'Happy and Gay' in Pakistan?

It wasn't until she was 16 years old, when she'd left her Pashtun family in Peshawar for an elite school where the teachers were nuns, that Minot realized she was gay.

"I found out when I dated my literature teacher [a nun]," she said. "I got an A."

It is virtually unheard of in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan for a lesbian to be willing to discuss her sexuality openly, especially a lesbian who is also Pashtun. The Taliban, who are overwhelmingly Pashtun and were born in Pakistan's northwest tribal areas near Peshawar, have pushed walls of bricks on top of gay Afghans.

But Minot, now 42, who asked that only her nickname be used because of societal stigma, sat recently in jeans and a T-shirt in the Pakistani city of Lahore, confidently talking about her sexuality, her girlfriends and her attempts to be with men.

"I have been with men, two men," she said. "But that was to get the confusion out of my mind. Since then," she said, pausing, "happy and gay."

Pakistan's religious laws punish homosexuality with stoning, but gay members of the elite are to be found in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. And homosexual relationships can be found in villages across the country, although they sometimes involve force and pedophilia in rural areas.

But in a country where most of the entertaining is done in people's homes, most gay Pakistanis are terrified of practicing openly or speaking about their sexuality publicly. They are comfortable discussing it among their friends, behind closed doors. There is little public acceptance of the notion that someone can love a member of the same sex.

Minot is an exception by Pakistani standards, her confidence created by a unique support network, a well-educated, wealthy, liberal family and friends who call themselves members of Lahore's elite, more open to Western values than the vast majority of Pakistanis.

She calls herself the most open lesbian in the country.

"For me, it's really easy," she said. "By the grace of God, if you're confident in this society, and you're open about your sexuality, people will come onto you more. I would say I'm the only woman I think in Pakistan who will talk openly. ... I'm probably the only woman in Pakistan who is confident in her sexuality."

Pressure to Marry

In Pashtun society, most people marry before they turn 20. Minot was engaged to one of her cousins, a common practice.

"I told him, 'I could totally put up the fa├žade in front of people. But I'm gay and I will do what I want to do. If you can accept me like that, then it's OK. I'll marry you. But I'm not going to stop it,'" she said, recalling a conversation she and her cousin had after he had returned from school in the United States. "He goes, 'I can't marry you under these circumstances.'"

Every Pakistani is expected to marry. Most marriages are arranged and, even in more liberal circles, it is rare to find Pakistanis in their 30s who are not married. Divorce is extremely rare and looked down upon by everyone except the elite.

And so many gay women get married, sometimes to gay men.

One such couple, described by one of their friends, is in a "happy relationship." The woman "100 percent loves women," their friend said. "But she's also in love with her husband and her husband is in love with her."

She openly has sex with other women. "There are no accusations going up and down, about who has walked in with who," the friend said.

But it is still not something to be discussed publicly. When this reporter contacted a different woman he had been told was gay and living openly with her gay husband, she bristled and objected to the call. "Haven't you heard about my marriage?" she asked, denying she was gay.

Being gay in Pakistan "is a social taboo," one gay man said. "Very strong, it's extremely suffocating."

Jaluluddin Ahmed Khan, 27, who describes himself as a "psychotic, sarcastic and socialist blogger from Karachi," blogs regularly about the angst and frustration he believes many Pakistani gay men experience, especially those with traditional parents.

"I came out to them, and told them that I am this way, [but] they keep pestering me about getting married and they did not let me move out of the house, even though I could have," he wrote in December on his blog, Tuzk-e-Jalali. "I don't think I can forgive them, or I will, or I may, I just know that I have anger and hatred against them. And then there is the inevitable feeling of having lost five years of my life fighting with my parents on this one topic. It is a very long period of life, and I felt I was caged, and I want my time back, but alas, it is the greatest of wishes that can not be fulfilled."

Minot has long since revealed her sexuality to her parents and siblings, although she keeps it from most of her extended family. "I come from a conservative family in Peshawar," she said, describing the handful of family members who served in the military and the powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI. "And I don't think they would be accepting of me."

Her father, she said, knows about her sexuality but chooses not to acknowledge it.

"When I told my mother, I said, 'Mama, I'm gay.' She turned around and said, 'But gay are men. You are a woman.' I said, 'Yeah. I like women.' She said, 'There's nothing wrong with that. That's very good.' So, I was like, 'I cannot go deeper than that.' The topic was closed and we never spoke about it again."

Clash Between Conservatives and Liberals

In May, 2005 a gay couple caught having sex in the tribal belt along the Afghan border were publicly lashed.

A few months later, when a 42-year-old man in the same area married an impoverished young man, a tribal council told the couple to leave the area or be killed for breaking tribal "values and ethics."

Pakistan's tribal areas have always been more conservative than its settled areas and have always operated under their own set of customs and laws.

But the country as a whole has also always struggled to balance civil law with religious law. The constitution states that sodomy is illegal, punishable with two to 10 years in prison. But in the late 1980s, President Zia-ul-Haq enshrined conservative Islamic law within the country's civil law. The Hudood Ordinance of 1979 lays down violent punishments for adultery, drinking alcohol and sodomy, which can result in a sentence of being stoned to death.

In a place like Lahore (the second largest city in Pakistan), where Pakistanis can often bring wine to restaurants and where parties often include drugs, those laws seem like they come from a different world.

Even there, though, the local film board briefly banned the popular Bollywood movie "Dostana" because the male protagonists of the film pretend to be gay.

But among the elite, among the Pakistanis who travel to the West, where people are more culturally aware and better educated, the culture loosens.

"There's a lot of awareness because of the media," a gay Pakistani man said. "You see movies, and you see things, and the parents have developed an understanding, and eventually, every parent has to accept it."

That may be a bit overstated but in the past few years, Minot said, Pakistanis have changed their opinions about gay men and women, especially in Lahore, where she has lived for the past 20 years. She refuses to spend much time in Peshawar.

"I would be stoned, the way I am open, up there. ... It's not acceptable at all," she said.

But in Lahore a few years ago, she said, she and her girlfriend were "the first couple who actually came out and went open as a gay couple. And I don't like to give myself credit, but it gave a lot of our friends a lot of hope. 'If you guys can do it, so can we.' It used to be very closeted before. But now it's not."

When asked whether she worries that people will judge her, she said, "I don't care if they think I'm a sinner. That's for God to judge."

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