Tight T-shirts and a Gay Café in the Saudi Capital
By Mubarak Dahir,
November 5, 2002
I am in my hotel room in Riyadh, the capitol of Saudi
Arabia, speaking on the phone to one of several men I contacted via e-mail
before I arrived, in the hopes of getting a glimpse of gay life in what may be
the most closed society remaining in the world. Like the three others I end up
interviewing during my short stay in this complicated country, this man feels
most comfortable meeting me in the relatively safe space of my hotel lobby.
“How will I know you who you are?” I ask as we
arrange a meeting time.
“I’ll be wearing a red T-shirt,” he says.
“Believe me, no one in Saudi Arabia wears a red T-shirt!” he says about
the conservative dress code here. In public, every Saudi woman wears the
obligatory abayeh, the black garment that covers her body from head to toe.
And while it’s not uncommon to see men dressed in Western slacks and collar
shirts, by far most men dress conservatively and traditionally, too, in the
white, floor-length robe called a dish-dash, topped with a red checkered
I enter the lobby at the designated time, on the lookout
for the signature colored garment. I spot “Haitham” immediately. (All the
men I interviewed in Saudi Arabia asked that their real names not be used.)
But even without the red signpost, gaydar would have quickly led me to my
A 28-year-old architect, Haitham could be a gay man right
out of Chelsea or the Castro. He’s wearing red sneakers and tight jeans, and
his hugging red shirt shows off a muscular body that is obviously a regular at
the gym. A sharp jaw line cuts his angular face, and his eyes are dark and
deep. The short, thick black curls on the top of his head are kept stiff with
Later, after we go to my room—the only place Haitham
and the other men feel safe speaking openly—he tells me that his dress code
is one sure sign to other gay men of his sexuality. But more importantly,
it’s a symbol of just how much the country has opened up for gay men in the
past decade. These days, he says, gay men can be “out” in the way they
dress. “If I wear a tight or flashy T-shirt, straight men just think I am
trying to show off,” he says, smiling. “But other gay men know.”
The number one way people meet is through the Internet,
he says, including several sites specifically for gay men in Saudi Arabia.
“The government blocks a lot of sites,” he says, “but if you know how to
navigate the Net, you can get around it.”
The “opening up” of gay life in Saudi society
includes a network of private parties, at least one each weekend, attended by
anywhere from 20 to 50 men, says Haitham. There are several “cruisy
streets” that men drive back and forth on after midnight. (No one walks
anywhere in Riyadh.) And Riyadh even boasts three gay café’s—two of which
draw mixed crowds, but one of which is “90 percent gay.”
Only after promising that I will not reveal it in my
article, Haitham tells me the name of the gay café, and draws me a map of how
to get there.
The next night, I convince a reluctant “Fahed”—who
I meet by chance in the hotel lobby—to take me to the gay café. We arrive
about 10 p.m. on a Wednesday night, and yet the place is packed, with most of
the small, round chrome tables and matching chairs placed outside to take
advantage of the warm night air. I am surprised that the men sit so freely in
the open. Even more surprising is that most of the customers are clad in the
Saudi dish-dash and kifeyah, rather than the jeans and T-shirt look sported by
Haitham and Fahed. At first, I wonder how gay this café really is. But within
minutes, I feel the heavy gazes of men cruising a newcomer, and all doubts
Inside, the walls are painted a bright peach, and
colorful strands of neon light overhead liven up the place. The waiters are
mostly Filipino, and rush back and forth from the kitchen with trays of hot
sandwiches, cappuccinos and French deserts.
Fahed, a tall, slim 25-year-old who drives his father’s
Mercedes, is a little nervous about being at the coffeehouse. He’s been
before, but not for a several months. The last time he visited, he found a
note from an anonymous admirer on the car windshield. It freaked him out that
a secret suitor knew what car he drove.
Like the other men I spoke with while in Saudi Arabia,
Fahed is highly educated, speaks nearly perfect English, and is comfortable
with himself as a gay man. His fears about coming out revolve almost
exclusively around his family rather than the government or religion. All four
men I interviewed, including Fahed, rolled their eyes and laughed when I
inquired about whether the Saudi government executes men for being gay.
“Oh come on, please, that is so exaggerated,” insists
Fahed. “Americans love those kind of dramatic stories, but they are mostly
lore. I mean, it’s well known there are several members of the royal family
who are gay. No one’s chopping their heads off.”
“Of course, there are no gay rights groups,” he adds.
“Political groups of any kind are not tolerated.”
But more than fear of the government, family shame keeps
gay men in the closet here, he says. “If I would come out,” Fahed says
slowly, shuddering at the mere thought, “I wouldn’t just ruin my
life—I’d ruin four other lives, too”—that of his brother, sister,
mother and father. His father—who is a highly placed Saudi government
official—would certainly lose his job, and the family would be totally
disgraced, he says.
So while things may well be easier today for gays in
Saudi Arabia than in the past, he says, “there is always a limit. There will
never be a real gay society here.”
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