For the majority of my adult life, I have lived in Egypt, with the exception of two and half years I spent in New York. While I was there, I met a number of wonderful people, people I chose to stay in touch with after I left the States.
A few months after returning to Cairo, I learned that one of my New York acquaintances was getting married. I was very happy to hear the news that my friend, the kindest person I ever met, had found love.
I was excited that he could get married. You see, my friend was gay.
I immediately knew that I wanted to get him a wedding present, something special to mark the occasion. I was mulling over gift options with a colleague from work. During our discussion, I mentioned that my friend was gay.
My colleague stopped talking and gave me a long penetrating look.
I understood what he wanted to say, without him uttering a word. I wasn’t going to have any of his nonsense, so I stared right back. He launched into a long tirade about homosexuality being a sin. He said, “I don’t understand how those people can stand themselves.” Then he began an interlude of customary crude gay jokes.
I do not remember his exact words – all I recall is how his comments made me feel. I was angry.
To this day, almost two years later, I’m still angry.
I am angry for my friend, whose only “sin” was falling in love. I am angry at my colleague for his ignorant and arrogant judgement. Most importantly, I am angry that I had to defend my friend because of someone else’s homophobia. I am angry that Egyptians are still making these remarks, almost a decade and a half into the millennium.
If I’m being honest, I can’t really fault my Egyptian colleague for his reaction.
Growing up in Cairo, no one spoke of sex or sexuality, much less homosexuality. These subjects were simply never discussed. We were all told that being a homosexual is a sin, a major one, but no one talked about what it meant to be gay and how we should deal with these feelings.
As teenagers, all of us told juvenile jokes about gay people. At the time, it seemed harmless. In our minds, it was victimless jesting. We were making fun of the ‘peach,’ a not-so-veiled reference to a derogatory Arabic term for a gay person, which is often and freely used as an insult.
Arabic films and TV shows rarely addressed homosexuality. When they did, it was mentioned through innuendoes about male characters who were stereotypically effeminate. Such behavior has continued through the years, with censors editing out all signs of homosexuality in foreign media.
Even Ross Mathews is completely deleted from the E! Channel.
In Egypt, we live in a conservative society that does not tolerate “deviant” behavior of homosexuals. A traditional society, one where, when a boy catcalls girls in the street or gropes them, he is reprimanded with a smile, because boys will always be boys.
According to popular belief, there are no gays in Egypt, because homophobia runs deep in our society. We don’t speak of the LGBTQ+ society because they don’t exist, and they don’t exist because we never speak of them.
This notion isn’t limited to Egypt, but extends to most Arabic nations. LGBTQ+ communities are neglected and totally avoided.
As if we live in George Orwell’s 1984. As if, should we avoid mentioning a certain topic, then it won’t exist. It’s gotten to the point where, recently, the Dubai border authority refused to allow a trans woman to enter the country. It’s time we come out from behind our homophobia, and acknowledge that there are far worse things in this world than two people falling in love.
With shows like Modern Family and Nickelodeon’s The Loud House, which have introduced same-sex couples into mainstream media, Arabs can no longer hide from this issue. And why must it become an issue? What people do in their bedrooms should not be the concern of society, the government, or laws.
We must reclaim compassion for those who are ostracized by Arab society, people who are told that their innermost feelings are impure, that they, in themselves, are sins. People who cannot exhibit affection neither privately nor publicly, out of fear of being exposed, for they are persecuted by society and prosecuted by the government.
The least we can do is let people be in peace. Is that asking too much?