Why Some Gay Men Fear for Their Life

On that fateful May 2001 night when a ghastly watershed in official Egyptian homophobia was set, Maher Sabry missed the party on the Queen Boat, a floating disco moored on the Nile.

The Egyptian writer and theater director was too tired to drag himself to the popular Cairo gay hangout that night, so he stayed home.

It was a decision that was to change the course of his life.

In a crackdown that gripped the country and provoked widespread international condemnation, Egyptian security officials swooped down on the party and arrested about three dozen men. More than 50 of them were then put on high-profile trials on charges ranging from "devil worshipping" to "habitual debauchery."

While international rights groups dismissed the trials as "spurious," the local media published the names and photographs of several detainees — a personally crushing disclosure in a conservative society.

In Crawford, Texas, today, President Bush is hosting Hosni Mubarak at his Prairie Chapel Ranch during the Egyptian president's visit to the United States. A presidential invitation to the ranch, as diplomats well know, is an honor reserved for only a privileged few world leaders.

But while the Egyptian strongman is viewed as a vital Arab ally in the war on terror and the efforts to secure peace in the Middle East, international groups have widely condemned Mubarak's domestic human rights track record.

In the days following the Queen Boat sting, Egypt's dreaded security apparatus carried out a chilling anti-gay crackdown, infiltrating Internet chat rooms in cyber stings, setting up suspects, rounding them up, and then proceeding to interrogate, intimidate and often torture them.

Sabry may have missed the boat, but he was in imminent danger of getting caught in the subsequent witch hunt. Nearly five years after he wrote and directed the landmark Arabic play, The Harem — Egypt's first play on the subject of homosexuality — the 36-year-old writer is a refugee in the United States.

The transformation from a gutsy artist exploring new cultural terrain in his homeland to a refugee fleeing persecution due to his sexual orientation has been a painful journey. And today, Sabry sounds like a man crushed.

"The Queen Boat was a shock," he says softly, sadly, from his new home in exile in San Francisco. "We had hopes that Cairo was becoming more tolerant, we had hopes for more rights, more acceptance. But this was a strike that killed any hope, any movement, any dream."

‘Public Scandals’ and ‘Indecent Behavior ’

While the issue of same-sex marriage is in the election-year spotlight in the United States, around the world, rights groups warn that lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people are being silently and systematically targeted for discrimination and violence.

"Amnesty International has been documenting abuses based on sexual orientation from countries all over the world, in all regions," says Melinda Ching Simon, a spokeswoman in Geneva for the group.

"These atrocities," she adds, "have included the death penalty, imprisonment, disappearances, torture, rape, electrocutions and forced medical examinations."

According to the New York-based Human Rights Watch, nearly 100 countries still have laws prohibiting sexual relations between persons of the same sex. And in several countries, vaguely worded laws against "public scandals" or "indecent behavior" are used to crack down on suspected gays and lesbians.

Still Scrapping Over ‘Sexual Orientation’

Despite extensive human rights reports documenting such abuses, sexual identity rights are one of the thorniest issues on the international human rights agenda today.

At the 60th session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, currently under way in Geneva, more than 50 countries are locked in a contentious clash over a proposed resolution condemning discrimination and abuse based on sexual orientation.

The resolution was introduced last year by the Brazilian delegation, but following heated debates, it was postponed for a year when five Muslim-majority nations — Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Libya, Egypt and Malaysia — opposed the use of the term "sexual orientation."

Although it would not be legally binding, the resolution's supporters say it's a human rights benchmark, the first one of its kind to acknowledge the existence of violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Muddying the Waters?

But the sheer novelty of the resolution also makes it a tough proposal to get past some formidable opposition.

The Organization of Islamic Conference is widely expected to block the resolution. Experts say the Vatican is also seeking to defeat it by influencing Catholic countries on the panel.

In a statement released after the U.N. commission last year, the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute — a nonprofit organization that serves as an official lobbyist to the United Nations for the Catholic Church — condemned the proposal, warning that gay rights advocates would use it "to advance their agenda to legalize gay marriage and to create hate crimes legislation."

