A new online LGBT magazine in Sudan, north Africa, will offer an opportunity for the country’s gay people to start discussing their lives and hopes for the future. This is a first for the country, where homosexuality is still punishable by death.
Rainbow Sudan publishes articles discussing topics including being gay in Sudan, the history of homosexuality in the country, Islam and sexuality, being lesbian and Muslim, poetry and more.
Sudan is one of the strictest countries in the world to criminalise homosexuality. Same-sex sexual activity is illegal and, according to Article 148, capital punishment applies to a man or woman engaging in such acts.
Punishments also include lashes and imprisonment.
Even without that, being out can have serious social and economic consequences – it typically means a loss of job prospects, ostracisation from family and community or even murder (so-called “honour killings”).
We spoke to Rainbow Sudan editor Mohammad and other Sudanese gays and lesbians about the magazine and their life in Sudan.
Mohammad is a 32-year-old man living in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. He is energetic, comfortable about his sexuality, full of charm and wit. He also has a scholarly side; he loves poetry, history and sociology.
He told us that “to understand the gay community in Sudan you have to understand the religious factor here . . . it is a big taboo and regarded one of the biggest sins possible.”
Ibrahim, also 32 years old and a well-respected public figure, explained what that taboo means in practice: “If you are outed in Sudan the consequences are very serious: social rejection and even punishment according to the Sudanese law.
“The internet is my only lifeline, I can talk with people, learn about LGBT issues and occasionally arrange to meet people. I have to be so careful. If I were to be caught, exposed or worse, arrested, it would ruin me completely.”
Mazen is 28 and manages to live his life but has to be careful: “There are places to meet in Khartoum which are well known, and there are even police and military men who come and I feel they are like an insurance policy.
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“Everyone is very discreet and respectful, we don’t want trouble. It’s hard enough as it is to lead a double life.”
But not everyone has things so well ordered. Mohamed, 46 and married for 12 years, has three sons.
“My life is a living hell,” he confessed. “I can occasionally go out at night for meets but am totally controlled by my extended family.”
Mohamed has a boyfriend from one of the Gulf States but feels that his sexuality “is an illness and a disease.” He went to therapy to try and “cure” himself, but it just made him feel worse. He also is scared about his safety “because people here in Sudan can get punished for much less – a woman can get lashes simply for wearing trousers!”
Soso, a 35-year-old lesbian hairdresser, said: “Despite all the difficulties, a Sudanese LGBT community exists, but society at large is not open to this idea, they see homosexuality as the work of the devil. But I am OK with who I am and know I won’t change.”
Editor Mohammad stresses such voices show how “Sudanese society considers homosexuality as a ‘phenomenon’, not a reality. It is considered a sin and psychological behaviour which is sick, and this view is often shared by LGBT people themselves here.
“We need to discuss what does it mean to us to be gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender in Sudan? We need to debate and discuss Islamic religious judgments and punishment which threatens us. We can aim to educate about these issues and encourage dialogue.
“We also need to deal with the issue of negative self-esteem, even the contempt felt by many LGBT people here, again through education. Finally, education can definitely help with safer sex issues which are also taboo here.”
Isn’t that quite a lot to achieve? I ask Mohammad. “Yes!” he answers with a smile. “We will take it one step at a time.”