LGBT issues: Gay men in Egypt
“Uh, look I guess it’s fine as long as they don’t hit on me,” those were the closing remarks of the high school student sitting next to me at lunch. For some reason, I can’t remember why, we had decided to discuss our feelings on LGBT issues. Often times, in my small town that conversation was restricted to “Is it ok or not?”. The student who closed with those words had shifted uncomfortably when it was his turn to speak had opened with a long, sustained bout of silence and ended with ” I don’t like them. I mean, I guess they’re ok. I just don’t want them hitting on me all the time, y’know?”
Four years later, as I walked through an unfamiliar street in Cairo, lead by a new friend I found myself suffering from a bout of Deja vu. “Oh, so you go to Saudi Arabia for work?” I had asked.
“Yeah,” he had responded. Then, after a pause, “There are a lot of gays in Saudi Arabia.”
“Uh, ok?” I looked toward him, perplexed. “How do you feel about that?”
My friend launched himself into a long speech detailing how they all hit on him all the time, how they shouldn’t because it made him uncomfortable and how they were all perverts.
Quietly I had responded “Why should you think they should know that you aren’t gay? How is this so different from you asking out girls? Why do you assume that all gay men are attracted to you anyway?”
There it was. The same uncomfortable shift and look away. The same struggle and the same finish “Look, it’s fine as long as they don’t hit on me.”
Earlier that week I had been speaking with another friend who considered himself a devout Muslim. “It’s unnatural,” he had said to me, “being gay”.
No matter how many counterpoints I brought up, he deeply believed that being gay, being lesbian, being trans was against God. He didn’t indicate hatred toward them, he felt they could be saved. While the country was unfamiliar, the conversation was all too familiar. Several of my Christian friends at home had uttered similar sentiments during similar conversations at home.
There’s this notion that Arabs are wholly different in their feeling toward LGBT rights and issues; that their dislike is somehow different from the dislike found in Western countries. Yet, when I spoke with my friends in Egypt I found their responses to be quite similar to those I found in conservative and liberal cities at home.
To be clear, I am not belittling in any way the challenges that an individual who identifies as LGBT faces in the Middle East. Being an LGBT individual is a criminal offense and often comes with great stigma. Those arrested are
subjected to humiliation, beatings and sexual assault. One journalist, while interviewing police officers after an arrest of fourteen men, found the police officers took great pride in what they considered to be “protecting the moralities of the state”.
In 2012, Egypt’s first “gay” magazine released it’s first, and only, issue: Ehna (or “Us”). Up until May 24th 2012, the magazine creators had posted near daily on facebook which featured supportive quotes and posters. May 24th featured one statement: “We must close down for security reasons”. Since then, the page has fallen silent and no more has been released.
Still, it is faulty to assume that the LGBT, or more specifically gay community, can or should be defined by one magazine. The web is littered with stories of gay men struggling with their identity, in the same way gay men of any other nation do. There are stories of those trying to reconcile their religion and their sexuality and their are stories of young men accepting their identity and realizing they “aren’t alone”.
I recently read an article, written in 2012 that asserted Egypt’s LGBT movement was fading. Frankly, I think it is a mistake to write off LGBT activists in Egypt. Ehna, the magazine, may have been shut down but LGBT_Egypt opened an account on twitter and, with the internet, Egyptians were able to discover other LGBT magazines like Morocco based publication Aswat Magazine.
In some ways, I wonder if Egyptians have grown more comfortable speaking about LGBT issues. Personally, I’m not sure having spoken only with two people on the issue. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to further speak with police officers, with civilians and with activists alike to see how attitudes toward gay men are changing in Egypt, as they are changing in the world.
**As a note, I do realize that while I have used the term “LGBT”, I have spent the entire blog speaking on the gay community exclusively. I do realize that this community may receive a large amount of the attention when speaking about the LGBT community and do intend to write a blog on the lesbian, bi and trans community as well (provided I am able to find enough information).