Being gay in a conservative country like Malaysia is anything but easy. For human rights activist Terry Rawther, confronting his homosexuality in a largely Muslim community led to years of emotional pain before he eventually came out stronger with his parents’ support.
The 29-year-old illustrator had in the past hid his sexual orientation in fear of being rejected by a society that does not view the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, community kindly.
Despite being a melting pot of different cultures, Malaysia has strict laws that sentence those “attempting intercourse against the order of nature” up to 20 years in prison. A former tourism minister also once made international headlines for denying that gay people exist in the country.
“I feel lonely sometimes with the current climate for minorities in the world, but with them (his parents), at least I have a place to belong,” Rawther told Coconuts KL in a recent interview. “Their acceptance and support mean the world to me, and absolutely beneficial for my mental health.”
Rawther, originally named Tahir, knew that he was homosexual at the tender age of seven but his suspicions began much earlier when he was around three years old. It was not until he was in his late teens that he began to come out to his parents, starting with his mother.
“At three or four years old, I remember asking my mom why do I have a penis when I don’t identify with it, nor like it,” he said. He wasn’t satisfied when his mother simply replied that it was because he was biologically male.
‘Tough, painful’ journey
Life as a gay and Muslim man is a “tough, painful existential journey of discovery,” he said.
He had spiraled into depression after reading up on homosexuality and its connection to Islam when he was only 12 years old. Among the things he said he learned was that homosexuality was not accepted in Islam and that he could not be both gay and Muslim.
“I developed depression right after that knowing how hateful religion(s), society, and even god is towards LGBT,” he said.
He also experienced incidents of homophobia and discrimination regularly, including from his own family members.
Rawther said he was beaten up by his cousin, harassed by his peers, and called a pondan (a derogatory term for gay in Malay language) by his family members and teachers.
“Being gay in a homophobic country, with almost everyone and everything invalidates you and your experience and life, is lonely and depressing,” he said. “I was lucky enough to be blessed by supportive parents.”
According to a 2013 study, 86% of Malaysians believe that homosexuality should be rejected.
But Rawther rediscovered his place in Islam when he was 18, after he found a global online community of people that was open and accepting of LGBT Muslims.
“Their existence made me hopeful that there are places where Muslim LGBTIQ+ are accepted; they can worship Allah and be Muslim without fear of being harmed or invalidated,” he said. Rawther now identifies himself as a “humanist.”
Coming out in Mecca
Coming out to his parents was a long process that started when he was 17 while on pilgrimage with his mother in the holy Islamic city of Mecca. He recounted confessing to his mother about being “different” at the Great Mosque.
“I told her right after I prayed in front of Kaaba for compassion. I told her again when I was 18, and that was when my depression got worse, and I was suicidal,” he said.
“She cried and hold me, told me God didn’t hate me nor would want me dead and be in hell, and I have a place in Islam, and she vows to protect me from the outside world.”
His mother has been kind towards him and remains his trusted ally until today. She even kept his secret for six years from his dad, who Rawther describes as a “conservative.”
But then he became hospitalized after a suicide attempt and decided it was time to pluck up the courage to come out to his father, whose reaction later surprised him.
“I can’t keep hiding from him and the world, so I decided to let him know – it could’ve gone badly since he’s conservative and orthodox, but he actually embraced me and said it’s okay, I’m still his child, and he’ll still love me as I am,” he said.
His relationship with both his parents grew stronger after his hospitalization and even considers them his best friends; people he could share his thoughts and feelings regarding his sexuality, faith, and relationships, without prejudice.
For now, his home may seem like the only safe space for Rawther, but he is also happy to note that Malaysia’s LGBT community is “thriving” despite the widespread homophobia in the country.
“They’re surviving, thriving, despite the staunchly homophobic and transphobic government and society are. They still persevere and endure, they’re a hardy bunch,” he said.
Rawther, who is an LGBT activist himself but is now on mental health break, said he looks up to other activists such as Pang Khee Teik and 2016 International Women of Courage Award recipient Nisha Ayub.
He also expressed hope that the LGBT community could one day exist without fear, neglect, or rejection from society and the government.
“Be strong, and be safe. Know that you have allies and support all around you,” Rawther advises queers out there.
“If there’s none physically, there are a lot online. Know that it gets better, and there are places in the world that would love to have you, and there are friends, lovers that would love to be with you. Your identity, your sexuality, your journey to discovery, happiness is valid. You are valid, and loved. Don’t give up, it does get better.”
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