Shades of in/visibility: On coming out in Egypt
Courtesy: Deena Mohamed

Yasmina*, a woman in her 20s, hadn’t planned on coming out to her family. It happened by accident.

When her parents confronted her about overhearing a conversation that implied Yasmina was romantically involved with a woman, she decided, hesitantly, to tell them.

“I had a problem with being made to lie about this. This was a lot more personal than anything else they might disapprove of,” she says. “This is something that I actually identify with, as a part of who I am.”

Coming out is a term generally used by gay men and women to refer to the process of “revealing” your sexuality to others. It has been celebrated and portrayed in popular Western culture as a key juncture in reconciling seemingly disparate parts of one’s identity as a LGBTQ** person.

While coming out in Europe or the United States can affiliate you with a particular community, with a history of struggle for personal and legal rights, the term, and the process it denotes, takes on a different meaning in the context of Egypt.

Sexuality in general is seldom a public topic of discussion. Declaring one’s sexuality openly as a gay man or woman carries serious risk. Although homosexuality is not officially criminalized, LGBTQ individuals in Egypt are often targeted by the police in raids or through entrapment on dating applications and can be charged with prostitution, debauchery or offending public morality.

In this volatile environment, with the public sphere constantly infringing on people’s private lives, how do gay men and women choose to express or obscure this personal aspect of themselves when interacting with the public? In the absence of a space where expressions of different sexualities are tolerated, members of Egypt’s LGBTQ community (a misnomer, say the men and women I’ve spoken to, since no coherent “community” exists) are left to walk a tightrope between necessary discretion and desired disclosure.

They assert that things looked different in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. “There was a revolutionary moment in 2011, people felt like anything was possible,” recalls A.S. from Mesahat, an organization that works on developing LGBTQ leadership capacities in Egypt and Sudan.

In that revolutionary fervor, A.S. remembers there were some people who went into the street with their rainbow flags. “I remember a moment sitting in a downtown cafe where I looked around and thought, this is a completely queer cafe, there’s not a single non-queer person here. It was like a dream come true. But right afterwards there was one of the worst waves of violence against LGBTQ community in recent history.”

With the increased visibility came a social backlash, A.S. says.

In late 2013, the vice police started to target LGBTQ individuals. For the most part, the campaign consisted of arrests of small numbers of people, but, in December 2014, a bathhouse in downtown Cairo was raided and 26 men were arrested and charged with debauchery. The court found all the men innocent in what became known as the Ramses Bathhouse case, and, since then, small scale raids, rather than mass arrests, have become the norm.

The raid was the largest case of mass arrests on charges of debauchery since the Queen Boat raid, a case that looms large in the memory of many in the LGBTQ people, not just in Egypt, but across the region. On May 11, 2001, a raid on the Queen Boat, a floating nightclub on the Nile, led to the arrest of 52 men who were charged with “habitual debauchery.” The men were paraded before the media as “degenerates” and “a danger to the social fabric.”  After a long and public trial, 21 defendants were handed three-year prison sentences in March, 2003.

“It was such a formative event for people living during that time, the same way the AIDS pandemic was in the US,” says Zeyad, who was a university student at the time. “It really reshaped how [LGBTQ] people dealt with each other and left a legacy of terrible insecurity and deep mistrust toward the state.”

At 16, Zeyad came out to his best friends and his two older sisters, who did not take the news very well at first. Zeyad says he didn’t have to come out to his father because his father confronted him first. “He told me, ‘I know what you’re doing, and I disapprove.’” Although this put a strain on his family relationships, it wasn’t until Zeyad’s university years that he had his first brush with society’s intense homophobia. He says his university friends were “horribly traumatized” when he came out to them.

The assumption of a particular sexuality

“You don’t assume a status immediately if you come out here,” Zeyad argues. “On the contrary, you assume a stigma. You’re on your own in the middle of nowhere.”

But there is a counterbalance to this, he says. “In Egypt once you do decide to come out, what you gain, and this might sound helplessly idealistic, is breaking the expectation that everyone is heterosexual.”

Because Yasmina does not conform to stereotypical notions of femininity, she is sometimes assumed to be queer.

She recalls that when she first told a close friend that she was gay, the friend was not surprised.

“That was strange because it had surprised even me,” she says. “The fact that there were things about me and how I acted that I wasn’t aware of that communicated my sexuality struck me. It made me reconsider how I was seen as ‘normal’ or ‘not normal’ in comparison to other girls.”

As she told her wider circle of friends, she received responses that ranged from shocked and silent to sickened and disgusted, with some categorizing her behavior as a rebellious phase that she would outgrow.

Sometimes, Yasmina says, she’ll test the waters and casually mention the fact that she has a girlfriend mid-conversation and observe people’s reactions. Other times, she says nothing, but accepts that people might make assumptions about her sexuality based on her appearance and demeanor.

“I wasn’t willing to change the way I acted or dressed and parade fake signs of heterosexuality,” she says, and the fact that people may come to conclusions based on that “is just something I have to deal with.”

