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

Across the Middle East, many struggle with the stigma of homosexuality.

ByABC News
May 1, 2009, 10:48 AM

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, May 25, 2009 — -- For Samir*, a 34-year-old gay man living in Saudi Arabia, each day is a denial. He lives in Mecca, the holiest city according to Islam, and is acutely aware of the stigma that surrounds his gay lifestyle.

"I'm a Muslim. I know it's forbidden, but I can't help it," he tells ABC News, clearly conflicted.

"I pray to God to help me be straight, just to avoid hell. But I know that I'm gay and I'm living as one, so I can't see a clear vision for the future."

Samir, like many gay men in the Arab world, guards his sexual orientation with a paranoid secrecy. To feel free he takes long vacations to Thailand, where he has a boyfriend, and spends weekends in Lebanon, which he regards as having a more gay-tolerant society.

But at home in Saudi Arabia, he is vigilant. Samir's parents don't know of his lifestyle. He says his mom would kill herself if she found out. They constantly set him up with women they consider potential wives. At work, Samir watches his words, careful not to arouse the suspicion of colleagues.

"You can't let a word slip that makes you seem gay-friendly or gay," he says. "Before you make a move you have to think."

Samir occasionally goes to Saudi cafes known to be popular gay hangouts, but his public engagements stop there. He and his friends are constantly wary of officers from the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the kingdom's religious police, who patrol for and punish men they suspect of being gay.

Homosexuality is illegal in Saudi Arabia, but the charge calls for four witnesses to make a case. Arrests by the religious police are far more arbitrary. In a recent case they apprehended one man at a Jeddah shopping mall, suspecting he was gay from his tight jeans and fitted shirt.

"I've been invited to private parties for gay men in Jeddah, but I never go because I know what would happen if we were caught," Samir told ABC News.

"Unless it's a VIP house -- if the party is at the home of one of the princes or one of the sheiks then you're protected."

In Saudi Arabia, where men and women are strictly separated, there is some space for gay life. Gay men can go cruising -- a term for picking up partners -- and socialize in male-only sections of cafes and restaurants. In line with sex-segregated social norms, gay lovers can often spend intimate time together without arousing suspicion.

But gays and lesbians in Saudi Arabia still need to accommodate the pressures of public life, in some cases pairing off to accommodate a freer lifestyle.

"There is a gay group of girls in Saudi looking for gay men to marry. It's the perfect solution," says Samir, adding that he wouldn't mind a lesbian wife of his own.

For Samir, the dozens of emerging Web forums for gay Arab men are a freer alternative to the offline Saudi society. I met him in one such forum, called Arab Gay Love, e-cruising for new friends and partners. Some of the users there surf with screen names that specify their sexual role: "top" or "bottom." Among Arabs, it seems, a mix of stigma and machismo steers gay men toward the former.

"The more masculine you are, the more likely you are to label yourself as a 'top.' It re-enforces this feeling that you're not really gay," said Ahmed*, a gay Palestinian born in Kuwait. "They're more comfortable with being tops, because it's easier to negate [the gay stigma]."