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

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