Page last updated at 09:35 GMT, Thursday, 15 April 2010 10:35 UK

Egypt's homosexuals find home in cyberspace

Egyptian gay community website
The punishments for being openly gay in Egypt mean that increasingly men are using the internet to meet up

By Yolande Knell
BBC News, Cairo

In Egypt, the very existence of homosexuality is rarely openly acknowledged.

Laws on public morality are used to crack down on gay people and mean they live under continual threat of harassment and imprisonment.

"Tito" is a good-looking man in his late twenties with a successful career and an infectious laugh. Yet he tells me that most of the time he hides a secret: he is gay.

In the majority we see the same pattern: arrests without probable cause, forced medical examinations and mandatory HIV tests, physical abuse and coercion to give confessions
Hossam Bahgat
Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights

"As far as my family is concerned, this topic is completely out of bounds. It's a huge taboo," he explains. "In Egypt you still have these closed minds. I am only "out" to my friends."

When Tito first tried to meet other men as a teenager he found it difficult. He smiles as he recounts anecdotes of his failed attempts.

"Once I was out driving in Cairo and saw an attractive guy. I stopped because I wanted to talk to him but couldn't think of anything to say so I just asked: 'Where is the nearest petrol station?' He looked at me like I was crazy, then pointed out that I'd pulled up next to one!"

Like many other gay Egyptians he has also had his share of sinister experiences.

"After I had sex with one man he asked for a lift home but when we reached the area it was dark and deserted," Tito recalls. "He pulled out a knife and said: 'Hand over all your money and your mobile phone.' Without thinking I gave him everything I had and left."

Forced HIV tests

As well as muggings and harassment gay men face the danger of prosecution under public morality laws.

nile boat
Twenty-one gay men were jailed in 2001, some with hard labour

"We still document cases where gay individuals, couples or groups are reported by their neighbours, arrested for public indecency or have gone to report crimes and found themselves turned into the accused," says Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

"In the majority we see the same pattern: arrests without probable cause, forced medical examinations and mandatory HIV tests, physical abuse and coercion to give confessions."

The most notorious crackdown was in 2001 when 52 men were detained on the Queen Boat, a floating nightclub in central Cairo. Twenty-one of them were jailed for three years for "habitual debauchery."

While certain shopping malls and cinemas are still known as gay hang-outs, websites are seen as a safer way to meet new people.

"In Cairo, Alexandria and other cities in Egypt there have been literally thousands of postings on our message boards," remarks Ali, who set up 10 years ago.

"Initially it was about recording news events and history," he says "but there are no gay bars or clubs and no gay newspapers so the internet quickly became the only way to communicate."

Safe sex

Tito has often gone online to find out information and set up dates. "I think the sites are useful," he comments. "You know I have met really good people online. They work in good jobs and are very respectable."

It was time for unapologetic gay characters to appear on the Arabic-speaking screen
Maher Sabry
Film maker

As the gay community is forced underground, issues affecting it like the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases do not get openly discussed.

In a recent informal survey of eight countries by, based in Lebanon, only 62% of Egyptian respondents said they practised safe sex.

"It was the lowest," comments site manager, Assaf Gatenio. "There is no possibility to have any advocacy except on the internet in Egypt and that's the result."

Free thinking

Many gay rights campaigners have left the country but not all have given up the cause.

A still from the film All My Life courtesy of the Egyptian Underground Film Movement
Representations of gay people in Egyptian films are overwhelmingly homophobic

"I left to avoid persecution," says Maher Sabry, who moved to the United States after speaking out against the Queen Boat case. "I'm physically in exile but mentally I've never left."

Mr Sabry has made a film "All My Life" which tells the story of an Egyptian man whose lover of many years leaves him to marry a woman - sending his life into a downward spiral. He hopes that sympathetic cultural representations can change public attitudes.

"It was time for unapologetic gay characters to appear on the Arabic-speaking screen," he says.

"Homophobic presentations of homosexuals have been in the Egyptian cinema for a long time."

Like many activists, Mr Sabry sees violations of gay rights as part of a bigger picture of violations of human rights.

"My dream is to return permanently to Egypt but the low acceptance of gay lifestyles is not the only reason that I live away," he reflects.

"It's the lack of freedom of speech, free-thinking and civil rights."

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