Here is an English version for my Arabic piece for Al-Hurra
He was shy and introverted, yet polite and respectable, but there was something intriguing about my acquaintance I could not quite figure out. The intrigue ended one day when I witnessed an altercation between him and two of his relatives. They initially bickered about a possible joint business project, but the argument quickly disintegrated into a fierce exchange in which the sexual orientation of my acquaintance was revealed in an ugly way. He was gay. And sadly, his relatives, provoked by the heated exchange, found it necessary to refer to his sexuality when he refused to give them the money they wanted.
In Egypt, gays have known for a long time that their sexual orientation is a powerful and dangerous card that can be used against them, even if they have kept their sexuality strictly discreet. However, in the 90s gay people wrongly perceived a shift in public attitudes toward them when a number of bars, restaurants, and public spaces across the city were friendly towards them. Unfortunately, this sense of freedom was only skin-deep and reflected a cycle in the political and social life of the Muslim world, in which eras of mild tolerance (as in the 90s) transmute into other eras of excessive crackdowns and intolerance. This is exemplified by the introduction of extraordinary measures to crack down on Egypt’s gay community: summary arrests, forced anal examinations and possible prison sentences. At least 33 people have been arrested since September 23, a day after a group of people were seen raising the rainbow flag, a rare public show of support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in the conservative Muslim country.
The flag appeared during a performance by the popular Lebanese band, Mashrou’ Leila, at the Music Park Festival in Cairo. Conservative Egyptians are happy to listen to the music of the band, provided the awkward word “gay” is not mentioned or displayed in any way, shape or form. For them, displaying the rainbow flag is a dangerous red line that must not be crossed.
It is true that it is the authorities that arrest and humiliate gays, but it is important to understand that various sections of Egyptian society support these violations of individual rights, regardless of their political affiliation, class and religion.
The whole episode sums up what is wrong with Egyptian society and the wider Middle East.
First, confusing crimes with sins:
The issue here is not the religious stance against homosexuality. For many Egyptians, the fault line between what is a religious sin and what should be considered a legal crime is so blurred, especially in relation to controversial topics such as homosexuality. Pious Egyptians are entitled to consider sexual relationships between men as grave sins, but they should not expect or demand an earthly legal punishment by the state for such sins. That is not and should not be the job of a civilian government. Authorities have no right to question the sexual orientation of those gays who attended the concert, simply because they did not commit any sexual act in public. The only illegal act in the concert was perhaps raising “an unauthorised flag,” a crime that only deserves a fine, not imprisonment and anal examinations.
As for homosexuality, only God can punish or forgive. Governments are not the Almighty’s representatives on earth, and they have no right to behave in that way.
Second, toxic discreetness
In our society, openness is the utmost sin. Everyone is expected to conform and go with the flow. Openness is viewed as dangerous defiance. The basic belief is that anything outside of what is considered a social norm should be uttered with utmost confidentiality. The sad thing is, many Egyptians, no matter how educated, consider such discretion as healthy. But it is not. In fact, it is very toxic and destructive.
Egypt is now a society in which social injustice and the suppression of individual rights are pervasive; it is a society in which many of its citizens are suffering physically and mentally as a result of this obsessive discreetness. Many consider homosexuality as an illness, but in reality, it is oppression that pushes many gays into mental breakdown.
The hysteria about homosexuality is an appropriate reflection of the inverted pyramid of priorities in Egypt. In a society struggling with overpopulation, a struggling economy and terrorism, raising a gay flag should be right at the bottom of the list of priorities. No one expects Egypt to allow homosexuality; nonetheless, it is about time to focus on the real challenges, to stop judging other humans and to leave the Almighty to judge human behaviour.