Under the Pakistan Penal Code, sodomy is punishable with a 2-to-10-year prison sentence, alongside a fine of about ten thousand dollars, enormous when you consider the average income of a Pakistani. Any discourse on the topic of homosexuality in mainstream forms of media is met with extreme amounts of hostility, evidenced by the riots triggered by Islamist groups when the U.S. Embassy attempted to host a gay pride event in 2011. In a state where Orthodox Islamic ideology has a significant hold on the legal system and an influential political group exists to preserve the ideology, it is easy to imagine a cutthroat homophobic environment making survival within it a hell. That imagination might hold some truth, as it is pretty difficult for a gay individual to come out. Yet for the most part, it’s wrong: Pakistan’s gay community is not only active, but it’s thriving, with one individual noting that Pakistan’s major city Karachi is a ‘gay man’s paradise.’
This seems very counter-intuitive: how does a community, which seems to be the antithesis of what a fiercely patriarchal society stands for, thrive in such an environment? The answer seems to lie in the statement of one of the members of the community I interviewed: “Don’t make it a part of that society. Hide it. Make it seem as distant from Pakistani society as possible.” And that seems to be the case. Under closed doors, the community prospers, with gay parties being held and hook-up culture dominating the social scene. One member notes that he’s involved into so many parties that it’s difficult to find time solely for himself. Another individual states that it is extremely easy to engage in gay sex as a Pakistani, even more easier than engaging in heterosexual sex outside of marriage. Most attribute this to the fact that public displays of affection for members of the same sex are more widely tolerated than heterosexual displays of affection. Gay Pakistanis also note the importance of the internet in helping create contacts and spreading awareness about Pakistan’s gay community. According to one person, there are about a thousand gay men online at any given time and forums exist to help gay individuals navigate the social environment and give tips on ways to hide their sexual identity from the public. The internet also seems to be the most important factor in helping individuals discover their sexual identity; every individual I interviewed stated that, with no talk about the issue in mainstream media, the only recourse that they had was the internet. Hence, for a gay man attempting to engage in casual sex and attain communal support, Pakistan seems to provide a safe haven.
Yet, although the community itself is vibrant, the personal lives of Pakistani gay men are often distraught. Pakistani parents, even in upper class homes which are recognized as being more liberal, are very conservative when it comes to discussions about sexual orientation. Coming out can mean a plethora of abuse you’ll have to suffer through, ranging from regular verbal harassment to ostracism from the community. Most individuals therefore, tend not to come out, preferring to undertake “don’t ask don’t tell” measures. This, however, has its own disadvantages. Pakistani patriarchal society heavily expounds the idea of the heterosexual couple: men and women are expected to marry as soon as they come of age. This expectation affects gay men too, as neglecting to follow this can mean stigmatization. As a result, many gay men are forced into marrying members of the opposite sex and made to spend the entirety of their lives with them. Many report that they continue to engage in sexual encounters with members of the gay community, yet the secrecy of these encounters, alongside the perceived immorality of hiding such an important part of their identity, has severe mental health repercussions for them.
Another considerable aspect of the Pakistani gay male experience is the dissonance in the religious values gay Pakistanis experience. Conservative Islamic ideologies that are expounded in Pakistan take a strong stance against homosexuality, with some even recommending the death penalty for sodomy. Noting that more than 90% of Pakistan’s population identifies as Muslim, many gay individuals are forced to reconcile their sexual identity with this strong stance. This serves as a severe mental health issue; with no immediate means of support given the taboo nature of this topic area, many gay Pakistanis report feeling extremely guilty, believing that they are suffering a form of ‘divine punishment.’ Omar Mateen, the shooter who perpetrated the attack on the Orlando nightclub, was reported to have been a closeted homosexual, reputed to suffer a similar form of dissonance. Others leave the religion altogether, resulting in the loss of a major support system they’ve counted on their entire lives and suffering the added burden of being non-religious in a highly conservative society. The cognitive dissonance that is created, therefore, is very detrimental. On a positive note, however, some gay individuals are able to reconcile the religious and sexual aspects of their identity, albeit after some period of dissonance. With the rise of queer-friendly mosques and queer-identifying imams, there is hope that this dissonance does not need to exist. Alongside this, the communal support provided through the easily accessible gay community goes a long way in minimizing the dissonance, helping members attain some form of respite.
The fact that such a strong and easily accessible community thrives alongside social repression is hard to compute. The daily life of a gay male involves a happy sex life if so he whims, while also suffering some form of abuse and stigma from general Pakistani society. It is to note that, as of yet, studies haven’t yet focused on the intersectional aspects of it and class and ethnicity will probably play a factor in determining the extent to which the community is accessible to them. Alongside this, the plight of female members of the community has not yet been considered, solely because they are much less visible in Pakistani society, with conservative attitudes against providing them the same mobility gay males have. However, most gay individuals are, as of yet, content with the situation, fearing that the ‘don’t ask don’t tell” situation will die out if discourse on homosexuality becomes more evident. Still, some exposure is perhaps necessary to focus on the most sidelined members of the community and to minimize the sufferings of the ‘dual life’ that these individuals experience.