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The Flickering Edge of Hope: Pakistan’s LGBTQ+ Community Battles Prejudice and Discrimination

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The Flickering Edge of Hope: Pakistan’s LGBTQ+ Community Battles Prejudice and Discrimination

The beleaguered community watched neighboring India’s 2018 decriminalization of consensual homosexual relations with wistful joy.

The Flickering Edge of Hope: Pakistan’s LGBTQ+ Community Battles Prejudice and Discrimination
Credit: Flickr/Timothy K Hamilton

Given the contentious history between India and Pakistan, people often forget that the distance between Lahore, Pakistan and Amritsar, India is a little over 50 kilometers (or 31 miles). Nowadays, the availability of smartphones and certain applications have made it possible to find members of the same community from distances and places not possible before.

Farooq[*], a 33-year-old man, identifies as gay but is married to a woman. He has an active Tinder profile and goes online occasionally to talk to other men and to feel normal. “I connected with this Indian guy once on the app. It was my first time talking to a guy actually living in India. No matter our past divide, it just felt so good talking to someone who got to experience life there after 2018,” said Farooq, referring to the date when India’s Supreme Court struck down a ban on gay sex. “He seemed ecstatic. I was happy for him, and I wish our politicians start listening to science and find out a way to merge it with Islam in ways that do not hurt us or make us targets of hate.”

The Delhi High Court has just started debating legalization of same-sex marriage in India. This comes three years after a unanimous ruling by the Indian Supreme Court decriminalizing consensual same-sex relations on September 6, 2018. It was a momentous event in history, as the world’s largest democracy repealed the colonial era law against sodomy, moving the country a step forward in the fight for human rights. This decision followed three years after United States’ landmark court verdict to legalize same-sex marriage, pushing democracies to question their own laws.

When asked about his experience after the ruling, Farooq said, “I don’t know. I have two kids, a wife, and two extremely conservative parents, so it’s not like my feelings on this issue matter because this is and will be my life.”

On September 6, 2018, the general sentiment of the Pakistani population was patriotic, as this date also marks the Defense Day for the country. But as the world celebrated India’s step toward equal rights, for some in this neighboring country, an obverse picture took shape.

Until 2018, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, one of the largest Islamic democracies, with the fifth highest population in the world, shared with India the same criminal law in its Penal Code regarding same-sex relations. During the Islamization of Pakistan, based on the Shariah rulings of that time, severe punishments were stipulated for same-sex relations through the 1979 enactment of the Hudood Ordinances. Since Pakistan’s conception, regardless of new research or understanding, every household and institution has accepted a dichotomous interpretation of both sexuality and gender and has deduced that homosexuality is a sin that demeans national and religious interests.

There exists, however, a world unbeknownst to those who choose not to look, a world that lives only in shadows. The LGBTQ+ community of Pakistan has learned to persist in a self-created sphere, one shielded from most of the population and guarded by those within.

Those from the lower socioeconomic class, including majority of the middle class, as defined in Taimur Rehman’s “The Class Structure of Pakistan,” maintain a different thought about not just the law, but also what the sexuality spectrum entails other than sexual gratification through superficial means. With similar access to social media and the dating apps, the exposure to the LGBTQ+ community within classes remains the same, yet the conception of what it means to be queer varies significantly.

The internal battles the lower-class faces implicate their perceptions with a convoluted construct. Many report an unshaken belief that Allah made LGBTQ+ individuals deviant because of a past misdeed, while many believe it to be an immoral deviancy where they have no option but to adhere to the norms of the society to get back on the straight (heterosexual) path.

This results in many homosexual men getting married, by choice or force, to heterosexual women early in age. “Under the weight of homophobia, heteronormativity and genderism, they are forced to adopt a lifestyle according to society’s assigned gender roles and expectations,” writes child psychiatrist Hassan Majeed on how Pakistan fails its LGBTQ+ youth by enforcing straight norms under the guise of morality.

