Living underground

What do you do when your sexual preference could result in death, violence or imprisonment?

Ukrainian activists take part in an Equality March organized by the LGBT community, as Interior Ministry members stand guard. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ukrainian activists take part in an Equality March organized by the LGBT community, as Interior Ministry members stand guard.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Today marks Tel Aviv’s 17th annual Pride Parade – a lavish celebration attended by celebrities, politicians and an expected 180,000 revelers waving rainbow-colored flags.
Gay rights in Israel have come a long way, and Tel Aviv is considered one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world. Despite this, the struggle for marriage, family rights and the promotion of tolerance continues.
Yet in other countries, the situation is much bleaker. Around the globe, in nations where homosexuality is criminalized to the point of death, some people spend their whole lives in hiding, concealing their identity, background and sexual orientation from friends and family, even in denial themselves.
What does an underground life feel like? And how do you sleep at night when your sexual orientation can cost you your life? In the ancient Sudan and Iran, homosexuality was the norm. Today, these countries employ capital punishment against those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT); other regimes punish by imprisonment.
Interviews with ordinary men and women reveal the difficulties faced by those in repressive societies such as Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Uganda and Russia.
Living under the threat of the death penalt
There are a number of countries that punish same-sex relationships with death. One of them is Iran. The Islamic Republic does not only criminalize same-sex relationships, but does everything in its power to enforce the law, persecuting practicing homosexuals with extremely harsh sentences. Although the death penalty is seldom enforced, other penalties are common and can be just as horrible.
Living as an LGBT in Iran is similar to life as a deep-cover spy – except, of course, the LGBT person did not choose this life.
Such is Behnam’s story.
“Until age 30 I did not admit to myself that I was gay,” recalls Behnam. “I felt desires towards men, but I couldn’t call it by name. Our language does not have a proper name or definition for LGBT persons, other than ‘faggot’ or ‘pedophile’ or other negative words.
“We had boys who were sexually [experimenting] with each other, touching each other in class and even having sex. This was mainly because of the strict separation between girls and boys in Iranian society; no one considered them gay. In this case, you were either the bully who was sexually using others, or you were the prey, the one being used.
“From first grade, my social status was fragile. I was different; I did not like soccer and I played with the girls. My peers would call me ‘girl’ and ‘sissy.’ I was afraid that same-sex relationships with my peers would make it worse, and I would easily fall into the category of prey. I had a gay friend who was invited to participate in an orgy, but it ended up with him being raped by the whole group.
“I later gained more knowledge about the subject of homosexuality, but I still couldn’t identify myself as a homosexual.
And then one day, when I was 30, I hugged a man, and then I knew. We later became a couple; it was my first sexual experience.”
After this pivotal point Behnam tried for four years to live as an underground homosexual, but realizing this would be impossible, left the country.
Today, he’s living abroad and volunteering for an NGO that advocates for LGBT rights. In a phone call from his residence, he tells me about the daily life of LGBTs in Iran.
“Iran’s cyber-army has progressed tremendously during the last decade, which makes life more difficult for those who are hiding their sexual preferences,” he explains. “The Internet filters any website containing words such as ‘gay,’ ‘sex,’ etc. Anti-filter programs or virtual private networks are sold by the secret police, so they can track your online activities.
Government monitoring is possible even without these tools, just by tracking your IP address.
“Then you have the Bassijies, a paramilitary unit which sets traps on our dating websites, posting fake profiles and luring members on romantic dates that result in arrests. Sometimes they don’t arrest you, but with the backup of the law, they can definitely use their power as they please; sometimes they rape, torture and rob you and then let you go, or keep blackmailing you for the rest of your life.
“The Bassijies also patrol popular meeting places such as a specific park in Tehran. Once they tracked a gay couple to there and raped them. Another time they busted an LGBT party in Isfahan; the participants were tortured so badly that some of them had to flee the country. Despite this, there are still LGBT parties people attend. I didn’t; they are too risky.”
