Religious belief and sexual identity collide often for an atheist meeting up with gay Muslims
Content warning: This article contains some explicit descriptions of sexual violence
Being gay and atheist at the same time in Indonesia is like taking a double punch to your face. It makes me a double minority in this society. What a dangerous choice, I know. There are written laws stating that not following one of the five recognised religions is against the essential principles of my country. Pancasila’s rule number one is belief in the one Almighty God (Ketuhanan yang Maha Esa). Indonesians are obliged to follow one of them (‘sort-of’ exceptions are made for tribal people). There is also a societal rule about being gay, which is, don´t be. In Indonesia, people accept one and only one sexual orientation: heterosexual. It is generally okay to do an ‘academic’ study about other sexual orientations, but openly being one of them will be considered rebellious.
My name is Adii Robin and I was born and raised in a small town in East Java, but soon afterwards our family moved to Bandung, West Java. I grew up in a very close-minded society, but had a normal childhood, just like other kids. Until one day I started questioning a lot of things that were bugging me inside. When I was seven, I entered an Islamic study class for youngsters and got excellent grades in subjects such as praying, reciting the holy Qur'an, Arabic calligraphy, Islamic history and telling stories about the prophets. But I was a curious boy, and I asked my teacher a lot of questions. Can you imagine a seven-year-old kid asking:
Why does Allah only speak in Arabic, Sir?
Why do people in Australia have a shorter fasting time and people in Alaska a longer fasting time? What If I am on another planet, Sir? How many hours would I have to fast there?
Later on, I began to ask
If being gay is a sin, why did Allah make gay people that way, Sir?
Why can Allah not help those unfortunate hungry kids in Africa? Is praying enough?
His answers never satisfied me. Whenever he got stuck, he would tell me to stop being critical of Islam, and to stop mocking religion. All I needed was to have faith. Despite my achievements in class, I grew increasingly sceptical. The teachers just discouraged all my curiosity and could not even answer these super-simple and innocent questions. But I had many more and they have remained hanging there unanswered, leaving me frustrated to this day. That was the beginning of the end of my faith in Islam.
Year by year, my curiosity deepened and I broadened my reading. I kept coming across the idea of being a ‘non-believer.’ Atheism. I decided to keep learning, digging up every bit of information about it I could find and wondering if other people around me had the same feelings? I eventually felt brave enough to break away and pursue what I wanted to know. I realised how stupid I had been to believe the stories I had learnt in Islam classes this whole time.
Movies and television series also inspired me to convert from Islam to atheism. I remember The Da Vinci Code (2006), The Big Bang Theory series (2008) and Supernova: The Knight, the Princess & the Shooting Star (Supernova: Ksatria, Putri, dan Bintang Jatuh, 2014). Even the theme song from Sherina's Adventure (Petualangan Sherina, 2000) would blow my six-year-old mind:
Why are the stars shining?
Why do the waters flow?
Why does the world turn?
Look closely around you,
And you will understand.
Mengapa bintang bersinar?
Mengapa air mengalir?
Mengapa dunia berputar?
Lihat segalanya lebih dekat,
Dan kau akan mengerti.
I was in elementary school when I first listened to that song, ha-ha! Some of my atheist friends have since shared similar experiences of how that song helped them on their journey away from religion.
After I had served 17 years, I finally withdrew from learning any more about religion. I found a more-or-less secret online support group for those who identified as atheist. Once inside, I discovered it comprised thousands of members – all non-believers – who shared the same perspective. By joining the group I acquired so much new knowledge that impressed me and I began to view the world differently. It felt like I had found my safe haven, because gay people like me also had a place in the group. I had unlimited opportunities to know, discuss and learn more about things often deemed too sensitive to be discussed openly. Today, a year later, I feel the group has changed me in that I am freer to be myself. I had been living my atheist life secretly, but now I could express myself with full confidence.
In Islam, abandoning the faith is called murtad, apostasy. It is a very, very serious offence and it has cost me my family. When my parents found out, they abandoned me, their son. For years they shut me out of the family, just because I had chosen what I thought was best for me, namely being an atheist. They have accepted me back for the past two years, but in retrospect, it was a lonely path I had to walk. With no financial or moral support from my family, I became an outcast. It was a bitter pill to swallow after everything, but I felt bad knowing that my parents had done that to me, their own son. They chose religion over me, unfortunately.
I can recall exactly the day it happened. I was in senior high school. My parents caught me not doing the five-times-a-day mandatory prayer and asked me why. They took it so seriously. I felt cornered as if I were in court, with them as the judge, and me the defendant. I decided then and there to tell them honestly what was on my mind and to show them my true colours. I told them I was no longer a Muslim, although I didn't say I had become an atheist. (I did not think they had had the necessary exposure to be able to process that term). I told them I had left Islam and they were really shocked. My mum cried, my father got angry and they both shouted at me in the living room. They cursed me as their son, and said they never wanted to consider me as part of the family anymore. Strangely, I was not sad at all as it actually felt like a relief. I realised that even blood-family can be mean. They disowned and abandoned me so easily and from that moment I lived by myself for years.
