Safe Spaces, Inclusive Services – support service access and engagement by LGBTIQ+ Muslims, a report by Dr Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli, was recently published (June2018). Published by Muslim Collective, Melbourne, the full report can be found (with space for comment and feedback) at:
Bent Street is reprinting part of the Executive Summary here with kind permission of the author, and Reem Sweid and Zahirah Johari (Research Development and Management, Muslim Collective).
Purpose, scope and methodology
In 2017, Muslim Collective received funding from the Multicultural Affairs and Social Cohesion Division (MASC) in the Victorian State Department of Premier and Cabinet(DPC) to conduct a research project aimed at improving our understanding of the unique service needs and delivery requirements for vulnerable members of the Muslim LGBTIQ+ community.
The rationale behind this research is the knowledge that many Muslim LGBTIQ+ people want to belong to and feel they have a place in their families and faith. Community, faith and health services can play an important role in supporting LGBTIQ+ Muslims in navigating this space.
While the dominant heteronormative discourse of Islam constructs same-sex attraction and gender diversity as problematic (and perhaps imposed by a “morally decadent” West) there are marginalised alternative interpretations that provide more nuanced perspectives. Some LGBTIQ+ Muslims also differentiate between religion and spirituality. In this way, many LGBTIQ+ Muslims continue to meaningfully identify as Muslims (both in religion and ethno-cultural identity). LGBTIQ+ Muslims experience complex discrimination and prejudice in the form of micro-aggressions that remind them of the constant threats they face. This has been exacerbated by globalisation and social media whereby the assaults can be experienced vicariously.
In this report, we explore participants’ experiences of how their sexualities, gender identities and religious beliefs affect their healthcare access and use, and the meanings they derive from such experiences. While exploring how LGBTIQ+ Muslims address and manage stresses can provide practical insight into means of promoting resilience and encouraging the access of health and community services, it does not excuse or decrease structural and institutional responsibility and culpability.
The study involved qualitative interviews with members of the LGBTIQ+ Muslim community. It was conducted in accordance with decolonising research design and practice and the Guidelines for Muslim Community-University Research Partnerships published by the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV) (2017). This Report is therefore an example of and recommends co-design, co-participation, co-review and coimplementation research strategies which enhance trust in and the credibility of the researchers. In adopting all the above ethics and methods for this research, the aim was to prevent participants feeling exploited and to avoid their homogenisation into a single queer Muslim representation. Hence, this report is provided with mindfulness regarding the considerable diversity of religious teachings and practices, cultures and languages within the categorization of “Muslim community”.
LGBTIQ+ Muslims often experience discrimination against their sexuality by their faith community, and against their faith, by the LGBTIQ+ and broader communities. This ‘border positionality’ of LGTBIQ+ Muslims makes it more difficult to access a wide range of services including general medical services, specialist medical services (including mental health services), community support services (including pastoral care) and crisis services (homelessness). Our findings indicate that approaches to service engagement vary depending on personal experiences and knowledge of services available.
One overarching finding was the need to engage and educate all members of society: non-Muslim health practitioners need to better engage and understand the Muslim faith, and Muslim community members and practitioners need to broaden their understanding of social justice and equality to include LGBTIQ+ Muslims. While services that offer LGBTIQ+ support are dedicated to providing their services in a non-discriminatory fashion, there is a perception (some of it experientially driven) that non-white queer identities are still not supported and LGBTIQ+ services remain stringently non-spiritual spaces. Participants call for health services to be conducive to addressing and affirming the significance of spiritual health where they can meet and have discussions with Islamic scholars and explore ways to reconcile their faith with their sexuality.
Many LGBTIQ+ Muslims reluctantly adopt strategies of compartmentalisation, whereby specific identities are either made publicly visible or given importance, or concealed or undermined depending on the context, necessity or safety. The decompartmentalisation of these identities is the predominant proposition of how services can be improved. Some participants believe specifically addressing LGBTIQ+ issues by religious leaders is not required as long as they address all specific examples of marginalisation under the same banner of social justice, peace and duty of care.
Encouraging the wider Muslim community to affirm LGBTIQ+ members will help prevent the ‘shame’ and ‘ostracism’ that individual families of LGBTIQ+ members experience. It is believed that families also need support groups and services in how to foster the health and wellbeing of their LGBTIQ+ members.
Participants believe that support service providers do not have to be Muslim but they need to have a respect and understanding of the faith and not perceive it as a coerced identity, or irreconcilable with an LGBTIQ+ identity. Not all LGBTIQ+ Muslims are ready to come out or let people in, and disclosing one’s sexuality to a Muslim healthcare provider is often considered a threatening exposure to the Muslim community. Similarly, participants describe judgement from the LGBTIQ+ community for staying ‘in the closet’.
Participants call for issue-specific health services to be more aware of and cater for LGBTIQ+ ethno-religious interfaces. Sexual health services are identified as a specific sector requiring attention. Young Muslims are often ridiculed (sometimes even by health workers) for their lack of sexual knowledge and this discourages them from seeking further support. Participants suggest making sexual health education available in schools (including Islamic schools) in a culturally competent way. There are similar expressions with regards to mental health services, which also tend to “white-wash” clients in dominant cultural expectations.
The media has played an increasingly salient role in framing Muslims negatively (terrorism, illegal migration, homophobia) which increases the alienation from wider Australian policies, culture and services for LGBTIQ+ communities. LGBTIQ+ Muslims experience increasing fear of voicing their needs and realities in mainstream media for fear of retaliation and international exposure to diasporic families with unintended harmful consequences. Media industries need to be mindful of these fears when engaging LGBTIQ+ Muslims for personal narratives.
Positive experiences in non-Muslim LGBTIQ+ services include feeling welcome, understood and empowered. Negative experiences occur if the service does not affirm or engage with the realities and concerns of the client, and makes assumptions rather than asks questions about specific life circumstances.
Muslim LGBTIQ+ organisations are often limited in capacity due to a lack of resourcing and funding but provide a significant service in fostering a sense of community and support, as well as providing the space for spiritual dialogue.
Non-LGBTIQ+ Muslim organizations (such as Muslim Collective and ICV) provide spaces for engagement with diverse faith perspectives.
Participants identify the need for accommodation and other crisis services for LGBTIQ+ refugees and asylum seekers and for Muslims who come out to their families (or friends if they are house-sharing), and have been forced to leave. Wider community settlement and crisis services address very fundamental needs for living, such as food, housing, medical care, education and employment, framed by social, mental and emotional support, but the services need to better cater for LGBTIQ+ Muslim needs.
Participants report that there was not enough awareness of services available and this should be addressed through targeted strategies (within organisations and online).
Participants believe that it is important to delineate between the different types of Muslim religious and community leadership: official and unofficial, theological and social, family-centred and organization-centred.
Participants want a discreet and financially and geographically accessible physical location (that is not a ‘typical gay’ venue) where they can come together and discuss their LGBTIQ+ realities interwoven with various other community issues. A major reason given is the construct of a communal space being a Muslim cultural tradition.
The lack of LGBTIQ+ Muslim health workers and their employment by wider health services is identified as a strong barrier. Participants are also concerned that LGBTIQ+ services justify their lack of Muslim workers with the reluctance of the latter to want to work in their organisations.
Dr Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Health and Social Development at Deakin University. She has gained national and international recognition as a writer, researcher, lecturer and consultant in the issues of cultural diversity, gender diversity, sexual diversity, family diversity, HIV/AIDS, and social diversity in health and education, with a specific focus on adolescence and young people.