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

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

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]."

Gay Web Sites Blocked in Many Arab Countries

Web forums like and are inaccessible in many Arab countries, blocked by state-run web filtering software. Using proxy servers men can get around the bans to the blocked sites, connecting with potential dates and building a knowledge base for gay life in the Arab world.

One blog from Syria, largely considered a repressed society, details a tourist's guide to gay hangouts in Damascus and Aleppo.

"You could almost pick up guys everywhere, you just need to have a good gaydar. ...There are four hammams in Damascus where you could play safely, but always be careful," he writes, then listing the most popular "hammams," or bath houses. He goes on to name the Safwan Hotel in Lattakia as "the most famous gay-friendly hotel in the region."

From his home in Mecca, Samir can surf the web forums and Facebook groups that connect him to the gay Arab world. But he does so with care, fearing that authorities will follow and flag gay activity online.

"You cannot be safe and intimate online. ... he government can track everything. If they have their eye on you, they can follow your every move," he says.

If Samir's approach seems paranoid, it's conditioned by horror stories of harsh crackdowns by Arab governments on gay life. In Egypt, where police have systematically arrested and tortured suspected homosexuals, vice squads have logged on to chat rooms posing as gay men. Forming friendships under a false identity, the police set up an expected first date, then meet their "suspects" with a brutal arrest.

"I was waiting for that guy I chatted with on the Internet a couple of days before that day, right in front of McDonald's [in] Heliopolis. … It was almost 1 p.m., when I found four big guys surrounding me," one victim of police brutality told Human Rights Watch after being set up on a false date.

"I was fighting and yelling in the street. I was dragged, almost carried to the police car ... taken to [the station], the 'Adab' Section, which takes care of prostitution, raping and, recently, homosexuality." Human Rights Watch documented dozens of Web-based entrapments -- men arrested by Egyptian police then tormented with beatings, electrocution and anal examinations.

The vice squad's practice of covertly hunting gay men in chat rooms cooled once the teeming gay Internet scene in Egypt slowed down. Fear and suspicion effectively shut down one of gay Egypt's few free outlets. At one point online entrapment was yielding one arrest per week, according to Human Rights Watch.

The Web was part of a greater crackdown in Egypt, a country that was once a liberal environment for homosexuals. (One gay Palestinian who has studied Arab homophobia described 20th century Egypt as the "San Francisco of the Middle East.") Social and authoritarian attitudes toward homosexuality began to change after the Egyptian Revolution in 1952, and grew steadily harsher through the 1990s as the secular state gave way to a growing Islamic puritanism.

Government-led assaults on homosexuals intensified in 2001. The pivot point was a mass arrest known as the "Queen Boat" incident. In the early morning hours of May 11, 2001, police raided a floating nightclub called the Queen Boat, a then-popular gay hangout moored on the Nile River. Suddenly surrounded by uniformed and undercover members of the Cairo Vice Squad, dozens of gay men were arrested, detained and tortured.

U.S. Government Has Been Quiet About Gay Crackdown in Iraq

What ensued from the Queen Boat arrests was a show trial -- forced confessions, some extracted under torture and a media circus designed to amplify public fear and maximize the government's political gain from the arrest. Though Egypt claims to have no law against homosexuality, it routinely criminalizes and prosecutes gay men under a law prohibiting "juhur," or debauchery, a charge originally levied for prostitution.

In the heat of the case, one article in the state-owned Al-Gomhoureya newspaper gave full names and identifying details of the accused, depicting the arrested homosexuals as part of an underground religious cult. The paper ran one headline, "Satanist Pervert Surprises: They Called Themselves God's Soldiers and Practice Group Sex in Private and Public … Meetings Every Thursday at Queen Boat," cited in the Human Rights Watch report.

Analysts point out a number of ways the Egyptian government gains from crackdowns like the Queen Boat raid. News pages full of homophobic rants are a useful distraction from issues like a faltering economy and rampant corruption, which erode government support. In the same stroke, the state gains ground against its Islamist opponents by attacking homosexuals -- trumped-up offenders against Muslim values.

"They want to reassert their relevance and position themselves as defenders of morality is one way to do it," said Scott Long, an expert who helped produce the Human Rights Watch report.

"One of the ways [Arab authorities] prove they're bona fide is by cracking down on people that everyone hates. Hardly anyone is going to stand up and stick up for homosexuals," he said.

Long applies his analysis to other governments in the region. In 2005, authorities in Abu Dhabi, part of the United Arab Emirates, arrested more than two dozen men in the desert town of Ghantout at an event state officials characterized as a mass gay wedding. The UAE announced the men would receive lashings, jail time and forced hormone and psychological treatment. The case was eventually overturned on appeal, after news of the trial drew criticism from human rights activists and the U.S. State Department.

The U.S. government has been comparatively quiet, though, through a more recent and more deadly crackdown in Iraq. In attacks that accelerated last February, Shiite militiamen have carried out a series of beatings and assassinations of gay men, occasionally with the help of the Interior Ministry, according to Scott Long of Human Rights Watch. Al Qaeda in Iraq, a rival Islamist group, has also reportedly attacked gay men in Iraq, in what human rights activists call a clear moral cleansing campaign.

"The easiest group to attack are gay people, both politically and in regards to the militias' Islamist aims. … They can't stop women from going to work, they can't stop couples from being together in public, but they can attack gay men," said Michael Luongo, a gay rights expert and author of the book "Gay Travels in the Muslim World."

"If you want religious credibility you attack gay people," he said of the Islamist brigades. The recent spate of attacks followed a succession of sermons in Iraqi mosques, attacking the scourge of homosexuality. As in the case of Egyptian arrests, suspected homosexuals were detained, tortured, and forced to give names of other gay men for authorities to pursue.

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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