A gay man in the Gulf reveals ignorance, prejudice, hypocrisy & abuse
London, UK – 18 June 2020
Abdulla Al-Ensan* writes:
I met up with a friend recently and we were discussing the pervasive ignorance surrounding sexual health in my country. I am from the Gulf, a place where freedom of speech is little respected, so I won’t specify which country for safety reasons.
My friend told me about a time his colleague, a paediatrician, hooked up with a fellow male Gulfy but stopped short of engaging in any sexual activity when, much to his dismay, he discovered that this man had an obvious sexual disease. The would-be sexual partner was completely unaware that he had an infection and had contracted it through sexual contact. He had no clue what it was and therefore it didn’t occur to him to get himself treated. This is the level of sexual ignorance in the Gulf and governments here are doing nothing to remedy it.
As it stands, there are no sexual health clinics in my country and because homosexuality is illegal and is penalised under the anti-sodomy law, any gay man would understandably be discouraged from going to get checked due to the risks involved. This is fuelling the spread of needless sexually-transmitted diseases, including HIV.
Until very recently, I was not aware of how to safeguard myself from sexual infections. We have no information or advice here. I didn’t really know anything until I travelled to Europe and realized what these diseases are and how they are transmitted. To me, this lack of access to a basic sexual health service illustrates that the authorities in my country are putting their own people’s health in jeopardy by failing to address these issues and barring us, its citizens, from getting the information we need to protect ourselves and the ability to access treatment if we get infected.
For me as a gay man, a large part of the problem is the criminalisation of, and social hostility towards, same-sex relations.
Whenever there is public discourse on homosexuality, it is only ever through the prism of the Islamic religion; whether it is seen as a grave sin that should be dealt with by the full force of the law, or whether us LGBTQ people are viewed as afflicted with a disease that is curable in one way or another.
It is not uncommon for a gay man to be described as a “Khaneeth”- a pejorative slur akin to being called a faggot. To be routinely abused in such a vile way is indicative of our marginal and disgraced status.
So-called ‘lavender marriages’ between gay men and lesbians are not uncommon to avoid suspicion, rejection, insults and worse. The married partners have fulfilled their duty towards their family and society, and they can then pursue same-sex relations on the down low. Deception and hypocrisy is a necessary ruse to survive.
Strangely, though homosexuality is illegal, it is extremely common in the Gulf countries, albeit on the quiet, due to the segregation of the sexes and the taboo on sex with women before marriage. The onus of sexual abstention is especially high on girls, who are expected to refrain from having sex before marriage so as to remain “pure” and not lose their virginity, otherwise they are deemed to be whores.
Gulf citizens who are LGBTQ, such as myself, are constantly marginalized. We are vulnerable, as our illegal status means that we are ripe for blackmail, exploitation, rape, humiliation and consequential stress and mental ill-health.
I would personally designate my own experience as nothing less than being mentally and emotionally raped by a combination of the State, society and religion.
I hold the state authorities accountable, not solely for persecuting us, but also because of the prejudiced mental healthcare services that universally perpetuate the belief that homosexuality is a disease, even though the World Health Organisation decided being gay was not an illness in 1992 – and even though there is no “cure.”
There is not a shred of doubt in my mind that I was born this way, because I would never in my right mind willingly choose this hellscape as my life. But that is not what most people in the Gulf believe, and are taught to believe, by their political and religious masters.
There should be a space for people to “hate the sin, but not the sinner”, however even that is too liberal for the Gulf.
I grew up in a loving household albeit very religious one but I believe that the anti-gay environment that I was raised in has caused me the mental ill-health that I now suffer. I don’t have access to counselling and support services, which causes me even more emotional and mental distress, to the point where I have severe PTSD that I cannot seem to rebound from.
State funds are allocated towards facilities and programs dedicated to “curing” homosexuality, as opposed to upgrading the deficient and bigoted mental health care facilities in my country in order to help the victims of homophobic intolerance; causing more harm to people like me.
In gender-segregated public schools, we are indoctrinated in Islamic studies with the story of Lot and Sodom and Gomorrah, and how the sins of homosexuals incur the wrath of Allah and will be the reason for the End of Days.
