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Being gay in the Muslim world

Monica Tan
Published: November 9, 2012 - 6:20PM

"I'm not drinking tonight," says Shabura. The 24-year-old Indonesian make-up artist takes a seductive drag of his cigarette. He is svelte and cute, with floppy hair like Leonardo DiCaprio during his teen heartthrob days.

Like 88% of his fellow 240 million countrymen, Shabura is Muslim. And today is Friday, the traditional day of rest and prayer for Muslims. But Shabura's reason for taking a break is a little more prosaic. "I've been partying for six nights in a row and I'm exhausted!" he grins.

Too exhausted to drink, but not so exhausted he's staying in. And here in the nation's capital, Shabura is surrounded by hundreds of hip, young Jakartans. It's 2am and the ice-cubes are clinking, the whiskey flowing. Everyone else in this rooftop bar is getting their party on.

When compared to the country's more conservative provinces, these young people prove Indonesia may be the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation, but the manner in which that faith is practiced is diverse. Shabura prays several times a week, but not five times a day, he eats pork, he's had sex outside of marriage and that sex was with a man.

Shabura opens up the location-based application Grindr and scrolls through a bevvy of gay men currently in the vicinity. He giggles at the exhibitionism of one user called "Natural", who'd spliced together not one but three shirt-free photos of himself and his impressive abs. Earlier this morning he chatted to a guy who, according to Shabura, "talked more decent" than most Grindr users.

Shabura's life appears remarkably similar to that of LGBT people around the world. But in a nation such as Indonesia, where religion is considered so important, the LGBT population must also grapple with the tension between homosexuality and the Islamic faith. "I started to realise I was gay around 8 years old. And in my house our copy of the Koran has an index in the back. So I checked homosexuality, and saw it's bad," says Shabura. "I'm still confused by why I'm like this. This is not what I want, it just happened."

And while Shabura has yet to come out to his parents, his mum has her suspicions. "She once asked my cleaner if I was dating a woman or man," says Shabura. He laughs, "My cleaner knew exactly what to say: 'I saw him with his girlfriend in the mall'."

Wawan, 32, works at an NGO in Jakarta, and his own struggle with his sexuality led him to walk away from his faith completely. It was a journey that started as early as fifth grade, and continued well into his university education where compulsory religious classes used tales of the ancient cities Sodom and Gomorrah, apparently destroyed due to the vice and sexual deviance of its inhabitants, to condemn homosexuality.

While still believing in a 'higher power', Wawan says in no uncertain terms that he no longer believes in Islam. "I used to be very religious, and tried to repress my sexual feelings. But as I came to terms with my homosexuality I started to think, why do I believe in something that makes me feel like I can't accept the way I am?"

While Wawan's parents have come to accept his sexual identity, they have more difficulty accepting his lack of faith. Surprisingly it is his sisters, who still live in his hometown of Papua, who are the least supportive. Wawan says, "Last August they tried to set me up with our auntie's friend's daughter. And it was my mum who said, 'Leave him alone!' and told me, 'Go out tonight!'"

The challenges faced by homosexuals in the Muslim world is a theme that regularly comes up in Indonesia's annual queer film festival, called Q!. Now in its 11th year, the month-long festival screens over 100 films from across the globe, and is designed to raise awareness of queer issues. This year the festival opened with a local film called 'Parts of the Heart'. Set in Jakarta, the film runs through the defining life experiences of one gay man.

Festivals like Q! act as important touch points for the city's gay population, and festival director Meninaputri Wismurti says every year there are attendees who tell her their lives have been changed by the festival. "I'll never forget one, young gay guy who said to me he was very grateful to the festival and to know he was not alone. I think that's our biggest reward," she says.

Meninaputri is also encouraged by the growing diversity of the festival's attendees. "In the beginning it was mostly movie buffs and the LGBT community. But over the last five years we have more and more students coming, and interestingly more [heterosexual], Muslim women." Audiences outside of Jakarta have also proven open to the festival. "In Bali we had a screening for villagers of an Indonesian film looking at lesbians and sex workers, and this intrigued them."

And yet it is the festival's very success that may have attracted the attention of fundamentalist group Islamic Defenders Front, leading to protests in 2010. According to Meninaputri around 50 men from the group turned up at several festival venues, chanting homophobic slogans and carrying a signed petition. She says during this time many members of her team were also threatened, "Being called every day, telling us to 'be on the right track again, or your life will be in danger'," says Meninaputri.

At the time Meninaputri gathered together festival staff and volunteers to hear their thoughts. "I asked: do we want to stop or continue? And even though we were afraid, and some of us were actually crying, we agreed to continue," she says.

With the fourth largest population in the world, change rarely happens uniformly in Indonesia. And much like his country, Shabura continues to negotiate space for both his religious beliefs and his sexuality, in the hopes that one need not negate the other. He knows that technically his homosexuality is considered a "sin" and yet he can't seem to hate himself, nor his religion. Not for something that he feels has come so naturally and doesn't hurt anyone.

"When I pray, I am always asking for love. And if it is a guy, then so be it."



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