In accordance with the US President Barack Obama’s May 31, 2011 GLBT Pride Proclamation that, “we rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity,” US Ambassador for Pakistan, Richard Hoagland and members of Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA) hosted an event declared as ‘Islamabad’s first ever Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (GLBT) Pride Celebration’ on June 26, 2011 in the Federal Capital of Islamic Republic of Pakistan. This high profile event was reportedly attended by 75 people including Mission Officers, U.S. military representatives, foreign diplomats, and leaders of Pakistani LGBT advocacy groups who showed their “support for human rights, including LGBT rights in Pakistan at a time when those rights are increasingly under attack from extremist elements throughout Pakistani society”.
Unthankfully, all the sensational and flowery claptrap peddled around this event turned out to be a disaster for the budding underground Pakistani LGBT movement as the US Embassy conveniently oversaw the repercussions this event would have brought in an already critical country which is fighting against terrorism and radicalization while sacrificing its peace, its liberty, its sovereignty and countless lives of its law enforcement agencies and civilians alike.
Within a few days, the streets of major urban cities of Pakistan namely Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore were hailed with the students and political workers of Jamaat-e-Islami, a religious political party, chanting slogans at their highest pitches against homosexuals and America. For them it was a golden opportunity to kill both ‘the evils with a single stone’. Banners were displayed in major cities, especially in the federal capital, within a few days demanding persecution of gays and accusing Americans of propagating and imposing this ‘westernized’ idea. The lash back didn’t remain limited to the Jamaat-e-Islami only but sooner most of the political parties joined this bandwagon to form a coalition against the government for their menial political interests.
On the other hand, the Pakistani media, especially the local Urdu newspapers and channels dealt with the issue with their usual approach i.e. lacking all the required sensitivity and knowledge to handle this crucial issue. Their sole concern was to raise their TRP’s and circulations and that’s all. Although a few liberal and sensible voices were raised through articles by Nuwas Manto, Hashim bin Rasheed, Marvi Sirmed and Mohsin Sayeed but most of these were published in English dailies or in their online o-peds and blog sections while leaving a huge void for majority Urdu readers. There was a dire need to represent a sensitive and sensible portrayal of the issue in the Urdu media to counter the venomous articles and hate speeches by Orya Maqbool Jaan, Aamir Liaquat and Ibtisam Elahi Zaheer, who not only openly condemned homosexuals but also denounced them as sinful, non-Muslims, lesser than human beings and demanded capital punishment for them with full zeal.
Meanwhile, our media circulated and aired all this hate speech while completely overlooking its ethical and social responsibilities. I guess it’s high time that our mushrooming news channels and newspapers start differentiating between free speech and hate speech because without it, they are only damaging the fabric of an already complex and fragile society.
This unnecessary brouhaha by our sensational media started not only an untimely debate in our society but also in our households. I had never heard my mother, an ardent Urdu daily follower, having any strong stance against anyone, say it a murder, a rapist or a dacoit but one day she said, “All homosexuals should be stoned to death.”
Being a gay, living in Pakistan, from a traditional Muslim family background, it was already an ordeal to be myself but after this US Embassy triggered media frenzy things have turned even worse. The people I am out to, are now looking at me with a different perspective. They either consider me an undercover CIA agent with hidden agenda to ‘westernize’ the cultural values of Pakistan or look as if declaring that when the rogue mullahs will come and deliver me from my deadly sins, they will religiously mind their own business. This isn’t solely my own story but of several completely out or partially out queers in Pakistan. On the other hand one can imagine the suffering and tension of all those unheard, closeted voices, which were already afraid of coming out and pretending to be ‘normal’. The level of concern and uneasiness resulted from this highly inefficient and implausible event has made them even more vulnerable at the hands of the society, which is always ready to prosecute anyone different.
Surprisingly, it has also been reported that US embassy which claimed to “support LGBT rights in Pakistan” isn’t going to entertain LGBT Pakistanis for asylum. It’s as if that after starting a storm in the cocktail, they are also having an easy way out.
After talking to several local LGBT activists I have gathered two main stances regarding this whole fiasco and the future of Pakistani LGBT movement. A very small number of activists suggested that this event should be considered as a golden opportunity to come out formally and launch a full blown LGBT movement in Pakistan, after we had missed a similar opportunity in 2007 at the time of Shazina-Shumile case. On the other hand, the majority of the activists opined that it’s very sensitive and crucial time to come out and it’s better to remain underground for the survival of this movement. Change can be brought slowly and gradually, in safe and calculated ways. The recent incident where a young LGBT activist Falak Ali of Neegar Society was severely beaten up by the mullahs in the streets of Multan, a southern Punjab city, in the presence of police is just an example of the reaction of the public about this whole issue.
Still, Pakistani LGBT activists are hopeful and determined about the future of LGBT movement in Pakistan and they strongly believe that whenever there’s going to be any LGBT movement in Pakistan, it will be most definitely by Pakistani people for Pakistani people. No one else can decide or force the time for what and when we need to emancipate ourselves from the restrictions of the heterosexist society. We can have allies and support from other international organizations but the primary reinforces and stakeholders will be ourselves. Let’s hope for the times when Pakistani LGBT movement will be in full swing and our government will start accepting the existence of Pakistani LGBT.
Hadi Hussain is a writer and gay rights activist in Pakistan. He is a member of the Organization for Protection & Propagation of Rights of Sexual Minorities, the first LGBT organisation to be set up in Pakistan. This column was first published by gaylaxymag.com on Aug 24 and is republished with persmission from the writer.