How does a family react to an LGBT person whose identity is exposed? “Reactions can vary depending on the family, how liberal or religious they are. With today’s difficult economy young people are more dependent on their families, and if the family does not support you, you are in trouble. I had a friend whose sexual preference was exposed against his will. His family kicked him out of the house; he stayed with friends and moved from house to house. Eventually, he committed suicide by poisoning.”
Although homosexuality is illegal in Iran, transsexuality is legally accepted if it’s accompanied by sexchange surgery. For this reason, Iran is believed to have the second-highest rate of sex-change surgeries, which are partially funded by the government. Gay men and women who seek medical or psychological advice for homosexuality are often pressured into undergoing sex-change operations.
Despite this seeming relaxation of the rules, transgender men and women continue to have a difficult life, Behnam maintains. “Most of them are not accepted by their families; many of them work as prostitutes because there is no one to support them.”
Although facing the same threat, LGBTs need to be cautious with each other as well.
“A jealous ex-boyfriend can easily leave town and report you to the police, or just threaten to do so,” details Behnam. “My ex-boyfriend tried countless times to contact me via a dating website with fake IDs, and lure me into confessing my sexual preference. He even called my parents’ house after I left the country. Luckily, he did not tell them anything.”
How did it affect you, living ‘on the run’? “It was very stressful. I felt afraid and hopeless, especially when I decided to leave Iran and was waiting for my visa. At night I would have nightmares, so I avoided sleep as much as possible; during the day I was very tired and depressed.
“At this stage, I would set dates through a website and then cancel them right away out of fear. I understood that having a romantic relationship in Iran would be impossible.”
COUNTRIES WHERE the death penalty can be applied for same-sex relationships are Mauritania, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia.
Although the penalty is very clear, cultural views on the LGBT topic in some of these countries can seem confusing and contradictory to the outsider. In Afghanistan, it is common for a military man or any powerful male figure to repeatedly use the services of a male prostitute, whether a boy or young adult, taking them by force. This is not viewed as a homosexual relationship, but rather as an act of male dominance or an alternative to a female presence, while the prostitute will usually dress and act in a feminine way.
Similar views are shared in other countries that criminalize same-sex relationships. Often, the “active” or “dominant” side of the homosexual relationship will not be seen as gay or less masculine than his peers.
In Pakistan, transgenders are legally recognized as a third sex and may officially get an ID stating this. In practice, they have been encountering problems in receiving their IDs, along with securing jobs and other equal rights.
Arshad Sulahri, a Pakistani journalist, notes: “In Pakistan, you can openly campaign for the human rights of transgenders. This is not the case for homosexuals and lesbians; it can be very risky for a homosexual or lesbian to come out in Pakistan.”
Despite the risks, most countries that punish samesex relationships by death or imprisonment have some form of underground LGBT community, and activists advocating for their rights.
Living under the threat of imprisonment
There are many countries where same-sex relationships can result in jail time. One of them is Uganda. A 2014 law outlawed any activity or advocacy in favor of LGBT rights; the law was annulled after a fierce struggle by lawyers and human-rights activists. Yet LGBT people still need to keep their nature a secret.
Theresa, 24, lives in the capital city of Kampala and works full-time at a human-rights NGO. This is what she tells her parents. The truth is that the NGO dedicates a large part of its activities for the benefit of LGBT persons, and Theresa herself is a bisexual who has never come out. She uses various fake names in different places and fields in her life. Despite that, the threat of imprisonment is still tangible for her.
She gets threats on the phone and on Facebook, and works with LGBTs who have already been exposed and/or imprisoned.
“The prison conditions are horrible beyond comprehension,” Theresa reveals. “A prison guard will often tell the inmates: ‘This prisoner is gay, you can do with him as you wish,’ and they will torture and gang-rape him.”
I ask her: “How does the need to stay underground affect you?”
“I feel that I’m not living. I suffer from spells of depression. I have a new girlfriend and I can’t introduce her to my parents; it makes me cry sometimes.”
Ethiopia is another country where same-sex relationships are punishable by up to 13 years’ imprisonment. Despite this, the capital of Addis Ababa has a thriving LGBT community with underground social events.
