By Fareed Khawaja
NOTE (AMH): This post has been re-posted after the addition of new material. However, no removal of or changes to the original content were made.
There have been many successes for gay rights in the United States lately. With the recent strides made in both Utah and Oklahoma, one can say that the gay movement in America is progressing well. But what is the situation like for the LGBTI community in more conservative countries? To be more precise: the Islamic world.
In Islam, homosexuality is forbidden in both the Quran (Islamic holy book) and the Hadith (the sayings of the Holy Prophet), the two most important sources of Islamic law. The punishment for being caught is death in the Holy Scripture. Historically, we see many cases where the followers of the Prophet punished homosexuals with stonings, burnings, and—in one case—being thrown to their deaths. The scripture’s perspective is reflected in the laws of many Islamic countries. For example, in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Sudan, homosexuality carries the death penalty. In Iran, the Iranian government has executed 4,000 homosexuals since the 1980s. Saudi Arabia has also used public lashing to punish these “miscreants”. The idea of any politician supporting gay rights in these countries is very far-fetched.
A photo of a gay couple in Karachi, Pakistan. Acknowledgement: BBC for this photo.
The average Muslim (practitioner of Islam) also views homosexuals as vile and grotesque. There have been surveys showing that Muslims from both the developing world and the developed world are opposed to LGBTI rights. There are very few Muslims who support gay rights. Any who do are usually persecuted as if they were gay too. There have been many reports of angry mobs attacking known homosexuals in Islamic countries. In 2009, a 60 year old man, who was suspected to be gay, was pulled out of his home in Pir Sarhandi Goth, Pakistan, and beaten by a mob consisting of his fellow villagers. He was then lynched within the limits of the local police station. This kind of behavior is encouraged by local clerics and ignored by governments. In my own experience, I have met many people who feel that stoning homosexuals to death is too nice a punishment. It is a dismal atmosphere for anyone struggling with their sexuality. Despite this, a gay culture has grown in secret in almost every Islamic country.
Many homosexuals in Islamic countries have created a secretive subculture in their home countries. With the fear of death looming, the homosexual communities in these countries (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, and Iran) try to seek other members out. While living in Pakistan and traveling the Islamic world, I was able to learn of a few methods. I was also able to speak with people about the secret lives they live as homosexuals. What I learned was mind opening.
Before the creation of iPhones and social media, the art of cruising was used by gay men to meet each other. It is an art still in use today. Subtle actions and motions were used to communicate interest. I have witnessed many gay men in conservative Pakistan meet partners by only making eye contact. It is a finely tuned skill that the ignorant, like me, could never pick up on. However, there is always the risk that one misreads these signs and instead hits on a conservative Muslim, who will then proceed to beat the life out of the offender. It is a risk that many members of the LGBTI community take on a daily basis.
There are also instances where young homosexuals meet in certain situations and places. There are many stories of “exclusive” parties where gay men can usually mingle in secrecy. The most well-known of these parties usually take place in Dubai. These are where homosexuals from across the Islamic world meet in a safe, non-judgmental environment. To many of them, this is the only time they can put down their daily facade and relax.
For young homosexuals, certain schools offer access to a similar experience. I was told by a close gay friend about his time in a military boarding school. He recounted how a certain group of boys were known to have homosexual inclinations and would meet up whenever they could. Sometimes educators were involved in these excursions. He recounted many exploits that occurred in hostel rooms or supply closets. To me, these stories sounded like unbelievable sexual fantasies; the type of fantasies someone bases a porno around. But to him, it was a terrifying time, where a single miscalculation would mean the end of his time at that school and unimaginable punishment from his family.
Today, technology has become the most favored method for LGBTI communities in Islamic countries to socialize. There are websites available to homosexuals in every country to help them connect. Even Facebook is used by some to meet new people. After a long discussion with one member of the LGBTI community in Pakistan, I had a new understanding of the “poke” function. Then there is the popular app, Grindr. One can find hundreds of active users in any Muslim country on Grindr. Despite the banning of these methods by Islamic governments, members of the LGBTI community have found ways around these bans. For example, the somewhat tolerant country of Turkey has banned the use of Grindr, yet many men use secure servers to get around those barriers. To many homosexuals, the Internet is the only way for them to meet a partner. It provides the only escape from the suffocating lie they are forced to live in conservative Islamic society.
