Underground and in the Closet
The state of the gay Middle East.
Enough with Amina, already. The sock-puppet blogger "Gay Girl in Damascus," who turned out to be a straight guy in Scotland has captured the world's attention -- but the real gay communities in the Middle East face legal and societal discrimination every day. In most Middle Eastern countries, homosexuality is a criminal offense, though laws are enforced to varying degrees. And the Arab Spring, which many gay-rights organizations hoped would bring greater acceptance, has proved to be an ambivalent blessing. The real gay men and women in Damascus -- and Dubai, Cairo, and Amman -- are facing more serious problems than confused Internet identities.
Enough with Amina, already. The sock-puppet blogger "Gay Girl in Damascus," who turned out to be a straight guy in Scotland has captured the world’s attention — but the real gay communities in the Middle East face legal and societal discrimination every day. In most Middle Eastern countries, homosexuality is a criminal offense, though laws are enforced to varying degrees. And the Arab Spring, which many gay-rights organizations hoped would bring greater acceptance, has proved to be an ambivalent blessing. The real gay men and women in Damascus — and Dubai, Cairo, and Amman — are facing more serious problems than confused Internet identities.
The law: The Constitution of the United Arab Emirates, which Dubai is a part of, criminalizes homosexuality, in part because it’s a violation of sharia law.
The reality: Dubai, which enjoys a reputation as the most liberal emirate in the UAE, has long sustained an underground gay community. "Dubai is the best place in the Muslim world for gays!" said one young Emirati at a gay club in the city. The authorities’ tolerance for its gay community, however, has always been fragile. A club was shuttered in 2001 for hosting a gay night that featured a transvestite DJ, while in 2008 police arrested 17 foreign men for allegedly being homosexual and cross-dressing.
A new police crackdown has raised gay activists’ fears that the situation will get worse before it gets better. On May 31, Dubai’s police launched a campaign against boyat, the rough equivalent of tomboys. In this Gulf subculture, rebellious girls sport "short pixie-style hair, wear more masculine clothing, sunglasses and watches."
Dan Littauer, the executive director of GayMiddleEast.com, a website that publishes news on LGBT issues across the region, saw the campaign as implicitly targeting Dubai’s lesbians — and as a reaction to the Arab Spring. "The Gulf is also reacting to the Arab Spring, and not only politically," he said. Gulf states "want to have a moral attempt to define Arabness and democracy."
The law: Article 534 of the Lebanese penal code criminalizes "unnatural sexual intercourse," and it has been used to target gay people. Lebanese gay-rights organizations have frequently expressed their desire to see the law annulled.
The reality: But Article 534 (like many laws in Lebanon) is only sporadically enforced. As the government looks the other way, gay culture has flourished in Lebanon — so much so that the New York Times travel section recently dubbed Beirut the "Provincetown of the Middle East."
A flourishing online gay community also exists in Lebanon. Bekhsoos, the self-described "queer Arab magazine," has published weekly since September 2009. Two of its most popular articles have been an evisceration of Lebanese author Joumana Haddad for distancing herself from political feminism and the story of a man who resolves to get tested for HIV.
The law: There are no laws that explicitly criminalize homosexual activities in Egypt. However, a 1961 law prohibiting prostitution was reinterpreted as a prohibition on sexual "immorality" and subsequently used to prosecute gay people. "The law requires that the [homosexual conduct] be ‘habitual’ — legally taken to mean that it must have been committed more than once in three years, with more than one person" to constitute a crime, according to a Human Rights Watch report on the subject.
The reality: Egypt’s gay community has been forced to contend with sporadic prosecutions, including a notorious case brought against 52 gay men following a police raid on a Nile boat cruise. Egypt’s revolution, however, spurred some hopes that better days were coming. Gay activists reportedly joined the anti-government protests that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak. However, the increasingly frosty relationship between the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the youth activists, the most pro-gay element of the revolution, has placed a chill on these prospects.
Gay activists in Egypt are also wary of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s most powerful Islamist group. Essam el-Erian, a senior Brotherhood leader, specifically excluded gay rights when talking about the post-revolution freedoms Egyptians would enjoy. Mohammed Badie, the top official in the Brotherhood, also reportedly attacked Western countries for "allow[ing] gay marriage under the pretext of democracy" during a political rally in May — a mistake, he vowed, that Egypt would never make.
The Muslim Brotherhood is saying "that anyone who is talking about gay rights … is extreme and ridiculous," said Littauer. "Some activists are very concerned."
The law: There are no laws that criminalize homosexuality in Jordan.
The reality: The restrictions faced by gay people in Jordan vary based on geography and wealth, said Sami al-Ali, a pseudonymous Jordan-based blogger for Gay Middle East. In the tonier parts of west Amman, the gay community is tolerated. While there are few official social networks for LGBT people there, a number of gay-friendly cafes have cropped up. However, social stigmatization has driven the gay movement underground in the rest of the country.
The Jordanian gay community has received support from Jordan’s leftists, but it still faces hostility from the country’s Islamist movements and from the government. "A number of citizens reported sporadic police mistreatment of suspected LGBT persons," read the State Department’s 2010 human rights report on the country. "There were reports of individuals who left the country due to fear their families would punish them for their sexual orientation."
The situation is worst for transgender people. Jordan’s bureaucracy does not possess a mechanism for changing one’s gender on official documents. As a result, transgender Jordanians are often left with the wrong gender on their official documents — leading to much confusion, such as in this incident, when two transgender Arabs were denied access to Egypt due to having the incorrect gender marked on their passports.
The law: Article 520 of the Syrian Penal Code of 1949 criminalized homosexuality as "unnatural sexual intercourse," punishable by up to three years in prison.
The reality: The situation on the ground in Syria, as described by one Syrian author’s account in FP, is if anything, grimmer than the law suggests. In March and April 2010, Syrian police raided four separate gay parties held in private homes. "[R]eports indicated that dozens of gays and lesbians have been imprisoned over the past several years after being arrested on vague charges such as abusing social values, selling, buying or consuming illegal drugs, and organizing and promoting ‘obscene’ parties," stated the State Department’s 2010 human rights report on Syria.
Unlike in Lebanon, Egypt, or even Dubai, there are few informal support networks for gay people in Syria. Sami Hamwi, a Syria-based pseudonymous blogger for Gay Middle East, said a few activists are trying to change that, but they face both societal and political obstacles. "There is no way for me to survive in my line of work if I come out," said Hamwi, adding that he had lost two jobs already because of his sexuality.
Hamwi feared that the "Gay Girl in Damascus" hoax would cause the Syrian security forces to escalate their crackdown against gay activists. "I think they will not wait until the blogger is famous or well-read to seek them out," he said. "[And] arrests in Syria means actual disappearing.… No one can hear or know about the arrested people, sometimes for decades."
David Kenner was Middle East editor at Foreign Policy from 2013-2018.
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