BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Photos of gay Muslims, their bodies superimposed with religious text; images of a transgender woman, filmed frolicking on a Thai beach as sermons waft from a nearby mosque.
Just two provocative works by Samak Kosem, a gay Thai Muslim who uses art to explore how LGBT+ Thais in the restive south reconcile their religion with their sexual identity.
It is a clash the artist knows well.
“Being queer is part of my identity; being Muslim is also part of my identity. But many Muslim LGBT+ people feel conflicted because of their religion, family, and society’s expectations of what it means to be Muslim,” Samak said.
Samak - who has exhibited at the Bangkok Art Biennale and in galleries from Chiang Mai to Hong Kong - says it is rare to see LGBT+ Muslims represented in his culture, a reflection of the double existence they are often forced to lead.
“Many feel compelled to shed their Muslim identity because of Islamophobia, and because the religion tells us it’s a sin,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Thailand, a largely conservative Buddhist society, decriminalised homosexuality in 1956, and is widely seen as having a relaxed attitude towards gender and sexual diversity.
The country drafted a Civil Partnership Bill that legally recognized same-sex couples as civil partners, and recently elected four LGBT+ members of parliament.
But LGBT+ people still face discrimination, many rejected by family and mocked at work, human rights activists say.
For LGBT+ Muslims in the deep south, which has been riven by conflict, the challenges are even greater, said Samak, who went to a residential Islamic school, or “pondok”, at age 12.
He and other boys were sexually abused by older boys in the pondok, he said. Among his friends was a boy who prayed devoutly five times a day, yet also wore high heels and miniskirts.
“In the school we were constantly told: ‘homosexuality is a sin; you’re not Muslim if you’re queer’,” he said.
“But no one talked about what was really going on,” said the 35-year-old artist, who recently created a photo series called “Pondan under the Pondok” - using a local term that is used to shame gay or transgender people to highlight the hypocrisy.
The three southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat that border Malaysia are 80% Muslim, while the rest of Thailand is overwhelmingly Buddhist. A separatist insurgency since 2004 has killed nearly 7,000 people.
The dominant Malay Muslim culture makes homosexuality a sensitive - even dangerous - topic, and many LGBT+ Muslims are forced to hide their sexual identity, said Samak, who has interviewed dozens of LGBT+ Muslims in the south.
His short film “Neverland”, which shows a transgender woman cavorting in a sarong on a Thai beach, oblivious to the surrounding glares, recently featured in a Hong Kong gallery.
Curator Nick Yu said he was drawn to the work because of its subject and its creator.
“The LGBT movement appears to be one of solidarity under the rainbow flag, but the voices are mostly those of white Americans and Europeans,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“That’s why Samak’s work is so powerful, and an especially poignant narrative as it’s set in southern Thailand.”
While Asia is the “new frontier of queer activism”, LGBT culture and art are often suppressed because of a strong religious establishment in several countries, he added.
“There is so much pressure to respect the religion, respect the community - but they have to do that at the cost of their own identity,” said Nada Chaiyajit, a transgender Muslim woman and LGBT+ activist from the south.
“People who express their sexual identity are abandoned by their families, excluded from the community, and are not allowed to pray in the mosque. It’s a big price to pay,” she said.
Analysis by the Thomson Reuters Foundation showed that while more countries are using legal clout to recognize LGBT+ rights, the pace of change has stalled amid an escalating conservative and religious backlash.
Taiwan in May became the first place in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage, and India last year struck down a colonial-era law that criminalized homosexuality.
At the same time, Muslim-majority countries such as Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia have cracked down harder.
But the growing visibility of LGBT+ Muslim artists and campaigners, an openly gay imam in Australia, and LGBT-friendly pondoks and mosques in the region are good signs, said Samak.
“Many queer Muslims want to remain in the religion. They should be allowed to be who they are without having to give up their religion or their families,” he said.
“Art helps me understand these struggles better.”
Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org