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Pakistan’s homosexual scene: Is the debate being silenced?

Pakistan has attracted global media attention for its vibrant gay scene over the past year

Nabila Pathan

Published: Updated:

From vivid accounts of infamous underground sex parties and group orgies at spiritual shrines to the port city of Karachi being described as “a gay man’s paradise,” Pakistan has attracted global media attention for its vibrant gay scene over the past year. And if there was any doubt that the conservative Muslim country has a bustling underground gay scene, then it was soon put to rest when it was widely reported that Pakistanis lead the world in Google searches for the terms “shemale sex.”

Despite Pakistan’s growing reputation for hosting flamboyant gay parties, its staunchly conservative society is not at ease with conversations about gay liberation or rights. With homosexuality being an offence under Pakistan’s penal code and a growing prejudice for same-sex relationships, recent attempts to provoke tolerant approaches toward Pakistan’s diverse community have not been straightforward and received an overwhelming pushback.

When a Pakistani-Canadian illustrator and blogger named Eiynah challenged the country’s avoidance to accepting gay family members and gay identity through an illustrated children’s story titled “My Chacha is gay,” people started calling for the death by stoning of the fictional character Chacha. Some even wished him the “curse” of sexually transmitted diseases.

This month, a BBC news article covered a story that broke in Pakistan in January about a Pakistani lesbian couple that came under the public spotlight when “a little known Pakistani human rights group launched an online appeal seeking support for the couple.” According to the feature article, their lives were put “on the line” by the very activism that sought to help them. Not only were their identities unveiled in the appeal but their jobs were compromised.

It also highlighted that the “appeal went largely unnoticed by civil rights groups, but the man behind it, former journalist Arshad Sulahri, says he received phone calls from unidentified quarters warning him not to promote homosexuality.”

The reactions in both incidents reveal not only an entrenched level of denial among wider Pakistani society but also an inability to openly talk about homosexuality without evoking strong passions. Filmmaker and journalist Mobeen Azhar, who was the director of a 2013 BBC Radio documentary “Inside Gay Pakistan,” explains in VICE News that a gay identity in Pakistan hasn’t formed as no one wants to address the issue that “gay” exists.

Persecution and intimidation remains a constant danger to the gay community in Pakistan. The reality is that most of the hate crimes targeted at the gay community remain unreported or out of the public spotlight. According to a Global Post report in March: “Gay Pakistanis say they are pessimistic over an improvement in attitude toward their community.” For many in Pakistan, the idea of “coming out” is not an option.

The best thing that ever happened?

Many say the Internet has been “the best thing that ever happened to the gay community” in revolutionizing opportunities for them to meet others and to discuss their issues.

As Azhar explains, “the majority of Pakistanis who use Grindr or Manjam aren’t out. They don’t see themselves as part of a gay identity. They see gay identity as a Western or Eurocentric construct.”

“They just see themselves as people who enjoy having sex with people of the same gender,” he says, adding: “The vast majority say that they’ll get married to the opposite sex one day.”

But even the phenomenon of social media networking has been threatened with the recent “Manjem Murders” of the gay community, setting off panic to the already underground gay community. This act of hate-crime was generally applauded by wider society and the serial killer depicted “as the epitome of righteousness” by news outlets in Pakistan.

Gay rights as a human rights issue may be an exhausted topic of debate here in the West but in Pakistan it’s just beginning. It correlates with a growing vocal objection to same-sex relationships, which in turn is silencing the debate. Some commentators believe this is part of the process of changing attitudes while others think it’s “too soon for gay Pakistanis to fight openly for political rights” and thus advocating discussions about same-sex relationships to remain part of the private sphere.

In the meantime, social, economic and therapeutic issues impacting the LGBT community in Pakistan are not sufficiently understood nor adequately alleviated by Pakistani health or social institutions. All the while, most gays, lesbians and transsexuals live a precarious lifestyle where they attempt to balance the act of living two lives in the conservative Muslim country where any kind of sex outside marriage is taboo.