In Pakistan, the argument of morality is extremely skewed, regardless of your gender or sexuality. A Pew Research Center reported that 90 percent of Pakistan’s population believed homosexuality is morally wrong, while only 1 percent said it is morally acceptable. This outlook of immorality, including within the gay community, leads to a plethora of issues including psychological torment and sexual frustration, that in turn lead to more societal problems such as sexual abuse and harassment.

The privileged class, however, learns and approaches life from a different perspective, one that reflects the liberal-progressive thought of the Western nations and accepts the labels of LGBTQ+ and chooses to identify as such. While many of these individuals have an exposure to the world outside Pakistan, there is a consensus on hiding who you are from the majority of the population when in Pakistan — not only to be safe, but also to feel free when communing with their inner circles.

While India’s decision may seem like an extensively progressive moment in time, the reflections from the LGBTQ+ community of Pakistan suggest something much different. In the urban cities of Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi, for many who identify as someone other than heterosexual and/or cisgender, September 2018 left a poignant mark in their heart.

“I was happy for them, but in that moment, I felt so sad and heartbroken that we [in Pakistan] will never get to experience that,” said Samina, a 28-year-old self-identifying non-binary person living in Lahore about the decriminalization of homosexuality in India. “You still can’t say the word ‘gay’ here, my parents might just kill me in the name of religion. Good for India but I don’t think anyone cared here. It wasn’t even shown in the news channels.”

Sasha, a 24-year-old artist living in Lahore who identifies as a cisgender bisexual person said, “I felt uncomfortable. Uncomfortable that something so taboo in Pakistan is being accepted in a neighboring country. I felt a glimmer of hope for not me but maybe generations down when Pakistan will be as old as India, maybe then we might be accepted. This made me sad that our generation will never have the freedom to come out of the shadows.” Many continue to share hope and sentiment but feel trapped in this striking reality.

On that day, there was reluctance from Pakistanis to talk about same-sex relations, much less the decriminalization of it. India’s policy changes are usually a topic of discussion on Pakistani TV. Laws on religious conversions of minors, the building of temples or mosques, and other policy changes are often talked about on the news. However, no news outlet or household saw the legalization of gay relationships as something to discuss amongst one another or with their children. It is a topic that people simply turn a blind eye to and call wahyat or “gross”; hence it never received any media coverage.

There were no significant debates among the youth either. Allies of the LGBTQ+ rarely speak out because of fear of being outcast or labeled as “one of them.” Straight men and women rarely talk about LGBTQ+ rights, even though many of them are vocal about other issues on social media. Rarely does the queer community receive an understanding and caring approach from the non-queer.

25-year-old Omar, an architect from Islamabad, talked about how he broke away from straight friends who through subtle comments continued to make him feel guilty, shameful, and somehow responsible for his homosexuality. “I hate straight people. I unfriended all my straight friends since coming out because they make it so hard to hang out with them. Even if they say they support you, they barely recognize your struggles and make it seem like your fault and couldn’t care less if we died,” Omar said.

With one of the highest rates of suicides in the country, Pakistan’s gay community faces a constant threat within their households, let alone the outside world. There is a fear of not being understood, along with an everlasting battle from the internal incongruence.

“They’ll never understand so what’s the point? It’s better to be safe than dead,” said Tahir, a 45-year-old man from Islamabad who also identifies as gay.

Due to growing interconnectedness over the last few years, it has become increasingly easier to communicate with others. At the same time, talking to those living only a few kilometers from you experiencing an extensively more liberated life — at least from the perspective of Pakistanis — may make living here seem like a prison.

“Even if the law changed, which it never will, trust me, the people are so brainwashed to perceive the word ‘homo’ as the worst [of the sins] that they will burn you and then be rewarded for it by hundreds of millions. You will not be mourned. Your existence is already an inconvenience,” said Abid, a 19-year-old living in Rawalpindi. He shared some of the abusive experiences he has had at the hands of older men over the past few years and how he is unable to report them just because of being gay himself: “He threatened me saying he’ll tell my father I was gay. That’s when I knew I could do absolutely nothing but close my eyes.”

