It gets lonely in the desert...
As the world discovers gay sex thriving in fundamentalist Saudi Arabia, can the good times last?
Saudi Arabia as, ahem, Gay Mecca? The answer is
"yes," if you define a holy place for homosexuals in
terms of open same-sex affection, a demographic
curve bulging with horny
young people, ample opportunity for cruising,
freedom to follow your bliss in the privacy of
home-- all with, really, just a tiny risk of
An active Saudi homosexual scene-- bubbling
over in cafes, barbershops, the toilets at girls'
schools, and on the internet-- has caught the
notice of journalists, even while reports of
arrests, floggings, and executions for homosexual
crimes trickle out of the autocratic kingdom.
In a fascinating account in the May Atlantic
Monthly, Nadya Labi described open street
cruising in Jeddah, private drag parties, and men
hooking up online-- either because sodomy was
their sexual summum bonum, or as a
handy backup when wives were menstruating or
pregnant. In order to find sources for her story,
reporter Labi-- an American woman-- posed online
Saudi man with a yen to get fucked-- and soon had
to fend off a cyber onslaught of admirers.
Saudi Arabia is among the world's most
repressive societies, where notions of propriety
require women to wear veils outside
the home. An active gay scene seems a
"You talk to people who've never been to Saudi
Arabia," Labi tells
The Guide, "and they're shocked, they're
like, 'Wait a minute, isn't sodomy punishable by
death?' But you talk to
anyone who's really travelled in the Middle East or
gone to Saudi Arabia and they have a different
understanding. It's almost even a stereotype about
Saudi [Arabia] that there's a vibrant gay
Homosexuality and Islam are not necessarily
mortal foes. A "people of the book," Muslims have
to grapple with the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah as
much as Jews and Christians. But
that story admits of varying interpretations.
Homoerotic roots run deep around the
Mediterranean. Mohammed knew his audience well
enough to promise the faithful a paradise with not
only virgins but beautiful boys as cupbearers of
wine. The Koran prescribes the punishment for
heterosexual relations outside marriage, but is
vague-- even arguably forgiving-- about
homoerotics. That ambiguity opened a space for a
sophisticated centuries-long discussion about the
ethics of same-sex love, together with a body of
on-topic poetry that rivals that of ancient
Greece and Rome. Abu Nuwas-- hailing from
Baghdad in its glory days circa 800-- was a literary
bad-boy even in his own time, and penned some of
his verses in prison. But he couldn't have
been speaking just for himself in his ode to the
tubs: "In the bath-house, the mysteries concealed
by trousers / are revealed to you. / All becomes
radiantly manifest. / Feast your eyes
without restraint! / You see handsome butts and
shapely trim chests, / You hear the murmuring of
pious formulas, / One lad to another: 'God is Great!'
'Praise be to God!' / Ah, what a palace
of pleasure is the bathhouse!" [Translation thanks
to Jaafar Abu Tarab from his Carousing with
Yet in the waxing and waning of Islamic
openness to same-sex love, Saudi Arabia would
appear as the slimmest of crescent moons.
Baths were never an institution among the
Arabian peninsula's nomadic Bedouins, and the rise
of Wahabism among them in 18th century meant an
attack on Islamic sensuality in all its
forms-- religious, decorative, musical, and erotic.
The Saudi royal family is defined by this variety of
puritanical Sunni Islam that's as harsh as the desert
of which it was a prickly bloom.
Traditional sharia-- the body of Islamic law--
grounds the kingdom's legal code, and the death
penalty that it provides for sodomy is periodically
imposed-- indeed, as recently as last February.
That case seems to have involved a man
convicted of sex with a youth and other crimes. In
January 2002, three men were executed in the city
of Abha who, according to the
interior ministry, "committed acts of sodomy,
married each other, seduced young men, and
attacked those who rebuked them." As in other
cases of execution for homosex in Saudi Arabia
and neighboring Iran, the details are uncertain--
though reports are that boys, videotape, and
blackmail were involved-- allegations that could
have been colored by torture.
In March 2005, more than 100 men were
arrested for dancing and "behaving like women" at
a "gay wedding," according to the Saudi paper
Al-Wifaq. Many were sentenced to terms
ranging from six months to a year, with four
alleged ringleaders receiving two years and 2000
lashes. Similar arrests recurred last summer.
