“I’d get disowned and I’d have nowhere to go. [My family] are so violent in their attitudes towards gay people. They’re always talking about how they shouldn’t get rights, they should be castrated, they shouldn’t be allowed to live, they’re not actual human beings… It’s so horrible.”
Last month the United States Supreme Court ruled in favour of legalising same-sex marriage in all 50 states. The announcement was met with worldwide celebration and the #LoveWins hashtag rapidly spread across social media.
However, not everyone identifying as LGBTQ+ gets airtime, especially not if their lives are in imminent danger. Within Arab populations of North Africa and the Middle East, queer people tend to either be repressed or unheard of, erasing any identity other than heterosexual and cisgender. This erasure pushes many of them to hide in plain sight, confined to a life of secrecy and self-denial.
But things are slowly starting to change. Lebanese rockstar Hamed Sinno is openly gay and has even written a song, ‘Shim el Yasmin‘, in which he states his love for another man. In Jordan, the country’s first LGBT magazine, My.Kali, was published in 2008. In Egypt, activists launched a social media campaign in May 2013 to eradicate prejudices on International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT).
But what is life like for the everyday LGBTQ+ Arab? The IPF speaks to four young Arabs who have decided to break their silence.
Homosexuality leading to an identity crisis
“It creates a lot of inner conflict,” she told the IPF. “It’s really traumatic if you don’t have anyone to voice your opinions to.
“How are you supposed to make those two parts of your identity reconcile? Your emotional and mental well-being really suffer, and you find it really hard to assimilate yourself to your culture.”
In Libya, homosexuality generally isn’t accepted. While laws after the 2011 revolution are still unclear due to the country’s chaotic state, the presence of Islamic extremists and militias has turned homophobic sentiments into murderous rampages. This year, members of the Islamic State (Isis) in the city of Derna executed three men accused of homosexuality on the grounds of a local mosque.
After a period of confusion in Libya, Hawa eventually came to terms with her sexuality while living abroad. During her visits back home to Libya, her identity became a burden.
“It was never an option to be queer in Libya. I did my best to blend in and act in a way that wouldn’t cause me too much problems because being queer and being in Libya can’t intersect.”
Homosexuality in Oman
“As a child who knew he was not straight, I was homophobic,” Nuswas said. “Growing up Arab, not straight and Muslim, I’ve had to deal with the self-loathing that comes with the race and the sexuality. It has taken close to nine or ten years to sort of fully accept myself.”
Nuswas spoke to the IPF about Oman’s “rule of thumb approach” to its queer population.
“It’s frowned upon in public, but if you’re not open with it, people won’t seek you out unless it’s out of revenge, like, ‘Oh, I know how to bring this person down’.”
Homosexual activity in Oman, including marriage, is mostly underground due to its illegality. Though the population is well aware of non-straight people’s existence, homophobia runs deep nonetheless. A necessity to conform pushes queer Omanis into self-denial.
“You’ll have many men who will be involved with other men but consider themselves straight. Funnily enough, there are more non-straight people I know than would like to admit to themselves.”
Being a youth among Saudi Arabia’s stringent laws
Nadia* is a 20-year-old lesbian woman from Saudi Arabia. Now studying in Europe, she had lived in Saudi Arabia for ten years and, despite her country being universally known for their human rights violations, she believes that their conservative laws helped country’s LGBTQ+ youth towards self discovery.
“Gender segregation in Saudi makes it so much easier for guys and girls to experiment with each other. A lot of the people I know went through a phase where they had an experience with a person of the same sex, mainly because at a certain age you need to let out this energy and we had no outlet outside of our girlfriends.”
Nadia said that she found it easier to find other lesbian women in Saudi Arabia than in the West. She shrugged off the anti-LGBT laws in her country, noting:
“In the eyes of the law, gay people are supposed to be stoned to death or something. You don’t really see anyone do that, cause it’s kind of hard to prove that anyone’s gay.”
Lack of recognition for transgender people
Kareem* is a 17-year-old gender fluid, bisexual man from Palestine. He was assigned the female gender when he was born to Orthodox Christian Palestinian immigrants in the United States. He told the IPF that his family continue to refer to him using female pronouns, contrary to his wishes.
