Yasser, a 26-year-old artist, was taking me on an impromptu tour of his hometown of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on a sweltering September afternoon. The air conditioner of his dusty Honda battled the heat, prayer beads dangled from the rearview mirror, and the smell of the cigarette he’d just smoked wafted toward me as he stopped to show me a barbershop that his friends frequent. Officially, men in Saudi Arabia aren’t allowed to wear their hair long or to display jewelry—such vanities are usually deemed to violate an Islamic instruction that the sexes must not be too similar in appearance. But Yasser wears a silver necklace, a silver bracelet, and a sparkly red stud in his left ear, and his hair is shaggy. Yasser is homosexual, or so we would describe him in the West, and the barbershop we visited caters to gay men. Business is brisk.
Leaving the barbershop, we drove onto Tahlia Street, a broad avenue framed by palm trees, then went past a succession of sleek malls and slowed in front of a glass-and-steel shopping center. Men congregated outside and in nearby cafés. Whereas most such establishments have a family section, two of this area’s cafés allow only men; not surprisingly, they are popular among men who prefer one another’s company. Yasser gestured to a parking lot across from the shopping center, explaining that after midnight it would be “full of men picking up men.” These days, he said, “you see gay people everywhere.”
Yasser turned onto a side street, then braked suddenly. “Oh shit, it’s a checkpoint,” he said, inclining his head toward some traffic cops in brown uniforms. “Do you have your ID?” he asked me. He wasn’t worried about the gay-themed nature of his tour—he didn’t want to be caught alone with a woman. I rummaged through my purse, realizing that I’d left my passport in the hotel for safekeeping. Yasser looked behind him to see if he could reverse the car, but had no choice except to proceed. To his relief, the cops nodded us through. “God, they freaked me out,” Yasser said. As he resumed his narration, I recalled something he had told me earlier. “It’s a lot easier to be gay than straight here,” he had said. “If you go out with a girl, people will start to ask her questions. But if I have a date upstairs and my family is downstairs, they won’t even come up.”
Notorious for its adherence to Wahhabism, a puritanical strain of Islam, and as the birthplace of most of the 9/11 hijackers, Saudi Arabia is the only Arab country that claims sharia, or Islamic law, as its sole legal code. The list of prohibitions is long: It’s haram—forbidden—to smoke, drink, go to discos, or mix with an unrelated person of the opposite gender. The rules are enforced by the mutawwa'in, religious authorities employed by the government’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
The kingdom is dominated by mosques and malls, which the mutawwa'in patrol in leather sandals and shortened versions of the thawb, the traditional ankle-length white robe that many Saudis wear. Some mutawwa'in even bear marks of their devotion on their faces; they bow to God so adamantly that pressing their foreheads against the ground leaves a visible dent. The mutawwa'in prod shoppers to say their devotions when the shops close for prayer, several times daily. If they catch a boy and a girl on a date, they might haul the couple to the police station. They make sure that single men steer clear of the malls, which are family-only zones for the most part, unless they are with a female relative. Though the power of the mutawwa'in has been curtailed recently, their presence still inspires fear.
In Saudi Arabia, sodomy is punishable by death. Though that penalty is seldom applied, just this February a man in the Mecca region was executed for having sex with a boy, among other crimes. (For this reason, the names of most people in this story have been changed.) Ask many Saudis about homosexuality, and they’ll wince with repugnance. “I disapprove,” Rania, a 32-year-old human-resources manager, told me firmly. “Women weren’t meant to be with women, and men aren’t supposed to be with men.”
This legal and public condemnation notwithstanding, the kingdom leaves considerable space for homosexual behavior. As long as gays and lesbians maintain a public front of obeisance to Wahhabist norms, they are left to do what they want in private. Vibrant communities of men who enjoy sex with other men can be found in cosmopolitan cities like Jeddah and Riyadh. They meet in schools, in cafés, in the streets, and on the Internet. “You can be cruised anywhere in Saudi Arabia, any time of the day,” said Radwan, a 42-year-old gay Saudi American who grew up in various Western cities and now lives in Jeddah. “They’re quite shameless about it.” Talal, a Syrian who moved to Riyadh in 2000, calls the Saudi capital a “gay heaven.”
