The Kingdom in the Closet

Sodomy is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, but gay life flourishes there. Why it is “easier to be gay than straight” in a society where everyone, homosexual and otherwise, lives in the closet

This strikes many Saudis as a reasonable accommodation. Court records in Saudi Arabia are generally closed, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the mutawwa'in are most likely to punish men who are overtly effeminate— those whose public behavior advertises a gayness that others keep private.

Filipinos, who have little influence and less familiarity with the demands of a double life, seem to be especially vulnerable. When I asked Jamie, the Filipino who says he gets followed down the street by Saudi men, whether he was gay, he answered, with a high giggle, “Obviously!” But he has paid a price for his flamboyant manner. He used to wear his thick black hair down to his shoulders, concealing it with a baseball cap in public, until recently, when he ran into a man in a shortened thawb at a coffee shop. The mutawwa asked for his work permit. Even though he produced one, Jamie was shoved into an SUV and driven to a police station.

“Are you gay?” a police officer asked after pulling off Jamie’s cap and seeing his long hair. “Of course not,” Jamie said. He challenged the cop to find a violation, and the officer confirmed the mutawwa’s report that Jamie was wearing makeup, dressing like a woman, and flirting. After spending a night in jail, Jamie was taken to mutawwa'in headquarters in Jeddah, and a mutawwa interrogated him again. When he tried to defend himself, the mutawwa asked him to walk, and Jamie strode across the room in what he considered a manly fashion. He was eventually allowed to call his boss, who secured his release. Jamie cut his hair—not out of fear, he says, but because he didn’t want to bother his boss a second time.

Jamie laughed as he told me of his attempts at dissimulation; though the stakes can be high, efforts to stamp out homosexuality here often do seem farcical. The mutawwa'in get to play the heavies, the government goes through the motions, and the perps play innocent—Me? Gay? Few people in the kingdom, other than the mutawwa'in, seem to take the process seriously. When the mutawwa'in busted the party that led to Marcos’s deportation, they separated the “showgirls” wearing drag from the rest of the partygoers, and then asked everyone but the drag queens to line up against the wall for the dawn prayer. At the first of the three ensuing trials, Marcos and the 23 other Filipinos who’d been detained were confronted with the evidence from the party: plastic bags full of makeup, shoes, wigs, and pictures of the defendants dressed like women. When the Filipinos were returned to their cells, they began arguing about who had looked the hottest in the photos. And even after his punishment and deportation, Marcos was unfazed; when he returned to Jeddah, it was under the same name.

The threat of a crackdown always looms, however. In March 2005, the police crashed what they identified as a “gay wedding” in a rented hall near Jeddah; according to some sources, the gathering was only a birthday party. (Similar busts have occurred in Riyadh.) Most of the party­goers were reportedly released without having to do jail time, but the arrests rattled the gay community; at the time of my visit, party organizers were sticking to more-intimate gatherings and monitoring guest lists closely.

The Closeted Kingdom

To be gay in Saudi Arabia is to live a contradiction—to have license without rights, and to enjoy broad tolerance without the most minimal acceptance. The closet is not a choice; it is a rule of survival.

When I asked Tariq, the 24-year-old in the travel industry, whether his parents suspected he was gay, he responded, “Maybe they feel it, but they have not come up to me and asked me. They don’t want to open the door.” Stephen Murray, the sociologist, has called this sort of denial “the will not to know”—a phrase that perfectly captures Saudi society’s defiant resolve to look the other way. Acknowledging homosexuality would harden a potentially mutable behavior into an identity that contradicts the teachings of Islam, to the extent that Islam deals with the subject. A policy of official denial but tacit acceptance leaves space for change, the possibility that gay men will abandon their sinful ways. Amjad, a gay Palestinian I met in Riyadh, holds out hope that he’ll be “cured” of homosexuality, that when his wife receives her papers to join him in Saudi Arabia, he’ll be able to break off his relationship with his boyfriend. “God knows what I have in my heart,” he said. “I’m trying to do the best I can, obeying the religion. I’m fasting, I’m praying, I’m giving zakat [charity]. All the things that God has asked us to do, if I have the ability, I will do it.”