“Sometimes we arrange parties with 70 to 100 people in attendance,” says Kamal, a homosexual living in Addis. “We rent a building, pay a whole month’s rent and invite everyone two hours before the party starts. Not everyone is invited, only people who enter with an LGBT person we know. These parties are an opportunity for some attendees to dress like women and do as they please. But many others are afraid to attend; they are afraid the police will bust the party and expose them.”
Kamal fears that if he’s outed as a gay man, he will lose his job. Different things can out him; for example, Kamal and his friends do not buy lubricants in local pharmacies.
“It is OK for a lady to buy lubricants,” he explains, “but if a man buys them, the pharmacist’s assumption is that he’s gay. So we borrow the things we need from foreign NGOs.” Or, Kamal adds, they buy them off the shelf in Kenya – avoiding directly requesting them through a medical professional – and bring them over the border. It was difficult to convince Kamal to be interviewed.
Like many of his friends, he has an anonymous Facebook profile, which allows him to openly discuss his views and participate in LGBT Facebook groups.
Unenforced penalty
When a newspaper in Oman published an article about the local LGBT scene, the editor and journalist were immediately taken to court. As an Islamic country in the Gulf, Oman forbids same-sex relationships and the penalty can be up to three years in prison, a light punishment in comparison to the rest of the Gulf. The law is rarely enforced, but if someone is caught engaging in same-sex activities in public, the penalty can be harsh.
The newspaper was on the receiving end of wide-ranging criticism about distorting Oman’s image and portraying it as a safe haven for LGBTs. As a result, the first page of the following edition was dedicated solely to a long apology.
This raised a few eyebrows, as it is an open secret that Oman’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos, is rumored to be gay.
He is also rumored to have a wide cadre of attractive male bodyguards, and it’s not rare to find graffiti in the country relating to this fact, with statements such as: “Sultan Qaboos, f*** me in the a**!” A taxi ride in Oman produced this conversation with a friendly driver: “I heard there are concerns for the future of Oman,” I said, “as the sultan has no male heir, because… you know.”
“The sultan is straight!” insisted the driver, “what you have heard are just mean rumors. He has a son who’s being hidden for security reasons, and inshallah [God willing], when the time comes he will be revealed!” Other countries with imprisonment penalties that are rarely enforced include India, Botswana, Namibia and Angola.
Living freely – in a homophobic society
Even when the law does not criminalize same-sex relationships, public opinion and media can make LGBT persons’ lives a nightmare. In 1993, same-sex relationships became legal in Russia – but to this day, no anti- discrimination law has been legislated.
The result is that anti-gay propaganda is out in the open, along with a rise in violent attacks toward LGBTs. Various federal laws with a discriminatory nature have been passed, and activists who oppose them have been arrested. The last controversial law was against distributing LGBT propaganda among minors.
In 2013, Russia passed the “gay propaganda law” or the “anti-gay law,” which made it illegal to disseminate information about homosexuality, in order to – in the words of the Russian government – protect children from non-traditional sexual attitudes. Critics of the law said its vague language lent itself to comparisons of homosexuality with pedophilia, criminalizing it in the same way.
Indeed in July 2013, one month after the law was passed, four Dutch filmmakers and activists were arrested and fined for talking with minors about the subject of homosexuality. They had interviewed a 17-year-old on camera about his views on the LGBT community.
“In recent years, we are seeing that LGBTs’ situation in Russia is going downhill,” says Ana Talisman, a social worker in Israel. Talisman works with the local gay community that emigrated from the former Soviet Union.
“More LGBT couples are immigrating here under the Law of Return, so they can live here without fear. It turns out that also in Israel, life is not easy for LGBTs of ex-Soviet origin. Immigrants who live here are still reading the Russian media, which is homophobic by nature, and are very affected by it. Their families have a hard time accepting their sexuality.
“For example, I work with a homosexual couple from Ukraine who recently immigrated to Israel; they are a mixed couple, one is Jewish and the other isn’t.
They are at the beginning of their absorption process, and therefore dependent on their local relatives, who immigrated to Israel a long time ago.
“Compared to a married heterosexual couple, their absorption process is much more complicated because, among other reasons, their relatives discovered the truth about them. They are constantly harassing them, verbally abusing them and refusing to give them any help.”
