Today, homosexuality is still illegal in more than 70 countries and an estimated 663 million people live in countries — such as Sudan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia, Mauritania, Afghanistan, Qatar, and the UAE — where being gay can result in the death penalty.
In other nations, the sentences vary wildly. Chad, in central Africa, only criminalised homosexuality in December 2016, so the length of jail terms isn’t yet clear. Homosexuality in Turkmenistan, central Asia, carries a two-year jail term, while in Jamaica it can mean 10 years of hard labour, although it’s not often enforced. The Maldives banishes gay people for nine months to a year, or subjects them to up to 30 lashes, while homosexuality in Gambia, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Barbados, Guyana, Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar (formerly Burma) can result in a life sentence. If you’re caught engaging in homosexual acts as an unmarried man in Yemen, you get 100 lashes. If you’re married, it’s a stoning.
Hesham Mashhour, who is now training to be a doctor in the UK, was born in Egypt and grew up in Kuwait, both countries in which homosexuality is illegal. “It’s quite an interesting experience living in a place where being gay is a crime,” he tells me, “because it’s not something that is necessarily discussed. People don’t say ‘oh, you’re not meant to be gay’, it’s just the unspoken rule. And people have the expectation that if you’re a man you’ll get married to a woman, you’ll have children. And there’s not much room for anything else.”
Growing up in Kuwait, and spending holidays in Egypt, meant it was almost impossible for Mashhour to get information about sexuality and being gay from school, friends or his family.
“I guess the only way where you can actually learn more about your sexuality is online,” he says. “The internet is great, because 50 years ago that would not have been an option for young gay people. They wouldn’t have had access to the resources that are online, where you can learn more about your sexuality — and it kind of provides some legitimacy to your sexual feelings.” And although neither Egypt nor Kuwait prosecutes homosexuality particularly rigorously, there is still a sense of constant threat, and fear.
The danger, Mashhour says, is that “generally people don’t get prosecuted unless there’s a time period where the government wants to appeal to the conservative populace”.
The most prominent case in recent times came in May 2001, when 52 men were arrested on a boat moored on the Nile in Cairo, Egypt’s capital. The Queen Boat was a gay nightclub, and the arrests incited international outrage. The men were arrested on charges of “habitual debauchery” and “obscene behaviour”, and were allegedly beaten, kept in just two cramped cells with no beds, and forced to undergo forensic examinations in an attempt to “prove” their sexuality.
“And that was essentially just to appeal to the conservative populace and be like, ‘yeah, this government is actually doing something to fight vice’,” says Mashhour. Things haven’t changed much since then. “You also see that a little after the Arab Spring [in 2011], where more conservative governments were voted in and gay people definitely seemed to be the target.”
It’s appalling to think what such an environment would do to a young person growing up, coming to terms with their sexuality and their identity as a gay man. “There were a lot of difficulties, personally speaking,” Mashhour tells me. “I remember when I was about 15. I was really close to my mother throughout my entire life, but then all this was something that I couldn’t actually speak to her about, and it was something I couldn’t speak to anyone about.
“And I was just building a lot of these negative feelings, where my identity was in conflict with where I was and what was expected of me, and I would get panic attacks and feel extremely negative about things – and I entered a dark space.”
In Uganda, an overwhelmingly Christian country in sub-Saharan Africa, state-sponsored homophobia can have the same damaging effect on lives, as well as people’s mental health.
Kamoga Hassan came up with the idea for a queer film festival in 2014 after a series of Ugandan newspaper stories outed people who were thought to be gay, or were believed to be “sympathisers” of the LGBT+ community. In the same year, the country’s dictator, President Yoweri Museveni, signed the anti-homosexuality bill, which came to be known as the Kill the Gays Bill, outside the country.
On the ground, the effects were stark. “As a result of this, many of our friends lost their jobs,” Hassan says. “We also saw a large number of gay and lesbian people leaving the country. In some rare cases, people committed suicide. Seeing all this happening, my friends and I could not just sit and look.” The film festival was a creative outlet, a way out of the horrific situation unfolding in Uganda — a country where, although the death penalty is not enforced for homosexuality, vigilante executions are common.
