I arrived as a first-year university student with a less-than-basic understanding of the LGBTQ community. I understood that non-straight men and women existed in theory, but the most exposure I had was to a few people I knew in high school. Keep in mind that I finished high school around 15 years ago with no LGBTQ friends. This was mostly due to the fact that I lived in a conservative South Asian Muslim community in Texas, where this was never uttered. I was so sheltered that the concept of a South Asian LGBTQ individual never occurred to me, much less the concept of an ally.
That is until I took one of my favorite classes as an undergraduate, comparative religion.
I was the youngest student in the class. As I struggled to get through readings and writing a higher-level research paper, one woman helped me through it all. Outside of our classwork though, she helped me look deep into my soul to understand what really mattered to me. She influenced me to think more critically and to question double standards and social norms.
As we became closer friends, and she became my life mentor, I asked her to meet up with me at my first Muslim Students’ Association event. I felt hesitation about joining the organization and could use the company in case I wanted to step out. She accepted my invitation and towards the end of the event, the speakers began discussing homosexuality in Islam. I eventually found myself feeling uncomfortable with the view that floated around: there was no space for homosexuality in Islam. I was conflicted because these students from “my community” were clear in their views, but I disagreed in my heart. Suddenly, my friend asked me whether I agreed with this group.
Between trying to fit in with them and answering her question, I decided on the most diplomatic (and indecisive) answer.
I told her that a person’s sexual orientation was between that person and God. It was not up to me to ever judge anyone. What I really meant was that I just was not sure. She then asked me, “Well, what if I was gay? Then what would you say?”
As I took a moment to think, I told her that I would still hold the same view, but that it would never change our friendship.
The next week, after we finished dinner she asked me if I ever noticed anything “different” about her. I could not understand what she was getting at. Finally, after we stopped beating around the bush, she blurted out, “Saba, I am a lesbian. That is what’s different about me. Can’t you tell by the way I act and dress? That is why I asked you that question the other day at the event. How do you feel about it? Will you be like other South Asians at this university who stopped hanging out with me?”
As I sat silent, I naively responded, “It still does not matter to me! No, I do not have any plans to ditch our friendship, but just to make sure – you are not attracted to me, right?”
She laughed and said, “No, I am not. You are definitely not my type.”
As the mood lightened, I again naively asked, “Really? Wait! But why? I am pretty decent looking aren’t I?” Clearly, I was letting my ego immaturely take over, and needed to shut up. I was grappling with my naivety of not sensing her sexual orientation. In not wanting to make assumptions, I realized I was not engaging too directly with the topic. I could not call myself an ally just yet.
I was lucky that my mentor gave me the opportunity to be a better ally to her, and later to others. My friendship with her continued to grow over my years as an undergraduate, and we talked openly about our love lives. During this time, I did my best to listen rather than offer advice, reactions, or thoughts. Every conversation with her taught me empathy in its rawest form. For example, she experienced copious levels of stress around belonging to the South Asian community – and to her family. As a heterosexual female, I could never understand her exact experience. While I did not always feel belonging to the South Asian community, I could never even compare my situation to my lesbian mentor because her exclusion was automatic. It was simply on the basis of who she was, but for me, it was purely out of choice.
Nevertheless, the unapologetic confidence she exhibited in who she was during our conversations perhaps benefitted me more than her mentorship. I would venture to say her fearlessness rubbed off on me in ways that I still attribute to her. Not too long ago, someone close to me in my South Asian community came out. I knew of his sexual orientation deep in my heart, but I always knew only he could decide the right time to share this. This time around, I was able to confidently support someone as an ally. I again listened and remembered that my job was to make sure this person belonged – in my life and in this world.