Carried out in town squares by sword,
beheading is the image that sticks in Western
minds when the topic turns to homosex and Saudi
Arabia. Accounts vary as to whether prisoners
are drugged before execution; in the amputations
of hands or feet that can be punishment for theft,
anesthetic is reportedly given first. According the
CIA's country study on the kingdom,
in Saudi flogging "the skin [is] not broken," but
some who've suffered the penalty disagree. In
sentences involving hundreds or thousands of
lashings, their infliction is usually staggered
over time, lest that lesser penalty become simply an
execution tortuously drawn-out.
With so much hanging over the head of
sodomites, that same-sex love thrives in Saudi
Arabia suggests something about its inevitability in
human affairs-- sort of what's revealed about
the tenacity of life when new forms are discovered
around sulfur-spewing submarine volcanic vents or
deep in Antarctic ice.
The space for homosex in Saudi Arabia was not
brought to you by Stonewall. There's no gay
movement, nor parades nor bars, and chatrooms
for hooking up convey a certain reserve. As
more Saudis go abroad for school or work and then
return, they carry back some alien cultural pollen--
in some cases a dusting of gay identity. But Saudi
Arabia was never a European colony,
nor is it a tourist destination. Rumors are some
members of the royal family are personally
interested in avoiding a serious anti-gay
crackdown. Still the kingdom's homosexual life
readily, as in Cairo or Beirut, be attributed to a
decadent Westernized elite.
Rather, homosexuality flourishes in Saudi not a
little bit because of how nicely it plays with
puritanical Islam's particular sexual bugbears.
Saudi society worries obsessively about sex--
like the West, except differently. Outside the family,
segregation of the sexes is the rule. Helping
maintain decorum are the white-robed,
stick-bearing mutawwa'in-- religious
police from the Committee for the Promotion of
Virtue and Prevention of Vice. For a man or youth,
being seen with an unrelated girl or woman in
risky, and open heterosexual courting or affection
forbidden. Sexes can mingle in the "family" zones in
shopping malls-- but the mutawwa'in can demand
proof of a blood relationship. A
man wearing long hair or jewelry, or a boy and girl
caught out together on a date risk getting hauled
into the police.
"The whole weird sexual setup," says Liam O
Domhnall, an American who has taught English in
the kingdom for seven years, "is really designed to
protect marriageable females from
what's considered the insatiable animal sexual
desire of unmarried men."
With all the intense heterosexual suspicion,
same-sex affection enjoys a veil of innocence.
"We have more freedom here than straight
couples. After all, they can't kiss in public like we
can, or stroll down the street holding one another's
hand," a 23-year-old self-identified gay
man told the British Independent.
"It's a lot easier to be gay than straight here,"
echoes a 26-year-old artist in Labi's
Atlantic piece. "If you go out with a girl,"
the man says, "people will start to ask her
questions. But if
I have a [same-sex] date upstairs and my family is
downstairs, they won't even come up."
"When I was new here, I was worried when six
or seven cars would follow me as I walked down the
Atlantic quotes Jamie (all names were
changed), a 31-year-old Filipino
who works as a florist in Jeddah. "Especially if
you're pretty like me, they won't stop chasing you."
"You can be cruised anywhere in Saudi Arabia,
any time of the day," says another of Labi's sources,
a 42-year-old gay-identified Saudi-American who
also lives in Jeddah.
Foreign men who work there are routinely
approached for sex with a forthrightness that would
be surprising on the streets of Chelsea or the
Even by Middle Eastern standards, the Saudi
obsession of sexual separation helps makes the
space for same-sex connection all the less
Labi tells the story of Talal, a man who left
Damascus, Syria in part to escape from under the
thumb of his family after his father caught him at
age 17 having sex with a male friend.
Talal got grounded for two months and had to
assure his family that his attraction to men had
passed. When he announced he was taking a job in
Riyadh his father warned him, "You know
all Saudis like boys, and you are white. Take care."
Talal found that his father's fears were justified.
Even though it's in the middle of the country, far
from the more liberal coasts, Riyadh,
says Talal, is "gay heaven."
It's sometimes gender-nonconformity rather
than homosex per se that's on the mutawwa'in's
radar. Labi discusses the case of Marcos, a Filipino
guest worker who lives in Jeddah and
works in the fashion industry. In 1996 he was
arrested when police raided a party featuring a drag
show. The police separated out the showgirls from
the other partygoers.
"At the first of the three ensuing trials," Labi
writes, "Marcos and the 23 other Filipinos who'd
been detained were confronted with the evidence
from the party: plastic bags full of
makeup, shoes, wigs, and pictures of the
defendants dressed like women. When the Filipinos
were returned to their cells, they began arguing
about who had looked the hottest in the photos."
