Is Pakistan More Gay-Friendly Than We Think—Or Just Oppressive In A Different Way?

We’ve all heard horror stories about being queer in the Muslim world. But a piece in Sunday’s New York Times suggests that, in Pakistan at least, the closet door is open a crack:

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 space enough for gays and lesbians. They socialize, organize, date and even live together as couples, though discreetly…

The reason is that while the notion of homosexuality may be taboo, homosocial, and even homosexual, behavior is common enough. Pakistani society is sharply segregated on gender lines, with taboos about extramarital sex that make it almost harder to conduct a secret heterosexual romance than a homosexual one. 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 secrecy for gays in Pakistan is still the norm, even in big cities like Lahore and Karachi. In fact, when the U.S. embassy in Islamabad tried to hold a gay Pride event in 2011, it didn’t just provoke protests, but condemnation from local gay-rights activists. “The damage that the U.S. pride event [did] is colossal, just in terms of creating an atmosphere of fear that was not there before,” said one unnamed activist. “The public eye is not what we need right now.”

Living in the shadows might work for gay and lesbian Pakistani, but for the hijira—a culture of transgender women in Pakistan and across South Asia whose origins date back to antiquity—such anonymity isn’t really an option.

And considering Pakistan is one of the few countries that still retains the death penalty as punishment for same-sex relations, invisibility might not be helping those that think they can slip by undetected, either.

Photo: Arun Reginald

Get Queerty Daily

Subscribe to Queerty for a daily dose of #hijira #internationallgbtrights #islam stories and more


  • Cam

    This post is beyond ridiculous. PAkistan is not “Gay Friendly” And nice job trying to blame all the laws on the British by the way.

    Men can show affection in Pakistan because the idea of a homosexual relationship is unthinkable to most people. The same way the leader of Iran claimed gays don’t exist in his country…is what the feeling is in Pakistan.

    Here is an idea. Get arrested for homosexuality in Pakistan and you’ll see how tolerant they are. And you will see the enthusiasm with which they use those “Old British LAws” to imprison you.

  • Sukhrajah


    I agree with you, in part here.

    Yes, the laws that officially ban ‘homosexual acts’ (known then as buggery) were codified at a time when Pakistan was a Dominion of the U.K., however I see it as the first time that ‘homosexual’ was seen in that light, as a definitive and distinct sexual preference. Prior to that time, most of South Asia held different (and as I suspect, as we will see in upcoming years, perhaps more evolved) views of sexuality than did the Western “Civilized” world. This ties into why Pakistani LGBT activists were upset by the ‘Pride Party’ of 2011. The culture is very different, with different norms and views of morality. The party would have likely offended Pakistanis for many reasons, one of them being the LGBT issue, but also all of the things that normally juxtapose us (alcohol, celebration in a public place in revealing clothing, open and frank discussions of sexuality et al). Yes, the Pakistani LGBT groups are gay, but many are also Muslim and all have to plot a solution that is Pakistani and palatable to Pakistanis.

    As for the idea that they are perhaps ‘gay friendly’ – well it depends on your definition of the term gay. Yes, culturally it happens, homosexual acts do occur. But I agree completely here with Cam, get caught – and you’ll be sure of one thing, they are anything but friendly.

    All in all, Pakistani LGBT members have to chose the life, and quality of that life that they want – they can live like this now (which is safe, considering all of the other atrocities and travesties occurring within the country), but if they ever truly want right, and the ones that cannot be taken away, then they will have to step out into the open. Truth be told, this article exists in a vacuum, because if (and my prediction is that it’s only a member of time before it happens – and I hope, and pray that I am wrong), more conservative forces come into power in Pakistan, they’ll start targeting the LGBT members, and then the notion of ‘not persecuting’ will change radically.

Comments are closed.