A gay Muslim man reconciles faith and sexuality

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Filmmaker and activist Rhadem Camlian Morados writes about growing up gay and Muslim in Mindanao. Photo by JL JAVIER

Editor’s note: Rhadem Camlian Morados is a filmmaker and activist. He is a member and officer of several LGBTQ+ NGOs and organizations, including The Red Whistle, Teach Peace Build Peace Movement, Mindanao PRIDE, MUJER LGBT, and PINK Shorts Art Festival. His most recent documentary, “Lupah Sug,” is about queer Muslims in Mindanao, and is co-produced by GiveOut and the ASEAN SOGIE Caucus.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — I grew up in Zamboanga City, in a Tausug Muslim home, surrounded by family members who are rebels, in public service, and active members of a religious sector. It was an environment where being a member of the LGBTQ+ community is disgraced and never encouraged to come to the light.

I knew I was gay at a young age, and like the journeys of many of my fellow LGBTQ+ in Mindanao, I tried my best not to indulge that identity. At some point, we tell ourselves that we’re just confused or going through a phase, and later shame ourselves for not able to become straight. It feels like we are all just hiding in the shadows unnoticed at the expense of our emotional and mental well-being, all for the sake of family and our religious community.

In Mindanao, being part of the LGBTQ+ community comes with multiple layers of discrimination, harassment, and violence. Many LGBTQ+ people have a hard time getting a job in Islamic businesses, public agencies, and other conservative establishments. We have been subject to hate and shame for the longest time.

The difference between most gay Muslims and myself is that I grew up in a privileged family where I was taught that I can dream and reach for the stars. I was taught that if you want something badly enough and you know it’s for the greater good, you have to snatch it for yourself. I had a good education and food on my table, while the other gay kids where I’m from had to worry about how to go to school or buy their next pencil.

I realized that when you go through so much trauma in life, constant conflict, deaths, poverty, and a life with less opportunity to do great things, you tend to hold on to the only thing that can give you hope. That is why, in Mindanao, religion becomes part of many people’s lives. It is the only thing that gives them hope.

"[For many LGBTQ+ in Mindanao who are in the closet,] it feels like we are all just hiding in the shadows unnoticed at the expense of our emotional and mental well-being, all for the sake of family and our religious community."

Unfortunately, religion and mainstream straight culture create a sense of internalized homophobia among the LGBTQIA+ Muslims. Often, they simply accept their fate; that is, that they are never going to have a family, are going to hell, and will be punished by God. Toxic masculinity within the Muslim society in the Philippines promotes this homophobia. Organized rape and forced marriages are still happening but nobody dares to report it because that’s just how it’s been for a long time. A culture of silence and lack of opportunities and education keep many LGBTQ+ Muslims in Mindanao in the closet.

Even though I grew up more privileged than my LGBTQ+ Muslim peers, I too experienced trials with my sexuality, stemming from my family roots. Aside from being the only son, I also faced pressure because my father is a high-ranking police officer and my grandfather is a Muslim priest, a former official of the National Comission on Muslim Filipinos and a Sheikh. On top of that, members of my extended family are in positions of public service. Some are part of the Muslim freedom fighters and the peace panel. Thus, there were strong expectations not only to be masculine, but to uphold the family name as well.

But I didn’t follow my family and I continued to pursue what I felt was right for me. As I slowly became open with my identity, many doubted my commitment to Islam. Even my family was bothered with the path I chose to take, but despite that they have remained supportive in their own little ways. After all, they were the ones who taught me to always question social norms, fight for what is right and to discover my way to the truth. So that’s what I did.

But being true to myself was never easy. I received violence and indifference from many directions, because of the growing homophobia within the Muslim community, and the growing Islamophobia within the Christian communities. Many people fear what they do not know. So I started joining peace and LGBTQ+ organizations to help communities affected by conflict in Mindanao, while at the same time finding myself by connecting to people. Whenever I go to a conflict zone, I never hide my homosexuality and my identity as a Muslim. I felt that by showing them my humanity and love, they might see the human side of the LGBTQ+ Muslims.

"I think that people are starting to understand that we can worship our Gods differently while embracing our own truth. Especially if that truth is simply to love. Deep inside we know that love is not haram."

Instead of becoming a lawyer like my family expected, I pursued arts — filmmaking in particular — and created films, media materials, and campaigns that empower inclusivity. I always felt that the LGBTQ+ movement in the Philippines is too Manila-centric, and rarely includes Muslim and indigenous narratives into the conversation. That is what led me to organize the PINK Shorts Art Festival (the first LGBTQ-oriented art festival and party in Intramuros), to produce the first documentary film on queer Muslims in Mindanao focusing on Bangsamoro LGBTQ+ people, to join the Mindanao PRIDE organization, and to organize the biggest PRIDE event in Mindanao last year. I did all of these because I wanted to address the gap between big cities and smaller ones that continue to lag behind in addressing the concerns of the sector, especially those in less developed spaces and areas of conflict.

People have questioned my intentions, particularly on why I have to mix Islam and LGBTQ+ issues. I’ve been told by an LGBTQ+ organization that I was inviting violence to myself for trying to push this “illogical ambition” of mine to unite both faith and gender. I am grateful that I still have friends who support and believe in what I do, and a family that, despite their non-approval, still protects me at all costs.

Early this year, I met with 30 LGBTQ+ Muslim activists from Pakistan, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and Timor Leste in Kathmandu, Nepal. It was a surreal gathering of people who once thought they were alone and outcast. There, I felt a sense of belongingness, and a sense that there are many more voices that have been hiding in the shadows. I wasn’t alone. Since then, more LGBTQ+ people from Iran, Iraq, Jordan, and many other places have also been inspired to come out and speak up.

Looking back at all the threats, judgement and criticism I faced, I can finally say that all the small things I did were right, and have helped me get to where I am today. Many have come to question my faith, and some have also accused me of being privileged. But I don’t think privilege is bad. It only becomes bad if we decide to sit on issues and do nothing.

I am happy that we are slowly seeing empowered Muslims talking about protecting and respecting the LGBTQ+ community in Bangsamoro. I think that is progress. I think that people are starting to understand that we can worship our Gods differently while embracing our own truth. Especially if that truth is simply to love. Deep inside we know that love is not haram.

Violence is never a good reflection of one’s faith. Violence often comes from ignorance and misunderstanding one another.