The bravery of holding a queer film festival in such an overtly homophobic country is immense and Kamoga admits that it comes with challenges. The first Queer Kampala International Film Festival was held in several venues across Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, in December 2016. “To ensure a safe and successful event, we executed complex strategies including pre-screening of attendees, announcing venues only hours before each screening, and never using the same venue twice,” Kamoga explains.
Despite the obvious legal dangers posed by living in countries in which being gay is still classed as a criminal act, in reality much of the threat is the social discrimination that anti-gay laws encourage. “I think the fear that a lot of gay men in the Middle East face is not necessarily being arrested,” Mashhour says. “The biggest worry is being exposed as gay to their families, their friends, and work colleagues. You would lose your job, you would lose all respect from your community, you could potentially lose everything, so that leaves a lot of room for blackmail and that sort of thing.”
Mashhour tells me about a school friend who tried to come out as gay. “He came from a Christian family from Egypt, and his parents sent him to a conversion camp in some church in the summer, and he came back a completely different person: a lot more scared, and he stopped speaking to me after that because I am gay. I guess he just wanted to distance himself from everything that was gay. “That’s why I say things are a little bit more cultural as you’ll see Christians and Muslims [in Egypt] ostracise their gay and lesbian children in equal ways.”
He adds: “Strangely enough, I think what can help gay men is that in the Middle East there’s a lot of emphasis on privacy. So police don’t actually search people’s homes, that’s not actually a thing in the Middle East. So, in places such as Saudi Arabia you hear about big gay house parties, and these can go on just fine because of that emphasis on privacy and the private home life.”
The same principles, unfortunately, do not apply just across the Persian Gulf, in Iran. I speak to Omid, who’s lived in the UK for most of his life but won’t share his surname for fear that his family back home will find out he’s gay. “Iran is an Islamic theocracy and will be so for the foreseeable future,” he says.
In Iran, the gashte ershad — the morality police — patrol the streets in search of violations of the country’s strict rules. Women’s hair and bodies must be covered, men cannot kiss their women in the street if they are unmarried, and women are forced to undergo virginity tests.
Maybe not very surprisingly, there is zero-tolerance towards homosexuality. Gay men can be punished with 74 lashes or execution, while women face 50 lashes or the death penalty. But Omid is quick to stress that the situation is more complicated than it seems. “It is important to note homosexuality has always been illegal but that is way too simplistic an understanding and has only been a thing in the past 100 years since more Western interpretations of sex and family have taken over,” he says.
There is still a carry over from the more traditional ways of life, Omid adds, where the “boys with boys thing” still goes under the radar. “There is a risk for people who pursue a gay life in a more modern sense, which is increasingly common.”
One of the things Omid still finds curious, when he goes back to Iran, is how you can see men holding hands with other men in the streets of Tehran. In a society that not only does not tolerate homosexuality in a Western sense, but also has no cultural framework for such relationships, amicable body contact between two male friends is a normal part of life.
But as the country increasingly opens up to the West, and with the reform-minded President Hassan Rouhani re-elected in May, could things turn around?
“I don’t think the Islamic Republic of 10 years time will police women’s dress, execute gays publicly and crack down on immodesty and partying; but homosexuality will still be illegal,” Omid says. “After all, it’s a theocracy, and though the substance of that theocracy will change, the laws underpinning it will move much slower and some things may not change at all.
“That said, will there be a time when gays are not hanged? Almost definitely, and probably sooner than we think. Young people in Iran and, to a certain extent, middle-class, middle-aged people have a very different mindset, and thoughts and perceptions are changing quickly.”
Although things are obviously still a long way behind the UK, the pace of change is much faster than in the West. “The establishment will eventually give in to this,” Omid says, but he believes that gay men may not be the chief beneficiaries of any such liberalisation.
“When straight men are worried about fighting for the right to kiss their girlfriend on the street, and women want to rid the country of virginity tests, you can bet gay rights is going to fall down the reform agenda.”
As we in the UK mark 50 years since homosexuality began to be decriminalised, our greatest challenge is to keep up the fight for the countries where gay men are imprisoned, banished, whipped and executed for being who they are.
Words by Jack May