Growing Up Gay, Muslim, and Addicted to Sex (and Drugs)

By Amahl S. Azwar 06/21/19

I craved love and attention, and as I started to rebel against my religion, porn and sex became a hobby that distracted from my loneliness; later it evolved into an obsession, and eventually, an addiction.

LGBTQ experience - young Indonesian man with eyes closed has Indonesian flag painted on his face
To say that growing up gay in Indonesia was difficult is an understatement.

You sit comfortably in the cinema with an extra-large bucket of popcorn on your lap and a diet coke in the cup holder while the movie characters on the screen are trying to survive their ordeal.

You can cry with them, yell at their stupid decisions, smile when they finally get their happy ending (or feel sorry for them when they don’t). In the end, it’s just a movie and you’re safe in your seat.

Then suddenly, your seat begins to shake. At first you think it’s just a 4D effect until you see white tentacles ensnare your body and lift you up, pulling you into the movie. You are no longer safely in your seat at the local cinema.*

Growing up as a gay man In Indonesia, a country with the world's largest Muslim population, the first LGBT story I read was published in Hidayah, a magazine aimed at conservative Muslims.

The feature article was about a gay flight attendant who ended up contracting HIV and later became terminally ill due to AIDS complications.

I shuddered when I read the portrayal of that poor gay man. It seemed that the writer could not hide his or her own repulsion toward the idea of two men falling for each other. The words “unnatural” and “sinful” were used. The AIDS complications that the man suffered were described in specific detail—it was horrifying.

The message of the article was clear: If you choose to be gay, no happy endings will ever come to you.

That story flashed through my mind when the doctor told me that my HIV test came back positive. I was no longer comfortably seated watching a movie. And I had just became a cliché: an HIV-positive gay man.

How did I get here?

I had watched quite a few gay-themed movies before that point and I knew the rules of safe sex. There was also a TV series that was funded by the government that touched on HIV/AIDS. And when I was a teenager, my boyfriend at the time invited me to attend a workshop on HIV and AIDS.

I knew all the rules yet there was something in me that got me here, something that took me a while to come to terms with: my addiction to sex (and later, drugs).

To say that growing up gay in Indonesia was difficult is an understatement.

I was around four when my mother caught me using her lipstick. Of course, at that age, it was perhaps deemed adorable. My mother even took a picture of us together: me, a toddler, smiling from ear to ear with a face full of lipstick, while she looked amused.

I was probably around 10 or 11 the second time I was caught. My father found me looking in the mirror and trying on my mother’s earrings. He rarely got angry with me but I’ll never forget his reaction that day. He pointed at me and yelled that what I did was an abomination and I should never, ever do it again.

“No one is f***ot in this family, period!” he screamed.

I was scared. For the first time, I didn’t feel safe under their roof. I realized there was something about me that my parents would never approve of.

As I entered 7th grade, things didn’t get any better. While I was never physically assaulted for being gay—mostly because I tended to avoid any altercations—I got verbally abused a lot, like the time I was waiting to be picked up and a kid yelled at me “Hey, f***ot! You got nothing to do?” out the window as his father was driving him home.

I never felt like I truly belonged.

Around this time, a childhood friend introduced me to porn, and it quickly became a welcome escape. I will never forget the first scene that I watched. Porn created a space in my brain that I could always visit whenever life got too hard. I also began to masturbate.

As a gay man, my focus was on the guys. With their muscles, their appearance, and cocksure attitude, they represented the ideal man. I convinced myself that in order to become “a real man,” I should be like the men in the videos I was watching.

When I watched porn and masturbated, I was in my own time and space. Everything was good, for a while.

Later, I started to look for guys online (the Internet was finally here) but it was really, really difficult to find gay men who I could befriend.

Was it because gay men in Indonesia could not truly express themselves unless it was behind closed doors? Was it because, for gay men in a country with strict cultural and religious conventions against homosexuality, sex arguably became the only way to connect with other gay men?

I craved love and attention, and as I started to rebel against my religion, porn and sex became a hobby that distracted from my loneliness; later it evolved into an obsession, and eventually, an addiction.

I tried to become a good Muslim to make my parents happy—I attempted to denounce homosexuality and started to pray more. But it never lasted very long. In fact, I became more and more rebellious toward my religious teachings.

On the one hand, this rebellion served a good purpose: eventually I became who I was born to be. But on the other hand, rebelling against my religion also meant that I didn’t have any moral or spiritual structure that could help save me from my troubles.

On the outside, I was motivated and ambitious. I knew that in order to be accepted, I had to do everything I could to be successful. So I became a diligent student in college, and eventually got my first job as a newspaper journalist.

I was very determined, even cutthroat; I basically did everything I could to become the star in my office. I believed that as a gay man, I could not fuck things up. I needed to double my efforts in order to get half the recognition of my peers.

Inside, none of this was enough. In my head, the addiction was still there, hungry and needing to be fed. After spending most of my daytime hours working, at night I would cruise. I became a regular at a local gay bath house where I had plenty of anonymous sex in those dark rooms.

I also became addicted to food and it became so out of control that I became overweight and thus I felt unattractive. Being a fat gay man was, as much as I tried to deny it, not an easy task. At one point I started to get involved with male escorts because I did not feel worthy of genuine connections.

From time to time, I discarded condoms. All I could think about was how to fill the void in my soul. I didn’t care about myself or my health. I just wanted more of everything.

That’s when I found out I was HIV+.

In response, I began experimenting with drugs, starting with poppers and moving on to crystal meth. It was a full-blown addiction. That “safe” space in my head expanded and I found myself released from any inhibitions. When I was under the influence of drugs, I was no longer insecure.

But altered states are temporary and once the effects wore off, everything felt worse and I just had to mess things up again with porn, sex, or drugs. It was a never-ending pain.

Eventually, I lost my job, my dream job. Being a journalist was something that I aspired to but I messed it up. During my full-blown addiction, I made some fatal mistakes and the newspaper had no choice but to let me go.

I lived in Shanghai, China for a while and started to attend 12-step meetings. But it wasn’t until I moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand that I started to see the wrongs that I’d done and began to take recovery seriously.

There were a lot of anonymous meetings in this town and several treatment centers (including an LGBT drug rehab). There were many recovering drug addicts who I could relate to. I began to find my community: people in recovery.

For the first time in my life, I started to believe that I was worth it. I knew that while my addictions did a number on me, they did not define me. I lost things due to my addiction, but I could gain other things—as long as I wanted to recover.

I met my sponsor in this town as well as my current therapist. I began to realize that I needed to get out of my chaotic mind if I wanted to live. I needed to leave that “safe space” in my brain and open myself up to a new life.

For many years, I sat in that cinema seat with my denial. When I was finally pulled into the movie, I was still in denial. It took a while but I eventually realized that I, an HIV-positive, recovering addict, gay man from a Muslim world, still had choices.

And I chose life.


*Thanks to my favorite writer Dee Lestari who came up with this analogy.

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Amahl S. Azwar is a freelance writer from Indonesia who currently resides in Chiang Mai, Thailand with his partner of 5 years and counting. His bylines include Vice AsiaVice Indonesia, and Magdalene. Find Amahl on Twitter: @mcmahel.