So... how gay is Pakistan?

2015-10-20
With all the progression of LGBT+ issues globally in the last decade, comedian and presenter Mawaan Rizwan wanted to know what was happening in his country of birth. He travelled to Pakistan and the results are shown in a documentary, How Gay Is Pakistan?, airing tonight on BBC Three. Here, Marwaan writes exclusively for Attitude about what he discovered... Having visited Pakistan various times as a child, I got a very clear sense of rigid gender roles and heteronormative behaviour. But having not been back for almost a decade, I was about to see a side to Pakistan I never expected. A side my parents never wanted me to see. I met up with people living gay and transgender lives despite constant fear of persecution and discovered a fascinating world behind closed doors. I even met an Imam who offered to cure me of my own homosexuality! How Gay Is Pakistan? presenter Mawaan Rizwan. Photographer: Madeeha Syed On my first day in Karachi I was invited to an underground gay party. The atmosphere felt inclusive and friendly, the music was loud and the dance moves even louder. So far, so good. And a lot cheaper than Soho! But when I started having conversations with some of the guests, there seemed to be a real sense of fear about the outside world. Many of them had lied to their families about where they were and as soon as the gathering ended, everyone disappeared back into the night as if nothing had happened. At the party I met Kami and Sid who have been planning on getting married abroad and returning to Pakistan as an openly gay couple. During a shopping trip for Kami's wedding outfit, we got approached by a bystander who had been listening to our conversation. The stranger had a lot to say about how Kami should behave, denouncing his effeminacy as going against God's will. This escalated into a heated argument and before we knew it a large crowd had gathered around us. I felt on edge about how publicly vocal this man was, but Kami later told me that they're used to defending themselves like that in public. It seemed like everything was fine as long as we remained anonymous. As soon as Kami became visible and vocal about rights and sexuality, we become a target. So just how dangerous is it to identify as gay in Pakistan? I met up with the founder of NAZ Male Health Alliance, one of the only organisations in Pakistan working openly with the LGBT community. He showed me a video that he was sent, that was too shocking to show in its entirety in the programme, that seemed to show a teenage boy who was caught with his male lover in Pakistan's KPK province and shows an angry mob attacking the boy and sodomising him with a stick as a way of punishing him for what they deem a sinful act. That's when it hit home that it's not a matter of fighting for identity, it's a matter of fighting for survival. Especially in rural areas where education and access to the right information is sparse. Being Gay in Pakistan During my time in Pakistan what scared me more than the negativity towards homosexuality was the underlying denial that it even exists. In an extremely patriarchal society, the norm is for a man to marry a woman. Anything else is a threat to tradition and belief. However, it seems like gay sex is incredibly easy to find in Pakistan, as women are less accessible. And more shockingly, many men who have sex with other men (MSM) do not identify as 'gay'. Despite all this, I met with some extremely positive and inspiring individuals. In some cases, people told me that when they came out they were astonished to find that certain family members were quite supportive. This goes to show that on a one-to-one human level, people might be more open-minded than expected. Many also said that thanks to the internet they are finding ways to connect with each other, allowing an LGBT+ community to emerge. My experience taught me that Pakistan is a complex country with contrasting cultures that co-exist together. I always hear of Pakistan as a conservative society, but that statement is starting to seem like a sweeping generalisation. One thing is for certain; it is not the super rigid heterosexual nation my parents made it out to be. It seems like people are slowly waking up to the fact that gay relationships and MSM communities exist. I met people who shared stories of tolerance and acceptance amongst all the turmoil. And there are most definitely large groups of people in Pakistan taking daring steps every day to fight for equality. How Gay is Pakistan? will be broadcast tonight, Tuesday 20th October at 9pm on BBC Three or catch up later on BBC iPlayer.