Asking that Queer Question

The elephant in the room.
By Maria Amir

“Why is it that, as a culture, we are more comfortable seeing two men holding guns than holding hands?” – Ernest Gaines

“There is no politically correct way to be gay in Pakistan. Your very existence is politically incorrect.” At least that is what my friend Waleed tells me, adding that he discovered he was gay when he was eight or nine; denied he was gay till he was seventeen and is now dodging his sexual orientation until he can score a work permit in the UK.

Of course, this isn’t to say that being gay is easy anywhere in the world, but it proves to be especially troublesome in a country like Pakistan. Many in the Western world are now trying to move beyond gender boundaries and the ‘gender is an illusion’ slogan has been garnering immense support among liberals, activists as well as members of the LGBT community. But Pakistan continues to stick stubbornly to its two-gender policy, often discounting its large and vibrant hermaphrodite population in the process. Regardless of the obvious oversight, the country does have a queer population (as does every country whether or not it chooses to recognize the fact) and this particular minority has recently been voicing its frustration on the internet or at exclusive parties thrown by the elite upper crust of Pakistani high society.

There is no such thing as ‘coming out of the closet’ in Pakistan, as the very measure of being gay is a punishable offence under religion, law and culture. The trifle queer population that has gained ‘visibility’ over the past decade generally involves the ‘camp’ gay guy and that too, largely amid fashion circles.

“There is this widespread view that the only place where it is acceptable to be gay is in the fashion or entertainment industry. No one is really willing to accept that a cricket playing, bodybuilding butch guy could ever be gay in Pakistan. That doesn’t really fit in with their notion of homosexuality as being a ‘disease,” says a sixteen-year-old gay student in Lahore.
Lesbianism, on the other hand, remains largely constrained to all girls’ institutions and co-ed dorms. “Female homosexuality is hardly ever played up because its hard enough being a woman in Pakistan without painting that sort of bulls eye on your back,” said a 24-year-old model Nina, adding “I’ve also found that over here the so-called classifications are extremely blurred. It’s not as simple as looking at the ‘butch lesbian’ or the ‘catty fashionista’. For better or worse the appearance-based boxing of queers is rare in Pakistan because we are all closeted something’s-or-other. We’re all hiding something here because we have to.”

Homosexuality has been a punishable offence under Pakistani law since 1860. Unlike in neighbouring India, the law has yet to be repealed and the prospects of this actually happening are dim at best. The country’s government has always shown resistance against the issue of gay rights, as was the case during the 2003-2005 UN voting on homosexual human rights where Pakistan was the loudest of the five disapproving Muslim countries (the others included Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia). Article 377 of the Pakistani Penal Code makes any kind of intercourse that violates “the order of nature”, a criminal offense, which can be punished by life imprisonment and given that one can simultaneously be tried under Shari’a law, it’s also possible for queers to be stoned to death for engaging in sexual intercourse.

“I’ve completely given up on the whole ‘gay rights’ debate in this country. That is simply not going to happen,” says Saleha, a closet bisexual lawyer from Islamabad. “Sure you can come out in your own tiny circle of friends, search for others in the queer community and party in private. But there is no telling your parents and frankly in most cases, there is no telling your wife,” Bilal said, adding that he married according to his parents’ wishes six years ago and eventually got divorced because he couldn’t keep up the charade.

It is a well-known fact that most members of the queer community end up getting married and living the ‘straight’ life in public. What goes on in their private lives is still a matter of debate. With people afraid of proclaiming their sexuality (straight or gay) outside of marriage in Pakistan, the LGBT community has found that the Internet is often the only real source of refuge open to them. “I suppose the blogosphere can be credited for allowing me the opportunity to tell people who I really was. The Internet provides a certain brand of anonymity and of course the ability to find like-minded company always helps,” says Nida, a fourth year medical student.

Perhaps what plagues the queer community more than anything else is the fact that the moment their sexual orientation is made public, it becomes their one and only identity. “I experienced it even with my closest friends. I suddenly wasn’t Waleed anymore I was just ‘gay’. The same guy that had beaten them at sports was all of a sudden soft. I felt like I was constantly being examined for signs that betrayed my ‘type’,” Waleed said of his first few months after coming out.

Queer people have to contend with gender stereotypes at their most extreme. For men it is the feminine parallel, for women it is the masculine parallel and for those in between it is the paradox of picking one of both identities when they often feel conflicted about making such a choice. This conundrum is only exacerbated by the income divide that tends to separate the queer community in Pakistan. “People talk about middle class, lower middle class and upper class casually, but when you get to the queer community it is anything but. The most vocal and vibrant queer population involves the hijras and khusras in the prostitution industry. Almost all of these people are uneducated because they have been disconnected from society since birth,” says Awais, who has made several documentaries on transgendered individuals and hermaphrodites in Pakistan. “Say what you will about how tough it is being gay, but even being in the closet and living the appearance of a normal life is better than being segregated and cut off completely. I have yet to meet a literate hijra in Pakistan and I am always aware that this is our government’s fault and mine for standing by and letting it happen…never theirs,” he says.

