At first glance, the PQM’s flag looks like that of any political party. It proudly displays the star and crescent against a rainbow-hued spectrum of reds, purples and blues, depicting a Pakistan that is not simply green and white, but capable of embracing all shades of being and behaviour. But this isn’t the flag of a political party and the acronym PQM stands for the Pakistan Queer Movement, not — as some may imagine — the Pakistan Qaumi Mahaz.
The brainchild of 18-year-old Nuwas Manto, the PQM, in its own words, seeks “respect, equality and freedoms for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community in Pakistan.”
“It depends on what you think a movement is,” says Manto, when asked to explain what the PQM aspires to achieve. “You won’t see us marching in pink underwear, for instance. What we are working towards is something like the Progressive Writers’ Movement who aspire to bring about a mental state of change through writing.”
Writing is something Nuwas Manto does a lot of, whether in publications like the Pink Pages or through Facebook on the PQM official page where free-spirited individuals, ‘queer’ or not, discuss the nuances of sexuality openly. Extremely well-read for his 18 years, he is fond of citing the poetry of Abu Nuwas, from whom the first part of his alias is derived. A controversial Arab poet, Abu Nuwas (750-810 AD) lived during the reign of Caliph Haroon al Rashid and caused no end of scandal due to his poems celebrating homosexuality. As a nod to his literary tastes, the second part of his alias is a tribute to Saadat Hassan Manto.
Unlike many who struggle when confronted with the possibility that they may be gay, Manto says he never had any doubts or illusions about his sexuality. “I always knew it,” he says. Also, unlike many who hide their tendencies from their family and friends, Manto wasn’t content to live his life in the proverbial closet, and came out to his family about his sexual preferences. While he was lucky enough not to be cast out of the family, the reaction was mixed. “My mother refused to believe me, even though I think she always suspected it. To this day she keeps trying to fix me up with girls in order to ‘cure’ me.”
His brother’s reaction was somewhat different, though he stopped short of actually beating him up. “All my brother said was that homosexuals are paedophiles and that he will never let his kids near me,” reveals Manto, saying that just because he’s gay doesn’t mean he is promiscuous…or a pervert.
These aren’t the only stereotypes that are perpetuated about the gay community, of course. The very word ‘gay’ is used as a derogatory term, liberally used to label men who display what is considered ‘effeminate’ behaviour. Whether or not these men are actually homosexual is irrelevant and, in some circles, displaying emotion or sensitivity is enough to be labelled ‘gay’ or a ‘fag’. And for those who are in fact homosexual, there can be more unpleasant consequences. Xien*, a young gay man who works in the fashion industry, says the least he has to face on a daily basis is “staring, jeering and even unwanted advances. While traveling in public places if people somehow suspect that you’re gay, they choose to make a public display of their disdain. If, god forbid, it’s a bunch of guys, it becomes a competition to prove how masculine they are by putting you down, and even attacking you physically.” He makes an interesting observation, though: “One would find more men involved in such loony acts whereas the female population may not react if the situation involved them instead. I guess it’s something to do with the male ego, along with a lack of awareness.”
It’s these attitudes that cause people like Xien and Manto to hide their sexuality. With homosexuals and homosexuality very much a taboo topic, even people like Manto, who are at ease with who they are, have to hide their identity behind an alias.
So it’s no wonder that the LGBT community makes great use of a medium where aliases and avatars are the norm: the internet. Back in 2007, a Canadian report on the situation of homosexuals in Pakistan claimed:
“The Internet is reportedly contributing to a sense of growing “solidarity” amongst homosexuals in Pakistan. Online chat rooms are said to provide a “safe and anonymous forum for middle- and upper-class gay men.”
