From Stonewall to Sharjah: There is no such thing as gay rights in the Arab Middle East

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ABU DHABI -- "We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths -- that all of us are created equal -- is the star that guides us still," President Barack Obama declared at his inauguration last Monday, "just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall."

But does it also go through Sharjah?

That's where two dozen men were arrested and lashed in 2004 at an apparent "gay wedding" here in the United Arab Emirates, where homosexual relations are illegal. Since then, untold numbers of gays have reportedly received lashes, prison sentences, psychological "therapy" and hormone treatments to remedy the so-called "illness" of homosexuality.

President Obama received just praise for mentioning Stonewall, site of a 1969 New York police raid and riot that touched off the modern American homosexual rights movement. And to his credit, the president and outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have instructed U.S. foreign aid agencies to support gay-rights efforts overseas. "Gay rights are human rights," Ms. Clinton said in 2011.

Yet in places like the UAE, paradoxically, the expansion of other human rights -- especially freedom of speech -- could actually be inhibiting gay rights. As the winds of change sweep through the Arab world, more and more people are getting their say. And they're saying some very nasty things about homosexuals.

Witness Dr. Wedad Lootah, author of two highly controversial sex guides in the UAE. After she published her first volume in 2009, which called on women to embrace sexual pleasure within marriage, Ms. Lootah received death threats from outraged Muslims. To her supporters, though, she was the "Muslim Dr. Ruth": Like the octogenarian American sex therapist Ruth Westheimer, they said, Ms. Lootah would help educate the UAE by sparking a fresh and frank dialogue about sex.

The dialogue includes homosexual activity, which reportedly has spiked within the UAE's gender-segregated schools. But to Ms. Lootah, a devout Muslim who wears a full veil, gay sex is banned by the Quran. Indeed, she has argued, children need more sex education so they know how to avoid homosexual behavior.

According to educational authorities here, the threat is greatest among girls. So in 2010, the Ministry of Social Affairs launched a campaign in schools and on television called "Excuse Me, I am a Girl," reminding girls and their parents about the dangers of lesbianism.

Wider Internet access and freedom have also provided an expanded forum for antigay sentiment. Last year, two young Emirati caused a stir by posting a video showing how to "cure" people of their homosexuality. Entitled "Be Yourself," the video showed two young men teaching an effeminate friend how to clench his fists like a "real man." They proceeded to cut his hair and slap his face, instructing their friend to "stop speaking about boys."

To be sure, the video was widely criticized by gay activists in the UAE. But almost all of them remained anonymous, demonstrating the limits of the Emirates' new-found freedoms of speech on matters of sexuality.

Even when Madonna made pro-gay comments and gestures here last year, in her first-ever concert in the Arab world, gay Emirati censored themselves. "There aren't many times as an LGBT person living in the Middle East that we are able to see ourselves represented, included, respected and most of all accepted in such a public way," one woman told an interviewer. But she didn't want anyone else to see her, revealing only her first name.

Gays in the UAE actually have it easier than those in many other Middle Eastern countries. In 2011, Iran executed three people for homosexual activity; the year before that, a Saudi man was sentenced to 500 lashes and five years in jail for having sex with another man.

The worst news comes from Iraq, where gays say more than 700 people have been killed because of their sexuality since the 2003 toppling of dictator Saddam Hussein. Hussein stifled political dissent, of course, but he mostly left gays alone. When Iraqis were freed from his yoke, they muzzled -- and murdered -- the sexual minorities in their midst.

Last week, at a forum in Dubai, one of my American colleagues asked our Emirati host about gay rights in the UAE. "If you want to do those things in private, you can," came the reply. But once gays made themselves public, he quickly added, the public spoke out against them. "We have rights, too," he emphasized.

That's the sad paradox of the post-Arab Spring Middle East: As more people speak their minds, they're making homosexuality ever more unspeakable.

Gay rights are human rights. But it's a long way from Stonewall to Sharjah.


Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is teaching a course this January at NYU's Abu Dhabi campus.


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