Today, we have a question from my friend Iain:
Wotcher shag, you travelled to somehe places that have a terrible reputation for how they treat members of the LGBTQ community.
I hate stereotyping, but I am interested, did you notice or do you have an opinion on whether the West’s view of inequality in these countries is justified?
But first, please note the following.
For the purposes of this article, I am mostly going to refer to LGBTQ as ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’.
Don’t wean offence from this, it is harmless habit and for simplicity, it is how I speak, it is how I write.
The word ‘gay’ was increasingly used in the 20th century UK to avoid the then-legally incriminating and medical-sounding label of ‘homosexual’, also giving homosexuality a positive connotation – my Grandshag tells me he used to have ‘a gay old time’ – and I like it for this reason, and I don’t fancy using the clunky acronym LGBTQ on the off chance it saves me from a pink-haired zealot’s accusation of discrimination.
Now, with that said!
Iain, shag, the short answer is: yes, of course it is justified. In a minute, I will give you some stories from a few of the countries I visited, and you can make your own mind up.
First, I’m not sure the West’s view of itself as unequal in respect of LGBTQ is justified, especially after having visited these countries. These things are relative and all nuanced aspects of society will forever be imperfect and unequal, especially when looked at from an abstract standard of perfect equality.
In Europe, in the UK, in Guernsey, the vast majority of people, I dare say quite confidently, don’t really care anymore whether you love men or love women or love both or neither.
I think people are worried about things going too far to the other extreme, to the point where children are taught that there are no essential differences between men and women, in psychology and even biology, and being told that LGBTQ relationships are normal.
Men and women are generally different, certainly biologically – hello! – and alternative sexual orientations are by their very definition abnormal.
Yet these things are being taught to children throughout the US and UK, presently.
From my own perspective, I don’t give a fiddler’s feck what sexuality any human is.
In my life, I have gay friends, I have had four gay bosses, I have had countless gay colleagues, and throughout my infancy I was regularly babysat by a gay couple.
I judge these humans no differently than I do any other, although I do have immense respect for these mentioned who were openly gay ‘before it was cool’, and I have immense respect for the gay people I will mention in this article in countries where being gay is decidedly uncool.
I think the balance is almost there in Guernsey, though obviously there are still crusty old views held by a minority of close-minded people on the one hand, which I am confident with fall away with the passage of time, and on the other hand we prematurely confuse young minds with discussions about alternative sexualities midway through primary school.
But these “issues”, after visiting the following countries, I recognise to be so infinitesimally small, as to be almost meaningless.
Let me sketch you a view of four countries: Lebanon, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Iraqi Kurdistan.
When I arrived in Beirut, Lebanon, I went straight from the ferry to the ball, as the Russians say – or, more precisely, from the plane to the party.
I had organised to meet a Lebanese fellow, a talented and hardworking jeweller, and – as my gaydar instantly indicated – a homosexual.
Just hours after arriving at the airport, I find myself at a techno party in Beirut’s only gay club.
I went to university for three years in Brighton, so, despite being bolt-straight myself, I often found myself in gay venues and spending lots of time with gay people, and happily so.
Finding myself in Beirut’s gay club, there were many familiar vibes: about 80% male, lots of preened eyebrows, impressively unmoving hairstyles, feminine and sassy dancing, eyes indicating MDMA.
There were marked differences, though.
I saw men dancing together, some suggestively close, but I didn’t see anything overtly gay, as I had come to know it: certainly no passionate kissing or groping, an eye-rolling normality in Brighton.
As I went to the toilets, there were security guards there.
To check people weren’t consuming drugs?
Nope, my friend tells me.
It is because homosexuality is still illegal in Lebanon.
The security guards are there to ensure the patrons don’t try what many do in similar establishments in Brighton.
There was gang of security guards outside of that place.
Before we entered we had black masking tape wrapped around the cameras of our phones.
One guy next to me in the club tried to catch a video on his phone – justifiably, with the dawn’s first rays shooting in threw the window slits and the club still brimming with revellers – and this caused one of the security guards to wade through the crowd and haul his ass out the place.
That was in Beirut, relatively very free, where at least there’s this space where gay people can, to a relatively daring extent, feel free to dance and flirt and be who they are without risking reproach or reprisal.
