Last edited: October 25, 2003

Is Beheading Really the Punishment for Homosexuality in Saudi Arabia?

By Mubarak Dahir, syndicated column, December, 2002

A few weeks before taking a trip to Saudi Arabia in October, I sent out a notice to my friends in America and the Arab World, letting them know that I wanted to interview gay men while I was there and asking for their help in making contacts.

In response to my request, I got a flood of frantic e-mails.

Even gay Arab friends, long accustomed to the harsh treatment their own governments give homosexual citizens, sent me urgent and alarmed notes pleading with me to be careful. Saudi Arabia, the e-mails warned me, was exponentially more repressive than any other place I’d visited in the Arab World, and was therefore that much more dangerous.

I knew what was on everyone’s minds: Isn’t beheading the punishment for being gay in Saudi Arabia?

As an openly gay reporter digging around for interviews in a kingdom infamous for its public decapitation rituals, the question was foremost in my mind as well.

But when I got to Saudi Arabia, I found that the answer to this question is not as simple as we in the West often portray it. As far as I could make out, the answer is both yes and no.

We often focus somewhat sensationally and simplistically on the "yes" part of this complicated answer, and that obscures a more accurate picture of what it is like to be gay in probably the world’s most closed society.

This isn’t to dismiss the news of gay men being beheaded in Saudi Arabia. In January 2002, sketchy reports emerged about the beheading of three men in Abha, a city in the country’s southwest. The information was first published by the Arab News, an English-language daily in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capitol. Citing a statement from the Interior Ministry, the paper reported the names of three men who had been beheaded January 1, 2002, for "engaging in the extreme obscenity and ugly acts of homosexuality, marrying among themselves and molesting the young." The report said the men repeated the acts (of alleged rape of minors) and assaulted people who tried to stop them.

Human rights groups, including Amnesty and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), were unable to unearth any further details about the executions.

There have been other beheadings, too. For example, in July 2000, IGLHRC received reports that six gay men were executed in Saudi Arabia. But again, it’s been impossible to collect much meaningful information about the executions that would help us paint a clear picture of the circumstances.

From what I was able to determine while I was in Saudi Arabia, however, it seems unlikely that simply being discovered to be gay is sufficient to get you beheaded.

I was able to do in-depth interviews with five gay men—three in Riyadh, the largest city and the seat of government, and two in Jeddah, the country’s most progressive city. I found these men worrying more about how to meet others for sex and companionship, how to date and keep their sexual orientation secret, whether they would be forced by their families to marry, and what to wear to show off their bodies. Getting beheaded was just about the last thing on anyone’s mind.

All of the men I interviewed were well educated and highly sophisticated as gay men. They weren’t battling internal demons about their sexual orientation. They had all traveled outside Saudi Arabia, and were well aware of the intricate gay life possible beyond their borders. None of them were out to their families or employers, but all of them had gay friends, and some had even confided their secret in a few liberal straight friends.

I brought up the executions that had taken place earlier in the year, and asked point-blank if they feared dying should they be found out. None of the men seemed to know anything more about the executions than the rest of the world does. But they all scoffed at the notion that simply being discovered to be gay would lead to the death penalty.

"Our government controls information tightly, and excels in propaganda," says "Salim," a 46-year-old civil engineer with gray hair and a bushy mustache. "So I can’t tell you why those men died." Salim—who asked that his real name not be used—eloquently summarized most of what the other men had also told me.

"I can tell you there is more sex between men in Saudi Arabia than other places," he believes, largely because men simply do not have the opportunity to interact with women in Saudi society. If you are quiet about it, you can have as much sex with men as you want, he says, and it’s easy to find. "Sometimes I go to the mall, and I see men staring at me in that way, and I know what they want."

There are real dangers if the police discover men cruising or having sex, he admits, but the threat is not getting your head chopped off. "They might threaten to expose you to your family if you don’t pay them money, or they might [sexually] abuse you," says Salim. If you are arrested for gay conduct, the typical reaction, says Salim, is to be sent to a hospital for the equivalent of so-called "reparative therapy," that tries to make gays straight.

People are beheaded for murder, rape and drug smuggling, he insists. Not for being gay.

But, he adds, in a country where it is an act of rebellion for a woman to drive, anything that defies the strict social codes in Saudi Arabia could be construed as political. If as a gay person you are seen as ‘too open," in a way that might "threaten society"—meaning the heavy hand of the government—it’s possible you could be executed for being gay, the men I spoke to theorized. Or if you are seen as doing anything that might resemble gay political organizing—whether it be in the Western tradition, or on a much more basic level, such as trying to construct too much of a gay community— then your life might be in danger, the men I spoke to conceded.

"You have to remember," Salim says with caution, "the government does not tolerate threats of any nature."

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