Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Discussing sexual minorities and inclusion with Indian Muslims one-on-one in Kerala, India

By Rev Steve Parelli,
Written August 3, 2011
Royal Goan Beach Club, Baga, Goa

The following events occured in Kerala, India, in July of 2011
On the train in Kerala, India, in the course of our seven-hour-plus trip from Kottayam to Kannur, traveling first class in a separate compartment, Jose and I met and spoke with three different “types” of Muslim men as it pertains to the topic of homosexuality, religion and inclusion.

In order to find possible interaction with people, Jose and I took turns leaving the solitude of our compartment: me, to distribute literature introducing the newly published Malayam book on the Bible, sexual minorities and inclusion; and Jose, to enter into conversation with any passenger who might show interest in him as a foreigner.

The first of our “three-types” of Muslim, whom Jose met early-on in our trip, was a closeted gay Indian in his forties who was living and working in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). He was home in Kerala on leave, traveling in the adjoining compartment of our first class car. Jose was already engaged in conversation with the closeted gay Muslim in his compartment when a second passenger, a Christian, entered the compartment and listened in on the conversation. The Christian was especially interested in obtaining a copy of the Malayalam book which Jose, at the moment, was explaining. Jose excused himself, left and returned with two copies of the book and gave a copy to the Christian and then offered a copy to the Muslim who politely refused it saying he would read it on line on our Other Sheep website.

Later, as Jose stood at the end of the car, looking out onto the passing landscape dominated by palm trees, some rice paddies, and scattered houses, the closeted gay Muslim approached Jose and spoke with him alone. He told Jose that he does enjoy sex with men. When Jose noted he was traveling with his husband, the gay Muslim commented how hard it was to find someone in an Arab country; that people are not open about same-sex sex in Arab countries – that it is forbidden; and that married Arab men, nonetheless, do have sex with other men but are “rough and not tender.” Earlier, but subsequent to Jose’s initial conversation with him, the gay Muslim had the occasion to position himself very close to Jose physically so as to brush against Jose, very suggestively, although ever so slightly, so that Jose was not the least bit surprised when the gay Indian Muslim identified himself as a man who engages in same-sex sex.

Our “second-type” Muslim experience, the open type who is willing to engage in honest, intelligent conversation, occurred somewhere mid-point in our travel. This Muslim Indian, who I will call Anil, was around age thirty, college educated, a businessperson, intelligent, articulate and logical in his delineation of thoughts, questions and comments.

At the platform of each train stop, I would climb down off the train car and, vocally calling out, announce “New book in Malayalam on sexual minorities and inclusion, a book addressing the Christian church; free literature on the book . . . New book in Malayalam on sexual minorities and inclusion, a book addressing the Christian church; free literature on the book . . . “

Anil watched from the car window as I handed out the literature on the book, and after the second or third train station stop, he motioned for a copy. As the train was pulling away, I jumped back on at his end of the car and gave him a copy of the literature. From there our conversation took off. He was respectful, offered a different opinion than mine, but more from a point of intelligent thinking rather than out of his Muslim conviction or social construct. He was genuinely interested it seemed to me, in understanding sexual minorities. After talking at length, he came with me to meet Jose “my husband” at our compartment and continued the discussion. We gave him a copy of the Malayalam book and pointed him to the section on Genesis 19 – the Sodom and Gomorrah story – common to the three sacred texts of the Jews, Christians and Muslims. He took interest in the commentary on Genesis 19, kept the book, and would have continued discussing for some time more if we hadn’t excused ourselves from the dialogue.

Our “third type” of Muslim, as it pertained to our topic of homosexuality and religion, was more fundamental in nature, so it seemed to us. Towards the end of our journey, two Muslim first-year college students, friends from the same town, boarded the train together at Calicut where they had just finished their college classes for the day to return to their homes down the tracks two or three stations away.

Jose saw them standing at the boarding door of our car and introduced himself to them. At some point into his conversation with them, Jose invited them to join us in our compartment. They accepted and politely showed some curiosity in who we are and what we do. Of course, introducing ourselves as “husband and husband” who work for the human rights of LGBT people in the context of religious settings worldwide, always gives rise to further explanations around specific questions. These young men were no different when it came to curiosity, however they appeared somewhat shy and were either being socially appropriate and indulgent, or being reticent about the subject matter, or genuinely somewhat bashful before the American foreigners, or they were, in fact, just good conservative Muslims keeping their dialogue about the topic on human rights and religious inclusion for gays and lesbians somewhat at bay. At the time, I took their posturing as the latter; but, without knowing their own expressed feelings, I can’t be sure.

I told them about my firsthand knowledge of gay Muslims (which generally comes as a surprise to Muslims, as I’ve experienced it). I told them about the gay Imam of South Africa that I personally met in Geneva at an ILGA (International Lesbian and Gay Association) world conference. I told them the Imam, a clergyman like me, was openly living with his same-sex life partner, like I am. Then I told them about the gay Muslim in Kenya, Africa, who read the section on Genesis 19 from the book we distribute, and when he did so he phoned us (while we were walking in the streets of Nairobi) and told us “the book changed my life.”

At that point I showed them the same section, in Malayalam, that the gay Muslim Kenyan had read in English. The section amounts to five pages in length in Malayalam. They each took a copy of the book, and taking their time, they read the segment on Sodom and Gomorrah. They were either proper students respecting the request of their aged, foreign (momentary) “tutor” (and thus being culturally or socially appropriate), or they genuinely found the material of interest. Either way they stayed focused on the text until they completed the reading of all five pages.

I told them they could keep the books if they liked. They sheepishly refused the offer which I quickly acknowledge as fine. We brought the conversation around to less serious matters some minutes before we arrived at their destination.

As the train pulled away from their station, I remarked to Jose that our experience with Indian Muslims on this full-day trip through the coastal area of Kerala was pretty representative of the continuum of religious people in general, and that Muslims, apparently, are no exception. The first Indian Muslim was in fact a closeted gay man, hiding his true identity out of fear of society and Islam; the second Indian Muslim was open and honest and not-at-all taken back by the topic of homosexuality and religion and its sub points, but was willing to intelligently explore the subject matter. The last two Indian Muslims, college students, aged 19 each, had the appearance of being somewhat stunned, for whatever reason, that their path was crossing the path of two committed Christian homosexuals who make it their business to talk religion and sexual orientation as a matter of every day discourse.

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