Saudi gays flaunt new freedoms: 'Straights can't kiss in public or hold hands like us'

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The Independent Online

In the glass and marble shopping malls of this cosmopolitan and comparatively laid-back city on the Red Sea, young Saudi Arabian men are taking advantage of the emergence of an increasingly tolerated Western-oriented gay scene.

In the glass and marble shopping malls of this cosmopolitan and comparatively laid-back city on the Red Sea, young Saudi Arabian men are taking advantage of the emergence of an increasingly tolerated Western-oriented gay scene.

Certain malls are known as cruising areas, and there are even gay-friendly coffee shops. A big gay disco takes place at a private villa in the north of the city once a week. And young Saudis who frequent these venues, many returnees from the United States after the 11 September 2001 attacks, say that they get to know one another through the internet.

The paradox of Saudi Arabia is that while the executioner's sword awaits anyone convicted of the crime of sodomy, in practice homosexuality is tolerated.

"I don't feel oppressed at all," said one, a 23-year-old who was meeting in one of the coffee shops with a group of self-identified "gay" Saudi friends dressed in Western clothes and speaking fluent English. "I heard that after 11 September, a Saudi student who was going to be deported on a visa technicality applied for political asylum because he was gay," he added, provoking laughter from the others. "What was he thinking of? We have more freedom here than straight couples. After all, they can't kiss in public like we can, or stroll down the street holding one another's hand."

Saudi Arabia's domestic reform initiative, combined with the kingdom's eagerness to shed an international reputation for fostering extremism and intolerance, may even have some benefits for this strict Islamic society's gay community. Shortly after the attacks on America - most of the suicide-hijackers were Saudi nationals - a Saudi diplomat in Washington denied that the kingdom beheads homosexuals, while openly admitting that "sodomy" is practised by consenting males in Saudi Arabia "on a daily basis". Even the head of the notorious religious police has since acknowledged the existence of a local gay population.

The treatment of gay men here received international attention when an Interior Ministry statement reported in January 2002 that three men in the southern city of Abha had been "beheaded for homosexuality". The report provoked widespread condemnation from gay and human-rights groups in the West - and a swift denial from an official at the Saudi embassy in Washington, DC. Tariq Allegany, an embassy spokesman, said the three were beheaded for the sexual abuse of boys. He said: "I would guess there's sodomy going on daily in Saudi Arabia, but we don't have executions for it all the time."

A Riyadh-based Western diplomat, aware of the details of the case, confirmed the men were beheaded for "rape". "The three men seduced a number of very young boys and videoed themselves raping them. Then they used the recordings, and the fear the boys had of being exposed, to get the youngsters to recruit their friends," he said. While homosexuality is illegal in Saudi Arabia, doubt surrounds specific punishment for it. Some gay foreigners were deported in the 1990s, "but no Saudi has ever been prosecuted for 'being a homosexual'. The concept just doesn't exist here," the Western diplomat said. Since the uproar over the beheadings, the kingdom's Internet Services Unit, responsible for blocking sites deemed "unIslamic" or politically sensitive, unblocked access to its home page for gay Saudi surfers after being bombarded with critical e-mails from the US.

A S Getenio, manager of GayMiddleEast.com, said Saudi Arabia seemed concerned about the bad publicity blocking the site would bring, "at the time it was involved in a multi-million dollar advertising campaign in the US to improve its image".

Ibrahim bin Abdullah bin Ghaith, the head of the religious police (the Committee for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue) acknowledged, in unusually tempered language, that there are gay Saudis, while also speaking of the need "to educate the young" about this "vice". But he denied media reports that gay and lesbian relationships were the norm in the strictly segregated schools and colleges, that homosexuality "is spreading".

In an unprecedented two-page special investigation, the daily newspaper Okaz said lesbianism was "endemic" among schoolgirls. It justified the article with a saying of the Prophet's wife Ayeshathat "there should be no shyness in religion". The article told of lesbian sex in school lavatories, girls stigmatised after refusing the advances of their fellow students, and teachers complaining that none of the girls were willing to change their behaviour.

Mr Ghaith dismissed a suggestion that he should send his "enforcers" to investigate. Armed with sticks, they routinely hunt down men and women in public they suspect may not be directly related. "This perversion is found in all countries," he told Okaz. "The number [of homosexuals] here is small ..." That assessment is contradicted by teachers and students who say that, in the absence of other outlets, a "gay" subculture has inevitably flourished among youth.

"A particularly beautiful boy always gets top marks in the exams because he's some teacher's favourite," said Mohammed, an English teacher in a government high school in Riyadh. "On the other hand, I know many older boys who deliberately flunked their final exams so they can stay ... with their younger sweethearts."

Ahmed, 19, a student at a private college in Jeddah, said there was no shame in having a boyfriend in his private high school. Although he firmly rejected the label "gay", he admitted that he now has a "special friend" in college, too. "It's those who don't have a boy who are ashamed to admit it. We introduce our boy to our friends as ' al walid hagi' [the boy who belongs to me]. At the beginning of term, we always check out the new boys to see which are the most ' helu' [sweet] and think of ways to get to know them."

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