When Yara El Safi immigrated to Canada in 2002, she says it was it was more traumatic than celebratory. As a queer Muslim, she says she was alienated from her culture and the new world into which she came.

“I was rejected from Canadian culture because I was Muslim and I was unwanted from my Muslim culture because I was queer.”

El Safi’s story, along with many others, were featured recently at Inside Out, Ottawa’s LGBT film festival that ran Oct. 24-27. She says that events like the film festival help give people a platform to articulate their struggles. “It makes it easier for the next generation to feel like they belong,” she said.

El Safi, who is now an artist living in Hamilton, says she always knew she was queer and spent her early years struggling to accept her conflicting identities.

She says part of the difficulty in finding acceptance from the Muslim community is there are no words to describe LGBTQ2S+ identities in Arabic. But she says the idea that a person cannot be a true Muslim if they are queer stems from ignorance and hate.

“A lot of Islamic mysticism, Islamic spirituality and art links back to conflicting identities. They existed before even we had the words for [LGBTQ2S+],” said El Safi.

Siblings Monib and Tariq Abdulrazaq say they also struggle to feel accepted in their Muslim community.

In the Canadian short film Skies Are Not Just Blue, the two explain that their religious identity is as much a part of them as their sexuality; it’s not one or the other – Muslim or queer. 

“People think we don’t exist,” Monib told viewers.

As two queer siblings born into the same Muslim family, Monib and Tariq Abdulrazaq view their shared identity as a sign from God they are supported — even if it is only by each other.

The film’s director, Lysandre Cosse-Tremblay, wanted to highlight their journey through the “co-existence of these two seemingly opposing identities,” by filming their everyday life.

Cosse-Tremblay won the Emerging Canadian Artist award at Inside Out Toronto, Canada’s largest queer film festival and was asked to participate in the Ottawa edition.

“We’re very happy to be here, [Inside Out] is like one big, happy, queer family,” said Cosse-Tremblay.

Cosse-Tremblay and the film’s cinematographer, Laurence Blais, said film festivals such as Inside Out are important to raising activism awareness in the LGBTQ2S+ community.

Director Lysandre Cosse-Tremblay and cinematographer Laurence Blais won the Canadian Emerging Canadian Artist award at Inside Out Toronto. [Photo © Cara Powell]

The festival’s executive director, Andria Wilson, said “this year we’ve got a really strong thread of activism through our program.”

Films like Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America, which follows four queer individuals fleeing violence based on their sexual orientation and seeking asylum in the United States, join Skies Are Not Just Blue in showcasing alternative identities and the unique challenges LGBTQ2S+ people of colour, refugees, and immigrants face.

“It’s really interesting to see that balance of those beautiful romantic stories that of course people love to see, but also that really strong story of activism and queer history,” said Wilson.

El Safi chose to participate in Skies Are Not Just Blue as it allowed her to share her raw perspective of being a queer, Muslim woman without a filter — an artistic vision that Cosse-Tremblay shared.

Queer, Muslim artist Yara El Safi talks about her greatest challenge in accepting her identity. [Photo © Yara El Safi] 

Though El Safi maintains a strong connection to her religion, she says she no longer attends mosque. “The words people use to describe queer identities in Arabic made it clear I would not be accepted,” said El Safi.

Majed Jarrar, the Imam at Ottawa Mosque, says he understands the hesitation but invites all believers — and non-believers with questions — to mosque.

“In no way is a person who commits any of the sins in Islam less of a Muslim or less of a human,” said Jarrar. “The community has responsibilities towards [LGBTQ2S+ people] to be accepted and to be welcomed.”

As Imam of the oldest mosque in Ottawa, built in 1976, Jarrar points out that the Ottawa Muslim community is made up of first and second generation immigrants who are still adapting and improving after fleeing persecution.

“I see new refugees with a Justin Trudeau keychain and Canada jersey who don’t realize that this show of patriotism, nationalism, is not necessary here,” described Jarrar.

Though the Muslim community in Canada is flourishing, “there’s still a long way to go in learning tolerance and acceptance … these are some of the flaws brought with us as immigrants from authoritarian regimes that we grew up under,” said Jarrar.

Jarrar says he has not been approached by any LGBTQ2S+ Muslims in person, but has received numerous questions via his ask.fm account from Muslim youth, mostly aged 13 to 15, about sexuality in Islam.

He has answered 5,747 questions at the time of publication in an effort to make Islam more accessible to young people.

Films like Skies Are Not Just Blue and Unsettled also aim to make depictions of Queer Muslims more accessible: using imagery to illustrate what too often goes unseen and ignored by documenting the real lives of those living with intersectional identities.

According to a report by the City for All Women Initiative, “the invisibility of queer lives – or not being part of everyday life of the city – is a reflection of hetero-sexism, cisgenderism, and homophobia in society.”

The report notes that a common heterosexist notion is that a family unit is made up of a male father, female mother, and children, and that human beings are “naturally” straight. This can make people feel invisible if they fall outside these ‘norms’.

“The invisibility of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and queer individuals in media perpetuates this heterosexist idea,” said Malcolm Reher, an attendee of the Inside Out festival.

According to the 2016 Census, there are 72,880 same‑sex couples in Canada. This number represents nearly one per cent of all couples and increased by 60 per cent between 2006 and 2016.

El Safi uses her art as a form of expressing who she is, and the struggles she has faced. [Photo © Yara El Safi]

Wilson says Inside Out’s motto has been “through film we challenge attitudes and change lives.”

Executive director of Inside Out, Andrea Wilson talks about the power of film to represent LGBTQ2S+ identities. [Photo © Inside Out] 

As part of their initiative to use films to create change, Inside Out partnered with Rainbow New Beginnings and Capital Rainbow Refuge which both aim to bring LGBTQ2S+ refugees safely to Canada.

Mohammad, who asked for his last name not to be shared for fear of persecution, is an Iranian refugee who came to Canada in August after being sponsored by Rainbow New Beginnings and Capital Rainbow Refuge.

Iranian refugee Mohammad was recently sponsored by Capital Rainbow Refuge. [Photo © Cara Powell]

Rainbow New Beginnings and Capital Rainbow Refuge recently hosted a fundraiser at the ByTowne Cinema, featuring a film called Fireflies about a gay Iranian man who is stuck in Mexico.

All the proceeds went towards providing LGBTQ2S+ people safe passage to Canada.

Wilson says she is excited to partner with more local charitable institutions in the future.

“I want a future where people can tell their stories and get their projects made without having to be a part of a system that wasn’t built for them,” said Wilson.