By Aqilah Allaudeen
Hannah Fidler – a Chicago-based musician, teacher, activist and organizer – spends time writing letters to incarcerated LGBTQ Muslims across the United States every week, as part of Masjid al-Rabia’s prison outreach program based in Chicago.
She writes to them about their favorite colors, commiserates on the tendency of many Muslim communities to reject those who identify as queer, and discusses their personal hajj pilgrimages. Fidler also tells them about current initiatives run by Masjid al-Rabia, Chicago’s first LGBTQ affirming mosque.
“There are a lot of people who have expressed that the letter writing program with Masjid al-Rabia reflects the first time in their entire lives that someone was willing to hold space for both their queerness and their Muslim-ness,” Fidler said in an interview.
“Whenever someone says something like that, it makes it all worth it.” Besides having to reach out through the prison bureaucracy, Fidler added that striking a balance between opening her heart to give the incarcerated compassionate responses while not taking on too much, is a challenge.
“It’s a really involved balance of keeping your heart open to whatever people need to say but also realizing that you can’t take on everything that people are carrying,” she said. “We can offer them a spiritual service and friendship, but not solve all their problems.”
The biggest program run by the mosque is its prison ministry, where the organization serves more than 500 incarcerated LGBTQ Muslims in jails and detention centers across the United States. It has attracted more than 400 volunteers from the “free world,” and remains the only prison outreach program in the U.S. that caters specifically to incarcerated LGBTQ Muslims. Other non-profit organizations such as Link Outside host similar initiatives connecting incarcerated Muslims with those outside, but without a focus on incarcerated LGBTQ Muslims.
Masjid al-Rabia’s Black and Pink Crescent, which is a part of its prison outreach initiative, is a pen pal program that connects incarcerated LGBTQ Muslims with their supporters across the free world, an all-inclusive group including LGBTQ Muslims. The program was formed as a partnership with the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project and Black and Pink. Besides exchanging letters, Masjid al-Rabia also sends resources such as prayer mats and Qurans to incarcerated Muslims who request them.
The mosque is one of the few in the country that recognizes LGBTQ Muslims. Many Islamic scholars worldwide teach that same-gender sex is a sin and that homosexuality goes against the Quran. But Mahdia Lynn, the executive director of Masjid al-Rabia, believes that everyone should have a chance to practice the faith that they believe in.
Organizations such as Muslims for Progressive Values, with chapters across the U.S., welcome LGBTQ members and LGBTQ rights among its causes.
“Islam is so important and saved my life and gave my life purpose,” she said. “The fact that it would be denied to other people just because of who they were [is] cruelty.”
Lynn added that the mosque has a clear vision to provide services and spiritual support for marginalized Muslims, and to foster an Islam that leaves no one behind.
“We recognized that until we started doing this work, there was no program in the world that was providing support and direct services to LGBTQ Muslims in the prison system,” she said.
Acknowledging that incarcerated LGBTQ Muslims are often pushed to the edge and offered little to no support, Lynn saw a need to help the niche community.
“The U.S. prison system is a uniquely cruel space that serves to isolate … and to further marginalize people who are already on the margins,” she said. “To be a Muslim on the inside. To be an LGBT person on the inside… is to be pushed so far to the margins where there is no support there for you.”
Lynn, a 30-year-old transgender Muslim, said that she has been an activist since coming out as a trans teenager after graduating from high school in Detroit. After spending some time in Toronto, Canada and Tulsa, Okla., she moved to Chicago in 2014. She started up Masjid al-Rabia about two years ago with a coalition of five people, and worked out of a church basement until August this year when the mosque moved to its current location in downtown Chicago.
Malik Johnson, the prison outreach coordinator at Masjid al-Rabia, believes that having a physical space allows for more diversity and freedom among those in the LGBTQ Muslim community.
“People are very organic and fluid, and should be allowed to grow and blossom in a variety of contexts and situations,” he said. “It is an injustice to only operate in strict parameters, and not be afforded the opportunity to worship God most authentically. It’s a disservice to all when rigidity is incorporated into the worshiping space.”
Fidler added that Masjid al-Rabia gives hope to LGBTQ Muslims, both in and out of the prison system, and has created a safe physical space in Chicago.
“Masjid Al-Rabia sends the message that it is possible,” she said. “It is possible for us to have our own communities. It is possible for us to have own spaces that are safe for us to express both our spirituality and our sexuality.”