How I Learned Being Queer Is More Than Who You Sleep With

The following is an extract from We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir by Samra Habib.

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My relationship with Alex was perfect, until I’d learned everything it could possibly teach me. I learned what fluidity looked like, and how to enjoy my body with a spectrum of queer lovers. And through it all Alex provided an anchor, which I will be forever grateful for. My vision of what being queer looked like was coming into focus. 

But I couldn’t help feeling that being with Alex, a cis man, was my way of continuing to hide. I had hidden myself for so long, ever since Khola denied having seen me at the Ahmadi mosque. I had internalised the message that hiding would protect me, but I didn’t realise the dangerous pattern this created. My relationship with Alex felt like another cloak, affording me the opportunity to be with queer people in private without fear of judgment or repercussions. But my fears were leftovers from a past that I had moved beyond, and I was tired of hiding. 

I knew it was time to pursue relationships with women and people who identified as trans and non-binary. I wanted to hold their hands and kiss in public, two people whom society rejected, dismissed, and disapproved of daring to be seen, daring to be in love even when we were told we weren’t allowed to be. I wouldn’t let the fact that I was coming out of a relationship with a man make me feel that I wasn’t queer enough—being queer, I learned, is so much more than who you sleep with. It’s who you are, whether that means rejecting traditional gender roles or embracing non-normative identities and politics. 

After Alex, my love life continued to be shaped by travel and online dating. In my twenties, my view of the world had been exceptionally small—I relied heavily on imagination to fill in the gaps in my limited knowledge. Now, not only were my romantic encounters catalysts to self-awareness, but they were also informing my experience of how race and desire intersect. As a person of colour travelling without a partner, I was opening myself up to a whole new host of lessons.

The dating apps on my phone became a gauge for where I was desired and where I was not. In Berlin, where even a hint of a tan is considered highly desirable, my phone is bombarded with messages, mostly from white German lesbians who are starved for colour. In Paris, which suffers from a dearth of queer people of colour on dating apps, I resort to having a late-night drink with a friendly man who is never white. I figure that a conversation with an interesting person who has a different perspective on the city I’m visiting is better than staying in my Airbnb all night. In Sweden, I get so few messages that I have to restart my phone to make sure it’s working. 

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Throughout my travels, I thought about what I wanted love to look like for me. Was it possible to be loved without losing myself? Was the absence of a partner I was spiritually and intellectually in sync with the price I had to pay for being uncompromising about needing the space to grow?

Once, while staying with a friend at a little-known queer haven in Mexico, I was on the beach watching my friend surf when three Mexican women approached and asked if they could join me. Travelling to unknown places had sharpened my intuition, and something told me I could trust these women. As the sun began to set, one of them lit a stick of palo santo, and she and I talked about the feeling of falling in love: how it made us cautious, how we were both suspicious of any feeling that’s unpredictable and causes us to lose control. As we compared our Virgo traits, we learned that we had the exact same birthday. The discovery made us laugh. Dusk descended, and the women invited me to celebrate the new moon with them in a nearby mountain town. Not wanting to miss out on this one-of-a-kind experience, I didn’t think twice about hitching a ride with a group of construction workers on their way to a job, sitting in the flatbed with some of the men and their equipment. They dropped me off in the town, where the Mexican elders (who I suspected were a lesbian couple) had gathered with a dozen other women and femmes around my age. We talked about how not to lose oneself while giving and receiving love and how to keep our sense of self intact while opening ourselves up to the possibility of love. I marvelled at the sheer longevity of this battle, how it united us across age and geography.

We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir by Samra Habib is published by riverrun in paperback on 5th September, £9.99.

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