Marcos and 23 other Filipinos were detained,
and there were three trials. Marcos spent nine
months in prison and received 200 lashes before
being deported. But he chose to return--
and had no problems doing so, even under the
same name. His well-paid work in Saudi fashion
and the perks its brings are irresistible. "Guys romp
around and parade in front of you," Marcos
tells Labi "They will seduce you. It's up to you how
many you want, every day."
While homosexuality among women suffers--
or enjoys-- greater invisibility-- it flourishes as
well. A few years ago,
Okaz, a Jeddah daily, ran an exposé on
alleged "endemic" lesbianism
among schoolgirls. Citing the wife of the Prophet
that "there should be no shyness in religion," the
paper told of girls shunning classmates who
refused advances and using school toilets for
sex. Teachers bemoaned their helplessness against
the girls' incorrigibility.
In the Atlantic, Labi's only source
willing to speak of a lesbian relationship was
Yasmin, a 21-year-old student in Riyadh who had a
brief sexual affair with a girlfriend. She told Labi
one of the buildings at her college has the
reputation as a lesbian enclave. "The building has
large bathroom stalls," Labi writes, "which provide
privacy, and walls covered with graffiti
offering romantic and religious advice; tips include
'She doesn't really love you no matter what she tells
you' and 'Before you engage in anything with [her]
remember: God is watching you.'"
Yasmin relates, in what's a familiar refrain, "It's
easier to be a lesbian. There's an overwhelming
number of people who turn to lesbianism."
Sodomy's not alone
With manifold and niggling controls on
behavior, homosex joins activities such as drinking
scotch, watching porn, smoking, or socializing with
unrelated members of the opposite
sex-- practices no longer rare in Saudi Arabia, but
still outside the public eye. Not only out of sight,
but in a way, outside of consciousness, as if a sort
of sleepwalking that doesn't have to be
fitted onto any ideological map.
In some ways, the schizophrenia works fine.
"It's not a neurotic culture," says O Domhnall.
"People don't torment themselves internally and feel
guilty about things." Shame rather
seems the operating impulse-- horror at getting
exposed. With questions of appearances all-
important, what goes on in private enjoys
considerable protection. The sanctity of the home is
main relief valve.
"One of my students once mentioned his
girlfriend," O Domhnall recalls, "and I said, 'Wait
can't have a girlfriend.' And his response was,
'Teacher, in my house I can do anything I want.'"
Within the home, women's veils come off-- but
that's because the home itself is shrouded, usually
literally protected by wall, gate, and shutters. For
outsiders, access to that private
domain is restricted-- in his seven years working in
the kingdom, O Domhnall says he's been invited
only once into one Saudi home-- that of a man
originally from Palestine.
Entry ramps onto Homo Highway
When it comes to Islam's sodomy taboo, certain
circumstances help ease the pain, the way surprise
parties give dieters excuse to eat cake.
By convention not necessarily enshrined in
Sharia, a man who plays the role of top in homosex
has less to answer for-- or at least departs less
from the sanctioned role of male as
penetrator. When she was fishing for sources in a
gay-frequented chat room the
Atlantic's Labi found she could maximize
interest by choosing a screen-name implying a
readiness to bottom.
As "Jedbut," Labi found herself the center of
attention. A preponderance of tops distinguishes
the Saudi gay scene from Western ones-- which
may reflect cultural preferences, a
different range of people plying the homosexual
field, fear of crossing a fraught threshold, or just a
convenient fiction since-- outside the co-
conspirators-- no one need ever know the details.
Homosex involving younger people also gets
cut some slack. Partly it's a recognition that the
strictures on heterosexual liaison don't offer many
other releases. Partly it's a matter, in
the case of males, of boys being deemed less
constrained by masculine obligations. With more
than half the kingdom's native population younger
than 25, these are likely significant factors.
By the demographics, Saudi Arabia is where the
baby boom put the West in the mid-1960s-- a time
of explosive sexual and political change.
A 2004 report by John R. Bradley in the UK
Independent cites Ahmed, 19, a college
student in Jeddah, who relates that: "there was no
shame in having a boyfriend in his private high
school. Although he firmly rejected the label 'gay,'
he admitted that he now has a 'special friend' in
college, too. 'It's those who don't have a boy who
are ashamed to admit it. We introduce our
boy to our friends as al walid hagi [the boy
who belongs to me]. At the beginning of term, we
always check out the new boys to see which are the
helu [sweet] and think of ways to get to
"Let's say there's a group of men sitting around
in a cafe," the
Atlantic quotes an American teacher. "If a
smooth-faced boy walks by, they all stop and make
They're just noting, 'That's a hot little number.'"
