Interview Aam Gaysi : Do Some Drag, It’ll Help You Get Comfortable In Your Own Skin!

Interviewee : Rahim Thawer

What do you identify as (gay, bi, transgendered, queer – use any terms you like here)?


When did you first start to define your identity as such?

I think I called myself bisexual in 9th grade. Yes, I used it as a stepping stone (apologies to the bisexual community!). By first year of my undergrad, I was more comfortable identifying as gay (to myself) and as of a couple of years ago, I’ve taken on both gay and queer; the latter incorporates a more politicized layer of my identity.

Have you experienced first-hand homophobia? If yes, how did you deal with it?

I think we’ve all experienced first-hand homophobia. It’s called growing up in a straight world with specific gender expectations, not to mention internalized ideas from that (often uncritical) straight world about relationships, family, finances, community, obligations and lifestyle. Yes, in retrospect I’d say that’s all heterosexism and homophobia.

But structural heterosexism aside, yes, I have had some significant experiences of personal and vicarious homophobic trauma. I’d prefer not to delve into them again but the impact remains with me. Fear of physical violence always lurks in the back of my mind and a general sense of safety that I once took for granted has since readjusted to accommodate the reality of potential threats. It might be for just being my normal flamboyant self or perhaps for verbally defending myself against homophobic slurs but I am often hyper aware of my surroundings.

Coping has only been possible with good friends and a loving brother.  My academic work environment at St Jerome’s University (2008) was also an important pillar of support because it facilitated a process of normalizing my experiences and identity. Still, one important thing I had to accept was that my education and self-love (despite how much I’ve invested in it) would not save me in a physical fight. Instead it’s been helpful to focus my energy on creating change on a community level through anti-homophobia work and empowerment-driven approaches to social work within the gay community. I currently work at the AIDS Committee of Toronto and the Hassle Free Clinic—I think my commitment to working in queer services has partially come from a personal need to create a supportive queer community because so many of us have faced some kind of gender-based violence.

Photo credit: Fatima Jaffer

I came out to myself somewhere between seventh and ninth grade; it’s a bit fuzzy and I think it happened in pieces.

Who did you first come out to & why did you come out to that person?

Ninth to tenth grade was when I first told anyone. The first person I told was a straight male friend when he came home for a sleep over at my parents’ house. I obviously had a little crush on him. Went OK (So embarrassing to think about now!)

Did your coming out change anything about your relationship with them?

Yes, my friend and I were both quite involved in our religious/faith community and certain layers of our involvement lent themselves to dialogue about my views. Coming out to just one person gave me a platform to talk about “my experience.” He couldn’t relate, made a few gay jokes the odd time, but overall was very supportive.

Have you ever been outed without your consent? If yes, how did you deal with it?

That describes most of my first year of university. The issue is not being outed per se, but rather feeling like you don’t have control over your life at a time when you feel defensive about who you are. I think this kind of thing is what ate up most of my energy and interfered with reaching any kind of healthy reconciliation of my sexuality.

I didn’t deal with it particularly well. I was quite depressed at certain times. I had a couple of very supportive friends but at the time I felt emotionally chaotic and wished I was straight. I do, however, recall some very poignant talks with a couple of girlfriends in my life who assured me of their “defense” when others inquired about my sexuality or wanted to gossip about what it meant that I walked and talked “like a fag”. That solidarity was really helpful.

In the article Contents Under Pressure: A Queer Muslim Unsilenced you say, “you don’t have to conform to one way of being anything, either queer or Muslim”. But don’t you ever experience conflict between the two especially since homosexuality is a big taboo in Islam?

The conflict is ongoing, of course. But I think cultures and communities are always changing and because they’re comprised of human beings they’ll never remain stagnant as long as we see ourselves as active contributors to making our culture what it is.

What I meant by not having to conform is really about shifting power; to give myself the leisure that a lot of straight Muslims have to interpret faith the way they want or the privilege White people (often) have of not being reduced to their religious affiliation, having to defend their membership in a group, or having that religion viewed as a complete monolith. Instead of being preoccupied with how to be a representative of any group, I want to say I identify as queer and Muslim without having to qualify to what degree I “practice” Islam because it’s an unfair conversation to begin with; I’m only being asked that because I’m gay.

