TV & Radio
'People think it's a mental illness'
In the Middle East, coming out as a homosexual is often unthinkable. Brian Whitaker talks to young gay and lesbian Arabs about their secret private lives
Tuesday June 13, 2006
Ghaith, a Syrian, was studying fashion design in Damascus when the family crisis happened. "Of course, I had known that I was gay for a long time but I never allowed myself even to think about it," he says. In his final year at college, he developed a crush on one of his male teachers. "I felt this thing for him that I never knew I could feel," Ghaith recalls. "I used to see him and almost pass out.
"One day, I was at his place for a party and I got drunk. My teacher said he had a problem with his back and I offered him a massage. We went into the bedroom. I was massaging him and suddenly I felt so happy. I turned his face towards my face and kissed him. He was like, 'What are you doing? You're not gay.' I said, 'Yes, I am.'
"It was the first time I had actually said that I was gay. After that, I couldn't see anybody or speak for almost a week. I just went to my room and stayed there; I stopped going to school; I stopped eating. I was so upset at myself and I was going, 'No, I'm not gay, I'm not gay.'"
When he finally emerged, a friend suggested that he see a psychiatrist. To reassure him, Ghaith agreed. "I went to this psychiatrist and, before I saw him, I was stupid enough to fill in a form about who I was, with my family's phone number. [The doctor] was very rude and we almost had a fight. He said: 'You're the garbage of the country, you shouldn't be alive and if you want to live, don't live here. Just find a visa and leave Syria and don't ever come back.'
"Before I reached home, he had called my mum, and my mum freaked out. When I arrived home there were all these people in the house. My mum was crying, my sister was crying - I thought somebody had died or something. They put me in the middle and everybody was judging me. I said to them, 'You have to respect who I am; this was not something I chose,' but it was a hopeless case.
"The bad part was that my mum wanted me to leave the college. I said, 'No, I'll do whatever you want.' After that, she started taking me to therapists. I went to at least 25 and they were all really, really bad."
Ghaith was one of the luckier ones. Ali, still in his late teens, comes from a traditional Shia family in Lebanon and, as he says himself, it is obvious that he is gay. Before fleeing his family home, he suffered abuse from relatives that included being hit with a chair so hard that it broke, being imprisoned in the house for five days, being locked in the boot of a car, and being threatened with a gun when he was caught wearing his sister's clothes.
According to Ali, an older brother told him, "I'm not sure you're gay, but if I find out one day that you are gay, you're dead. It's not good for our family and our name."
The threats directed against gay Arabs for besmirching the family's name reflect an old-fashioned concept of "honour" found in the more traditionalist parts of the Middle East. Although it is generally accepted in many areas of the world that sexual orientation is neither a conscious choice nor anything that can be changed voluntarily, this idea has not yet taken hold in Arab countries - with the result that homosexuality tends to be viewed either as wilfully perverse behaviour or as a symptom of psychiatric disturbance, and dealt with accordingly.
"What people know of it, if they know anything, is that it's like some sort of mental illness," says Billy, a doctor's son in his final year at Cairo University. "This is the educated part of society - doctors, teachers, engineers, technocrats. Those from a lesser educational background deal with it differently. They think their son has been seduced or come under bad influences. Many of them get absolutely furious and kick him out until he changes his behaviour."
The stigma attached to homosexuality also makes it difficult for families to seek advice from their friends. Ignorance is the reason most often cited by young gay Arabs when relatives respond badly. The general taboo on discussing sexual matters in public results in a lack of level-headed and scientifically accurate media treatment that might help families to cope better.
In contrast to their perplexed parents, young gays from Egypt's professional class are often well-informed about their sexuality long before it turns into a family crisis. Sometimes their knowledge comes from older or more experienced gay friends but mostly it comes from the internet.
"If it wasn't for the internet, I wouldn't have come to accept my sexuality," Salim says, but he is concerned that much of the information and advice provided by gay websites is addressed to a western audience and may be unsuitable for people living in Arab societies.
Marriage is more or less obligatory in traditional Arab households, and arranged marriages are widespread. Sons and daughters who are not attracted to the opposite sex may contrive to postpone it but the range of plausible excuses for not marrying at all is severely limited. At some point, most have to make an unenviable choice between declaring their sexuality (with all the consequences) or accepting that marriage is inevitable.
Hassan, in his early 20s, comes from a prosperous Palestinian family which has lived in the US for many years but whose values seem largely unaffected by its move to a different culture. The family will expect Hassan to follow his siblings into married life, and so far Hassan has done nothing to ruffle their plans. What none of them knows, however, is that he is an active member of al-Fatiha, the organisation for gay and lesbian Muslims. Hassan has no intention of telling them, and hopes they will never find out.
"Of course, my family can see that I'm not macho like my younger brother," he says. "They know that I'm sensitive and I don't like sport. They accept all that, but I cannot tell them that I'm gay. If I did, my sisters would never be able to marry, because we would not be a respectable family any more."
Hassan knows the time will come and is already working on a compromise solution, as he calls it. When he reaches 30, he will get married - to a lesbian from a respectable Muslim family. He is not sure if they will have same-sex partners outside the marriage, but he hopes they will have children. To outward appearances, at least, they will be a "respectable family".
Lesbian daughters are less likely to prompt a crisis than gay sons, according to Laila, an Egyptian lesbian in her 20s. In a heavily male-orientated society, she says, the hopes of traditional Arab families are pinned on their male offspring; boys come under greater pressure than girls to live up to parental aspirations. The other factor is that, ironically, lesbianism removes some of a family's worries as their daughter passes through her teens and early 20s. The main concern during this period is that she should not "dishonour" the family's name by losing her virginity or getting pregnant before marriage.
Laila's experience was not shared by Sahar, a lesbian from Beirut, however. "My mother found out when I was fairly young - 16 or 17 - that I was interested in women and [she] wasn't happy about it," she says. Sahar was then bundled off to see a psychiatrist who "suggested all manner of ridiculous things - shock therapy and so on".
Sahar decided to play along with her mother's wishes, and still does. "I re-closeted myself and started going out with a guy," she says. "I'm 26 years old now and I shouldn't have to be doing this, but it's just a matter of convenience. My mum doesn't mind me having gay male friends, but she doesn't like me being with women."
Ghaith, the Syrian student, has also found a solution of sorts. "Nobody was remotely trying to understand me," he says. "I started agreeing with the psychiatrist and saying, 'Yes, you're right.' Soon he was saying, 'I think you're doing better.' He gave me some medicine that I never took. So everybody was fine with it after a while, because the doctor said I was doing OK."
As soon as he graduated, Ghaith left Syria. Six years on, he is a successful fashion designer in Lebanon. He visits his mother occasionally, but she never wants to talk about his sexuality.
"My mum is in denial," he says. "She keeps asking when I am going to get married - 'When can I hold your children?' In Syria, this is the way people think. Your only mission in life is to grow up and start a family. There are no real dreams. The only Arab dream is having more families."
There are just a few signs, though, that attitudes could be changing - especially among the educated urban young, largely as a result of increased contact with the rest of the world. In Beirut three years ago, 10 openly gay people marched through the streets waving a home-made rainbow flag as part of a protest against the war in Iraq. It was the first time anything like that had happened in an Arab country and their action was reported without hostility by the local press. Today, Lebanon has an officially recognised gay and lesbian organisation, Helem - the only such body in an Arab country - as well as Barra, the first gay magazine in Arabic.
These are small steps indeed, and cosmopolitan Beirut is by no means typical of the Middle East. But in countries where sexual diversity is tolerated and respected the prospects must have looked similarly bleak in the past. The denunciations of homosexuality heard in the Arab world today are strikingly similar to those heard elsewhere years ago - and ultimately rejected.
· Names have been changed. Brian Whitaker's book, Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East, is published by Saqi Books, price £14.99.