Sunday, April 15, 2007

Gay life in Saudi Arabia: Atlantic story


Nadya Labi has an interesting article in the May 2007 The Atlantic, p. 70, “The Kingdom in the Closet” with the byline “Sodomy is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, but gay life flourishes there. Why is it ‘easier’ to be gay than ‘straight’ in a society where everyone, homosexual or otherwise, lives in the closet?”

The article goes on to explain that sexual orientation is not accepted in Muslim society as a trait the way it is in western Society. Sexual behavior is, however, and a certain amount of covert male homosexual activity is accepted, maybe even encouraged. There are a variety of reasons, but much of it has to do with the extreme patriarchal nature of Arab tribal society, the religious insistence on keeping the sexes separate, and even polygamy, which can reduce heterosexual options for many men.(a fact that George Gilder bad pointed out in his 1986 book “Men and Marriage”). Some of this would have to do with protecting the royal family. All men in Saudi society are thought of as having "procreative responsibility" although obviously some may lack the opportunity to fulfill it.

The article discusses Wahhabism, the use of sharia law, the religious prohibitions (or harum) and the activities of the religious police (or mutawwa’in), who work for the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. People who have worked as contractors in Saudi Arabia tell me that the religious police would come in to guest worker quarters and search for alcohol, even on base. Back in the 50s (and as recently as the 80s in some cities) police vice squads in the United States used to raid gay bars in order to publish lists of patrons.

Nevertheless, homosexual congregation is tolerated in many Saudi cities. There are no bars, so they have to be at restaurants or markets. The attitude is similar to “don’t ask don’t tell” (a phrase used in the article). The fear is that “telling” would create a wedge issue that could undermine the precepts of Islam, yet the Koran says little or nothing about homosexuality or homosexual conduct per se (outside of the story of Lot).

I have wondered also about Internet speech. My domains do get page requests from Saudi Arabia, although I don’t know if they are blocked but that unblocking software gets around this. If I were to visit Saudi Arabia or any less tolerant Muslim country (I would also worry about Egypt) I wonder if I could be arrested or imprisoned for operating the websites and blogs that I have. I have never heard this possibility (for visitors to a Muslim country from the West) discussed and would welcome factual comments. It would really be sticky if I got a job with a contractor that required travel to one of these countries.

Picture: Metropolitan Community Church in Richmond, VA

See also: International Issues blog, Nov. 1, 2011, for discussion of compound life in Muslim countries.

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