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Arab Gays Defy Laws, Venture Into Open

October 8, 2005

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ When Ahmad Mahfouz told his mother he is gay, she took him to a psychiatrist, thinking he had a disease that could be cured by antidepressants.

When that didn’t work, she urged him to date a woman. He ignored her advice. ``So now, whenever she sees me, she beats me with anything she can lay her hands on: a metal hanger, leather belt, her shoes.″

The 19-year-old Lebanese college student is unusual in his candor and willingness to be identified, though not photographed. But more Arabs are coming out as gays, or at least coming to terms with their sexuality, even though in some countries they face laws that can land them in jail, and extremists who beat them up because Islam condemns homosexuality.

On top of that, homosexuality is widely seen as a disease spread by the United States and Israel to corrupt Arabs and undermine their religious faith.

In Lebanon, gays can find refuge at the cramped, one-room office of Helem, which says it’s the first Arab nongovernmental organization openly fighting for their rights. Helem was set up last year despite a vaguely worded law that punishes ``unnatural sexual intercourse″ with up to one year in jail.

Lebanon, with its mixed population of Muslims and Christians, has a history of religious pluralism and exposure to the West. But elsewhere, homosexuals are on their own.

Egyptian authorities use criminal articles against debauchery and prostitution to prosecute gays. They have entrapped, arrested and tortured hundreds of men thought to be gay, says a report by New York-based Human Rights Watch.

It says police agents snare gay men through Internet personal ads, and that at least 179 men have been prosecuted for debauchery since the start of 2001. Hundreds of others have been harassed, arrested and often tortured but not charged, it says.

Among them are 52 men rounded up in 2001 in a police raid on a boat-restaurant on the Nile and accused of taking part in a gay sex party. A court acquitted 29, 16 were convicted and freed pending their appeal, and a few were jailed for a year.

French President Jacques Chirac has expressed concern to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about the treatment of gays, but the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, the country’s largest rights group, says homosexuality is so detested in Egypt that it cannot speak out against prosecutions of gay men.

A recent Egyptian news report posted by Al-Arabiya TV on its Web site described a Kuwaiti gay wedding party in Cairo and triggered hundreds of blistering messages. Some of them said insurgents in Iraq should be killing gays instead of innocent Iraqis.

Many claimed the United States and Israel were promoting homosexuality to strip Arab men of their manhood. Only a handful urged tolerance of homosexuality.

Whether the wedding took place is not clear. The story was detailed but didn’t identify the hotel, and Egypt’s attorney general, Maher Abdel Wahid, issued a statement saying no complaint was received and no investigation was ordered.

Saudi Arabia, which enforces a puritan Islamic code, also keeps gays under pressure, according to Human Rights Watch.

On March 10, it said, authorities detained more than 100 men at a party in the city of Jiddah, sentencing many of them in closed trials without legal counsel to up to two years in prison and 2,000 lashes, usually meted out 50 at a time depending on medical examinations.

Human Rights Watch said the offenses weren’t spelled out, but a Saudi news report claimed the men allegedly were ``dancing and ’behaving like women.‴

Last year another Saudi daily, the English-language Arab News, said 50 men were arrested for allegedly attending a gay wedding in the holy Muslim city of Medina.

Dalal al-Bizri, a Cairo-based Lebanese sociologist, says gays are more reviled than drug addicts ``because homosexuality is seen as being exported to the region by a country whose armies and fleets have struck Arabs _ the United States.″

``It’s also seen as a threat to an insecure Arab machismo that has been politically impotent and feels humiliated by its inability to do much for the Palestinians or Iraqis,″ she said.

In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinian vigilantes at one point were treating gays as unforgivingly as they do informers and drug or gun dealers.

This has even led to cases of Palestinian gays finding sanctuary in Israel, where homosexuality is tolerated.

Gay Palestinians have said it’s easier to find common ground with Israeli counterparts because both can relate to being oppressed.

In June 2001, a handful of Palestinians joined thousands of Israelis in Israel’s Gay Pride Day.

Homophobia forces many Arab gays to lead a double life _ marrying and having children while secretly pursuing gay relationships.

But others, like Mahfouz in Lebanon, refuse to play along.

A slim man with dark hair, he says he is looking for a new place to live to escape his mother’s wrath, her efforts to take away his cell phone, and her attempts to stop him from listening to music that she believes made him gay.

``Until I leave, I am trying to placate her by pretending to date. The woman is a lesbian friend but my mother doesn’t know it,″ he said with a smile.

Bilal Sharaf el-Din, a 21-year-old Lebanese studying information technology, said he has told friends and sisters _ but not his mother _ that he’s gay. Shafar el-Din, a Muslim, said he knows homosexuality is a sin in Islam but that humans shouldn’t be the judges.

``It should be done up there,″ he said, pointing to the sky. ``Until the time comes, I will enjoy myself.″

There have been no recent prosecutions of gays in Lebanon, but men have been beaten up for looking effeminate or fired for being gay, said Georges Azzi, a gay who is the only paid employee at Helem, the rights center.

He said his group tries to raise awareness by speaking at colleges. There are more gay-friendly bars, and in May the International Day Against Homophobia was observed for the first time in Lebanon.

Helem marked the occasion with a gathering of about 200 people, straight and gay, at a seaside Beirut hotel. It screened ``I exist,″ a documentary on homosexuals of Mideast background living in the United States, and distributed buttons and pamphlets with the slogan, ``You drink coffee, I prefer tea. Does that mean one of us is abnormal?″

Helem also launched ``Barra″ (Out), billed as the first Arab gay magazine.

Lebanon even has male belly dancers. One of them is a slim, 23-year-old bisexual who identifies himself only as Teddy, his stage name.

Teddy says his insistence on leading a ``normal life″ has come at a price: ``People look at me as if I have descended from Mars.″

With elegant black pony tail, mascaraed lashes, pouty lips and manicured nails, he stood out as the only man in makeup at a trendy Beirut coffee house.

He said demand for his dancing is strong, though ``Sometimes, at nightclubs, people spit at me or throw drinking glasses. I don’t respond because I don’t want to make an issue out of it.″

Oddly enough, he says life in some ways is harder for gays in Lebanon, because here boys and girls mix freely, so parents are more likely to notice those who don’t.

``It’s easier in Saudi Arabia, where the sexes are segregated,″ said Teddy. ``As long as boys and girls are separate, parents feel their children are safe.″

Where would he like to be 10 years from now?

``I’d like to become the head of a union for the protection of gays in Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world, and a very famous lawyer in the sphere of human rights,″ he said.

``Once I have achieved that,″ he added, ``I’d like to marry a woman and have 14 children.″

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