Few people are willing to accept that the personality behind the sexual preference might trump the assumed identity or degree of ‘queerness’. Several studies over the past decade have shown that what makes a person queer is to a great extent innate. Of course upbringing and community cultures may act as a contributing factor, but genetics has a lot to do with it.

Also, homosexuality is not just a human phenomenon and has been demonstrated in a slew of mammals including sheep, dogs and our oversexed, primitive Darwinian relative the bonobo. This reality tends to contradict the popularly held notion that homosexuality is somehow unnatural, given that there are several examples to attest to it ‘in nature’.

Former Harvard neuroscientist Simon LeVay in his research “Gay, Straight and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation,” in 1991 discovered the INAH3. This structure in the hypothalamus of the brain helps regulate sexual behaviour and tended to be smaller in gay men and women. The research was considered much more conclusive than the existence of the controversial ‘gay gene’ and countered the commonly held and widely spread (by anti-gay elements) belief that homosexuality was merely a ‘lifestyle choice’.

“I’ve always laughed at that assumption… that whole lifestyle choice bit. If it were a choice I would have remembered making it and I don’t. I choose what to do with it but that’s not the same thing. It’s not like I suddenly met a lesbian and thought to myself ‘I think I want to be gay, it looks like so much fun’. It doesn’t work like that,” Mehreen, a LUMS student said. “People who put forward the whole choice spiel are simply stupid. Seriously?! Being queer might actually be fun in some parts of the world but who in their right mind would ‘choose’ to be queer in Pakistan?!It isn’t a choice it simply is,” Bilal said.

The term ‘queer’ was adopted by LGBT activists in recent years to define minority groups and to allow them to campaign for their rights under a collective banner.  It includes lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals.

The LGBT community, for the most part, has been driven underground. In the case of the hijra or ‘third gender’ this minority has finally begun fighting for its right to be heard and the rest of society has had to listen only because they have the ‘biological defence’ conclusively on their side. Recently, the National Data Registration Authority (NADRA) announced its decision to employ hijras as data entry officers, a much needed step in the right direction. One hopes it doesn’t take sixty odd years for us to decide that the rest of the queer community deserves the right to choose their lifestyle and be awarded an equal playing field regardless of any such defence. People need to move beyond the discourse of a queer population that has gone underground or the groups partying it up aboveground. What we need more than anything is to arrive at some middle ground regarding our acceptance of this community. A queer person is unequivocally a ‘person’ first and always reserves the right to be treated as such.

In Pakistan, this rather basic UDHR right ‘to be treated with dignity’ is open to several considerations. Given the populations pen chance to resort to violence at the slightest provocation i.e. with respect to the Hudood Ordinance, the Blasphemy law or the general malaise of honour crimes, it is no wonder that the queer population ranks low on the list of priorities when it comes to human rights. “The fact of the matter is that hypocrisy is second nature to us now. We have no problems watching fully grown pathaan men holding hands in the street and cracking jokes about their sexual orientation as long as they still ‘look’ like men…whatever that means! But the moment you see a queen who actually embraces it, the tables turn and the world comes to an end,” says Waleed.

“The hypocrisy really is astounding. Especially when one hears the scores of horror stories that take place at madrassas with grown mullahs and little boys. But obviously people tend to overlook that sort of stuff. Whenever I talk about it I am told that it is ‘dangerous to generalize about something like that’, and I find it astounding. Apparently ‘generalizing’ is bad when it comes to pedophilia, but it’s encouraged when it comes to queers,” Nina adds.

Above all what is most distressing regarding the entire LGBT discourse surrounds the supercilious notion of ‘offence’. The fact that any and everybody in Pakistan seems to consider it a basic right to ‘take offence’ at the sexual behaviour of two consenting adults lies at the heart of our intolerance (fragmented). In a country where sexuality and individual choices are limited and often entirely subject to public opinion, family pressure and cultural constraints, being queer becomes an exercise in navigating the perilous social sub terrain.

“See, what it boils down to is where you stand personally and how far you are willing to go for yourself. I came out when I was a teenager and I lost everything. My family disowned me and I was sent to live with an aunt in the UK, who was willing to take me in. I knew there would be consequences to ‘coming out’, but I never knew they would be this big and now when my gay friends ask me what they should do, I always caution them,” Awais says.

“It really isn’t as black and white as ‘being true to oneself’ because here that can cost you everything…privately and publicly. It’s about how far you are willing to go and what you are willing to give up along the way. I have several friends who weren’t willing to give up their homes and families so they did the ‘right’ thing. They got married, they had kids and they have wives. They tell themselves they did the honorable thing by giving up that ‘disgusting’ part of themselves. They were forced to ‘choose’ to pretend to be straight every single day and I can’t even judge them for it.”

Disclaimer: All names have been changed to protect identities.


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