Dalila Fridi talks bridging the gaps between religious and LGBT communities.
by Lauren Caruba
When Dalila Fridi immigrated to the United States from Algeria in 1990, she expected to encounter free rights for all. But as both a Muslim woman and a lesbian, she soon realized American society is not as inclusive as she initially thought. Having grown up in a politically active family that fought for rights for Berber people, an indigenous North African ethnic group, Fridi said she was meant to pursue human justice issues. Upon becoming president of the Equality Illinois Education Project, she began channeling her political passion into educating people across the state about LGBT issues and forging partnerships among religious communities. As she enters her third year heading the project, Fridi says she’s fighting two different civil rights movements: equality for LGBT individuals and equality for Muslims.
Fridi spoke with the Medill Equal Media Project about her lobbying efforts for Illinois’ pending marriage equality bill, immigration reform, anti-bullying legislation and transgender rights. Excerpts:
MEDILL EQUAL MEDIA PROJECT: WHAT WAS IT LIKE EMIGRATING FROM ALGERIA?
Dalila Fridi: I was about a month shy of turning 20. I came for school, to go to school and also to live with my uncle and his family. I wasn’t culture shocked until I got older. I didn’t know anything about my sexuality then, so that wasn’t a problem.
WHAT IS THE CULTURAL DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES AND ALGERIA IN TERMS OF ACCEPTANCE OF NONCONFORMING SEXUALITY?
Compared to other Muslim countries a woman has a little bit more rights, but there are no gay rights in Algeria. There’s no such thing. There’s actually a constitutional amendment that punishes gay relationships, and it’s mostly toward men. As a woman, you fall into society’s thought of what a woman is. Do I say that there aren’t any gays in Algeria? No. Of course there are. They’re underground.
YOU CAME OUT BOTH AS A LESBIAN AND AS A MUSLIM SHORTLY AFTER 9/11. WHY DID YOU FEEL THAT WAS THE RIGHT TIME TO COME OUT IN BOTH WAYS?
It was a coincidence. 9/11 to me, as a Muslim, made me angry. At the same time, I felt that I needed to defend another set of Muslims that were not all like these bombers. People started finding out because I was voicing my opinion about 9/11 and voicing my opinion as a Muslim. That also brought up coming out as a lesbian too. Lesbian, Muslim — to me it was, “[I should] do it all at once.”
DO YOU ASSOCIATE YOUR IDENTITY AS A LESBIAN AND YOUR IDENTITY AS AN IMMIGRANT CLOSELY?
I don’t. I never did. The more I get older, the more I feel a sense of an identity. Being a Muslim is just who I am. It’s not something that I strive to be or I struggle to be. It’s just who I am. Voicing that I am a Muslim more and more now is to give a different view that, yes, I’m a lesbian, but I’m also a Muslim woman. With all the struggles that I have as a lesbian, I think the struggle of being a Muslim woman is equal or maybe higher or stronger.
HOW ARE YOU BRIDGING THE GAP BETWEEN LGBT AND RELIGIOUS COMMUNITIES?
The success is having allies and working and talking—never criticizing the religion, never criticizing the teachings. It’s about humanity and talking about it from the human perspective. A lot of LGBT people are religious. No one can say “no” to them about going to church or even getting married if they want to in a church. It’s their faith. Faith is between you and God. It’s not between you and an emissary in the middle. I don’t believe in a God that would send me to hell because I’m gay.
DO YOU OFTEN ENCOUNTER INDIVIDUALS WHO HAVE TROUBLE RECONCILING THEIR RELIGIOUS VALUES WITH THEIR SEXUAL IDENTITY?
Yes, a lot, especially from the Muslim faith. My saying to them is actually putting them toward a reading of the Quran. Read the Quran, read it on your own—not what you were taught as a kid or what someone else is writing in interpreting the Quran. Read it yourself and look into your heart.
YOU’VE SAID YOU FEEL YOU’RE FIGHTING FOR TWO DIFFERENT CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENTS. HOW ARE YOU WORKING FOR BOTH MOVEMENTS SIMULTANEOUSLY?
I’m kind of lucky that I’ve never had to personally face any type of racism or discrimination because I’m gay or a Muslim. But I see it. I do see it and it bothers me and I speak against it. I speak up against my fellow Muslims all the time when they say something stupid or when they attack. I’m constantly fighting. From the non-Muslim group, I’m fighting to defend the religion. And then from the Muslim world, I tend to defend LGBT. It’s not like I’m fighting one group for the two reasons, it’s like I’m fighting each group differently for different reasons.
WHAT ARE THE MAJOR DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE DISCRIMINATION THE TWO COMMUNITIES FACE?
Hate is hate. I don’t see a difference. To me when I hear Rush Limbaugh make his anti-Muslim remarks or anti-gay remarks, to me it’s the same language, it’s the same sound. It’s hate. It’s not different.
OBVIOUSLY MARRIAGE EQUALITY IS PROMINENT IN THE NATIONAL DEBATE RIGHT NOW, BUT IT’S ALSO NOT THE END GOAL FOR ALL LGBT INDIVIDUALS. CAN YOU SPEAK ABOUT THOSE WHO AREN’T SUPPORTIVE OF MARRIAGE EQUALITY?
For the longest time, I didn’t think marriage equality was important. But what made me want to fight was listening, hearing the anti-marriage equality arguments by regular people, by legislators, by the media, by religious leaders. When I’m angry, that’s when I work harder. [Marriage] might not be the answer to a lot of problems, but it’s one hurdle. The next hurdle is gender inclusion [and] transgender equality. Even as the LGB community, we need to rally behind our transgender community. There is hatred within our community, too. Hopefully we will rally everyone for that, too.