But strangely the state and school officials dig their head in the sand when it comes to predatory sexual behaviour that is rampant in public schools. I cannot tell you how common it is for boys to molest and rape other boys in these schools, in bathrooms, school alleyways or anywhere out of plain sight. They get away with it because it is sadly too taboo to discuss in an open and objective manner.
Society at large ostracizes and tyrannizes their own people who do not conform to what they believe is ‘normal’ behaviour. Religion is at the root of their beliefs. They view homosexuals as an aberration. This, coupled with toxic masculinity and embedded patriarchy, becomes unbearable for LGBTQ people.
Oddly, Gulf people do not hold others who “sin” differently – such as alcoholics, womanizers and swindlers – to the same harsh standard. They believe that homosexuals are exceptionally worse and should suffer accordingly.
I recall being stunned recently by one well known social media influencer who passionately railed against a visiting group of entertainers that included LGBTQ members. He denounced them for transgressing the cultural and religious norms of our society, but I know for a fact that he himself has had sex with men. This is the pervasive level of deception and hypocrisy that prevails here.
In my own case, the constant fear, gaslighting and ill-treatment by my wider family, friends, strangers and society at large has led me to the brink of committing suicide multiple times, which continues to this day.
Religion is like treading a very precarious tightrope. Islam forms the identity and ethos of my native country, and I personally imbibe from it too. But it is also used as a cudgel to beat me, and those like me, at every turn. I cannot disassociate myself from my faith because it informs my own moral code. But I am incapable of adhering to it completely because of its stance on homosexuality, so I am in this constant state of feeling like I am between a rock and a hard place.
Islam is rammed down my throat because it is “perfect and the only path to heaven in the hereafter”; ironically making sure that this life remains hell-like for me. It is similar to the adage that Egyptian scholar Mohamed Abduh coined in the late 19th century: “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but no Islam.”
Much has been reported on by human rights activists and journalists globally about the dire living conditions and exploitation of low-income workers from South East Asia in the Gulf countries. They call it modern day slavery. But little, if nothing, has been said about how there are large sections of the Gulf population that are de facto slaves to the oppressive status quo as well; voiceless sexual, religious and political minorities, afraid to speak out for fear of reprisal.
Worse still, are those interlopers in the form of Western professionals, such as academics, journalists and consultants, who come to the Gulf and are handsomely rewarded for their services, but leave their morals and voices at the door. In their silence, they support the systemic persecution of marginalized groups within Gulf societies, because their bottom line is money.
One such senior level foreign professional who has an obscene income here had the audacity to ask me indignantly why would I stay in my country and not immigrate, meanwhile he’s exploiting the riches of my country. As if immigrating does not entail its own set of extreme emotional and mental traumas.
And then there are the shouts of many western LGBTQ organisations from afar, often with little thought or attention to context, nuances and idiosyncrasies of our culture and society. They have an agenda which works for them but will not work in our countries with a very different ethos, history and culture. The rainbow flag as a motif, and what it expresses, won’t work here, given the very different nature of Gulf societies. For those who seek to promote and impose a Western LGBTQ agenda on us, it enables us to be portrayed as foreign pawns and weakens our chances of ever being accepted. We have to be allowed to develop our own path to understanding and acceptance.
One of the problems is that the entire Gulf region, without exception, are states with monarchies that are effectively dictatorships. The ruling royal families are fundamentally despots who have pillaged the country’s resources for their own enrichment and who generally view their citizens outside of the elite family circle as vassals to carry out their bidding. This lack of pluralism makes progress for sexual and gender minorities difficult from within. The rulers tyrannize with impunity.
There is not a lot that the outside world can or should do. But one thing is certain, the international community does not need to collude with the oppressive Gulf regimes. To defend LGBTQ and other human rights, our friends abroad can apply pressure on Gulf rulers by boycotting events like the upcoming Dubai Expo 2020, the World Cup in Qatar in 2022 and by not visiting Saudi Arabia as it goes on its multi-million PR charm offensive to lure tourists and create another lucrative income stream for autocrats who should, in fact, be held to account for abuses against their own people. These glamorous events are promoted to pacify the region’s people and to deflect global attention from the injustices that we, Gulf citizens, suffer. It is time to end collusion with the Gulf regimes.
* Abdulla Al-Ensan is a pseudonym to protect the author’s identity. He is a Gulf LGBT+ citizen.