I travelled to the south of the country, Hezbollah territory, to a town with massive posters of the Ayatollah Khomenei and company draped over the sides of buildings.
I didn’t need to look to find out there are no gay bars here.
Incidentally, my Couchsurfing host in that town turned out to be a gay chap, an amiable, enterprising, selfless and stupendously charitable one at that, who founded and is running a school for Syrian street children in that area.
My gaydar didn’t ping immediately, but I noted the small piercing in his right ear, and upon asking if he had a wife – cringe! – he said simply, “I like men.”
Asking about the situation in the country, he gestured to his piercing, saying, “This is the most overt signal I can get away with over here.”
There are plenty of gay people in Lebanon, he tells me, even in the conservative south where we find ourselves.
Most have wives, and the ones who don’t still want to have wives and children. There isn’t an existent social category where men can be a bachelor here, let alone an actively homosexual one.
“Lebanese are very homophobic,” he tells me.
The first evening I couchsurfed with him, I said I would like to go and watch the England vs Italy final, just for the craic, and he kindly phones up his ex-pat gay friend to ask where I might watch it.
“Hey, I’ve got good news and bad news,” he says, gravely. “Good news is, I have a good looking guy couchsurfing with me. Bad news is, he likes women.”
His friend informed him of a venue that’s showing the final, a place my host refers to as a ‘lesbian bar’.
I express surprise, given he had just explained to me the degree of homophobia here in Lebanon.
“They don’t understand lesbians,” my host says, grimly amused. “They don’t even have the words to describe them.”
(Reminds me of Morocco, actually, a Muslim country of blanket homophobia. In Marrakech, I saw two apparent lesbians holding hands. I expressed my shock at their boldness, publicly displaying affection in conservative Marrakech. My Moroccan friend explained to me, there isn’t a concept of woman-to-woman sexual love in Morocco, so it’s not an issue. Homosexuality is a man-to-man thing, you know.)
I arrived at the bar, the only foreigner, and the only assumed England supporter.
And I am served by an obviously homosexual girl with short hair and tattoos, who rigs me up a shisha and makes me some chai.
Kyrgyzstan is, as I have said, nominally a Muslim country, though Kyrgyz apply decidedly lax interpretation of the Quran.
With the strong Soviet influence overhanging the country, many suburban folk have a marked disdain for all religion.
That doesn’t mean they are more open, though.
In Bishkek, my friends and I find ourselves in the city’s only gay club.
Glorious, glorious venue. Literally in a basement.
We pay the equivalent of $2 for entry, and my wrist stamped by a lesbian chirper, on the way into a big smokey room full of mostly young, alternative, queer types.
What I love about ex-Soviet states – from Latvia to Georgia to Kyrgyzstan – is how young people don’t have the detachment, the irony, the too-cool-for-school sardonic attitude that kids in the UK have, with all of their freedom.
The style and dress and music and dance and open sexuality is all truly radical, here.
In Guernsey nowadays, how many parents will disown their son for getting tattoos and hoops in his ears? Or forcibly send their son to a mental institution for intimating they like men? (There are probably legal protections against the latter, now.)
Those were two realities of two people I met in this club.
One was the son of wealthy and prominent Kyrgyz.
I asked him, “How the hell can they get away with kidnapping you when you are not a minor?”
“Connections,” he replied. “If you have connections and enough money it’s no problem.”
That place was beautiful.
I leant back against the bar, sipping my beer, soaking in the utter ecstasy being shared by these people, during the small hours in this dingy basement, in which all, unknowingly, were shouting, I can be me.
Uzbekistan is categorically and proactively inhospitable to gays.
Not the slightly wild and lawless Kyrgyz culture about it, where they dare to set up an underground gay club and pay the necessary protection to police.
Uzbekistan is out and out hostile towards gays.
My Uzbek friend told me of a then-recent incident at a K-Pop event in the capital, Tashkent.
(I could never in my life predict defending K-Pop fans, but here goes.)
The K-Pop crowd has lots of young and alternative types, certainly by Uzbek standards. They found themselves confronted by a large crowd of Muslims, those wholesome all-male congregations we have grown to know and love in Europe, who turned up to express their distaste for the attendees, who were identified as homosexual.
