGBT+ movement tries to hold onto queerness as an aesthetic of deviance, it fails to examine who it prioritizes and benefits. In its efforts to deviate, the LGBT+ community can find itself mimicking the state via gatekeeping, invalidation, and erasure. One example, as Puar notes, is “the rise of homonormative Islamophobia in the global North, whereby homonormative and queer gay men can enact forms of national, racial, or other belongings by contributing to a collective vilification of Muslims.”
If LGBT+ Muslims are ever acknowledged, we are seen as modern discoveries instead of being regarded as members of communities that have long existed outside of the mainstream because we have never needed “guidance” from the West in the first place.
Homonormativity refers to the continued upholding of heternormative standards and instutions within the LGBT+ community. A common example is the push for marriage mimicking the heteronormative structure as the end-all-be-all of the pursuit for gay rights. In addition, homonormativity fuels the policing of the LGBT+ community. Through American exceptionalism, which positons the United States as unique (and superior) to nations outside the West, Puar identifies how homonormativity gives way to homonationalism.
This vilification, homonationalism, paints Muslims as exceptionally homophobic and sets the West as the only ones capable of civilizing us out of our barbaric sexualities, whether we’re repressed or otherwise perverted. If LGBT+ Muslims are ever acknowledged, we are seen as modern discoveries instead of being regarded as members of communities that have long existed outside of the mainstream because we have never needed “guidance” from the West in the first place. What the West’s narrative ignores is its own homophobia and transphobia. White colonialism itself constructed the anti-Black gender binary we all must grapple with today. While some might try to excuse themselves by thinking or saying, “Oh, not me, I like Muslims,” it is still our vilification that would make someone think my presence at Pride as so unique that they felt compelled to thank me for being there. Otherwise, they probably thought, maybe I wouldn’t have felt appreciated for my assumed allyship. Maybe I would never come back to what must certainly have been a foreign and educational experience for me. Maybe I would have planned the next terrorist attack if they didn’t make me feel welcomed.
It is important, though, to highlight the specific reality of Black Muslims, as most discourse around Islamophobia and Muslims does not. Anti-Black Islamophobia must be situated within Saidiya Hartman’s afterlife of slavery, where Black lives are “still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago.” This framing was offered by Delice Mugabo, who outlines how, because Black people are expelled from the category of human, and religion still exists as for the human, then Black religions cannot be seen. As a result, Black Muslims are left out of the political sphere, despite dealing with unique Islamophobia arising from our position as both Black and Muslim.
My body is not something that could actually be threatened because my body is not seen as worthy of protection from threat.
In LGBT+ spaces, I am well aware of what’s being inscribed on my body. While the mainstream community claims to be open to all, or to fight against unwelcome projections, I am not seen as a legitimate member of the community. Because, identity aside, within the Western imagination, Black Muslim women don’t register as people with sexual agency. Although Puar writes of how Muslim sexuality is read as repressed, Black Muslim women’s sexuality is read within a combination of misogynoiristic and Islamophobic tropes making up one component of anti-Black Islamophobia. The Jezebel trope, for example, portrays Black women as having an insatiable appetite for sex. It is this trope that white people have historically used to claim that Black women could never be considered victims of rape or other sexual violences. But, more specifically, it is this trope that has constructed Black women as figures without sexual agency or control, and it continues today. We are still sexually deviant; we are still sexually irresponsible; we are not even “we” at all, but simply things.
Mugabo captures part of Black Muslim women’s experiences by writing, “The Arab, Asian, and Persian femininity that Islamophobes and their counterparts swear to defend and promote is the same femininity that Black women have not possessed ever since slavery.” As non-Black Muslim women must navigate a gendered extension of Islamophobia including fixations on the hijab and the West as the savior, Black Muslim women must navigate our existence as urban legend. And for queer Black Muslim women, whose existence cannot even be comprehended, our bodies are situated in a state of exceptional precarity, hypervisibility, and invisibility. This is why, at the same Pride event, I had white men insult me as a whore without anyone else stepping up and a white person shake my hand and thank me for being there, as if the space did not belong to me. I’m not jealous of white paternalism and I am not seeking it out. But, as a Black Muslim woman, I don’t have access to the type of Muslim femininity that could be seen as in need of protection. My body is not something that could actually be threatened because my body is not seen as worthy of protection from threat. Although I was struggling to maintain my fast at Pride, dehydrated, hungry, and exhausted, I was not seen as somebody who could be hurt.
We are reduced to a state of non-being, where our bodies are simply things to be used, discarded, and traded in for the next interchangeable model.
My LGBT+ community primarily exists in Black Muslim group chats and late-night group sessions. Perhaps there’s irony in the fact that my community has formed itself online, outside of physical bodies and spaces. We know how to read each other, but nobody else knows what to make of us. Navigating the constant expectancy to change yourself, fold yourself, do something to be more palatable to a movement replicating the anti-Black Islamophobia politics responsible for your body and mind’s harm, is exhausting. So we turn to WhatsApp and trading jokes.
It’s strange being in a body that is never supposed to hurt. Black women are seen as capable of handling ourselves, especially now in a political climate screaming “Listen to Black women!” as a way to righteously make us into movement mules. As an organizer in the Twin Cities, I had to navigate my own expectations of how I was supposed to be invincible. I had a period where I was sick for a month, to a point where a friend said each cough sounded like I was “giving birth to [my] lungs”. Then, I expected myself to carry on. Now, I am allowing myself to be a tired, irritated Black Muslim woman.
Our bodies are all read within social and political contexts. But, some of us are never read as anything beyond bodies. We are reduced to a state of non-being, where our bodies are simply things to be used, discarded, and traded in for the next interchangeable model. As Mugabo summarized, to be human is to be anything but Black. So, I understand why people would be surprised to see me at Pride. By all means, I am not supposed to exist there, and most people aren’t used to seeing ghosts outside of their graveyards.
Vanessa Taylor is a writer based out of Philadelphia, although the Midwest will always be home. She has work in outlets such as Teen Vogue, Racked, and Catapult. Her work focuses on Black Muslim womanhood and the taboo. You can follow her across social media at @bacontribe.
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