Religion and sexuality is a junction not many can navigate with ease. Meet Rafiul Alom Rahman, the founder of The Queer Muslim Project, who aims to change the discomfort around labels and terms, and counter queerphobia

“Queer Muslims are often characters in other people’s stories. We want to take back the authorship of our stories; we want to tell our stories in all our diversities. To us, queer and Muslim are not limiting terms, but expansive,” says Rafiul Alom Rahman, founder of The Queer Muslim Project (QMP), a digital advocacy platform created in 2017 to counter queerphobia and Muslim hate, one story at a time.

A lot of people are uncomfortable today with the word Muslim because of Islamophobia, and a lot of conservative Muslims don’t want any association with queerness. The Queer Muslim Project addresses both. “First, there is this myth that Islam is not compatible with homosexuality owing to the patriarchal interpretation of Islam. Secondly, even in queer groups, there is this prevalent notion that if you are gay, you should discard your Muslim identity and to me, that was a big ask,” says Rafiul.

After starting out with more information sharing on Facebook, QMP is working towards a larger cultural and social shift. “There are very few images in the media of a queer Muslim. Whatever is there, is mostly a skewed version. At QMP, we are trying to put out our stories as much as possible and hoping those will create the ground for more inclusivity, love, and empathy,” he explains.

Today, the project’s Instagram page has a loyal 33.6k-strong follower strength. But Rafiul’s activism is not confined to social media. The platform also holds offline discussions on LGBTQIA+ issues, events, and film screenings, apart from collaborating with writers, poets, and content creators.

For the genial activist, who grew up in a small town in the Northeast, this is personal. “I grew up in a town close to the Assam-Meghalaya-Bangladesh border. From very early on, I was aware of my attraction towards men. But I was confused; there was very little-to-no information about homosexuality. I remember coming across the term ‘gay’ while reading a news article on Ang Lee and Brokeback Mountain. I was in class 8, and I had then rummaged the pages of my dictionary and it said it means ‘homosexual, archaic: happy’,” he recalls.

He still neither had a clear idea of what homosexuality means, nor did he identify as being one. And growing up in a boys’ hostel only added to his confusion. “Although it was a co-ed school, I somehow thought that maybe my attraction towards men was because I am staying in a boys’ hostel and don’t have much exposure to women.”

Confusion gave way to frustration, and that to self-loathing. “My cousins would tell how even masturbation is haram in Islam, and desiring another man was beyond the realm of imagination. But I had this strong attraction towards men and at that point, I thought I was sinning or doing something unIslamic. I had a huge sense of guilt; I felt I didn’t belong to my religion. In fact, I remember one incident, I was on a bus and there was this older man sitting next to me and I could sense that he is queer. I got so uncomfortable that I changed my seat. There was this deep transphobia and homophobia within me. I was conditioned in the same kind of masculine expectations. It was so internalised that I not only hated myself but also my kind,” he reveals.

But things started to change once he landed in Delhi. “It was through Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf that I really got introduced to this new world of information around sexuality. Also, in Delhi I got introduced to a lot of queer people and became a part of the community.”

Through this platform, Rafiul also intends to break the notion that ‘queer’ is a homogenous identity, along with making the movement more inclusive. “We need to create more spaces to accommodate different identities. The queer movement is still very upper cast, urban, and English speaking — at least the leadership. We need more diverse representation. There is a lot of patriarchy and sexism in the queer community as well; the gay man gets more leverage. Even queer spaces are male-dominated and there are lesser female voices, fewer dating spaces,” he points out.

On the home front, he is carefully choosing his battles. “Although I am out to half the world, I am not out to my parents (laughs). I have to live a dual life. My parents are socially conditioned in a way that they might not even understand what homosexuality or the term LGBTQIA+ stands for. It is interesting and sad that because of this, I can’t even share with them a large chunk of my work, especially what I have achieved through the Queer Muslim Project. But I am choosing my battles. I will eventually have to come out to them, but I will do so once I am sure of my safety net. Although coming out is important, I don’t believe people should come out just to make a statement. It should be a strategic choice. One should come out once they are prepared for it; when there is a support system, emotional as well as financial, in place.”