Liberation is the Ultimate Threat

Remembering a Black Bisexual Theologian, Educator, and Activist

Ibrahim was a sexually fluid Black man who loved challenging expectations, disrupting norms, and celebrating intersections. That’s why most people reading this article have no idea who he was. The causes of his relative obscurity as a religious leader, artist, educator, scholar, and activist continue to place the history, legacy, and presence of Black bisexual masculinities at risk even as we see them emerging in interesting ways like Issa Rae’s and Travon Free’s recently announced project Him or Her or my own forthcoming documentary project No Homo | No Hetero: Sexual Fluidity and Manhood in Black America.

Shaykh Dr. Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajajé (formerly Elias Farajajé-Jones) was a religious scholar who brought the concept of erotophobia — hostility and discrimination against the body’s capacity to experience sensuality and sexual pleasure — to the field of Black queer studies, counter-oppressive, intersectionality to the field of multi-religiosity, and an In-the-Life theology to the field of liberation theology. As a professor at Howard University’s School of Divinity and later as professor and provost at Starr King School for the Ministry, Ibrahim trained numerous divinity students. As a HIV activist-educator, caregiver, death doula, and presider of funerals for people living with HIV and their families, he demonstrated how religious leaders could put their theology into practice in the early days of HIV pandemic.

He was a tattooed, body-pierced Sufi shaykh, i.e., a learned and respected religious leader. He was the loving partner, father, and a BDSM/kink practitioner. He preached the primacy of love, decolonizing our bodies, and the Judeo-Christian-Islamic foundation for a radical, queer sexual politics. Ibrahim lived, loved, and learned at the crossroads he called the “mixities” that make complexity at once beautiful and terrifying.

And Ibrahim suffered the consequences of embracing his complexities and maintaining fidelity to his queerness —the soul-murdering violence of marginalization. Aside from the documentary film Black Nations, Queer Nations, there are few public resources that accurately place Ibrahim at the heart of Black LGBT movement organizing. It’s a fate that any revolutionary, sexually fluid Black man faces if he dares to challenge the conventions of the various communities of which he is a member.

Black queer religious studies is dominated by gay and lesbian Christians. Bishop Carl Bean, founding prelate of the Unity Fellowship Church Movement, Bishop Yvette Flounder, founder and senior pastor of the City of Refuge United Church of Christ and presiding bishop of The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, public theologian Rev. Irene Monroe, and more recently the Ferguson uprising minister-in-residence, Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou have rightly been recognized for their contributions to Black queer theology. Yet, scholars of Black queer religious thought have ignored Ibrahim, the author of the only Black queer contribution to James H. Cone’s foundational text on Black liberation theology, Black Theology: A Documentary History. While benefiting from the space his work created for Black queer religious practice to be liberatory, the lack of critical engagement with Ibrahim’s work is an outcome of the ways his bisexuality and, later, Sufism did not fit into Black gay/lesbian identity politics and Black Christian religiosity.

Some would argue that because Ibrahim did not play the publish-or-perish game of academe he contributed to his own invisibilization. As a mentee and eventual friend of Ibrahim’s, I had these discussions with him. Ibrahim’s choice of audience (e.g., his students, progressive religious activists, sex radicals, and people seeking liberatory ideas) and platforms (e.g., classrooms, Sufi gatherings, social media, and keynote plenaries) was his deliberate challenge to the imperislist, white supremacist, capitalist, and cisheteropatriarchal elitism of academia.

In the 90s, when he entered the national bisexual organizing movement, Ibrahim had to navigate within a system dominated by women racialized as white (who had varying levels of racial justice analysis) in most of the leadership positions. Since those early days, the presence of a big, tall, well-spoken, funky-dressed, multi-lingual, educated Black man as a bisexual community organizer continues to engender a number of responses: welcome, arousal, suspicion, curiosity, ambivalence, love, admiration, exoticization, and romantization. When the Religious Institute convened a group of religious leaders and theologians several years ago to identify best practices and resources for addressing the religious needs of bisexuals, Ibrahim was conspicuously not among those invited even though he had been doing that work for nearly three decades.

I believe Ibrahim took these attacks to heart even as he practiced a generosity of spirit and love for all people. One that took a considerable toll on him was when he was pushed out of an Islamic institution he helped to build by forces that believed the sex radical, bisexual, who performed multi-religious rites with people across multiple traditions, was not practicing a pure Islam. Ibrahim endured these purist challenges while also being targeted by Islamophobia in the United States. He was often questioned by the Transportation Security Authority (TSA), which frequently removed him from the general passenger lines to search him when he travelled back and forth between his homes in Turkey and the United States.

These were the heart attacks that took Ibrahim from this world. And although my mourning has subsided, I’m still as enraged as I was when I wrote these words on my website sacredsexualities.org shortly after his ancestral transition:

“[Overt acts of racial violence] also obscure the daily, pernicious brutality of white supremacy that strips years, decades away from us…because of the impact that constant brutality has upon our bodies. I’m speaking of the low-grade fever type of white supremacy with which we all live that eats away at our bodies and spirits, even though our souls are so strong, vibrant and brilliant. It is this too that enrages me, this that makes Ibrahim’s words about “physical/spiritual/psychological process of making our bodies…our own” so poignant….
Rage filled me before tears could come because I remembered what he shared with me of those costs. I connected to the heartbreaks from professional attacks and monosexist marginalization he experienced over decades because he wasn’t Muslim enough, Unitarian Universalist enough, publishing enough, Black enough, monogamist enough, queer enough, etc….”

Ibrahim called out these dynamics in “fictions of purity,” an experimental writing in the anthology, Recognize: The Voices of Bisexual Men,

“In cultures that prioritize either/or thinking, either/or monolithic/oppositional definitions of sexualities/genders, in an either/or world, anything that occupies a liminal, an intersectional, an interstitial location is seen as a threat. Whether it be in terms of racial/ethnic mixities, religious mixities, etc. those who inhabit interstitial spaces, those who move between worlds, those who are literally fringe-dwellers, are seen as the ultimate threat.”

If you are interested in contributing to a gedenkschrift--a posthumous compilation of critical engagements of Ibrahim's work and celebrations of his life, contact me.

Wisdom, Redefining Masculinity, Lifestyle, Influencer, Spirituality

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres. We publish pieces written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Learn more or join us as a community member!