In Part 1 of this post, I introduced to you activist, artist and documentary filmmaker Red Summer. She along with the women in her upcoming film Al Nisa: Muslim Women in Atlanta’s Gay Mecca have been creating intentional spaces of community for Black Lesbian Muslims, where they can share and connect without negotiating the multiple and complex parts of themselves.
My conversation with Red continues as we explore what does it mean for Black Muslim Lesbians to live in the “Gay Mecca,” the political atmosphere of the metropolitan city, and the bringing together of diverse Islamic experiences such as the Nation of Islam and Sunni backgrounds.
S: That’s what we are looking for ourselves, that we don’t have to negotiate any parts of ourselves, its tiring and exhausting. It’s amazing that you created this space alongside these women.
RS: And I even— like when they say “Red Summer created this space.” I didn’t. I just asked you to come to the house. There would be no spaces if women didn’t show up.”
S: It would be just be yourself. [laughs]
So Atlanta is known as the “Gay Mecca” and I’ve heard that from non-Muslims, and I think it is interesting to take Mecca and take it as this place as a pilgrimage to go to Atlanta. Anyone who is black and gay wants to go to Atlanta to feel safe and to embrace themselves. Do you think that for Muslim women there is an attraction to live in Atlanta and to be in a space where they can kind of reconcile their sexuality with their faith?
RS: I don’t think if Muslim women in Atlanta had confronted that with space [living in Atlanta]. Even though there is the term of “Gay Mecca” nobody has said it as a religious term, even though there is much Muslim community in Atlanta. And I live in a community where there are restaurants, you see women in hijab walking down the streets, its not like it was far away from me. But I didn’t still feel welcome. And I didn’t, its not that anyone had a chance to ostracize, I was already prepared to not be welcomed into that space, because of my sexuality. I had enough at home, I didn’t need to recreate that experience here, but I think because its so okay to be lesbian in Atlanta, that kind of trumps it in a way. Okay I am okay with myself in this way, and now I can look at the other part of myself. Does that make sense? Like once we establish we are in safe space we are not going to be bashed or whatever, then we wanted to make it a complete safe space, not a partial safe space not a space for some of us, but a complete safe space. And what that looks like.
Sharrae: Where are you from originally?
Red: I am from Chicago. So I have been in Atlanta for almost 5 years.
Sharrae: What drew you to Atlanta?
Red: You know what drew me to Atlanta? I had had a flight out of Atlanta, so I had a flight in Hawaii, I was on a driving tour driving from city to city, my best friend was in Atlanta and I was going to park my car, and I had taken my suitcases out of my car and I just said, “I like how it feels here. I think I might stay.” And I didn’t even know what it was going to be like in Atlanta, I wasn’t even conscious about it, like I had been to Atlanta before, I knew that it was the “Gay Mecca”, but that wasn’t a part of it, it just felt nice. It felt good. I used to live in the south before; I lived in Louisiana for a long time so I remember that calm. So Atlanta is kind of a mix of the calm of the south and the bustle of the city. You can go into your little pockets and experience both of them, and not drive a few hours.
But Atlanta has its drawbacks as far as the queer community is concerned. We don’t have a working LGBT centre, we don’t have a youth LGBT centre anymore either. They used to have places to have safe space and get information, but that closed. There are not a lot of resources, we don’t have domestic partnership or same-sex marriage or legal benefits, there is a lot of stuff that makes Atlanta having that distinction very interesting.
It’s a Republican state; they are furious! [Laughs]
Atlanta is this little blue city in a sea of red. It’s just really, and it’s not like it’s progressive in a political sense, you don’t have to fight for your space, no one is pushing you out. So because its welcoming in that way, people don’t have to, they don’t have that kind of fight and that kind of struggle, you can get a job, you can support your family, you can get a house our whatever, so yeah. I battle with that, because I come from Illinois which has a lot of those fights already realized and legislated, and I don’t understand why people are even interested in it, I think.
S: That is really interesting. I like hearing how your film has come together and it has created an organic community. I was reading your biography and you do a lot of community building workshops to empower youth, and in a way it seems like you are doing the same thing for black Muslim lesbians. Do you think that the work that you did prior to your family naturally led to this?
RS: I think it was definitely a natural progression, I was just surprised that it took so long. I had been involved in a conversation about it before, that community building around that has never been on the table. Like it wasn’t presented as an option and how much of that has come from just being comfortable. Like what happened when you forget when you are a part of the struggle, and when you think that you are okay, when you know, that you don’t think you are a part of this push, and this quest and this fight that you kind of just get swept into normalcy.
S: Right! That’s a dangerous place to be.
RS: Yeah. But then my life is far outside of normal, then where do I honour my authenticity and honor my individuality if I am just being a part of the greater community and not voicing my presence?
S: I see that the film is going to be touring this spring, what cities are planned to be on the tour? Any festivals?
RS: I have a few festivals, Sistah Sinema, that is a lot of the west coast. I have the National Women’s Studies Conference; I will be screening it there. Feminisms and Rhetorics conference at Stanford University. And that after that I want to get up to, just getting it to outside of academia and getting it to the community itself, and having it really in down to earth spaces. If you want to show it at your house and invite some friends over and just have conversation on what that looks like, I’m totally open to that.
I work with a documentary called U People before and I found screenings at schools and the Q & A, but I am thinking about more salon type spaces, really intimate spaces that people feel comfortable having these kind of conversations.
S: From what I was seeing in the 10-minute teaser, the Nation of Islam seemed to be where a lot of people got their exposure to Islam. Was there anyone in that space who came from other perspectives of Islam and how much do you think that experience formulated their experience of being a black lesbian?
Red: I think it was kind of equal. I think two of them were from the Nation of Islam and two are from orthodox Islam, Sunni Muslim. So that was a good balance for me, because, no three are Sunni—because looking at in present day, there is not as much as a separation as there might have been before, so its been nice having people talk about their cultural practices and how they are different, but I don’t think there has been a whole lot of that. We are sort of just trying to be together.
S: That’s true. There already is so much division.
RS: Yeah I think of it like– I teach. So when I took kids on a trip, where there were other schools there, kids would hang out with the others from their school and their peers. If we went to other kids, they would hang out with others from their city. If they went to another country, they’d chill with anyone from America. So a community broadens, once their scope broadens.
S: I love this idea, taking it into these spaces, at a time when being Muslim has such negative connotations especially in America, and when people often invisibilize themselves in their own spaces. This is important work! I enjoyed this conversation so much.
RS: So have I.