MUSLIMS IN THE VALLEY - PART 3: COMMUNITY IN THE MARGINS
By Noor Anwar
March 27, 2013
“My partner went to Hampshire, it’s such a cool place!” Ty Power, 42, sips his dark French roast coffee at the Bridge Café at Hampshire College. He has a brown beard, and is wearing a corduroy shirt with a dark, plaid print. He has hearing aids on both his ears, and his right earlobe bears a little silver earring. “I converted to Islam when I was fifteen.”
Ty grew up with a single mother who ran an English language center in Tampa, Florida. His mother’s array of students conditioned Ty to be accepting and open-minded of other cultures and religions. He mentions how it is different for kids these days who are so influenced by and dependent upon a misinformed media as their only source of knowledge about the world. There were a lot of mosques in Tampa. That’s where he first became involved in activism for the Muslim community. Many of its members were being arrested and sent to prison for years by the government, without any reason.
Ty slowly saw his activism turn into a search for truth. He read many religious books, but felt the Quran was the one that spoke to him best as a religious text. He wanted to follow a religion that would take a major form in his life. He says there was no ”dramatic moment as such” in which he converted. He remembers it being a natural progression through which he eventually realized that he had already become a Muslim. Surprisingly, his mother did not accept his religious transformation as he had expected.
“So it made sense for me to move to Morocco. I got married when I was eighteen and moved to Casablanca to live with my husband and his family. I also started wearing a hijab. I had my eldest first son over there. But the marriage didn’t work out. Things had gotten really tense between us and then I had a miscarriage, so I just got up and left.”
“Umm, so how did his family react?” I ask.
“Yeah, it was a little weird for them – me being a foreigner and all.”
“But they, umm, must have been very open-minded. You know, with accepting your identities.” I hesitate.
“Ohhhhh! Did I not mention? I’m transgender.”
Ty got involved in the mosque community again when he came back to Florida. But this time it felt different. When praying he didn’t want to wear gendered clothing and wasn’t comfortable with the segregation between men and women. He saw gay Muslims being hurt and rejected by their families, and being told that God would not hear their prayers. 'Where do you expect them to seek guidance from then?' Ty asked himself. He couldn’t remember the Prophet Muhammad ever telling someone not to pray, but he was made to believe that he was going to hell.
“In Morocco, it had been comforting for me to see how gender was so separate and rigidly defined. I got away with a lot by wearing the hijab. In Morocco I had been obsessed with wanting to play the role of the perfect wife and mother. But I realized I couldn’t put my religious beliefs away, or my own identity. I was very conflicted.”
Back at the mosque in Florida, a list-serve for gay Muslims was started by an anonymous college student. The response was incredible, with immediate and unexpectedly high membership. Ty knew there had to be other Muslims who felt the same way he did, but he was still shocked to actually see queer and gay Muslims so strongly coming out and uniting. But Ty remembers it took six months for someone to actually post something on it.
Ty now lives in Northampton, Massachusetts where he is a member of the Pioneer Vally Progressive Muslims group. This self-built community is important to him as he has not always felt fully welcome at the mosques in the Valley. “I mean, I haven’t had any bad experiences, but it’s just that feeling. It could totally also be because I am this white guy who doesn’t at all look Muslim.
“It’s funny how nowadays mosques have to be concerned about surveillance from the police as well as religious fanatics! So I understand why they have to be careful. But I have never tried to be overtly open about my sexuality.”
Ty enjoys going to the mosque for the jummah prayer whenever he can find the time. He mostly goes to the mosque in West Springfield as it is larger, and consequently easier to remain unnoticed. He mentions how at the Hampshire Mosque he particularly likes that they have a meal after jummah, something he has never seen anywhere else before, as it allows for the integration of men and women coming together after prayer. He recently heard that some mosques are opening up prayer line formations that are based on gender, so that those who want to stay neutral don’t have to make a choice. Ty remembers how when the Hampshire Mosque was looking for a larger place to relocate they stated one of their concerns as needing more space to separate men and women during prayer. Ty can’t remember that being the case in any of the Prophet Muhammad’s mosques.
His male partner is Jewish. They both believe that it is more important to have the same intentions rather than the same religion. They both share the same understanding of God, and their relationship to and views on religion.
“There are so many different kinds of Muslims too. I know I could never be with a Muslim who drinks and doesn’t pray.”
In the high holiday season, his partner leads singing and chanting at the synagogue and Ty proudly accompanies him there. He knows it is easier for him to accompany his partner to his services, and that it would be difficult for Ty to take him to the mosque. He says that the mosque people would probably single him out as a non-Muslim and not invite him to join in prayer.
“If I could be more involved with the Hampshire Mosque, I don’t think I would have so much of a problem with being gay as much as with my partner not being accepted. I would never let anything stop me from going to pray at a mosque, but there have been times that I myself have felt that I just could not go.”
Once at a Passover dinner, Ty and his partner were seated on the non-alcohol table with some people from the mosque who had also been invited. During the long dinner, the people from the mosque excused themselves for the isha (evening) prayer.
“That was a real moment of crisis for me. Should I get up too? I mean, they know I’m queer but they don’t know I’m a Muslim. But I had heard the call to prayer and I knew I had to go and pray. So I decided to excuse myself as well and join them.”
His concern is that his two sons don’t share the same relationship with Islam that he does, and he thinks this is due to isolation from the mosques. Similar to his own experience, his children have not felt welcomed or been integrated into the communities.
“It is difficult for me to separate what their individual choices are versus the choices that have been decided for them by not being welcomed into the community. Most kids get dragged by their parents to go to church or the mosque to pray, and I’m sad mine never even got the chance to get traumatized by me like that!” He laughs, contemplatively staring down at his cup of coffee.
Ty’s eldest son was in sixth grade when the 9/11 attacks occurred. He has a “super Arabic name” and he was bullied at school. It was an isolating experience for both Ty and his son. Ty didn’t know any Muslim parents whom he could consult for advice, and his son didn’t know any Muslim kids his age to talk to who were most likely experiencing the same discrimination.
“My eldest son’s father isn’t very helpful in this regard either. I won’t call him a terrorist, but he’s definitely an extremist. He tells my son that everything he is doing is haram (forbidden), giving him a very negative and rigid impression of religion, which is totally different from the one I have raised my boys with. He constantly tells my son how what his mother is doing is wrong and that I am going to hell, and that if he supports me, then so is he! So basically he’s telling him that if he loves his mother, he’s going to hell?”
Ty discusses how there has always been a stigma attached to the gay community, but transgender people are beginning to get more religious support in countries like Egypt and Lebanon, even though it is only in the courts. I ask Ty what his ex-husband’s reaction has been to his transition to identifying as male.
“Oh he ain't down with that!” He laughs, motioning with his finger. “Because in his mind having been married to me before, now a man, makes him gay! Haram! My being male now is a real threat to him.”
This is the final installment of a three part series profiling the Muslim community in the Pioneer Valley. You can read the first installment here, and the second here. Noor Anwar generously contributed selected segments from a larger work on Valley Muslims that she reported last year.