Do you think being Muslim makes it harder to come out & that if you weren’t part of such a traditional & conservative culture you would have an easier time with your sexuality/identity?

No. To start, I don’t think Muslim communities are particularly conservative or traditional; instead I think on a group level there’s a struggle to preserve “cultural roots” and resist what’s perceived as imperialism, which has a legitimate place.

If I didn’t grow up in a Muslim home and community, I may have come out earlier but I don’t know how useful that would have been to me—my friends in the Ismaili Muslim community were more supportive and sympathetic than my elementary/high school friends. So coming out earlier than I did might have left me with fewer resources.

As much as I think we need to do more advocacy work to break the silence around sexuality in some of our own ethno-religious communities, I think we also need to recognize that the sense of belonging people get from these communities contributes to their resilience and mitigates other vulnerabilities. Yes, I admit, I speak from a place of certain privilege. In fact, I also speak from a place of having some emotional and physical distance from the community I’m praising.

We don’t hear much about Queer Muslim women. Why you suppose so? Do you think gender has a big role to play in this?

Well, they certainly exist, I can tell you that! What’s gendered is likely men’s increased likelihood to seek supportive services and take up more public space (I don’t have a citation for that; it’s just a thought). I also think, in general, same-sex male sexuality is more stigmatized in our world at large (which is rooted in sexism, of course). So, by default, it’s male sexuality that becomes more visible. Many people who discuss religion and sexuality often note that scripture that speaks to homosexuality usually sanctions men more than women (e.g. Jihad for Love).

On the other side of the coin, we also know from our historical experience in the mainstream queer and trans community that once we do create safer spaces, men often dominate them to the (subtle and explicit) exclusion of women and trans people. Unfortunately.

I do a lot of community organizing with Salaam: Queer Muslim Community and Ismaili Queers: Advocates for Pluralism in Toronto and I feel like I’ve actually been hearing more women’s’ voices coming through. The el-Tawhid Juma Circle: Toronto Unity Mosque is a testament to this with Muslim women (both queer and straight) leading prayer.

Hindu history has traces of homosexuality. What about the history of Islam? Does Quran talk about same-sex love?

Certainly. It makes sense to just assume so. I’m not at all a Muslim scholar but if you break down Islam into its many regional histories, I’d assume you’d find same-sexuality everywhere in the world with different social labels occurring in a myriad of ways (i.e. not necessarily as long term relationships).

Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature by S.Murray and Queering Religion by G.Comstock might be helpful places to start (though I hear the former author is controversial in many ways).

You are part of various Queer groups and work closely with the community. Tell us about it.

I worked with the GLOW Centre for Sexual & Gender Diversity while in my undergrad and since then have worked mainly in the HIV sector at the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention (ASAAP), Black-Coalition for AIDS Prevention (B-CAP), AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT), and Hassle Free Clinic.

At ACT, I’m a Bathhouse Counsellor with a program called ‘Towel Talk’, which provides therapeutic counselling and referrals to guys who may not otherwise access social/queer services. At Hassle Free Clinic, I do counselling and referrals through a program called ‘Making the Links’ during point-of-care HIV testing for guys who want to get connected to social as well as mental health services.

I mentioned Ismaili Queers earlier. It’s mostly online group of folks who self-identify as queer and Ismaili. I’ve spent some time with other group members over the last couple of years trying to make the group bigger, create a supportive forum for discussion and help build our capacity as a group. We marched in both Toronto and Vancouver Pride in 2011 for the first time ever.

If you could magically go back to being non-queer or non-Muslim, would you do it? Why or Why not?

No, being queer is a gift. I wouldn’t want to give up the relationship I had to my Muslim community though, because it informed so much of who I am today…so I guess I wouldn’t give up being Muslim either.

One Bollywood actor/actress you would love to see coming out as Gaysi?

I don’t watch Bollywood….but aren’t they all just so obviously gay?!

Your favorite queer-themed movies/books?

Books: Cinnamon Gardens by Shyam Salvadurai and Ode to Lata by Ghalib Shiraz Shalla.

Movies: Undertow, A Frozen Flower, Transamerica, Mary Lou, Mambo Italiano, Christopher & His Kind, and Bent.

Any message for queer Muslims out there?

I guarantee God will not have beef with you for liking someone of the same gender. Also, do some drag, it’ll help you get comfortable in your own skin!

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