First Published: 2009-11-22

 
Syria’s gays, lesbians fight discrimination
 

Law, society treat homosexuals as criminals, outcasts or mentally ill as latters find refuge online.

 

Middle East Online



DAMASCUS - Alaa al-Sayed, 20, is waging a battle for acceptance not just from Syrian society but from his own family since they discovered he is gay.

“It’s so difficult to feel that you are a stranger and an outcast even in your own home,” he said.

When his parents found out about him after he went out with a man one night, they beat him and locked him in at home. Later, they decided to marry him off, he said.

“This is the solution in their opinion. The solution is doing an injustice to a woman for whom I feel no emotional or sexual desire,” he added.

Many gay men and women like Sayed lead a life on the margins of Syrian society, which generally sees them as perverts or mentally ill.

They also suffer from discrimination on the part of the state that considers homosexual acts as “moral offences” punishable by up to three years in prison.

The Syrian penal code prohibits "carnal knowledge against the order of nature", which is mostly used to criminalise sodomy, so lesbians are less liable to be persecuted than gay men.

In addition, unlike gay men, lesbians are less likely to go cruising in parks and on the street where they could be caught by the police.

While most gay people in Syria prefer to hide their sexual tendencies and submit to social norms or lead a double life, more and more say that they are slowly asserting their right to be different.

Some say that they are not afraid to display their sexuality in bars and nightclubs in the way they dress or behave.

For many of them, especially young gay men, the internet has helped them to regroup, create a network of social support, and meet others in similar situations.

“The internet brought a real change to my life,” said Nouhad Ibrahim, a 21 year-old gay man from Damascus studying economics.

“I discovered gay communities from around the world and that made me feel I was not alone in this world.”

Online, Syrian homosexuals can find several dating and chatting websites where they can exchange photos and telephone numbers and sometimes fix dates to meet.

But some gay men are also using the internet as a platform to demand recognition and respect.

A pan-Arab Facebook site aimed at countering the negative stereotypes about homosexuality has more than 400 members including a large presence from Syrian gays.

Members of the group say that they are trying to muster support especially from international organisations to show how gay men can contribute to the development of society and do not have lower intellectual capabilities.

A separate Facebook group called Syrian Gays has 170 members and is used for chatting and meeting partners rather than as a platform for discussions around homosexuality in the country.

But for most gay men, the topic of their homosexuality is still a taboo and so they prefer not to divulge their tendencies in a society that values machismo.

Amir, a 24-year-old gay man who works in his father’s clothing shop in Damascus, said that he had to pretend to be very manly in the way he talked and walked during the day.

Amir, who refused to give his last name, added that at night among his gay friends he felt more relaxed and able to express his “feminine side”.

Syrian gays today say that there are several cafes, bars and nightclubs where they meet in Damascus. Cruising for sexual partners also takes place in certain public squares or gardens during the night.

Gay prostitution is also evident at these sites but many say that the places are monitored by the morality police.

Individuals who are caught by the police engaging in homosexual acts are often rounded up and sent to court where they generally receive a sentence of few months’ imprisonment.

An official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the authorities do not recognise gay rights and homosexuality was rejected by Syrian society and culture.

“For gays and lesbians not to be subjected to mistreatment or harassment, they must keep their sexuality concealed,” he said.

Dr Jalal Nawfal, a Damascus-based psychiatrist, said that the authorities were only responding to the social and religious realities of Syria, where homosexuality is strongly rejected.

He added, however, that the government needed to raise awareness about homosexuality.

Although homosexuality is no longer regarded as a psychological disorder in the West, many Syrian psychologists still see gays as mental patients.

Some even say that sexual harassment during childhood plays an important role in determining sexual orientation during adulthood.

Christian and Muslim clerics who have a strong influence over social attitudes in Syria are more severe in judging homosexuality.

According to Mohamad Habash, the head of the Centre for Islamic Studies in Damascus, some Muslim clerics overtly incite the killing of homosexuals.

Other less extreme opinions favour providing gays with social support to help them “overcome their illness”, he added.

The media in Syria also consolidates the negative stereotyping of homosexuals by publicising stories that link gays to criminal acts or sordid incidents.

Last year, for instance, a court sentenced three men to death for killing a diplomatic employee after having sex with him.

Media also reported that a young man died after throwing himself from a balcony in the city of Aleppo to escape two men who wanted to rape him.

Many gays in Syria believe the spreading of similar stories harms their cause.

Written by an IWPR-trained reporter

 

Egypt delays Gaza talks after Israeli soldier kidnap

Libya jihadists declare Benghazi ‘Islamic emirate’

Morocco king deplores unequal wealth distribution

US plans largest ever sale of lethal missiles to Iraq

Qatar invests in Israeli soccer

Lebanon suspends work permits for Ebola-hit countries

Emirates Airline suspends flights to Guinea

Baghdad bomb blasts kill at least ten

Identification of Air Algerie crash victims ‘could take years’

Philippines prepares to evacuate 13,000 citizens from Libya

Jihadists fight on more than one front in Syria

Sudan Christian woman chooses US as final destination to settle down

France moves to disband violent Jewish group

Chief of Iran Quds Force ridicules calls to disarm Hamas

US supports Israel with weapons, Gaza with sweet words

Syria Kurds battle jihadists killing nearly 50

West watches post-Gathafi Libya descend in chaos

Carnage in Gaza Strip as death toll passes 1,300

Mosul’s residents rise up against jihadists

Militants fire at Tunisia army helicopter

Islamists capture key Benghazi army base

16 killed in Israeli shelling of UN school in Gaza

Italian fire-fighting planes to come to Libya rescue

Syria rebels advance towards Hama military airport

Bloodshed in Gaza surges amid no truce

Major western powers call for Libya ceasefire

US-Israeli ties sink to new depths over Gaza war

UN warns buying oil from terrorists could lead to sanctions

Air Algerie crash black boxes sent to France

Warning of Tripoli catastrophe after huge oil depot blaze

US, UN call for immediate Gaza ceasefire

Egypt army kills 14 jihadists in restive Sinai Peninsula

Calls for temporary Gaza ceasefire fall on deaf ears

Yemen army foils new Qaeda attempt to seize military posts

Investigators need ‘few days’ to probe cause of Algeria plane crash

Tunisia army suffers more losses in open war with terrorism

Jihadists advance amid escalation in Syria anti-regime offensive

Iraq Shiite militia takes bloody revenge against ‘Islamic State’ in Baquba

Fierce clashes kill at least 38 people in Benghazi

Israel resumes devastating military assault on Gaza

Thousands face famine as food security situation worsens in Somalia

Death toll in Gaza climbs as fragile ceasefire reveals destruction

Egypt summons Turkey charge d'affaires for second time in one week

‘Islamic State’ jihadists dynamite Shiite shrine in Mosul

US evacuates embassy staff in Libya over ‘real risk’