Shouting ‘Allahu Akhbar’, they expressed their distaste by beating up attendees. “Girls and boys, teenagers,” my Uzbek friend tells me, “and police just stood there and watched. Mostly, they arrested the kids!”
This charming group hospitalised one too-outspoken blogger by breaking his leg and skull.
My friend opines that the government incites this violence, if not overtly, then tacitly by not bringing to heel people who assault supposed homosexuals.
Why would they incite this brutality?
As a distraction from bigger problems, for one.
Also, my friend tells me, K-Pop fans do pose a problem for the conservative Uzbek government. They are the kind of young progressive person who wants to see their society change – a society, bear in mind, that still generally views a wife as property rather than autonomous human being, with a government that performs anal examinations on suspected homosexuals.
That is her opinion, which is shared by many educated Uzbeks, and one with which I have sympathy. Time and again this sort of thing happens in such socially conservative countries, and the victims rather than the perpetrators end up in the cells.
Anyhow, at an afterparty in Tashkent, I witnessed two young men passionately kissing each other.
With the context of the country, it was a fucking beautiful thing to see.
That young Uzbek man was clearly elated afterwards.
Not in some sordid, sexual way, but like I said before – I can be me.
As I have said in another piece, my friend Oleg and I used to greet each other with flamboyant displays of fraternal affection: a kiss on one cheek, then one on the other, then back to the first cheek, sometimes a smack on the lips for good measure.
We greeted each other in just this fashion in an Uzbek bazaar, to the consternation and reprimands of our Uzbek friends.
You can’t do that here.
We were chugging hobo strength beer out of a fat plastic bottle for good measure, too.
At Stihia Festival, the scene of my unforgettable memory in Uzbekistan, I met a young lesbian girl.
Little wisp of a thing, just 18 years old, so damn sweet and well-meaning and warmhearted.
She has a girlfriend, a relationship with a slightly older girl, which she dare not tell a soul other than her best friend, lest she be found out, and God-only-knows what happens as a result.
Or what mix of these things?
She calls me ‘my man’ and gives me a spindly hug, bless her sweet heart.
Kurdistan was an interesting one. Really interesting. Complex one.
As I will be discussing in my upcoming answer to a question on Kurdistan, I think Kurdish people value freedoms and are (perhaps as a result) more accepting than other peoples in the region.
Generally, of course.
And, of course, relatively.
In Erbil, my Syrian host Mahmud invited me to come with him to his friend’s place, a gay fellow from Damascus.
I was looking forward to this, firstly because Mahmud perpetually smoked Gauloises cigarettes in his tiny windowless apartment, and secondly because of how he coolly mentioned his gay Syrian friend living out here in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Being openly gay, to the point where people simply say as much, was not something I encountered in Lebanon or Kyrgyzstan, and is kind of unimaginable in Uzbekistan.
We arrive at – let’s call him – Marid’s apartment.
It is the same size as Mahmud’s, but the walls are not stained yellow. In fact, it is spotlessly clean, decorated stylishly but sparingly, with Christian iconography on the walls and desks. He has three plump, preened, beautifully fluffy cats.
Marid is a handsome 28 year old hair stylist, whose gayness is announced by his brilliantined hair, dazzlingly white veneers, perfectly groomed and sharp-bordered beard, and – perhaps most prominent of all – his sassy, fairy-camp demeanour.
(An aside: after meeting so many gay men across these and other countries, I think this ‘demeanour’ is something cross-cultural and perhaps predisposed innately. Something natural. Theatrical androgyny and campness in gay men in countries where such behaviour is not displayed in the media and aggressively unwelcome seems to indicate this. Just one of my thoughts. What do you think?)
Marid is wearing a vest, short shorts, and has a tattoo of a Christian cross.
Unfortunately Marid speaks only Arabic, so Mahmud has to translate between us, which they both lament; Marid because he cannot communicate directly with me, and Mahmud because I am ‘missing out’ on the wry wit and humour of Marid, which comes across quite well regardless.
As I stroke and dote on his fluffy cats, two taking a real liking to me, Mahmud says, “Wow, they love you.”
Marid quips, “It would be easy to love him.”
Whilst I play with the cats, Marid heats coals for two shishas, teasing Mahmud in Arabic about his appearance and sexual inactivity, amongst other things, Mahmud relates to me.
We go to Marid’s room to smoke the shisha.
