Homosexuality is an open secret in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom’s ultraconservative laws nevertheless criminalize sodomy and other same-sex relations, making them punishable by imprisonment, flogging or death. Despite the dangers, Saudi Arabia still boasts a large yet secretive LGBTQ community.
Like elsewhere in the world, the transgender community is the most visible target. On 1 March 2017, two transgender Pakistanis – Amna and Meeno – were tortured to death in Saudi Arabia, after being packed in sacks and then thrashed with sticks. They were among 35 people arrested when police officers raided a rented hall. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that Meeno’s family was shocked when they saw the signs of torture on her body.
While the incident sparked outrage among rights groups, it was not surprising. Saudi Arabia’s transgender community has long been persecuted by the state. In 2016, Saudi authorities instructed travel agents in Pakistan not to grant visas to transgender Muslims who were planning to make the Hajj or Umrah pilgrimage.
Gay men and women also face potentially fatal risks in Saudi Arabia. However, some have argued that the segregation of the sexes in Saudi society at least enables them to mingle and meet each other.
Nadya Labi, a journalist wrote about homosexuality in the kingdom for The Atlantic in 2007, found that there is considerable space for homosexual relations. The only rule is that gays and lesbians must conform to the norms of the country’s Wahhabi doctrine in public. In private, Saudi authorities often have little suspicion of homosexual relations when people of the same sex are alone together. One man who goes by the name of Talal told Labi that he considers the Saudi capital Riyadh a ‘gay heaven’.
Yet for too many gay Saudis, the kingdom is more like a living hell. In 2002, three men were beheaded for ‘committing homosexual acts’. Dozens of men were also arrested for attending gay weddings in 2005 and in 2006.
In January 2018, the authorities arrested several young men who featured in a video of an alleged gay wedding that took place in a resort in Mecca. The incident indicates that the arrest and persecution of gays will continue under the new Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, whom prominent figures in the West have hailed as a reformer. A Saudi official, Ali bin Youssef al-Sharif, told reporters that authorities were investigating the gay wedding and stressed that Saudis must obey the country’s ‘morals and virtuous values’.
Gay Saudis have also said that they fear their families will disown them if their sexual orientation is exposed. A young man, referred to as Radwan, tried to tell his family that he was gay while he was in the United States. However, his father could not cope with the news and threatened to kill himself. Back-pedalling, Radwan quickly told his father that he was no longer gay so that his family would accept him again.
Another man, known as Yasser, said that if his mother found out he was gay, she would take him to a psychologist to get ‘treatment’. Yasser, like his family, has also internalized the belief that same-sex relations are immoral, making it difficult for him to reconcile his sexual orientation with their religious views.
“My religion says it’s forbidden, and to practice this kind of [homosexual] activity, you’ll end up in hell,” Yasser told The Atlantic. “But God forgives you if, from the inside, you are very pure. 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.”
Lesbians face similar restrictions. Like their male counterparts, they are often forced to explore their sexuality online. AJ, which is the moniker of a Saudi woman who has claimed asylum in America, told National Public Radio (NPR) that she first started exploring her sexuality by logging into gay chatrooms.
“There were few [chatrooms] that catered to lesbians. And I just went online and talked to people,” she said. “But you don’t know anyone’s name. You don’t have their number, you don’t talk to them over the phone. It’s just strictly chatting online.”
AJ added that it took her more than a year and a half to learn the name of her first online girlfriend. By then, she was sure that she was gay. Yet with no freedom to be herself, she decided to enrol in university abroad. She studied for years, before she was granted asylum on the grounds of her sexual orientation in 2015.
Most members of Saudi Arabia’s LGBTQ community have not been as fortunate. Roshan, a 15-year-old boy, was kicked out of his house in March 2017 after he told his father that he was gay. In a Reddit post, Roshan wrote that his family threatened to kill him and told him that he could never come back home. He also said that he was staying at a friend’s place, which was only available to him for a few days.
“My country has no resources for LGBTQ folks. I’m still in high school (underage to work) so I’m not allowed to work anywhere,” wrote Roshan on Reddit. “I honestly have no clue what to do [and] no friends I can talk to about this.”
Despite receiving messages of support, Roshan ostensibly committed suicide eight days later. His uncle, who later retrieved his nephew’s phone, informed Roshan’s supporters on Reddit that he had died.
Despite the restrictions and, sometimes, tragedy, Labi claims that most gay Saudis do not perceive themselves as victims, though some certainly dream of acquiring more freedom. Radwan, for one, told Labi that he was inspired by the progress that gay movements have made in the United States. After seeing how open the LGBTQ community was in some American cities, he returned to the kingdom with the intention of starting a similar movement.
However, his peers quickly warned him to shut up. “You’ve got everything a gay person could ever want in [Saudi Arabia],” he recalls being told. And perhaps he does, except for the freedom and security to express who he is.