Heading into Pride festivities this weekend, the Orlando massacre is serving as a rallying call for LGBTQ people of color. One new leader is Sonj Basha, a queer Muslim.
As a queer Muslim, Sonj Basha has not always felt comfortable living in Seattle. Even on Capitol Hill, the city’s center of LGBTQ life, Basha has found little diversity — not only racially but in terms of gender identity.
Basha, who uses the pronoun “they,” identifies as neither a woman nor a man, butch nor femme, to use terms popular in the lesbian scene the 28-year-old once frequented.
Heading into the weekend’s Seattle Pride Parade and festivities, though, much has changed. “Just in the last week and a half, a lot of community leaders have really affirmed my place here,” Basha said.
Indeed, Basha has emerged as a leader in the wake of the June 12 mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., which killed 49 people and wounded 53 more during an “Upscale Latin Saturday” party.
Since then, said Monisha Harrell, board chair of Equal Rights Washington, “the world is just a little bit different.” Amid the mourning, LGBTQ leaders are trying to figure out the way forward.
Seattle Pride, which puts on the parade, has asked participants from Entre Hermanos, a Latino LGBTQ group, to march in front. And a contingent of 49 people will represent the victims in some way, according to Seattle Pride vice president David Hale.
The theme for the parade was set long ago: “the Future of Pride.” The idea was to look at young leaders and next steps in the LGBTQ movement, Hale said.
Sure, there have been historic gains, including the U.S. Supreme Court decision, just in time for last year’s Pride Parade, allowing gay marriage nationwide. But, LGBTQ leaders say, there’s more work to be done.
In recent months, many have focused on opposing Initiative 1515, which seeks to limit access to single-sex bathrooms and other facilities to biologically male or female individuals, regardless of their gender identity.
Now comes a new, and terrible, rallying call — the Orlando massacre, which has put the spotlight on LGBTQ people of color.
“Hate crimes against LGBTQ people — especially LGBTQ people of color — have risen dramatically in the last five years,” said Kris Hermanns, CEO of Pride Foundation. Of those killed, the vast majority were transgender blacks and Hispanics, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.
One of the worst hate crimes ever in the U.S. has taken this conversation to unexpected places. Because the Orlando shooter identified himself as a supporter of the Islamic State group, many Muslims have made a point of condemning the horrific act and expressing solidarity with the victims. Among those speaking out are gay Muslims.
“The Muslim community and LGBT community are not separate; we mourn together. I am Muslim, I am queer and I exist,” Basha told hundreds of people at a Seattle vigil on the evening of the Orlando massacre.
It was an electrifying moment. Basha asked those present to join in a chant, and they did. “I exist,” came the refrain from the crowd, which included women in hijabs and men in Muslim prayer caps.
Basha arrived on the speaker list by serendipity. Basha’s sister, Yasmin Christopher, saw news of the vigil on Facebook. An aide to state Sen. Pramila Jayapal, Christopher had contacts in the mayor’s office, which was assembling speakers. She put Basha’s name forward.
“It’s going to be a huge missed opportunity if you don’t do this,” Christopher said she told mayoral staffers.
‘A brand-new coming out’
Basha had been active in LGBTQ circles before, particularly while attending Mills College in Oakland, Calif., an all-women school. Basha advocated for an admissions policy that accepts transgender women and gender-fluid individuals.
Basha also was active in the Muslim Student Alliance at Mills.
But until the vigil, six months after Basha had moved back to Seattle to be closer to family, the two identities hadn’t really come together, at least not publicly.
“Speaking publicly that I hold both identities actually feels like a brand-new coming out,” Basha said. “There will inevitably be pushback. At the same time, it has been liberating.”
Basha has had to wrestle with identity more than most people could ever imagine. Basha was born in Pakistan to a Bangladeshi mother who was married off as an adolescent to a man from Washington state. He brought his child bride, her children and other relatives to his farm in Grays Harbor County, where they suffered various kinds of restrictive conditions and abuse.
Basha was a year old when a detective’s investigation of abuse allegations led to the family separating from Stefan Christopher, who served 18 months in prison on two counts of indecent liberties.
It’s not easy to accept that your father is a “monster,” as Basha calls Stefan Christopher. “I’ve been facing it head-on only really recently,” Basha said. It has been a useful process. “When I’m honest about where I come from, then I’m honest about who I am.”
So far, Basha has encountered a mostly positive response. After the vigil, KING-TV invited Basha to be on a post-Orlando panel and Seattle Pride asked them to be a speaker at Sunday’s parade.
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Basha also found a welcoming response at an interfaith Iftar dinner, breaking the daily fast during the month of Ramadan, held at the Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS) in Redmond. Spotting an imam, Mohamad Joban, who used to lead prayers at Basha’s childhood mosque in the Olympia area, Basha told him they were generally reluctant to come to a mosque for fear of being judged.
“If coming to a mosque is something I feel compelled to do, then that’s exactly where I should be,” Joban said, according to Basha.
“It is very clear that Islam prohibits acts of homosexuality,” MAPS president Mahmood Khadeer said in an interview. But Khadeer, who issued a statement after the Orlando massacre urging people to give blood and attend the vigil, also said that “Our religion teaches us not to discriminate against any human being.”
Among Muslims, these kinds of conversations are just beginning, Yasmin Christopher said. And they may not go far enough for her. “Tolerance is not the same as acceptance and love,” she said.
Still, she said, “It’s very exciting.”
The challenges lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Muslims face are a sensitive subject at a time of Islamophobia. That’s what J Mace III said led him to believe that coming out to the Muslim side of his family would be harder than to the Baptist side. In fact, he said, the opposite was true.
Yet a writer on the website of the local Muslim LGBTQ group Noor, which Mace belongs to, cites the “massive hurdle” that many Muslims face when they come out.
Noor maintains strict confidentiality rules. Many of its 35 members go by pseudonyms, and meeting dates and times are never posted publicly. “Some people just don’t want to be out to the whole Muslim community,” said one of its founders, who goes by the pseudonym Ali Magid.
At the same time, Magid said, “It’s very important to have our voices be represented.”
On Sunday, Basha will have the microphone. Just by showing up, Basha is going to break stereotypes, especially those around Muslims. “I don’t wear a hijab. I have tattoos. I’m queer,” Basha said.
Chatting at a cafe near Basha’s South Seattle home the other day, Basha didn’t know exactly what they will say at the parade. But one theme will surely come out: “that each and every one of us holds a complex identity.”