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What it’s really like to be a young gay man in Egypt

What it’s really like to be a young gay man in Egypt

There are other people like me in Cairo, the capital of Egypt, which is why I choose to live here. We know how to be. It’s like an algorithm.

For example, this year I had an argument about the World Cup with a random guy around my age in a cafe. I told him: ‘You know what? Sashay away.’

He looked at me carefully and then said: ‘Shante, I’ll stay.’

I was like, wow – another RuPaul’s Drag Race fan! It was really funny. I’ll never forget that moment.

Egypt is a religious country: the vast majority are Muslims and around 20% are Christians. When it comes to the LGBT community, both agree that we have no rights.

While you’re probably not going to get killed like in Iran or Saudi Arabia – although it could happen – you can go to prison for years.

Recently I was stopped in the street by a policeman for wearing shorts and a tank top. He said ‘are you a foreigner or a faggot?’ I said ‘neither.’ You can’t start anything with these people. Humiliatingly, he then made fun of my voice. He asked for my ID and took it.

He took me to a search room with him and made me strip down to my underwear. I was shaking. I thought I was going to go to prison.

He said ‘Why do you dress like a faggot?’ I said ‘I’m not. It’s hot. It’s summer.’ He said the way I was dressed was offensive because I was showing my knees. So I said ‘I’m not going to do it again.’ Another policeman came and asked what was going on. He said: ‘Let her go’, mocking me.

They did, and I cried. I ran to the metro and got on: my legs were shaking so much I missed my stop.

Growing up gay

If you are LGBT, you cannot talk or express yourself in Egypt. I knew that at a very young age.

Growing up in a small and conservative city outside of Cairo, I always knew I was different. Other people could tell too.

At school, kids would call me names equivalent to ‘faggot’. I was a very soft kid, very delicate, and had no friends. I used to get hit all the time, had things stolen. Once, I was fought by four boys and was left with bruises all over my body.

I didn’t go to a religious school, but we did study religion. We studied the chapter on Sodom and Gomorrah. So I learned to seclude myself.

Something like my sexuality can never be known by society. You can lose everything. I don’t even care for myself, but my family… The community would be so harsh on them.

My immediate family, who live back home, know about me. They aren’t supportive, but I never expected them to be. They basically turn a blind eye and ignore it completely, except to occasionally urge me to see a doctor. (I’ve met people who have tried that – some who even took medicine. It’s crazy.)

Sex and dating in Egypt

People do use apps like Grindr here, but it’s full of police. I avoid it for other reasons, though. People who are just looking for hook ups aren’t to my taste. Even the names are very funny: ‘hungry bottom’ or ‘fiery penis…’ I never do that. I’m not looking for hook ups. Although I had my fair share when I was growing up.

It wasn’t hard to find guys to hook up with, even without the apps. All over the North African Arabic region, when you’re a soft and delicate guy who walks, talks or behaves a little effeminate – well, women will not suspect you. They will just say ‘he’s very well-behaved – his parents raised him well.’ But guys always know there’s more to it than that.

They will try to become your friends. ‘Do you want to hang out, come to my place, watch a movie?’ Then they always make a move. Or they’ll ask the same famous question: ‘Have you ever been with a guy?’

I lost my virginity at 16, but I’ve never had a boyfriend. I’ve never even dated anybody. Now, I’m looking for a partner. But it’s hard.

People only want to be with you if you have a money, a car, your own flat. That’s the only way you can have a relationship here: in secret, in private. I don’t have a job, so I can’t offer that. I’m honest with people, and it’s not great for my sex life.

One person I met and liked told me it didn’t matter, because one day soon he would get married, have kids and lead a ‘normal’ life. Whether Christian or Muslim, the people think if they keep it a secret and make it only about sex, it’s less of a sin; that God will forgive them.

Finding friends

I currently live in a flat share, which I pay for with savings I made in my last job, with a bunch of straight guys who don’t know about my sexuality. I have a few close, trusted friends who know about me, but other than that, I have no one.

But what I do have is the online life I have built.

I have my Facebook and Instagram where I share everything, talk about everything. RuPaul’s Drag Race, the latest LGBT movies… I have friends from all over the world. Some in England. Some in the US, Sweden, Finland, all over Europe.

A man looks out to the Red Sea and Saudi Arabia in the distance | Photo: GSN
A man looks out to the Red Sea and Saudi Arabia in the distance | Photo: GSN

I made a group for us. I made them all know each other. They’ll talk about their hook ups, their relationships, everything. I spend so much time with them.

Another one was living a similar life to me, but in Syria. He moved to Germany. He takes pictures of himself at pride parades and sends them to me. When people do stuff like that, I feel like I’m part of it. Mentally, I’m there. Me, him and another friend from South Africa tag each other in all sorts of stuff. Mostly memes to do with RuPaul’s Drag Race!

I’m always on my phone. Some people think it’s strange, but even when I’m out and with family and friends, I’m laughing at Miss Vanje memes!

Fierce and fabulous

RuPaul’s Drag Race is a lifeline for me. My favorite queens are Raja, Willam Belli and Manila Luzon. I can’t understate the difference they’ve made to my life.

Some of my friends outside of the country ask how come I’m happy and comfortable with my sexuality within myself, when so many of my peers struggle. One answer I can give is through consuming Western media and culture.

I download all my favorite TV shows and LGBT movies. It’s why my English is so good. I owe it to Harry Potter!

I had no friends growing up, so I lived in my bubble. That’s why I don’t feel bad about being me. When you grow up knowing Elton John is gay and married, Ellen DeGeneres, Neil Patrick Harris, Jim Parsons… I see these people all around the world living happy, healthy lives, and I think ‘They’re just like me.’

Then, when I turn on my phone and read the news, it lets me know I’m not an abomination.

Hopes for the future

Would I consider leaving Egypt? Absolutely. I’ve considered seeking asylum, but it wouldn’t work for me. I’d never be able to see my family again, and I love them too much for that.

I want to see my younger relatives grow up, get married, and I want to be here when something unfortunate happens, or something happy and amazing. I want to be part of it. And I’m very attached to my mother.

So I won’t leave my family behind. And that comes at a price. I live a very depressing life. My best hope at the moment is to get a decent job and save up enough money so I can travel in the future.

I’m currently working on getting a working visa. That would be different. After a time you can apply for citizenship. Because trust me, having a foreign passport in Egypt, a foreign citizenship, you get treated like a king.

If I did leave Egypt one day, I’d love to live in the UK. I’m such a Potterhead. I’d like to go to Scotland specifically. I’d also live in India, which I’ve visited and loved. I’ve sadly never visited an LGBT-friendly country, but India is not as homophobic as here. And I went there before gay sex was legalized!

I hope to see it legalized in Egypt. I hope I live long enough to see two men holding hands in the street freely, to live freely. Not subjected to homophobia, xenophobia, anything like that.

I did have a date the other day. It was cute. We walked through town. We did hold hands while crossing the street, as that’s allowed. Then we had to let go so as not to attract attention. But for that one moment, I felt what it could be like.

Interview by Jamie Tabberer