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September-October 2009

In the developing world, fledgling queer rights have a long way to go

David Logan

Out of the country, back into the closet. Illustration by Don Charles.

Out of the country, back into the closet. Illustration by Don Charles.

I am on a gay beach, surrounded by half-naked, toned, tanned, Speedo-sporting gay men. Somewhere a random diva is belting out a dance hit. The tropical sun has ensured all bodies are dripping. At the makeshift beach bar, ice is plunked into orange and incarnadine cocktails, and the bartender screams, “Cheers to queers,” kissing each customer on the cheek.

Except for my own, every body on this beach is black. It’s definitely not Mykonos, Fort Lauderdale, or even Vancouver’s Wreck Beach. It’s the annual gay party on Sierra Leone’s Black Johnson Beach (yes, fitting name) and everyone on it has trekked tricky rainforest paths in order to find this one strip of private blue coastline where they can openly be pink for the day.

I don’t live in Sierra Leone anymore, but when I think back to those days on Black Johnson I can still feel the sand in my toes and the esprit de corps of a group of men who risk their lives in order to be themselves for just one thrilling day. While we Canadians debate the end of our gay rights movement, gay people elsewhere in the world are only just now testing the waters of their own inchoate struggles.

Having spent the last three years working in media development in Namibia, Sierra Leone, and the occupied Palestinian territories, I was forced to climb back into the closet and—for the first time— learn to navigate queer life in some very homophobic places. It wasn’t easy.

Growing up in free-thinking Winnipeg, with Glen Murray (the first openly gay mayor of a major North American city) in power, my coming out wasn’t all that tough. Of course there was taunting in school, the confusing bisexual phase, and all the other requisite boxes most Canadian gays and lesbians tick on their way out of the closet. But, compared to the rest of the world, most of our Canadian stories are rather more Clay Aiken than Matthew Shepard.

Elsewhere there seems to be a sliding scale. Namibia has underground gay bars, but, like most countries in Africa, homosexuality there is illegal and carries a punishment of prison time. In Sierra Leone, life imprisonment is not unheard of. In the West Bank, gay sex acts are also illegal, and the societal taboo surrounding homosexuality is tantamount to life in prison for anyone who dares come out.

Legal implications aside, day-to-day life for a gay person in certain parts of the world is fraught with risk. Gays and lesbians live a hidden life, often marrying someone of the opposite sex to ensure their protection. In the West Bank there are stories of blackmail—gay people forced to pay money if they’re found out. Even online, which seems to be the only tangible gay community in Palestine, gay men often won’t post their pictures on chat sites, and they struggle to find places to meet in a part of the world where there’s no such thing as real privacy. It is a very lonely, isolated existence.

My mom bought me a battery-operated stuffed cat when I moved to Bethlehem last year. It takes two giant D-size batteries and sleeps in a tiny cushion. When working, its stomach moves up and down, making a purring sound. I named it Tammy. My mom told me it was to keep me company. It was really her way of telling her gay son to be careful in Palestine—stay home and pet Tammy. And I did, for the most part, until she ran out of batteries.

It was a relief to know I still had all the internal and external hardware necessary to understand and participate in the system of glances, stares, eyelash-batting, and smiles that facilitate a gay pickup in countries where people get beat up, killed, bullied, raped, and denied access to housing, jobs, and health services because of their sexuality.

It’s a back-to-basics, roughing-it kind of gay life. Having lived in Toronto and London, U.K., where with a hop, skip, and a mince just about anywhere in the city, I could find myself in a gay bar, sauna, bookstore, or pet shop, the Middle East and Africa were a challenge. Being gay in these places felt like an extreme sport of homosexuality. More difficult than getting laid, however, was dealing with the fear that I would be found out. One can never know how people will react, and I lived with a constant, nagging dread, watching every word and gesture.

Being outed would have likely meant I had to leave my job and start worrying about my safety. When homophobic comments were made—and they often were—I had to train myself to keep a straight face, not redden, and keep my mouth shut. I self-censored everything, hesitated to have colleagues to my apartment, and two-stepped around all conversations about my private life.

Even now, I sit in my Bethlehem kitchen, listening to the nearby muezzin calling the Muslim faithful to prayer and contemplating a farewell conversation I’d like to have with my closest Palestinian colleague before I finish my current contract. It’s possible she already suspects, but I don’t have the guts to say anything until the last minute, worried it will completely transform our relationship. I will try to tell her face-to-face, but even if I don’t, I can get on a plane, leave forever, and send it in an email. I might even do it on Facebook, which I’ve had on high security ever since moving to the Middle East, for fear that local colleagues would want to be “friends” only to discover pictures of my gay pride escapades and Black Johnson parties or status updates from my wonderfully raunchy transsexual friend in Montreal.

Sadly, for my African and Middle Eastern gay friends, escape isn’t so easy. The societies in which they live have a lot of work ahead before they can march down the streets waving rainbow flags. The gay denizens of the developing world still mostly live in both poverty and fear. Although I think it’s premature to label our Canadian struggle done and over, if there is any surfeit fight left in liberated Canadians, there are certainly plenty of places to direct it outside of Canada. In the meantime, we must never take our hard-fought battles—and successes—for granted.

My boys on Black Johnson beach would likely give up the sand and sun for just one day of what we have in Canada. Lucky for me, I’m headed back for some of that. A battery-operated cat just doesn’t cut it.

To protect the author’s safety on future assignments abroad, David Logan is a pseudonym

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