Last edited: February 14, 2005

Egyptian Gays Go Deeper Underground

The Data Lounge, April 29, 2002

CAIRO—Now under constant threat of harassment and arrest, their once well-appointed clubs now virtually abandoned or forced into serving a straight clientele, their baths which for centuries served as a meeting place for gay men now routinely monitored, gay life in Egypt in 2002 is a pale shadow of how things were just a few short years ago.

But despite the dangers, members of this proud community refuse to be knuckled under completely. The now three-year old government crackdown has done what government suppression of gay life has always done, pushed it deeper underground.

The brutal repression has also sparked debate over the morality of homosexuality, that in the face of rising Islamic extremism in Egypt, threatens to bring even greater government reprisals. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is said to have begun the anti-gay crackdown as a way to appease simmering fundamentalists that threaten the government.

One of the most prominent gay rights advocates in the country, a man who goes by the name of Horus and wears his hair in a ponytail, told the Reuters news agency that there are worst things than being the object of official harassment. "Hiding is worse than being arrested," he said. "I want to feel dignity. When I was harassed, my friends told me, ‘Cut your hair.’ But I said no. That’s not me. I don’t want to hide."

"I don’t want to stay in the closet forever," Horus continued. "I want to help people come out. I feel that I wasted my life in the closet."

In November, the government signaled it was moving into a more active phase of its persecution efforts when a security court sentenced 23 predominantly men to jail after a raid on the Queen Boat, a then-popular weekend venue for the city’s gays.

Egyptian officials gave no official thrift to protests from human rights groups and Western governments about the arrests, declaring the matter one of safeguarding the country’s morality. But some scholars have expressed the view that the attitude of mainstream Egyptians is not as rigid as the government believes.

"When push comes to shove, most people will say that homosexuality is a horrible thing, but not in the sense of ‘Put them in jail’," said Hania Sholkamy, a professor of anthropology at the American University in Cairo. "Homosexuality is there. It’s more accepted as a certain phase in life, long as they click out of it and then get a wife and ‘become straight’ again."

But talking about it, or claiming it as an identity, she said, is still not acceptable in Egypt.

Some gay Egyptians told Reuters that many have left for the West, and that more are thinking about it. "Almost everyone I talked to wants to leave. They just can’t," said a gay rights advocate. "I personally know four people who got political asylum in the United States."

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