Summeiya Khamissa grew up feeling like the only queer Muslim around, but during these pandemic years has found peace with their religion and self and a thriving group of like-minded folks online.
“When I was growing up, I was convinced that there weren't a lot of people who were like me in the world,” said Khamissa, who founded the Queer Muslim Network Toronto in October 2020 as “a way for people to make friends and learn about each other.”
“It was really lonesome to know that I was queer,” said Khamissa, who identifies as genderfluid and trans, South African and proudly Muslim, which they describe as “a lot of very interesting intersections.”
The network now has almost 2,800 followers on Instagram and since last November, an executive team of five more volunteers, suggesting the 22-year-old York University student has tapped into a significant pool of other folks in similar need of community. (The group is running a monthly games night and is aiming to produce two workshops a month.)
For many people who come to terms with their LGBTQ+ identity while growing up in a Muslim community, the two aspects of life can be difficult to reconcile.
Many are not open about their orientation or identity with family, while queer spaces where being out is assumed or featuring alcohol can be off-putting or make events entirely inaccessible, Khamissa said.
Participants in their Zoom events, on the other hand, often use different names, and when in-person meetings return, Khamissa plans to offer stickers indicating whether someone can be photographed.
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The group is now gearing up for a larger version of its Ramadan Iftar dinner delivery operation, which last year dropped off 50 homemade meals for queer and trans Muslims observing in isolation.
Folks could choose a regular box or an undercover box, Khamissa explains, which would indicate to the team that they were not out and would want no outward signs on the box.
“The regular ones came with stickers, with queer Muslim stuff on it and cards saying we love you from your queer Muslim family. It was beautiful, it was wholesome and I loved it, and we're doing it again this year,” they said.
The growing community should likely be able to go bigger this time, they said, and could move to a rented community kitchen if a pending grant application comes through.
While the group’s focus is on Toronto and surrounding cities, the online nature of most pandemic life means they’ve also connected with people across Canada as well as in India, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.
“It's beautiful because it gives me an opportunity to reflect on the privileges I have as a North American,” Khamissa said.
Khamissa said the pandemic allowed them to both re-engage with their religion and embrace their queer identity on new terms.
“The pandemic is what helped me get closer to religion,” they said. “That was not really something that I took a lot of comfort in previously. I associated religion with my parents telling me what to do.”
Before 2020, they “really interacted with hyper-femininity” because of discomfort about people seeing queerness, resulting in an all-out effort with acrylic nails and push-up bras.
“There were a lot of signs, I think, of my queerness throughout my childhood, but I personally ignored them because I really wanted to get married to a man and to have the life that was set out for me,” Khamissa said.
“But it was blaringly obvious later in life, as I reached my 20s, that I could not continue pretending that I was attracted to men and that I could be the Muslim girl that my family wanted me to be.”
Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer