ahmed’s recent ‘the arab’s dirty secret’ rebuttal series and inanities’ ‘honey, i’m homosexual’ criticism got me thinking about the oft-sidelined social issue that is the region’s views on homosexuality.
homosexuality in arabia isn’t discussed much apart from a few bits now and then highlighting outdated and seldom enacted sodomy laws. the yaacoubian building brought a spike of egyptian interest to the subject but it is still usually under the radar and certainly not a part of polite conversation. this is even more so in the gcc where it remains amongst the many still taboo subjects. this is not to deny the vibrant but underground gay scenes in cities like dubai, tehran and kuwait.
i thought i’d shed some light drawn from my personal experience on the ground growing up in dubai. homosexuality was far more prevalent during my teens than it has been at any other phase of my life (including stints in london, new york and extensive travels).
the dubai i grew up in was extremely segregated sexually. i attended a boys’ only high school with a student body predominantly made up of well-connected locals’ kids. arabian culture in general is marked by a tactility and physical comfort alien to that of the formal british primary school i had come from. indeed, our, mainly british, teachers assumed that many of us were gay because of the way we would hold hands strolling down the corridors or embrace (nose kisses etc) and even play fight. while that was a cultural misinterpretation, it is striking how much homosexual activity took place in those years and how easily it was all accepted; stark contrast to the official anti-gay laws and image of dubai and the region.
it’s within this segregated context where for many young men / boys access to women was minimal (dubai’s prostitution phenomena was not what it is today) that homosexual experiences were a common part of male pubescent lives (to be discarded for tradition heterosexual marriages on adulthood). strangely (and peculiar to this part of the world?) there’s a marked perception different between those who fuck and those who are fucked. the former are not even considered gay by local customs.
an idea of how prevalent homosexuality was in the 90′s can be ascertained by a few high school anecdotes: attempted rapes on desert camping trips (brushed off by my local friends as something that happens); kids being thrown out of school for ‘sexual harassment’ – it was a boys’ school.
although the international press headlines would have you think homosexuality is completely frowned upon, the truth on the ground is that the society (and i can only speak of the situation for men / boys) has a surprisingly open, easy-going attitude to gay sex, particularly in pre-adult phases.
this is to say nothing of the adult gay scenes in the region which again are a lot more open and progressive than you would think. kuwait, iran the uae and saudi (check the atlantic’s view on homo-saudi) all have thriving, under-publicized homosexual cultures. from nadya labi’s atlantic article:
In The History of Sexuality, a multivolume work published in the 1970s and ’80s, Michel Foucault proposed his famous thesis that Western academic, medical, and political discourse of the 18th and 19th centuries had produced the idea of the homosexual as a deviant type: In Western society, homosexuality changed from being a behavior (what you do) to an identity (who you are).
In the Middle East, however, homosexual behavior remained just that—an act, not an orientation. That is not to say that Middle Eastern men who had sex with other men were freely tolerated. But they were not automatically labeled deviant.
this is yet another area where international perception / official line is far removed from the reality of society in the middle east.