Certainly, the anonymity of the internet has allowed many members of the gay community to interact without fear of censure and persecution, and has allowed for the presentation of alternate viewpoints and narratives. From the long-standing Chay magazine, to Mantos’s blog, the Pink Pages, and the PQM’s Facebook site, avenues for the exploration of alternate sexuality have opened up rapidly. While some sites are lurid forums for organising same-sex liaisons, most are personal blogs and discussion forums. Up until 2009, Jalaludin*, who describes himself as a homosexual banker from Karachi, maintained a blog that was cited in the Times of India and several international publications. In one of his last posts, he writes of how the scrutiny is scaring him off: “The closet door is being banged at very hard. For all the actions where I have come out of the closet to my family and friends does not mean that I am ready to do it officially. Not in Pakistan. I can not. Sorry. So, since this blog has started coming into international media showcasing Pakistani homosexuals, I would have to request you people to at least not try to knock on the closet door.”
Others, like blogger and activist Hadi Husain manage to withstand the online scrutiny and keep the torch burning on their websites and blogs. None of them, however, ever cross the line into ‘real-life’ activism.
But it seems that homosexuality is acceptable so long as it remains on the margins, and firmly within the realm of entertainment. “Bol is a great example of how homosexuality figures in Pakistan,” says society doyen Yousuf Salahuddin. “If you’re rich, you get away with it, but if you’re poor you’re trampled.” Not that the depiction of homosexuals on our screens is a recent phenomenon. Take the classic TV show “Aangan Tehra”, which featured the late Saleem Nasir brilliantly playing the flamboyantly gay, and devastatingly witty, character of Akbar. Not only was he a huge hit (despite his implied sexual preferences), he became a template for hosts of other similar characters in TV, film and stage shows. Cue to the 2000s and we have Ali Saleem’s cross-dressing begum Nawazish, who would interview politicians, celebs and religious leaders alike with his/her innuendo-laden banter. The show was a runway success and, to the best of my knowledge, no one ever burned an effigy of Ali Saleem or issued a fatwa against him. Ironically, even though Salahuddin calls the show “the breakout point for homosexuality in Pakistan,” the fact remains that criticism of Ali Saleem comes not so much from the right, but from some LGBT activists who expected him to speak out forcefully for gay rights.
So long as it’s entertaining, being gay is apparently all right. For the LGBT community itself, keeping the debate online and off-air allows greater control and manages their exposure to a society that is, by and large, intolerant of them. When the debate does hit the mainstream however, the results can be explosive.
Case in point: when the US embassy famously held a function in Islamabad to celebrate Gay Pride on June 26, 2011, many right-wing organisations staged protests. The Jamaat-i-Islami labeled it an act of “social and cultural terrorism against Pakistan,” saying that homosexuals were “neither Muslim, nor Pakistani.” TV talk shows soon followed this hot story, with pundits weighing in on what a terrible crime being gay was. Pakistan’s gay activists responded, but from behind the sheltering anonymity of their avatars. Which gay person in their right mind would out themselves on a nationally broadcast talk show after all?
The blogosphere of course, was buzzing. Manto countered the JI’s statement by saying “Homosexuality was, is and will be an aspect of Pakistani society, just as it has been present in all times and places,” and accused mullahs of practicing “same-sex pedophilia.”
Of course, while it was predictable that the gay community would condemn the religious right for their intolerance, the US embassy also came under fire for ‘outing’ a debate that the community wanted to be able to keep under wraps and under control. Hadi Husain called it “a disaster for the budding underground Pakistani LGBT movement.” Nuwas Manto pointed to the hypocrisy of organising a function in ‘support’ of the LGBT community which left them in the line of fire, and then stopping short of actually offering asylum or any kind of material support apart from “kind words of encouragement.”
Another gay blogger, going by the alias of ‘Tamashbeen’ actually took the outrage as a call to arms. Incensed at a statement made by Mufti Abdul Qawi in which he called homosexuals “worse than animals”, he wrote a blog titled: “Thank you Mufti Sahab, for helping me out of the closet.” Tamashbeen actually came out of the closet to his friends and family — and was surprised at how accepting they were.