This is surprising enough. But what seems more startling, at least from a Western perspective, is that some of the men having sex with other men don’t consider themselves gay. For many Saudis, the fact that a man has sex with another man has little to do with “gayness.” The act may fulfill a desire or a need, but it doesn’t constitute an identity. Nor does it strip a man of his masculinity, as long as he is in the “top,” or active, role. This attitude gives Saudi men who engage in homosexual behavior a degree of freedom. But as a more Westernized notion of gayness—a notion that stresses orientation over acts—takes hold in the country, will this delicate balance survive?
When Yasser hit puberty, he grew attracted to his male cousins. Like many gay and lesbian teenagers everywhere, he felt isolated. “I used to have the feeling that I was the queerest in the country,” he recalled. “But then I went to high school and discovered there are others like me. Then I find out, it’s a whole society.”
This society thrives just below the surface. During the afternoon, traffic cops patrol outside girls’ schools as classes end, in part to keep boys away. But they exert little control over what goes on inside. A few years ago, a Jeddah- based newspaper ran a story on lesbianism in high schools, reporting that girls were having sex in the bathrooms. Yasmin, a 21-year-old student in Riyadh who’d had a brief sexual relationship with a girlfriend (and was the only Saudi woman who’d had a lesbian relationship who was willing to speak with me for this story), told me that one of the department buildings at her college is known as a lesbian enclave. The building has large bathroom stalls, 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.” In Saudi Arabia, “It’s easier to be a lesbian [than a heterosexual]. There’s an overwhelming number of people who turn to lesbianism,” Yasmin said, adding that the number of men in the kingdom who turn to gay sex is even greater. “They’re not really homosexual,” she said. “They’re like cell mates in prison.”
This analogy came up again and again during my conversations. As Radwan, the Saudi American, put it, “Some Saudi [men] can’t have sex with women, so they have sex with guys. When the sexes are so strictly segregated”—men are allowed little contact with women outside their families, in order to protect women’s purity—“how do they have a chance to have sex with a woman and not get into trouble?” Tariq, a 24-year-old in the travel industry, explains that many “tops” are simply hard up for sex, looking to break their abstinence in whatever way they can. Francis, a 34-year-old beauty queen from the Philippines (in 2003 he won a gay beauty pageant held in a private house in Jeddah by a group of Filipinos), reported that he’s had sex with Saudi men whose wives were pregnant or menstruating; when those circumstances changed, most of the men stopped calling. “If they can’t use their wives,” Francis said, “they have this option with gays.”
Gay courting in the kingdom is often overt—in fact, the preferred mode is cruising. “When I was new here, I was worried when six or seven cars would follow me as I walked down the street,” Jamie, a 31-year-old Filipino florist living in Jeddah, told me. “Especially if you’re pretty like me, they won’t stop chasing you.” John Bradley, the author of Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis (2005), says that most male Western expatriates here, gay or not, have been propositioned by Saudi men driving by “at any time of the day or night, quite openly and usually very, very persistently.”
Many gay expatriates say they feel more at home in the kingdom than in their native lands. Jason, a South African educator who has lived in Jeddah since 2002, notes that although South Africa allows gay marriage, “it’s as though there are more gays here.” For Talal, Riyadh became an escape. When he was 17 and living in Damascus, his father walked in on him having sex with a male friend. He hit Talal and grounded him for two months, letting him out of the house only after he swore he was no longer attracted to men. Talal’s pale face flushed crimson as he recalled his shame at disappointing his family. Eager to escape the weight of their expectations, he took a job in Riyadh. When he announced that he would be moving, his father responded, “You know all Saudis like boys, and you are white. Take care.” Talal was pleased to find a measure of truth in his father’s warning—his fair skin made him a hit among the locals.
Marcos, a 41-year-old from the Philippines, was arrested in 1996 for attending a party featuring a drag show. He spent nine months in prison, where he got 200 lashes, before being deported. Still, he opted to return; he loves his work in fashion, which pays decently, and the social opportunities are an added bonus. “Guys romp around and parade in front of you,” he told me. “They will seduce you. It’s up to you how many you want, every day.”