BEING queer, young and Muslim is like being a “crescent-shaped peg” fitting into a “Southern Cross-shaped hole” according to new theatre troupe Third Culture Kids.
Writer Dure Khan, originally from Peshawar in Pakistan, based her new play Once We Were Kings on her experiences with other young people navigating their way through being queer and Muslim in Australia.
Director Mustafa al Mahdi says “most people in the Muslim community, if they don’t fit in they usually don’t rock the boat, they keep it to themselves.
“They’re forced to keep multiple social circles: there’s the religious circle, the social circle, and their nightlife or queer circle, and they never overlap… they try to keep links with their families and culture, but that contrasts with who they are and want to be.”
Some even maintain two Facebook accounts to keep family sequestered from their queer identity.
These days much of mainstream Australia supports gay rights (about 70 per cent want marriage equality) but for Muslim kids coming out there are still many hurdles.
“Some of the Christian queers might just have to break through one barrier, the religious barrier,” al Mahdi says.
“The real interesting thing about queer Muslim youths is they’re not just battling religious conflicts, the conflict is three tiers: the first is social expectations, then cultural expectations, then religious expectations, and being queer is opposing all three.”
Parents who grew up overseas have a tough time understanding: in many middle-eastern countries there’s not even the words for someone to express they’re queer. In 2007, Iran’s then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proudly proclaimed there were no homosexuals in his country.
“It’s not even in the vocabulary,” al Mahdi says. “For them this concept doesn’t even exist, they don’t acknowledge it… most people see it as ‘you fell and bumped your head’” and got a strange idea.
For queer kids growing up without that reference point “the worst thing is the confusion… here the queer community know what they are, they know what’s being opposed and they know what to fight back with”.
They’ve had a bit of backlash even before the performance hit the stage: al Mahdi says he’s been told “you are defacing Islam,” and the troupe initially had trouble getting a male actor to take part (along with the queer subject matter, some complained that in one scene there was a woman leading prayer, “unacceptable” to conservative Muslims).
Khan is hoping the project starts a conversation: “I also hope it helps other queer or questioning Muslims find themselves and one another. We are not haram (forbidden),” Dure says, “and we are not alone.”
The troupe’s been surprised by the number of people keen to come on board: “This project is kind of like a beacon, a light in the sky, they see it and they have the courage to come out,” al Mahdi says. “Even though it’s very small, it is a means of support.”
He’s optimistic about the future for queer Muslims. He says the internet is opening things up in a huge way. During the Cold War, American rock and roll tapes were smuggled behind the iron curtain at great risk. Today, the internet is a big fat firehose of culture that’s near impossible to plug.
“So much has changed because of the internet, the internet levels the field,” al Mahdi says. He can now go pretty much anywhere in the world and drop a pop culture reference and have it be understood, and it’s becoming impossible to shield people from queer realities.
“For the next generation, it’s almost impossible to turn a blind eye to it. These ideas only survive on fear and ignorance, and fear and ignorance can be cleared out with the internet.”
Once We Were Kings is on at the Blue Room, May 12 to 30, bookings http://www.blueroom.org.au or 9227 7005
by DAVID BELL