Talisman, herself a lesbian, immigrated from Ukraine at age 17, when same-sex relationships were still illegal.
“From a young age I knew that something about me was different, but I had no terms to define it. Of course, in my childhood and adolescence there was no awareness for the LGBT subject, no information and no support. The only mention of this topic was via swear words, and I couldn’t identify myself with those negative categories.
“When I was an adolescent I already knew what I felt toward women, but I couldn’t talk about it with anyone, let alone with my family. I was afraid I would inflict a huge disaster upon them. I developed a kind of anxiety; I feared that people might discover my sexual tendency, whether by my facial expression, body language, paintings or even literary tastes.
At that time I heard homosexuals and lesbians exist only in jail and psychiatric hospitals.
“It was scary. At the age of 17, I hadn’t thought for a minute that someone in the world could accept me.
“Even after I immigrated to Israel, I continued to repress my sexual tendency and tried to manage a ‘normative’ life,” she remembers. “One day I understood that this was impossible, and through a long and complicated process, I came out. My family had a hard time accepting it in the beginning.
“Today they accept me, but we got to this stage after many years of struggle.”
When things go downhill
Russia is not the only country where persecution against LGBTs has intensified. Egypt has never explicitly criminalized same-sex relationships, but the “debauchery” article within the anti- prostitution law has been used against LGBTs; others laws used to punish them come under the title of “public morality” or “public order.”
The government traditionally did not put much effort into enforcing these laws and LGBTs were seldom arrested – but in 2001, things started to change. The police increased efforts to arrest LGBTs on the basis of debauchery and public morality laws, starting by busting LGBT parties and progressing to creating fake profiles on dating websites.
“Cairo 52” is the name of a famous case which gained world-wide attention – with 52 LGBTs were arrested in 2001 during a felucca party (a cruise ship on the Nile). In 2003, an Israeli tourist was arrested for setting up a date while in Cairo; he was released shortly thereafter. In 2014, eight men were sentenced to three years in prison for spreading indecent images – a videotape of a homosexual wedding.
Later that year, 26 homosexual men were arrested in a hammam (bathhouse); TV announcer Mona Iraqi had cooperated with police, which led to the arrest.
“Sometimes, when a new regime is trying to strengthen its legitimacy, it will start by persecuting the weakened groups,” asserts Hossein Alizadeh, regional program coordinator of the Middle East and North Africa department at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. “Because of the vicissitudes in the Egyptian regime, we are seeing an escalation of anti-gay persecution.
“We are also receiving reports from Iraq about escalation in violence against LGBTs,” he continues. “A few years ago, before Islamic State invaded, there was already a wave of violence against LGBTs coming from government militias; the government did nothing to stop it. Now, with the invasion of Islamic State, we are hearing more about public executions. Just recently some homosexual men were thrown off a tall building, while the public on the ground was stoning them.
“But the political manipulation of the LGBT topic does not end in dictatorial countries,” Alizadeh says. “We see it in Western countries as well, in the opposite way. Sometimes a country will emphasize their respect for LGBT rights in comparison to another country that does not.
As part of the propaganda, the Western country will advertise more cases of hate crimes against LGBTs in the other countries, and manipulate this to its own benefit. The same can be said about all human rights regarding women, children, etc.
“We can see this with the US in relation to Afghanistan, Iraq and Russia, and even in the case of Israel and the Palestinians.
The result is disastrous. Currently, there are societies that claim that homosexuality is a Western or Zionist conspiracy, aimed at decreasing the nation’s birthrate. LGBTs in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority fear they will be accused of cooperating with the enemy if they come out.”
“For this reason, we are limited in terms of the help we can offer to LGBT movements in some countries,” Alizadeh adds. “We are based in the US, and they are afraid this will hinder their advocacy efforts.
“We need to be more careful when addressing the LGBT topic. This is a human- rights issue, not a political one.”
While LGBT rights are steadily improving in many countries, the situation has worsened among other regimes. What will happen in the long run? Can we expect that one day the entire world will be a safe place for the LGBT community?