Amjad cited a parable about two men living in the same house. The upstairs man was devout and had spent his life praying to God. The downstairs man went to parties, drank, and committed zina. One night, the upstairs man had the urge to try what the downstairs man was doing. At the same moment, the downstairs man decided to see what his neighbor was up to. “They died at the stairs,” Amjad said. “The one going down went to hell. The one going up went to heaven.” For Amjad to accept a fixed identity as a gay man would be to forgo the possibility of ever going upstairs.

But as the Western conception of sexual identity has filtered into the kingdom via television and the Internet, it has begun to blur the Saudi view of sexual behavior as distinct from sexual identity. For example, although Yasser is open to the possibility that he will in time grow attracted to women, he considers himself gay. He says that his countrymen are starting to see homosexual behavior as a marker of identity: “Now that people watch TV all the time, they know what gay people look like and what they do,” he explains. “They know if your favorite artist is Madonna and you listen to a lot of music, that means you are gay.” The Jeddah-based magazine editor sees a similar trend. “The whole issue used to be whether that guy was a [top] or a bottom,” he told me. “Now people are getting more into the concept of homosexual and straight.”

But new recognition of this distinction has not brought with it acceptance of homosexuality: Saudis may be tuning in to Oprah, but her tell-all ethic has yet to catch on. Radwan, the Saudi American, came out to his parents only after spending time in the United States—and the experience was so bad that he’s gone back into the closet. His father, a Saudi, threatened to kill himself, then decided that he couldn’t (because suicide is haram), then contemplated killing Radwan instead. “In the end,” Radwan told me, “I said, ‘I’m not gay anymore. I’m straight.’” Most of his gay peers choose to remain silent within their families. Yasser says that if his mother ever found out he’s gay, she would treat him as if he were sick and take him to psychologists to try to find a cure.

Zahar, at 41, has managed the unusual feat of staving off marriage without revealing himself to be gay. Marriage would devastate him, he says, and exposure of his homosexuality would devastate his family. So Zahar has employed an elaborate series of stratagems: a fake girlfriend, a fake engagement to a sympathetic cousin, the breaking off of the engagement. As he put it, “I schemed, and I planned. I don’t like to con people, but I had to do that for my family.”

In the West, we would expect such subterfuge to exact a high psychological cost. But a closet doesn’t feel as lonely when so many others, gay and straight, are in it, too. A double life is the essence of life in the kingdom—everyone has to keep private any deviance from official norms. The expectation that Zahar would maintain a public front at odds with his private self is no greater than the expectations facing his straight peers. Dave, the gay American I met, recalled his surprise when his boyfriend of five years got married, and then asked him to go to the newlyweds’ apartment to “make the bed up the way you make it up,” for the benefit of the bride. “Saudis will get stressed about things that wouldn’t cause us to blink,” Dave said. “But having to live a double life, that’s just a normal thing.”

Most of the gay men I interviewed said that gay rights are beside the point. They view the downsides of life in Saudi Arabia—having to cut your hair, or hide your jewelry, or even spend time in prison for going to a party—as minor aggravations. “When I see a gay parade [in trips to the West], it’s too much of a masquerade for attention,” Zahar said. “You don’t need that. Women’s rights, gay rights—why? Get your rights without being too loud.”

Embracing gay identity, generally viewed in the West as the path to fuller rights, could backfire in Saudi Arabia. The idea of being gay, as opposed to simply acting on sexual urges, may bring with it a deeper sense of shame. “When I first came here, people didn’t seem to have guilt. They were sort of ‘I’ll worry about that on Judgment Day,’” Dave said. “Now, with the Internet and Arabia TV, they have some guilt.” The magazine editor in Jeddah says that when he visits his neighbors these days, they look back at their past sexual encounters with other men regretfully, thinking, “What the hell were we doing? It’s disgusting.”

When Radwan arrived in Jeddah, in 1987, after seeing the gay-rights movement in the United States firsthand, he wanted more than the tacit right to quietly do what he chose. “Invisibility gives you the cover to be gay,” he said. “But the bad part of invisibility is that it’s hard to build a public identity and get people to admit there is such a community and then to give you some rights.” He tried to rally the community and encourage basic rights—like the right not to be imprisoned. But the locals took him aside and warned him to keep his mouth shut. They told him, “You’ve got everything a gay person could ever want.”

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Nadya Labi is a writer based in New York City.

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