A Safety Net for Gays in Pakistan ; in Conservative Climate, Group Offers Support and Seeks to Foster Identity

Article excerpt

A group in Lahore is offering a safe place for Pakistanis who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. In a climate of religious conservatism, they are seeking to carve out an identity.

The group meets irregularly in a simple building among a row of shops here that close in the evening. Drapes cover the windows. Sometimes members watch movies or read poetry. Occasionally, they give a party, dance and drink and let off steam.

The group is invitation-only, by word-of-mouth. Members communicate through an e-mail list and are careful not to jeopardize the location of their meetings. One room is reserved for "crisis situations," when someone may need a place to hide, most often from her own family. This is their safe space -- a support group for Pakistanis who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

"The gay scene here is very hush-hush," said Ali, a member who did not want his full name used. "I wish it was a bit more open, but you make do with what you have."

That is slowly changing as a relative handful of younger gays and lesbians, many educated in the West, seek to foster more acceptance of their sexuality and to carve out an identity, even in a climate of religious conservatism.

Homosexual acts remain illegal in Pakistan, based on laws constructed by the British during colonial rule. No civil rights legislation exists to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination.

But the reality is far more complex, more akin to "don't ask, don't tell" than a state-sponsored witch hunt. For a long time, the state's willful blindness has provided enough space for gays and lesbians. They socialize, organize, date and even live together as couples, though discreetly.

One journalist, in his early 40s, has been living as a gay man in Pakistan for almost two decades. "It's very easy being gay here, to be honest," he said, though he and several others interviewed did not want their names used for fear of the social and legal repercussions. "You can live without being hassled about it," he said, "as long as you are not wearing a pink tutu and running down the street carrying a rainbow flag."

The reason is that while the notion of homosexuality may be taboo, homosocial, and even homosexual, behavior is common enough.

It is almost harder to have a secret heterosexual romance than a homosexual one, as Pakistani society is sharply segregated on gender lines, and extramarital sex is forbidden.

Displays of affection between men in public, like hugging and holding hands, are common. "A guy can be with a guy anytime, anywhere, and no one will raise an eyebrow," the journalist said.

For many in his and previous generations, he said, same-sex attraction was not necessarily an issue because it did not involve questions of identity.

Many Pakistani men who have sex with men do not think of themselves as gay. Some do it regularly, when they need a break from their wives, they say, and some for money.

But all the examples of homosexual relations -- in Sufi poetry, Urdu literature or discreet sexual conduct -- occur within the private sphere, said Hina Jilani, a human rights lawyer and activist for the rights of women and minorities. Homoeroticism can be expressed but not named.

"The biggest hurdle," Ms. Jilani said, "is finding the proper context in which to bring this issue out into the open."

That is what the gay and lesbian support group in Lahore is slowly seeking to do, even if it still meets in what amounts to near secrecy.

The driving force behind the group comes from two women, ages 30 and 33. They are keenly aware of the oddity that two women, partners no less, have become architects of the modern gay scene in Lahore; if gay and bisexual men barely register in the collective societal consciousness of Pakistan, their female counterparts are even less visible.

"The organizing came from my personal experience of extreme isolation, the sense of being alone and different," the 30-year-old said. …

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