Despite the many ways for gay couples to meet in the hostile Islamic world, there usually is not an ideal happy ending. No couple can openly be gay with each other. Any hint of homosexuality spreads like wildfire in conservative Islamic communities, sometimes resulting in capital punishment or street justice. The traditional sort of date (dinner or a movie) is riddled with risks of exposure. Some couples pass off the engagement as an outing with a friend. As long as either of the two do not display any form of affection, the date will conclude without incident. But what does this mean for a long term relationship? In the Islamic world, marriage is very important and occurs at an early age. If one were to delay marriage for too long, they incur suspicion from their community. Many homosexuals (men and women) have agreed to get married solely to protect themselves. Others see it as an opportunity to unburden the guilt they feel for being a gay Muslim and start a new life. In either situation, I have observed that inevitably they end up living a double life. They sometimes balance their marriage with a secret boyfriend, which can end very badly. I remember meeting a married man in Pakistan who was both successful and influential. He had a wife and kids; the very picture of a perfect Muslim family. What people did not know was that at night or on weekends he would take “business trips” to go see his boyfriend. Together they would sneak off on different adventures. If his colleagues were to know the truth, he would be ostracized and everything he worked so hard for would be taken away from him.
Some have tried to escape this fate. They want the right to be with the one they love without prejudice. Many feel that it is wrong to live a lie. One plan that I heard of was to make arrangements of convenience with other couples of the opposite sex. They would marry each other with the understanding that they were only doing it to be with the one they loved. But honestly, the only way to be an openly gay couple is to immigrate to a more tolerant country. Very few have this option available to them and hence are trapped to live the perpetual lie.
This is all in stark contrast to what I have seen in Minnesota. Although I have been in Rochester for less than a year, it is very clear to me that this atmosphere of fear is definitely not here. Minnesota is one of a growing number of states that have legalized gay marriage. In 2011, Minneapolis was ranked by The Advocate as the Gayest City in America, where members of the LGBTI community can mingle without fear of prejudice or threat of death. On a more local level, Mayo Clinic is very supportive of the LGBTI community. Initially, I was surprised that an organization as large as the Mayo Clinic works so hard to give their homosexual employees, trainees, and students a sense of security and—more importantly—belonging. Some people may not appreciate this benefit, but to a homosexual in the Islamic world, this place would be a haven.
There will be no strides towards gay rights in the Islamic world in the foreseeable future. Neither Islamic countries of the world or the international Muslim community want to commit to giving the LGBTI community any freedoms. So, the gay community in the Islamic world will have to be content with living in secrecy until the situation changes. They can only dream of coming to a place where they can be accepted, like here. But, they will most likely never give up hope and never be squashed into obscurity.
Fareed Khawaja was born and raised in New York City. He is currently a Research Trainee at Mayo Clinic, under the mentorship of Drs. Daryl J. Kor and Ognjen Gajic. In 2013, he graduated from Aga Khan University Medical School in Karachi, Pakistan. Currently, he is applying to Internal Medicine residency programs in the United States.
Acknowledgement: I want to thank Andrew M. Harrison for giving me the chance to write this article and having the patience to edit it.
Editorial comment (AMH): Three of the five previous posts I have written or edited over the past eight months were by two gay authors, all on unrelated subjects. Hilariously, my only post on gay rights was authored by a straight man. Thus, in my opinion, the current post marks an important milestone. If you wish to learn more about the history of the LGBTI rights movement in the US, I suggest starting with the Stonewall Riots. If you wish to learn more basics about LGBTI, sex, gender, and sexual orientation (and have access to the Mayo Clinic intranet), I suggest this presentation.