Being foreign is another gap across which
homoerotic desire readily sparks. Saudi has more
than one guest-worker for every four native
citizens-- outsiders at mostly the low end of the
labor market. Not only is the exotic often a turn-on
in itself, but non-Saudi sex partners carry with
them a protective moat from family and clan. The
gossip among teachers at his Saudi
military installation, O Domhnall reports, is that the
"cadets were all fucking the Bangladeshi and
Filipino street sweepers."
Region's the reason?
Saudi homosexual dynamics may themselves
seem curiously exotic, but they recall a long-
standing Mediterranean pattern, familiar from
ancient Greece and Rome. The organizing
principle is a focus on the costs, complications, and
opportunities of heterosexual relations, which are
policed most because they are the most
consequential. Heterosexuality means children, the
risk to women of bearing them, and involves inter-
family entanglement. The rise of the House of Saud
can be charted in terms of both military
conquests and careful handling of the
British-- and also by savvily arranged clan alliances
sealed by marriage. Same-sex liaisons are free and
easy by comparison. In what's-- oil aside-- a
resource-poor land, homoerotics may be
welcome for easing delay in marriage and
minimizing new mouths-- likely a factor in the
origins of Greek pederasty. But a warrior culture
and a necessary sexual division of labor abhors
gender. The Islamic discourse on the ethics of
same-sex love shares these concerns with Greco-
Roman writers-- with their fear over the pleasures
of men's erotic submission, leanings
toward pederasty, at least a literary privileging of a
chaste love, and a sense that what goes on with
outsiders is off-ledger. Whatever sharia says, these
are elements notable, too, in Saudi Arabia.
Now is perhaps a golden queer moment in the
kingdom, like it was for street cruising and
tearooms in the West during 1960s and 70s.
Repression is decreasing and awareness not
yet widespread enough to provoke a reaction.
Articles in the Western media may disrupt the
balance. But for now, heterosexuals are benefiting,
too, with boys and girls texting and
bluetoothing by cellphone to arrange secret
rendezvous in malls' family zones. These could be
signs of progressing from Saudi's hidebound
nomadic past that little serves the modern,
present. Or, with unemployment at around 20
percent and the population explosion straining the
economy-- these could be signs the entire Saudi
system is breaking down.
"The government is obsessively concerned
about public appearances, and there's a very strong
tradition of keeping the nose out of what happens
within people's home and outside of
public sight," O Domhnall tells The
Guide. "Weird things are happening because
people can now connect from inside private space
to inside private space, avoiding any public
Satellite TV, a losing battle for internet censorship,
and cellphones are all routing around official
"It could go lots of different ways," Labi
suggests. "The men who considered themselves gay
who I spoke with in Saudi Arabia were worried
about what public recognition of this culture
might mean for them. They wondered if breaking
open what's very much a taboo subject might result
in a backlash. And so they were very critical what
they viewed of Westerners and
their emphasis on visibility as a way to gain gay
rights. There were very few Saudis I spoke to who
were looking for that kind of movement because
they felt they had a very good life."
As Saudis increasingly encounter "gay," what
will happen? "Once you see how something is done
in a different culture," notes Labi, "and you see how
your own practices are reflected in
the eyes of outsiders, you somehow begin to think
That intercultural contact and free markets in
ideas and images assure cultural diversity and
minority rights is one of the West's great
contemporary conceits. A centuries-long tradition
of same-sex love was stamped out in Japan early in
the 20th century owing to the country's enforced
encounter with the West. A certain Saudi innocence
about homosex may meet a
similar fate, and embolden an avowed
With its gleaming malls and SUVs cruising
along Californiaesque highways, Saudi Arabia has
glued the trappings of modernity and luxury
uneasily over Bedouin sands. "The most
westernized people I knew there in general
supported the status quo on the theory that if it
weren't for the royal family keeping the lid on
things, a genuinely puritanical Taliban regime
likely to follow," says O Domhnall. Saudi's bored,
young, often unemployed masses may act like they
want more liberalization, but there's little political
or cultural language in which to
express those frustrations-- which instead tend to
be flow in fundamentalist directions.
Watch your back, and Saudi Arabia may seem
today like Gay Mecca. But the very phrase would
turn fundamentalists apoplectic. Tomorrow risks a
stark choice between the two terms.
|Author Profile: Bill Andriette
|Bill Andriette is features editor of
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