In the Middle East, however, homosexual behavior remained just that—an act, not an orientation. That is not to say that Middle Eastern men who had sex with other men were freely tolerated. But they were not automatically labeled deviant. The taxonomy revolved around the roles of top and bottom, with little stigma attaching to the top. “‘Sexuality’ is distinguished not between ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ but between taking pleasure and submitting to someone (being used for pleasure),” the sociologist Stephen O. Murray explains in the 1997 compilation Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature. Being a bottom was shameful because it meant playing a woman’s role. A bottom was not locked into his inferior status, however; he could, and was expected to, leave the role behind as he grew older. “There may be a man, and he likes boys. The Saudis just look at this as, ‘He doesn’t like football,’” Dave, a gay American teacher who first moved to Saudi Arabia in 1978, told me. “It’s assumed that he is, as it were, the dominant partner, playing the man’s role, and there is no shame attached to it.” Nor is the dominant partner considered gay.
However much this may seem like sophistry, it is in keeping with a long-standing Muslim tradition of accommodating homosexual impulses, if not homosexual identity. In 19th-century Iran, a young beardless adolescent was considered an object of beauty—desired by men—who would grow naturally into an older bearded man who desired youthful males. There, as in much of the Islamic world, sexual practices were “not considered fixed into lifelong patterns of sexual orientation,” as Afsaneh Najmabadi demonstrates in her 2005 book, Women With Mustaches and Men Without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity. A man was expected to marry, and as long as he fulfilled his procreative obligations, the community didn’t probe his extracurricular activities.
A magazine editor in Jeddah told me that many boys in Mecca, where he grew up, have sexual relations with men, but they don’t see themselves as gay. Abubaker Bagader, a human-rights activist based in Jeddah, explained that homosexuality can be viewed as a phase. “Homosexuality is considered something one might pass by,” he said. “It’s to be understood as a stage of life, particularly at youth.” This view of sexual behavior, in combination with the strict segregation of the sexes, serves to foster homosexual acts, shifting the stigma onto bottoms and allowing older men to excuse their younger behavior—their time as bottoms—as mere youthful transgressions.
In Islamic Homosexualities, the anthropologist Will Roscoe shows that this “status-differentiated pattern”— whereby it’s OK to be a top but not a bottom—has its roots in Greco-Roman culture, and he emphasizes that the top-bottom power dynamic is commonly expressed in relations between older men and younger boys. Yasmin, the student who told me about the lesbian enclave at her college, said that her 16-year-old brother, along with many boys his age, has been targeted by his male elders as a sexual object. “It’s the land of sand and sodomites,” she said. “The older men take advantage of the little boys.” Dave, the American educator, puts it this way: “Let’s say there’s a group of men sitting around in a café. If a smooth-faced boy walks by, they all stop and make approving comments. They’re just noting, ‘That’s a hot little number.’”
The People of Lot
Yet a paradox exists at the heart of Saudi conceptions of gay sex and sexual identity: Despite their seemingly flexible view of sexuality, most of the Saudis I interviewed, including those men who identify themselves as gay, consider sodomy a grave sin. During Ramadan, my Jeddah tour guide, Yasser, abstains from sex. His sense of propriety is widely shared: Few gay parties occur in the country during the holy month. Faith is a “huge confusion” for gay Muslims, Yasser and others told me. “My religion says it’s forbidden, and to practice this kind of activity, you’ll end up in hell,” he explains. But Yasser places hope in God’s merciful nature. “God forgives you if, from the inside, you are very pure,” he said. “If you have guilt all the time while you’re doing this stuff, maybe God might forgive you. If you practice something forbidden and keep it quiet, God might forgive you.” Zahar, a 41-year-old Saudi who has traveled widely throughout the world, urged me not to write about Islam and homosexuality; to do so, he said, is to cut off debate, because “it’s always the religion that holds people back.” He added, “The original points of Islam can never be changed.” Years ago, Zahar went to the library to ascertain just what those points are. What he found surprised him. “Strange enough, there is no certain condemnation for that [homosexual] act in Islam. On the other hand, to have illegal sex between a man and a woman, there are very clear rules and sub-rules.”