The general public, though, views homosexuality as a sin and an aberration. And the religious right, especially after the US embassy fiasco, links homosexuality to nefarious ‘foreign agendas’. For those who feel and advocate that homosexuality is an acquired tendency and a western ill that our society has possibly taken on from exposure to international media and its perversions, Zehra* presents a strong rebuttal. A physicist by education, she grew up in the Gulf in a house full of books and literary magazines, and never had any exposure to either a homosexual friend or gay literature. A tomboy from the start, she realised she was different when her sisters would fawn over boys and she couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. “The first time I heard the term gay was in 1997 when George Michael was found having intercourse in a public toilet and it became a media scandal,” says Zehra.
Unlike Manto who is agnostic, and Xien, who is Christian, Zehra carries a pocket size Quran with her at all times. “I am a very spiritual person interested in all world religions.”
How does one reconcile one’s faith, which seems to have very strict guidelines on sexual relations, with being a homosexual? Ask any average person and he will vehemently start quoting the story of Lot as prime example of how abhorred homosexuality is within Islam and the Abrahamanic religions. “We definitely need an alternate interpretation of the story of Lot,” says Manto. Warming to his topic he continues, “a God who can forgive a murderer or a rapist can most certainly forgive a person for loving someone.”
“The biggest problem right now is internalised homophobia,” says Zehra. “We have all been brought up to believe that this is wrong and un-natural,” adding that she believes that the story of Lot speaks of a morally corrupt society and of rape and sodomy, not homosexuality. “Sodomy is forced sex, whether it’s with a man or a woman. The Quran, in fact, doesn’t even mention the word ‘homosexual’. It refers to ‘mukhanas’, which is the Arabic word for transsexual,” says Zehra contending that what has given homosexuality a bad image is its association with male gay culture and by extension to partying, sex, drugs and alcohol. “The fundamental difference between gays and lesbians is that we are not loud about it. Our main concern is who we have feelings for. So it’s not about who you are having sex with,” offers Zehra.
For lesbians like Zehra, being gay is a double-whammy, combining the ‘natural disadvantage’ of being a woman in a patriarchal society with the anxiety caused by one’s sexual orientation. Irrespective of social class, education and background, a woman is expected to behave in ways that are dictated, approved and mandated by the male members of the family. These inherent pressures of ‘womanhood’, led to 30-year-old Zehra’s intensely anxious state of being. “This constant pressure to conform, to marry, to become like any other woman and not knowing what is going on inside me, made me perennially depressed and suicidal.”
Of course, whether you’re gay or straight, some unpleasant facts of life remain constant…like discrimination and sexual harassment, for example. “It’s very difficult, in fact near impossible, to be a straight man and be a model,” says Saif*. Despite being the son of a notable media personality, Saif has been refused work because he has not responded to the sexual advances made by gay modelling agents/photographers/choreographers. “Every designer will ask you before he gives you any work whether or not you are gay. So the casting couch definitely exists. I’ve experienced it for two years and so I have given up on modelling,” claims Saif who says he was even advised by a top agency boss to “just do it — you will become a top model.”
Such stories never really make it to the mainstream, except for example in the case of the 2008 murder of Shaikh Amir Hasan in Karachi, where the accused claimed to have been sexually assaulted by the designer. Again, in 2009 a story alleging same-sex sexual harassment in the Pakistan women’s cricket team briefly made the rounds. Pakistani media did obliquely report on the allegations, but it was ESPN Star that carried the full story. Of course, just as all heterosexual males cannot be held accountable for the fact that rape takes place, it isn’t fair or justifiable to blame all homosexuals or homosexuality itself for the existence of a few bad eggs.
Ultimately though, the quest and challenge lying at the heart of the Pakistan Queer Movement and its members is a desire for acceptability. “Trying to fit a size six shoe on a size four foot will always look awkward, shoddy and inappropriate no matter how much you try to frame a person or group of people into a slot that doesn’t involve them the least,” says Xien. A sentiment that even Zehra echoes when she says longingly, “I don’t want to live a life that compromises my identity.”
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 30th, 2011.
Correction: The print version of this article was published without a byline. The error is deeply regretted.