Note: The name and identities of people interviewed for this piece have been changed to protect their lives.
Bursting into contrived laughter, two transgender women and a gay man walk steadily down a quiet street. They are a bit merry and high. This is not Las Vegas; this is downtown Kabul where gay sexual relationships are secretly flourishing.
Salal, Arif, and Kareena are disguised in burqas to conceal their identity from both passersby and the Afghan police. Cross-dressing in Afghanistan is frowned upon; men who dress as women face bullying and harassment.
Despite the disguises, their identities and activities are not a secret to all. The police, already aware of such activities, keep a close eye on gay hotspots – places you would never suspect unless you were part of the underground network. The police are often in the know, however, and sometimes ask for sexual favors or bribes in exchange for looking the other way.
Violence and threats are all too common in Afghanistan, against minority groups as well as the general population. Terrorist groups such as the Taliban may be the main source of public fear, but it is the widespread abuse of power by Afghan authorities and the subsequent inability to access sexual health services that poses the greatest risk to the transgender and gay population.