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Can you be gay and Muslim?

in INDONESIA, 16/12/2011

(Abdul Rohman, Florida) - Sexual identity and religion are sensitive and contradictory issues in Indonesia. Only a few are willing to discuss them open-mindedly. Most are likely to say that having a different sexual preference is a perversion of religion and a betrayal of human nature or social norms. Luckily, we still have various media able to look at the issue through a different lens.

Insisting that same-sex relations are actually compatible with religious beliefs would almost certainly challenge mainstream perspectives.

Within the context of Indonesia, as the country with the largest Islamic population, you cannot be a gay or lesbian, for example, and a good Muslim at the same time because most Islamic teaching bans same-sex practices.

I do not attempt to justify homosexuality or promote gay culture but I call for a dialogue on religions and sexual preferences.

Sexual identity and religion are sensitive and contradictory issues in Indonesia. Only a few are willing to discuss them open-mindedly. Most are likely to say that having a different sexual preference is a perversion of religion and a betrayal of human nature or social norms. Luckily, we still have various media able to look at the issue through a different lens.

We may recall a story about a transvestite who was jailed because she married a man whom she loved. Previously, the court had ordered her to become the “real man” she was naturally intended to be. Another example is a transgendered person whose access to healthcare was denied because their gender identity was not recognized administratively.

Coming out as a homosexual in public can potentially rob you of your job, reputation, social life and lead to alienation from your family. It is as if letting people know that you have a different sexual preference from the majority is taboo and violates nature. Therefore, many gays opt to live in the closet and in some circumstances commit suicide. This shows how being sexually different from the mainstream culture makes individuals vulnerable.

Being a Muslim and gay at the same time sounds incompatible. Without attempting to make subjective justification based on religious texts, however, both aspects can coexist if we look at the idea that serving God has nothing to do with sexual preference. In many verses of the Koran there is no explicit sentence saying that someone cannot serve God if he or she practices same-sex relationships. Also, there are competing ideas about whether the people of Lot were punished because of their homosexuality or their negligence in serving God.

Within a more humanistic framework, celebrating beliefs and expressing sexual identity are part of our human rights and for that reason the government should recognize them as they are explicitly mentioned in international documents.

Nonetheless, for particular reasons the government has remained ignorant and let righteous vigilante groups exercise violence against sexual preference discourse.

Should homosexuals give up their faith even though they still believe that Islam is a peaceful religion and a blessing for the universe? Gay people still can practice their religious duties since religion is a personal relation with God and has nothing to do with sexual preferences. What can we expect from religious groups that spread their ideologies through blasphemy, abuse and negligence of their sense of shared humanity as creatures created by the same God as gay people?

It is therefore imperative to foster dialogue between religious groups and gay communities to bridge the difference. Instead of renouncing gay people as deviant, religious groups should embrace them and learn how to synchronize their situation with Islam.

It is religion’s responsibility to bring homosexuals closer to God regardless of their sexual preferences. On the other side, gay communities need assistance from religious groups to enable them to practice their religions and express sexual preferences safely. This back and forth process is challenging but even small steps by discussing this issue with moderate stakeholders will bring powerful results. Instead of pointing out different points of view, they should seek common grounds to disseminate peace and resolve conflict within society.

The notion of being gay and Muslim at the same time is very tough when we see how stereotypical views about gay people are still present in our society. Most people grossly conflate gayness with pedophilia, promiscuity, social pathology and other stigmas.

Two reasons behind this situation are media roles and gay people’s attitudes themselves. Media plays a significant role in the process of shaping gay cultures. A shifting paradigm from negative stigma to a more positive one has occurred recently. The media used to portray gay people as queer, party animals, psychologically fragile and so forth, lately they have begun to represent gay people more favorably as creative, intelligent, talented, etc.

For instance, television stations in America give special space for gay people by recognizing their sexual identity and educating the public about their existence and dynamics as a new sector of society. This phenomenon can be seen in several TV shows such as Glee, Grey’s Anatomy, Greek, etc that show how gay people struggle with their identities and gain acceptance within their circles.

In the Indonesian context, although the mainstream media still represent gays as fun-loving and with less positive images, increasing public awareness and acceptance of gayness as a part of society through television is promising since most of people still rely on it as a major information and entertainment source.

To bring the picture to the real world, every gay person should conduct PR work for their own community by showing the compatibility between Islam and homosexuality. Homophobia persists and people easily pin a negative label on gay people because of a lack of information and opportunities to interact with them.

Gay people, therefore, need to explain their situations sincerely by either coming out in public when they are ready for it, or feeling comfortable with their personal state before expecting society to understand them.

In fact, two-way communication to bring different perspectives about sexual identity and to convey the message that it is a fluid concept should be encouraged in order to create commonalities among components of society.

The writer, a faculty member at Indonesian Islamic University, is USAID Scholar and Msgr. Kerr fellow at the Florida State University.

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