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Ana BirsaReviewer: Hiroko Kawano In 2017, I decided to goon a national conservative talk show. I always love a challenge, and I didn’t want to shy awayfrom this one. I had just spent the previous year teaching people in the rural Southhow to talk about things like abortion, working at Planned Parenthood. And I spent the previous yearworking at Heineken, in government relations. So, I love a good challenge. And so when it came time for meto talk about safe spaces, I decided to do iton a conservative talk show. Bad messaging, I know! But … I, you know – I think I did a good job. Anyway – so safe spaces in the context that in the United States,we have several different programs aimed at targeting, harassingand surveilling different communities. Against the Muslim community, it’s calledCountering Violent Extremism. It’s supposed to be partof this counter-terrorism effort, but what it ends up leading tois further radicalization, further marginalizationand mental health issues throughout these communitieswho are affected. So I made the argument that what if we spend the taxpayer money that goes into those programsthat are harmful, and we put those into community spaces where people can talkabout difficult things, come closer to their communitiesand feel empowered – that they don’t have to feel alone. And so I made that case. And I said, “And, in fact, let’s not stop there. Black people need safe spaces where they can be freefrom police violence and from racism. LGBTQ people need spaces where they can be freefrom hate violence.” The Pulse shooting had just happeneda year prior to me going on the show. And the host, who very rudelyinterrupted me, said, “You’re not here to speakon behalf of those communities.” And I said “Well, Tucker Carlson, (Laughter) in addition to being a Muslim woman,I am a black, queer person.” And … (Applause) And I had just come outon national television to most of my family, to people all across the world and to all of my coworkers. And I couldn’t put it back in the box. It was the Pandora’s box. Everything was out. I could feel my phonenotifications buzzing. People were sending me death threats,words of encouragement; GLAD had reached out – amazing things. But I just wanted to getthrough the interview. I think I did a good job. You can check it on YouTube -highly recommend. (Laughter) But, now I’m kind of the token queer Muslim,and that’s not the case at all. There’s so many of us: there’s Leo Kalyan, there’s Abdullah,there’s Fawzia Mizra. There’s so many of us! Today I work with an organizationcalled Muslims for Progressive Values, and we work to advanceprogressive values of Islam, values that are very much rootedin historical context. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning. I was born Blair Elizabeth Brown. Yes, not Blair Imani. I changed my name. I converted to Islam in 2015, but I had grown upin a Christian community, but not a conservative one. I’m blessed to saythat I never grew up in a space where people were telling mehomophobic things, whether that was at home,at school or at church. I grew up in a family where, literally, the first time I’ve ever heard anythingin the gray area of homophobic was last week. And it was a mistake. Ah, it was a misunderstanding,thank goodness. And so, I kind of grew up feelinglike I could be whoever I wanted to be, including my sexual orientationand my gender identity. And so, when I had my first bisexual crush when I was eight years old, I didn’t completely know what it meant,but I knew there was something there. You see, I had a crush on this kid – whose name I won’t saybecause that’s very awkward – and his sister. And I liked them for distinct reasons. It’s kind of that age where you startgetting butterflies in your stomach when somebody writes youa Valentine’s Day card, even if they wrote it for the whole class. But you feel special. And right as that was happening,I started to become concerned because when I saw thingslike Disney movies, there was always a prince and a princess or a beast and a princess,which is also confusing. (Laughter) But I knew that there wereno princesses or princes together. I felt like maybe I should suppressthis part of myself. And I did, kind of. That is until I came outto my mom when I was 15. You see, I was standing therein front of her, very ABC Family-style in my all-girls Catholic uniform, and I said “Mommy, I’m a lesbian.” And she goes, “Oh no, no, no, no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no … Honey, you’re bisexual.” And I am! (Laughter) (Applause) And I was, and I was before,and I will be forever. But, I finally had something to call it. And when I converted to Islam in 2015, I felt very comfortableand very aware of the fact that Allah made mewith all of my flaws and perfections but made me to be a queer Muslim because Allah makes no mistakes. And so, when I converted,I started to get messages from people – especially after I came out – people asking me how do I reconcile being a personof faith and being queer? And I always say, “We don’t reconcileidentities in my house. We reconcile bank accounts, okay? There’s nothing to reconcile.” Because in the Quran, there is no condemnationof same-gender loving relationships. And I know, maybe some of youin the audience here, some of you online,all the people online, are saying “But Blair, what about the storyof Sodom and Gomorrah? What about the story of Prophet Lut?” And so, for you non-religious people – oh, to be one of you – (Laughter) the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is a story about a townthat was doing horrible acts: acts of rape, acts of incest, acts that we know in human psychologycause trauma and pain. Not a condemnationof same-gender loving relationships, things that do not cause trauma and pain. What does cause trauma and painand even mental illness is having to hide parts of yourself because people usereligious texts against you. (Applause) And so, first and foremost,I’m a historian. I’m also a black woman. In my culture, we believe in receipts. That is when you demonstrate factsbased on what you’re presenting presently. So here’s some receipts, okay? First and foremost, when Muslims and Christians beganto come into contact with each other, Muslims were knownfor being very sexually permissive, not sexually restrictive. So seeing this narrative todaythat Muslims are uniquely homophobic is not at all rooted in history. In fact, Muslims were often characterizedas perverted or bisexual. I’m the latter. (Laughter) And so, as this continued, the time when we started to seemore of a puritanical approach to Islam was when there was contactwith European Victorian morality, moralities that startedto criminalize things like same-gender loving relationships and started to define things like sodomy – acts between peoplewho both have penises – as bad and villainousand something to be condemned and something to be codifiedin the law as being condemned. At that time, in the 19th century, you start seeing legislation being passed in places like Lebanonand all across the Islamic world that condemned these acts. But it did not come from Islam. And so, of the five Islamic countries that do nothave anti-sodomy legislation on the books, those are countries that do not havethe same relationship with colonization as countries like Saudi Arabia and Brunei. Those are the facts. The other thing too, though, people like me – people who are Muslimand who have progressive values – are constantly being chargedwith Westernizing the Muslim world. But the Muslim worldis already Westernized. These ideas of puritanical values, of interpreting the Quranto be oppressive – those did not come from Islam. Those came from colonizers,Western colonizers. And so, how do we make a worldwhere people don’t take their lives because they feel like they can’treconcile being queer and being Muslim, or being queerand being a person of faith? Well, first, it comes by knowing that queer people are bornwithin every demographic in the world. There are queer Jews, queer Mormons,queer Catholics, queer Protestants, queer Muslims. And I’m proof. And I will continue working toward a worldwhere we can be our full selves, because like the rainbowthat represents us, LGBTQ people are beautifuland naturally occurring. Thank you so much. (Applause)