There are sedate lights bordering his bed’s headboard, an illuminated statue of Jesus Christ on his dressing table, Holy Mary on the wall, and a sizeable crucifix, too.
Marid is from Damascus, capital of Syria, to which city his parents emigrated from Lebanon many years ago.
He says he is proud to call himself a Syrian, and for good reason, as we shall see.
Marid is a respected hair stylist in Erbil. I ask to see some of his work, and he shows me some videos from his social media, on which he has a quite substantial following. I see lots of before-and-after videos of brides-to-be, who have spent hours in a chair with Marid floating around them, changing tools and angles like a sculptor, as he chats and chirps, playing therapist as most empathetic people in his profession tend to do.
I ask whether his parents know he is gay.
I don’t know how internal this feeling was, but I sensed bringing up his sexual orientation was somewhat inappropriate – as I think it should be, generally, because it should be inconsequential to any normal civilised conversation in any civilised society – but my curiosity got the better of me.
I mean, this guy is gay gay, and he has lived his life in two Muslim majority countries.
The city we are currently in an hour’s drive from Mosul, where men suspected of being gay were being thrown off the top of buildings. Those that survived were then stoned to death by the pious. This is biblical barbarity, and it occurred just a few short years ago, for crying out loud.
Marid says his parents know, but they have never spoken about it. They have never needed to speak about it.
Marid was just accepted and loved, just the way he was, with no fanfare, no discussion, no coming-out party, no nothing.
I’m surprised, to say the least. Pleasantly so.
Marid makes a strong shisha, I tell him. He says he smokes shisha three times a day.
After I’ve had my few puffs, I pass the pipe to Marid, who takes it with one hand, and slaps my hand with the other, smirking.
It is apparently rude to pass the pipe whilst pointing it towards the recipient. The pipe should be turned around and passed proffering the bottom end.
I remember to do this going forward, but Marid still gives my hand a saucy slap each time anyway.
Later in the evening, Marid wants us to change the music, from the whinnying Arabesque music that has been playing, to something more upbeat.
Mahmud and I defer to Marid’s choice, which is Christina Aguilera.
Whilst Aguilera sings in one music video, dancing provocatively and winking at us through the screen, Marid says he dances like her when he’s drunk. Which indeed is possible, in a certain district of Erbil, which was first described to me in rather insipid terms as ‘multicultural’, ‘multifaith’ and ‘open’.
As Marid and Mahmud enlighten me, these turn out to be euphemisms employed to more delicately describe a district populated by prostitutes, drug dealers and revellers of all races, colours, creeds, and sexual orientations.
Including gay Damascan Christians with a penchant for drunkenly dancing like Christina Aguilera.
Marid tells Mahmud and I that he once crossdressed in a scant costume for a party in Damascus. When Marid and his brother arrived home after the party, it was to the shock of his appalled father, who had initially thought Marid’s brother brought a woman home with him! I would have loved to have seen a picture of that outfit.
Iain, brother, shag, I hope these ramblings helped to answer your question, and I would love to know your thoughts, and also the thoughts of any other gentle reader deigning to suffer my ramblings.
Now – quickly – allow me one last kind-of-related aside.
The freedom of a young gay Syrian to crossdress tartily in public blew my mind, and reinforced something I was continually learning about Syria from the Syrians I met in Iraq and Lebanon.
Before being bombed back to the stone age, Syria was one of the most comfortable and accepting places to live in the region, in multiple respects.
Multiple respects, I said, not all.
Mahmud’s cousin explained to me that, until they were formally taught about religion in secondary school, they did not understand there were differences between Christians and Muslims.
Syrian children did not know the differences between Christians and Muslims.
How many Arab countries can you name that are educated in such a way as to obliviate the divide between Muslim and Christian?
In Syria, there was kind of a tacit, never-enunciated agreement, that there will never be political freedom, but in exchange for the totalitarian domination, people receive free or very affordable housing, healthcare and education. And, socially, people can live very free lives, be Muslim, be Christian, be gay, be this, be that.
Incomparably good and free lives compared to most of Syria’s Arab neighbours.
Marid, Mahmud’s cousin, and so many other Syrians whom I met, rue the day that the decision was made – who knows when or where or by whom – that the Assad regime must be toppled and the country it rules should be destroyed.
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