Sami Hamwi*, the Syria editor of GayMiddleEast.com, offers a glimpse of what LGBT life is really like in the country.
When the ‘Gay Girl from Damascus’ blog started to attract media interest, I thought of a friend of mine who is a lesbian. She once told me: “No matter how you think it is hard for gays, it is even harder for lesbians, be sure of it.”
The only photo I had seen of ‘Amina’ confused me and I thought that I had seen her before, until I read her post about her father supposedly saving her from Syrian security forces. It was then that I suspected that she was not for real, although I wished that she was.
My lesbian friend invited me to her city where I met her family. What a wonderful family she has. Had my family been any different, I could have wished to have hers. I told her: “I can’t ever come out, not because of my fear of my family, but because of my fear for them. I come from a conservative city; the society might cut off my family for having a gay son.”
I thought her situation would be different, but she responded: “You know what will happen? They will force me to get married. I am trying to make excuses because of my career with the hope that someday I will be too old for mothers to accept me as a daughter-in-law.” It was then that I became sure that if there is any ‘out’ LGBT person in Syria, it will be an individual one, an exception to the rule.
My friend’s beliefs were confirmed later by a lesbian professor I have met once and kept in contact with via email. When I spoke to her after Amina’s ‘arrest’, she said: “Amina cannot be real. No girl can be out to her family here, even though I think she looks familiar, I still can’t tell because the photo is not clear enough.”
Why was it that we both thought Amina looked familiar? Maybe we wanted so badly to believe that one gay person in Syria had managed to come out.
We both felt terrible when we heard the news of the arrest, and then put ourselves in danger trying to investigate it. “We could have disappeared indefinitely”, the lesbian professor later warned me.
The plight of LGBT people in Syria starts with law criminalising homosexuality and goes through the religious and social homophobia and beyond. I know gay men who have been shot and tortured, while humiliation includes being tied down to be urinated on by family members.
Videos from police humiliations of gay men are passed around as jokes on mobile phones, offensive words for “gay” and “lesbian” are still used widely even among the most open-minded people, homophobic jokes never fail to amuse people and everyone damns and curses homosexuals whenever they are mentioned.
In 2010, Syrian authorities started a campaign against gay people by raiding parks, hammams and private parties and detaining many for weeks and sometimes months. There has not been any gay private party since March 2010 in Damascus. Needless to say, any kind of gathering now is dangerous because of the current situation. LGBT people are now more afraid to gather than before.
When the unrest started, LGBT people were afraid that Islamists might take over if the regime was overthrown; an Islamic rule means death to gay men. Knowing what happened in the 1980s, older LGBT people were sure that the situation for us would not be easy in either case.
If Islamists take over, we might be in a life-threatening situation. If the regime wins, the situation will force us to hide for years because of what they might do to LGBT people gathering. Nevertheless, even though the regime under Mr Bashar al-Assad proved to be as virulent as it was under his father, it also proved to be less intimidating. With more than 2,000 civilians killed, 10,000 arrested, and 10,000 refugees, Syrians are still protesting.
“To be gay in Syria is to be a night owl”, a British journalist friend once told me. Things have changed since March this year. Although most of us have adapted themselves to the current situation, we still are afraid to be stopped by secret police and be humiliated. This fear will only grow after Tom MacMaster’s fictional character found her way to the Syrian media, which was desperate for a true story to back up the invented conspiracy theory.
MacMaster, who thinks he did not harm anyone, has cast a dark shadow over the credibility of LGBT bloggers in the Middle East. This has given the Syrian regime a new target which won’t need any PR to gain the people’s backing – they are already homophobic and think of us as sinners, sick and liars. To be credible or to be safe is what he added to our struggle.
*Sami Hamwi is a pseudonym, used for the author’s safety.