On Faith and Sexuality

TMP Note: AT&T teamed up with the Human Rights Campaign to launch the Live Proud On Campus scholarship contest, and SIPA student Leyth Swidan has made it as one of the 15 semi-finalists. Three winners will be selected to each receive a $10,000 scholarship, a trip to Washington, D.C. to attend the HRC National Dinner later this month, and $2,500 to help bring their project ideas to life. Swidan makes his case below. You can view his entry video and vote for him here every day until October 11.

I grew up in a Muslim household. My family and I broke our fasts at sunset every day during Ramadan and I attended Islamic school where Friday prayers were part of the curriculum. For me, Islam kept me grounded as I strived to be the best person I could be. That meant being emphatic, sincere, and authentic.

That same Muslim now identifies as queer, and even served as the President of the Muslim Students Association while in college.

I have never seen a juxtaposition between my faith and sexuality. It is the fluidity of Islam that affords me the right to interpret my sexuality through my own moral lens, one that sees no conflict between my faith and sexuality. It was only after I learned how to navigate America’s hostility towards Muslims did I become comfortable with both identities, with my own skin and beliefs. The real struggle, however, lies whenever I go to mosques and remind myself to turn down my queerness, whether it’s by toning down my sassiness or adjusting my physical appearance. But even outside of mosques, like LGBT spaces, I have been bombarded with questions about Islam’s stance on being gay. Moments like these have served as reminders that most people look at others through one single lens.

If you have ever felt this way at another mosque, synagogue, church, temple, or a bar, you are not alone. Simply existing as a queer individual in America is a political act in itself. And that is why there is a need to change the way intersectional communities are perceived, and offer individuals a chance to speak for themselves.

People look to their faith as a source of guidance and inspiration – and LGBT people are no different. And I personally believe that faith has the power to be a uniting force, bringing out the best of who we are as humans. I am currently in the running for AT&T’s Live Proud on Campus scholarship contest, which aims to increase LGBT advocacy and visibility on campus. If selected as a finalist, my goal is to photograph and interview queer students of faith with a wide range of stories and experiences.

The main aim of my proposed project, Faithfully Queer, would be to promote visibility of intersectional identities among the LGBT and broader communities at Columbia- both undergraduates and graduates- through a photography series. It would create a community where nobody is forced to choose between who they are, whom they love, and what they believe. Rather, they would derive power from their faith-based community to live authentically.

Despite being at a university with a $9 billion endowment, there are no LGBT or faith-based resources or services that focus on graduate students. Your support will help showcase the true diversity of students whose narratives and intersectional stories are not highlighted every day. I hope to shed light on a domestic and international experiences in their many diverse, overlapping, and even conflicting parts. More importantly, I want to encourage other students to be unapologetic about their identities and to avoid being the token queer (insert faith here) in religious and social settings.