Fear and Loathing Keep Egyptís Gays in the Closet
April 28, 2002
By Cynthia Johnston
CAIRO (Reuters)óThe posh clubs where Egyptís once
thriving gay community used to meet are empty and fear is widespread. A
government crackdown has pushed a fledgling gay support network underground.
But a spate of recent arrests has stirred cautious debate and raised
awareness in Egypt, a conservative country where homosexuality is widely
condemned as immoral.
"Hiding is worse than being arrested... I want to feel dignity. When I
was harassed, my friends told me, ĎCut your hair.í But I said no. Thatís
not me. I donít want to hide," said one gay rights activist whose wears
his curly black hair in a ponytail.
"I donít want to stay in the closet forever. I want to help people
come out. I feel that I wasted my life in the closet," said the man, who
called himself "Horus", after the falcon-headed Egyptian god who was
the patron of the living Pharaoh and is sometimes associated with
An underground gay scene flourished for years in Egypt despite being viewed
with disdain by most members of the Muslim and Christian communities. As long
as gay life was discreet, it was long tolerated as an open secret.
Lesbians are virtually invisible in Egypt. Activists said the concept of
two women having sexual relations was incomprehensible to most Egyptians,
adding they were not in contact with any lesbian groups.
A landmark court ruling in November against a group of men accused of being
gay frightened Egyptís gay community, most of whom keep their sexuality
An Egyptian court sent 23 men to jail for one to five years on charges
including "practising sexual immorality", a local euphemism for
homosexuality. Another 29 were acquitted.
Human rights groups condemned the verdicts as a miscarriage of justice. But
Egyptian officials said the West has no right to impose its values on Egypt,
an Arab country where they say cultural norms make overt homosexuality
"When push comes to shove, most people will say that homosexuality is
a horrible thing, but not in the sense of ĎPut them in jailí," said
Hania Sholkamy, a professor of anthropology at the American University in
"Homosexuality is there. Itís more accepted as a certain phase in
life,...as long as they click out of it and then get a wife and Ďbecome
But talking about oneís homosexuality, or claiming it as an identity, is
still not acceptable in Egypt, she said.
Activists say gay life in Egypt has not died out completely. But the
continued crackdown has injected caution into a community adjusting to
changing rules on what is safe and what is out-of-bounds.
Night after night, the Queen Boat nightclub where many of the convicted men
were arrested turns on its lights.
But the club, moored along the banks of the Nile near one of the cityís
most elegant luxury hotels, sits half empty. Another Cairo pub frequented by
gays has become a no-go zone.
"Itís filled with (heterosexual) couples," one gay man said.
A web site geared to Egyptian gays warns readers about the perils of being
gay in Egypt.
"Guess whoís watching? Egyptian state security. Try to avoid always
logging on from the same location," the site warns.
Gay men meet in small circles or talk over the Internet. They do not give
out real names or personal phone numbers to strangers, at least not anymore.
Some have already left Egypt for the West, and more are thinking about it.
"Almost everyone I talked to wants to leave. They just canít,"
a second gay activist said. "I personally know four people who got
political asylum in the United States."
But activists note that compared to some other Middle Eastern countries,
Egypt is relatively open.
"If there is going to be an alternative movement in the Middle East,
Egypt will be the place it will start," said Scott Long, programme
director for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, a
U.S.-based group that has been monitoring the situation.
"I donít mean just a gay movement. I mean movements that talk about
societal transformation," he added.
Since the Queen Boat arrests, more men have been quietly detained in Egypt,
accused of being gay. Some have been convicted and jailed.
An Egyptian court jailed five men for three years in March for "practising
sexual immorality". They were also accused of wearing womenís clothes
No one seems to know what prompted the string of arrests after so many
years of unofficial tolerance.
Some cite an attempt to divert attention from a battered economy. Others
say Egyptís gay community was becoming too organised, too vocal and most of
all, too visible.
Prior to the arrests, Horus said he had started distributing information to
confused gay men in Egypt over the Internet. When people needed legal aid, he
and others helped arrange it. He also shared information with Western gay
Whatever the reason for the crackdown, the menís case has brought the
issue of homosexuality to the dinner table in Egypt, where gender roles are
clearly defined and young men and women are expected to follow them.
But most people agree that open debate over homosexuality, or a
full-fledged gay rights movement, remain a long way away.
"We need to work on the basics first," Horus said. "We are
not looking for the right of marriage... "We are looking for) the right
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