Pakistani queer people, even in 2021, continue to witness the world moving ahead while Pakistan stands steadfast in its antiquated laws and misconceptions. For some privileged youth, those wanting relationships or freedom to be their authentic selves, the only solution in order to live a normal life is to leave their homeland.

While sex in Pakistan may be available regardless of the law, relationships are far from being possible. “I am smiling thinking of a day when I am living in the U.K., with a partner. I will still be struggling but at least I won’t live in constant fear and will also have someone to love,” said Abid.

For others living in the shadows, a silver lining is not visible, and India’s human rights victory did little to change that. Married LGBTQ+ men and women live and accept a lie for the entirety of their lives, while the non-binary and trans people have little choice but to be imprisoned in bodies or clothes that reject them. It is a life many make the best of without much hope for change because either they themselves believe to be mentally inept and accept the legislative judgments of Shariah, or they accept their right to liberty but are afraid to take any action.

Mahnoor, a 23-year-old woman, said, “I told my sister I am gay, and she just called me kafir [a sinner] and gave me death threats for positing it on social media.”

Pride was openly celebrated in India in 2019 and many people on the Pakistani side of the border shared clips and photos within their social circles. The shared skin color, culture, and combined history made India so relatable for many, but it only took a short while to realize the walls of the border are higher than the high mountains that mark some of it. There is despondency and futility amongst people in talking about improving LGBTQ+ rights in Pakistan because no matter the awareness or a fervor to improve human rights within the community, none of it ever reaches the general population.

To think that the repeal in India might have given the people in Pakistan some hope is a fallacy, because many are simply left with a darker reality. The existing Islamization of Pakistan’s democracy and law may not, in the foreseeable future, allow for the general population accepting the mere idea of even tolerating the LGBTQ+ population. With other countries engaging more openly in the LGBTQ+ dialogue, and Islamophobia on the rise in the West,  the religious and political forces within Pakistan have doubled down on this Islamization.

“Science holds little value where religion is concerned. And they do not want to accept the gays simply because this country’s reliance on the so-called family institution is the only thing left boosting the egos of straight men. Same reason divorce is so heavily discouraged even when the women are getting beaten to death,” said Omar when asked about whether scientific advancement and more medical research may help this country in moving forward in terms of queer understanding and acceptance.

He talked about how he told his parents he is impotent and does not plan on marrying. However, he is somewhat involved in the community, has close gay friends, is sexually active, and advocates for safe-sex practices within his circles — all of which he does away from the public eye. In Pakistan, there is not a fully sustained or at all vibrant LGBTQ+ community, but there exist within it cliques who have found each other mostly through dating apps or being introduced to each other by common friends or acquaintances. The stronger the clique, the safer they feel and hence learn to live in a country that continues to, at best, ignore them.

“Why wait for change when it won’t ever happen? I am okay not marrying or dating, what I have is okay, it’s better than many,” Omar added. Even the privileged with highly educated families like Omar continue to face similar restrictions.

Pakistan seems to have a long road ahead in its fight for basic human rights and freedom. The Pakistani people have a lot to learn as they fight not just the homophobia and deep-rooted patriarchy, but also the prevailing education, extremism, faith, and even the environment.

There are some who are challenging the status quo and coming out of the dark closets in ways that have proven to be somewhat impactful. From arguing for the importance of and marching along women at the Aurat Azaadi March and pushing for recognition of trans rights, to creating LGBTQ+ storylines in art and media such as the television show “Churails” or the stage play “Jhaanjar Di Paanwaan Chhankaar,” there does seem to be a little cultural shift in identifying and accepting each other for who we are compared to a few years ago.

With social media offering massive online support to the LGBTQ+ community, the South Asian Instagram accounts running stories and creating awareness, and the general exposure to queer persons in the West, the privileged few are learning to speak up. The LGBTQ+ community of Pakistan faces the endless wrath of a population that is glued to faux tradition and patriarchal norms, yet manages to break glass ceilings, however quietly, and raise awareness about their own existence and survival.

[*] Names of all individuals have been changed to preserve the anonymity and safety of the interviewees.