On Friday afternoon in Christchurch, New Zealand, two mosques were attacked in a mass shooting, with 49 confirmed dead and 39 still in critical condition. Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has declared this “New Zealand’s darkest day,” being the largest massacre in New Zealand’s recent history. The timing is significant: Fridays are important holy and historical days in Islam and the Juma’ah afternoon prayers serve a similar function to Sunday morning church services – a time for most of the local Muslim community to come together, especially those who only come to the mosque for this one prayer a week.
I learned about the massacre at the same time I heard about the organisers for the Malaysian Women’s March being investigated for sedition by the Malaysian Government on accusations of holding “an illegal LGBT gathering.” My heart had warmed at the photos of rainbow flags and queer pride slogans taking the streets of a country I was born and raised in and now have citizenship of – but which never truly felt like home.
Both news breaking at once broke me: it brought to light how much someone like me was truly unwanted. I’m too queer, too “Other”, too much of an ex-Muslim enough for Malaysia. But I also still have “Islam” on my Muslim-country ID card with a Muslim name and a Muslim upbringing; I can’t scrub that away from me, just like I can’t scrub away my melanin. A white supremacist terrorist isn’t going to care about my complicated feelings on identity to decide whether or not to shoot me. I’ve already gotten death threats on Melbourne trams just for being brown. I saw many of my queer Malaysian peers, especially queer Muslims, grappling with a similar dilemma: caught between one group using religion to deny their existence and another claiming that their faith means they shouldn’t live.
That Friday night I went to see my dear friend, jazz cabaret chanteuse and QTPOC community leader Mama Alto, perform at a local LGBTQ bookstore & performance space. I was anxious about going – I was emotionally overwhelmed, scared for my safety, feeling vulnerable and exhausted after being bombarded with all this news from every outlet. But Mama is also a queer gender-diverse brown South East Asian, so I figured she’d understand my pain.
As she sang in her Cinderella gown and talked about The Diva, about queer representation and marginalisation and singing for your life, I was hit with nightmares of someone breaking through the front door with a gun and aiming straight for us. Chaos as bookshelves and tables were upended and people tried to huddle and the damask-patterned walls turn further red and what if my cis gay white guy best friend sitting next to me tried to be the hero and take a bullet for me and I survived because of him but now his blood is on my hands…
I squeezed my best friend’s hand, trying to remind myself that nothing is happening now and nothing will likely happen, trying to focus on Mama’s voice.
Mama and I caught up backstage at the end of the show. We held each other tightly as I cried into her gown and babbled about the anxiety attack from earlier. She told me that she too was broken, that she was super late for her soundcheck because she felt that going out would put her at risk of death. But then she saw my name in the ticket booking list and she knew that there would be at least one person in the audience that would understand.
If you want to help but are feeling lost, especially if you’re not Muslim, see if there are initiatives near you like the Victorian Mosque Open Day (happening this Sunday in Melbourne) to meet your Muslim neighbours and get to know their practices. Check in with your Muslim, immigrant, refugee, and POC friends to see what help they need. Donate to the official victim support fundraiser.
In times like these, when people don’t understand us and decide that this means we shouldn’t live at all, we need to connect with the people that do understand, even if just a little bit, even if peripherally. Now, more than other, we need each other.