He explained that very few people in the Arab community are talking about transgender people.
“Nobody knows about it, let alone advocate for it. It just doesn’t exist. If you bring it up, they’re not going to have it.”
This proves to be a huge problem for Kareem, whose identity is being vehemently erased as his family.
The family hurdle
When asked whether he would ever come out to his parents, Kareem said that he would never consider it.
“I’d get disowned and I’d have nowhere to go,” he said. “[My family] are so violent in their attitudes towards gay people. They’re always talking about how they shouldn’t get rights, they should be castrated, they shouldn’t be allowed to live, they’re not actual human beings… It’s so horrible.”
Kareem isn’t the only one who is facing trouble in gaining his family’s acceptance. Hawa confessed that it wouldn’t be easy for her or her family if they found out about her sexuality.
“If this news makes it to my family, my life will just fall apart. They’re liberal, but still comfortably, openly, loudly homophobic.”
Masculinity in the Arab world
But why is it so difficult for LGBTQ+ people to come out in Arab countries?
Hawa believes that the root of the problem lies in “socially enforced gender roles”. Elaborating, she explained that a heterosexual Arab man would insult a gay man for not being “masculine” enough – because he has been brainwashed into thinking that masculinity is important.
“There’s so much work to be done,” she said. “You have to deconstruct gender roles, you have to dissolve the dominant masculinity in Arab countries.”
Nuwas agreed with the notion of “Arab hyper-masculinity”.
“Some guys have this pride, which I think is just illogical. Because of their misogyny, anything that is effeminate is of lesser value.”
The religion factor
Religion is a very sensitive topic when it comes to LGBTQ+ Arab youth.
Kareem said that he is still devoted to his Orthodox Christian faith and doesn’t believe that any religion could be hateful: “I know my God accepts me. Who is anyone to tell me otherwise?”
Nuwas, having closely studied the Quran, describes his take on religion as “neo-Islam”. He said that on one side, his atheist and agnostic friends are always telling him he isn’t really Muslim, while the Muslims are always preaching. This makes him not want to associate with either side.
“In Oman, we have bars and clubs where alcohol is sold. Alcohol is explicitly mentioned in the Quran. We’re fine with people getting drunk, but being gay is frowned upon.”
Being an LGBT Arab youth in the West
While many assume that the Western world is a safe haven for LGBTQ+ people, Hawa believes that her sexuality marginalised her further. Already feeling at a social disadvantage because of her ethnicity, when Hawa moved to the United States, she felt alienated by the gay community because of her background.
“A lot of activities and circles run by white LGBTQ+ folk are filled with privileged people. There is so much pressure on coming out in the West. I sometimes get questioned about that and they make it seem like it’s an obligation. That’s a completely privileged way to look at it. It should never be an obligation in any context. When we look at coming out of the closet, one should consider what the person is coming out to.”
Nadia had a similar experience when she dated a Western girl. She said that the girl didn’t want to be with her in the long-term because she was Arab.
“She thought I wouldn’t come out to my parents and that there wasn’t any future to it because of my background,” Nadia explained.
Issues within LGBTQ+ movements regarding bisexuality
“I’ve had people ask, ‘How many guys have you dated and how many girls have you dated?’ And then they try to extrapolate what I am based on that,” Nuwas said.
“Sexuality in general is a spectrum. It’s not black, white or grey. It varies so much. There are some bisexual people who are more into guys or more into girls. And their history doesn’t define where they are on the spectrum.”
Kareem goes on to add:
“Bisexuality is seen as ‘You’re half gay, half straight’. Not as its own sexual orientation. It’s as if you liked the colour grey and people were to say, ‘You like half black and half white.’ No, it’s its own colour.”
He continued: “There’s hatred within the queer community towards bisexuals because they’re seen as doing it for attention. Like, ‘You’re not fully gay, you can’t be part of the movement’ and ‘You’re just pretending to be gay’. I heard that a lot.”
Looking ahead at the lives of these four young people, one has to ask: when will their time come? When will the Arab world accept its own people?
“Before queer Arabs can be saved, they need to have a voice. They need to be given a platform and be united. Activism produces pressure on social institutions and authority figures.”