Saudi Gay Scene: 'Forbidden, but I can't Help It'

Small Space for Gay Pride

Long recently traveled to Iraq to document the attacks and advocate for gay Iraqis under attack.

"There's a campaign to kill them," he said, describing how homosexuals have learned to protect themselves by keeping a low profile. "They hide. People turn off their phones, change their e-mail addresses, and stay home."

Outside the spaces of hostile discrimination, homosexuals in the Middle East do manage to form a community and enjoy a freer lifestyle.

Israel, perhaps the most tolerant state in the Middle East, has a thriving gay community. Last year thousands attended the annual gay pride parade in Tel Aviv, though the event has drawn right-wing protests and attacks. A similar parade in Jerusalem, a more socially conservative environment, took place with police protection along the parade route.

Up the coast in Lebanon, a relatively liberal Arab society plays host to the first gay rights group in the Arab world. Members of Helem, an acronym in Arabic for "Lebanese Protection for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders," are activists at their own peril. In a country that moves back and forth between secularism and religious politics, the group and its gay community center are creating a space for their freedom.

In other parts of the Arab world gay life has to fit into whatever space is provided, and the borders are constantly moving. In Dubai, arguably the most modern city in Arabia, gay expats have little trouble living and loving freely. Rashid, a young Lebanese expat who lives with his partner in Dubai, knows he has it better than most. Unlike many gays in the Gulf, Rashid has come out to his parents, and felt comfortable meeting men and dating as he grew up in Abu Dhabi.

Locals, he says, have a harder time.

"The Europeans and Westerners are more comfortable with their homosexuality. The locals, the Saudis and Bahrainis, are less open about it," Rashid told ABC News.

"One friend, an Emirati, was discovered to be gay at 1999 and his family disowned him. Last we heard he was deported, he can no longer come back to the UAE, and lives in France."

The mix of tolerance and discrimination across the Middle East creates little opportunity for a cohesive gay rights movement. Moreover, the local take on homosexuality is out of line with the Western norm, a notion of being gay as a recognized minority group.

"The phrase 'to be is not to do' is how I explain it," said Luongo of homosexuality in the Arab world. In other words, being gay is an act, not an identity. When gay pride does emerge, it is associated with the West, and an invading cultural colonialism.

The pushback on any budding gay rights movements will likely continue, part of ongoing discrimination against homosexuals in the Middle East. There, gays will continue their negotiated lifestyle, knowing that they live and love under scrutiny.

*Name changed to protect identity

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