CAIRO – Being gay in Egypt used to be a closely-guarded secret. Yet thanks to more widespread Internet use by Egyptians and the demonstrations of the Arab Spring calling for freedom, many gays are more open about their sexuality.
Social media groups have been created to discuss gays' problems, religious fatwas (legal pronouncements) regarding homosexuality and to engage in educational debates about the subject.
The Egyptian government used to jail gays. In 2001, for example, Egyptian police arrested 52 men for presumed homosexual behavior and sentenced 23 of them to 18 months of hard labor.
Today gays and others openly celebrate May 17, the "International Day Against Homophobia.” There was widespread Egyptian media coverage of the celebrations here, aimed at increasing respect for gays and lesbians.
While there are no exact numbers on the number of homosexuals in Egypt, sexologist Heba Kotb, says it could be 10 to 12% of the population.
In recent years there has also been a rise in the number of bars and cafes catering to gays in Egypt. In Alexandria, for example, there is the traditional British-style pub Sheikh Ali, built in the early 1900s. It used to be famous for older in their mid-forties and above, who are regulars at the place, and visiting movie stars. Now, however, it also has a regular gay clientele.
Sheikh Ali bar manager Ashraf, who asked not to use his last name, says that gay clients are normal now and they pick a special night to meet here.
"They usually come on Thursday, maybe 300 guests for the night,” he told The Media Line. “We have no problems with them. They come and drink and they're free to think whatever they think as long as there is no public indecency."
Nonetheless there is still a sense of sexual prejudice against gays in Middle East countries compared to the Western world. In Egypt's wider society homophobia is considered an issue that concerns Egyptians, but not one that is widely discussed.
"They just decide not to speak about it. If we know a gay person, we usually crack a few jokes about it but we don't usually talk more about it. In this country the hardest thing to be is you. It's not easy to be yourself here in Egypt," bar customer Alaa Hassan, who is straight, told The Media Line.
"I have a few friends who are gay and they're not shy about it, but our common friends and I just don't talk about them, and we just let it go," Sylva Hagop of Cairo, who is also straight, said. "Egyptians aren't educated. The primary reason for this lack of knowledge is the unjustified fear of homosexuality and society's unwillingness to accept and understand the nature of homosexuality," she told The Media Line.
But some gays say the society still has a ways to go.
"Society must forgive homosexuals. If Allah forgives all sins, and Allah is a great and merciful forgiver, then society and people should do the same," Shady Ahmed, an Egyptian gay, told The Media Line. "Egyptian society condemns homosexuals, and it's difficult to tell your family and friends that you're gay in a society that only promotes heterosexual behavior. "If I tell my family, they will disown me and probably kill me."
Lately there has more open discussion among gays and more definitions of where they stand regarding social norms and religious understandings.
"Being a homosexual is not about sexual intercourse, it's about liking someone from the same sex. It's more of a natural sexual drive towards the same sex, and it doesn't have to end up in sexual intercourse. It's more about love," Egyptian homosexual Ahmed Mahmoud said.
"As for our religion, it prohibits same sex sexual relations. But nothing was mentioned in the Koran about loving another male or another woman. The Koran only spoke of illegitimate sexual relationships between the same sexes," he added.
Sexologist Kotb says that in many Arab countries where homosexuality was once considered an anomaly or taboo, it is now accepted.
According to Kotb, there are no clear scientific reports saying homosexuality isn't curable. "I am of the opinion that homosexuality is a mental and social dysfunction that can be treated," she said.
Perhaps the best indication of changes regarding homosexuality in Egypt are the increasing numbers of visits Kotb receives from those now unashamed to admit they are gay.
"My clinic is open to treat whoever comes for help, and not talk about their urges," she told The Media Line. She has a rule that her clinic is open to people who need or desire treatment, not just those who to want to tell her they are gay. Egyptians who are comfortable being gay don't need her services, she said.
"I receive at least two cases per day, people coming to be treated, and I treat 80% of the cases that come to me," she said. For more stories from The Media Line go to www.themedialine.org