Amnesty's Ching Simon dismisses what she calls "the perception that the resolution will somehow muddy the waters about same-sex marriage."

"The bottom line is lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are human beings and they have rights protected by human rights law," she says. "The other bottom line is acknowledging that such violations exist."

Suspected Lesbians Tortured, Raped

While gay rights tend to be a low priority in most developing countries, by all accounts Muslim-dominated countries have some of the world's worst track records on discrimination due to sexual orientation.

Under some interpretations of Sharia, or Islamic, law, same-sex relations can be punished by anything ranging from floggings to imprisonment to execution by stoning.

In Muslim countries, experts say most of the documented cases of abuse center on gay men. Given the wide gender disparities in many Muslim nations — especially in the Persian Gulf region — lesbianism is a far more hidden phenomenon.

But in countries such as Uganda, Russia and several east European nations, rights groups have documented cases of rape and electric-shock torture of suspected lesbians.

Different Morals for Different Classes

For suspected gay men in countries like Saudi Arabia, there's a constant threat of getting picked up by security officials for behaviors that are considered "un-Islamic."

Last month, a Dubai-based newspaper reported that about 50 men were arrested for allegedly attending a gay wedding in the Saudi holy city of Medina. The suspects, however, denied the charges.

But experts say it's hard to generalize the situation in Muslim-dominated nations. In secular, Muslim-majority Turkey, for instance, parliament is currently reviewing a penal code amendment that would criminalize discrimination based on "sexual orientation."

And while Saudi Arabia has been infamous for its harsh punishments for anyone convicted of "sodomy," a recent report by The Independent, a British newspaper, said in that in practice, homosexuality is tolerated — especially among affluent sections in the relatively liberal Saudi port city of Jeddah.

"The situation differs according to the class and identity of the people concerned," says Scott Long of Human Rights Watch. The large numbers of migrant workers in the oil-rich kingdom are particularly vulnerable, he says. "Saudi citizens are a lot safer than guest workers arrested for so-called suspicious activities."

Internet: Tool of Emancipation or Entrapment?

The inconsistencies in official positions make it particularly risky for young gay men attempting to hook up with like-minded people via the Internet in most parts of the Middle East.

In Saudi Arabia, for instance, the kingdom's Internet Services Unit, which is responsible for blocking Web sites deemed inappropriate, unblocked access to GayMiddleEast.com earlier this year.

The sudden "uncensoring" prompted speculation that the Saudi royal family, stung by growing international criticism, was willing to ease up on gay rights. But earlier this month, the Saudi Internet Services Unit once again blocked access to the site — just as inexplicably as it had unblocked it earlier.

In a region where gays and lesbians are unable to socialize, communicate or publicly express their views, homosexual activity tends to be confined to furtive — and dangerous — encounters in public parks and other gay hangouts. The Internet, however, did manage to change some of that. Chat rooms allowed gay men to make friends, discuss issues and establish a virtual "gay scene."

But as Long notes, the Internet in places like Egypt has also been used as a "tool of entrapment," enabling undercover police agents to arrange meetings with men through chat rooms and personal ads on the Web — and then arrest them.

Hunted in Egypt, Yet Missing It

As a writer-activist in Egypt, Sabry came perilously close to getting caught in a cyber sting.

Sabry reported on the Queen Boat trials, posting his Web articles under the pseudonym "Horus," after the ancient Egyptian sun god. Nevertheless, Sabry started getting warnings from some of his gay friends that government informers were closing in on him.

As the situation became increasingly dangerous, Sabry applied for asylum in the United States. In the summer of 2002, he finally arrived in San Francisco, the "gay Mecca."

But although he's been adjusting to life in America, Sabry says it's not all it's cut out to be.

"I miss Cairo," he says. "I'm rather homesick. My problem was with the government, not the people. I'm a stranger here in San Francisco — it's been a bit disappointing, really. I had imagined it to be more liberal, more politically aware. But maybe it's because I had such high expectations."

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