Another illegal and secret thing I do is being gay. When I was six-years-old, I already felt something unusual about what I would later learn was called my ‘sexual orientation.’ I seemed to have a strong visual interest in males, aka boys/guys/men. They attracted me more than females. I didn’t know anything about gay stuff then, but later I watched American movies like American Pie (1999), Brokeback Mountain (2005), and others, which broadened my perspective. I discovered that what I was feeling was called homosexuality. While exploring all this, I experienced many unexpected events. First, I was molested by a gay adult man. But then things got worse as molestation turned into terrible sexual abuse – rape with penetration. I didn’t have the nerve to tell anyone about this, especially my parents as I was scared of how they might react. I was just an innocent, cowardly kid.
Being sexually abused when young also affected my attitude to God. I hated to think that God had let that happen. That sowed the seed of my disbelief in all the bullshit and naturally that had an effect on my life. To me, religion and sexuality are strongly aligned. Especially when you are gay, because every religion disapproves of sexual ‘deviation.’
During that lonely period – dealing with the abuse, remembering my parents shouting curses at me, carrying that heavy burden alone, unable to discuss it with anyone – I began to look elsewhere for answers. The incident pushed me to educate myself more about my own sexuality. I’d say I outdid myself without taking any formal sex education. Luckily, I had unlimited access to the internet, particularly gay-oriented porn, social media and other forums. Yet it still had something to do with religion, because I was breaking religious rules by doing what was forbidden.
Armed with curiosity, courage and willpower, collecting all this knowledge was a piece of cake. Voila! I was ready to move to the next level. As I entered my teenage years, yes, starting at age 14, I began to discover the world of social media using Friendster, MiRc, Yahoo Messenger, etc. I discovered many ways to reach people online and various illegal gay social media. They turned out to be quite notorious to those in the know, and easy to use. Meeting gays secretly online became a daily habit that I have practice to this day. I first contact them online then meet them in person.
I started to have sex with people when I was in senior high school. Over the years I have met many types of gay guys, of different ages and backgrounds. Let me share some stories about one of the most interesting types. I classified them as the ‘religious gay,’ generally the ‘Muslim gay.’ Given that for me sexuality and religion are somewhat aligned, I find it peculiar how carefully these Muslim gay guys pick their casual sex partners. They continue to do two seemingly contradictory things: continue being gay while also praying to their God. I once asked one of them about it and he said that earning God’s blessing is not the same as committing a sin. As long as they were trying their best to be a devoted Muslim, God would wipe away their sin of being gay. I could see a battle raging inside them.
I once met a Muslim gay online. After a brief get-to-know-you we got to the point: we’re going to have sex. We went to a hotel room and as we stripped down, he suddenly remembered that he hadn´t prayed. And this happened right before intercourse. So he stopped our foreplay, did the ritual washing known as wudhu and prayed, as I lay naked beside him. Once he finished praying, we continued our paused sex as if nothing had happened.
Another time, I was in the middle of intercourse with another Muslim gay, when the mosque broadcast the Adzan Ashar, the afternoon call to prayer. He suddenly asked me to stop our intercourse and wait for the adzan to finish. When asked, he said that he wanted to respect the sacredness of adzan by pausing intercourse. After the call to prayer ended, we continued as if nothing had happened.
If these two stories are strange, nothing will beat the next one. I met this good-looking gay Muslim on a dating app. As usual, we decided to meet in person and have sex. He came over to my place, and it was quite straightforward – undress while we chat and get to know each other. We were both butt naked when he popped the question to me: ‘Anyway Adi, what is your religion?’ At this point I had been an ‘out of the closet’ atheist for a year. Without hesitation I answered, ‘I am an atheist’. He froze for a moment, got dressed and left – without saying another word. I was unable to make sense of what had just happened. That was just one of three times that a Muslim gay guy has walked out on my naked butt upon discovering that I was a non-believer. Rejected for being an atheist! Why did they behave like that? Did I disgust them in some way? Or were they projecting onto me their own internal conflict about religious belief, sexual identity and behaviour?
However bizarre and sometimes out of place I feel, being atheist and gay has led me to a lot of unique experiences, although I hope I won’t have any more unwanted ones. Indonesia is a perfect place to examine something like this and I find it very interesting. Since being gay and being atheist are both illegal here, it is like exploring a wild jungle. Everything I discover is authentic. What a life!
Adii Robin is a pseudonym. He is reachable through Instagram and Twitter (@adiirobin). He is a passionate art, design and culinary entrepreneur and lives in Jakarta.