Language and labels

Many of those who contributed their perspectives to this article say the term coming out has no significance to them, and that the process they have gone through in Egypt is not represented by the implications of this phrase. The terms Al-khoroog min al-khazana (coming out of the storeroom) or Al-aish bil-alan (living in the open) are recently coined Arabic equivalences, published in a glossary on sexual identity which was compiled by Aswat, a collective of Palestinian LGBTQ women, but they have yet to gain popularity.

The Arabic terms mithli and mithliya — modeled on the English word homosexual in that they take their root from the word meaning “same” — are commonly used by organizations in the region working on LGBTQ rights such as Helem and Meem in Lebanon and Aswat and alQaws in Palestine.

A.S. says that some people find Arabic terminology, such as mithli, to be offensive and loaded.

“It carries negative connotations in their minds because of how it is used in the media,” A.S says, adding that the word “gay” in English is perceived as less loaded, and so many prefer to use it instead.

While A.S. says that in the past sexual identifiers were not commonly used in the region, she adds, “People like Joseph Masaad argue ‘let’s go back to the days before terminologies.’ But you can’t force that to happen or impose this on the context of the 21st century.”

Massad, a Palestinian-American academic, argues that Western imperialist ideas of sexuality were imposed on cultures where these categories hadn’t previously existed. First articulated in a 2002 paper titled “Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World,” and later expanded upon in his 2007 book, Desiring Arabs, Massad’s argument is not that same-sex relations were introduced into the region, but that they previously existed as practices and were not formalized as a status of an identity marker.

A.S is critical of conversations about sexuality that focus only on queer sexualities, “as if heterosexuality isn’t a sexuality” she says. She draws a parallel with conversations about race that only focus on those who aren’t white and conversations about gender that are actually just conversations about women or gender nonconforming people.

“I’m not against labels. But when you do label, label everything,” she urges. “Don’t just shift the conversation to make it about us.”

Tarek, a gay academic who conducted his PhD research on notions of community and identity among gay men in Cairo, says he found people resorted to neologisms, fusing Arabic and English words, to express their experience.

“People would just ask one another, Enta out?” he says.

Neither in nor out

Having lived in Europe for an extended period of time, Tarek only started meeting other gay Egyptian men during his research in Cairo. After months of research, several of Tarek’s new acquaintances decided to form a support group, and Tarek recalls how one of the most divisive and heated arguments they ever had started when someone brought up the topic of coming out.

“Some people were convinced we should, but the idea that we have some kind of social obligation to do it is problematic,” Tarek says. He criticizes the implication that being out is a singular act, moving directly from one state to the other — being “in” then being “out.”

He says that during his research, no one he spoke to was “out” in a direct, overt way. Although, many did describe experiencing certain moments of disclosure, in which they “allowed someone to glimpse that side of them.”

Zeyad makes it a point to post about LGBTQ issues on his social media feeds, saying that, at the very least, this keeps the topic visible and forces people to have uncomfortable conversations about widely held social values. At no point in his online activities does Zeyad affiliate himself with a movement or identify himself as gay.

“I am making a statement, but it’s not overt. I want to make it less about me personally and more about the cause itself,” he says.

Courtesy: Deena Mohamed

Heba, an activist in her 20s, says she has never “come out” to anyone. Although, there are many people in her extended social circle who know without her having to tell them.

“Sometimes people see me at a party and realize I’m with a woman and not a man, so they make that assumption,” she says, adding that she doesn’t feel an obligation to explain herself to the world.

She references the daunting scale of being expected to come out time and time again, something she says she is unwilling to do.

“People think that if you come out now, it’s a one time thing that you won’t have to do again,” Heba explains. “But that’s not true. It’s an ongoing process with every new person you meet. There will always be the assumption that you’re a heterosexual woman, and people think the burden falls on you to counter that.”

Although her family is supportive of her work and her choice to live on her own, Heba says she doesn’t feel it is necessary to share this part of her life with them for fear that they would react negatively.

“If I lost their support, it would be devastating to me. And if they can’t deal with the reality of who I am, that would also be really sad,” she says.

She suspects they may already know about her sexuality on some unacknowledged level, but says, “I would deny it if they confronted me, as I’m not ready at the moment.”

“When we talk to people about coming out, we highlight that it’s a very personal decision and process that we can never talk about collectively,” A.S of Mesahat says. “There are so many repercussions, and people have to be sure that they’re ready for them.”

Ultimately, Yasmina regretted coming out to her family.

“Over time it really wasn’t worth the consequences for me, personally,” she says. “At the end of the day, I think it broke their hearts.”

But there was a silver lining. When Yasmina talked to her father about a girlfriend a few years back, he surprised her by saying he didn’t have a problem with what he called “her lifestyle.”

“That was not as great as hearing ‘I don’t have a problem with you,’ but it was the first time I had heard someone in my family say that they don’t have a problem with this part of me.”

The idea that transparency is necessary in order to establish intimacy can also get in the way of forming meaningful relationships. Tarek describes struggling with his family interactions because he constantly felt he was hiding something. Once he let go of that idea, he says he began to appreciate his relationships with family members more.

The price of visibility

Visibility for individuals is not an option right now,” says N.S from Bedayaa, an organization founded in 2010 which works on LGBTQ community building in Egypt and Sudan. “Online we are present as an organization. Our name is out there and people know to come to us, but they don’t know the identities of the individuals who work there.”

Bedayaa are running an online campaign throughout July called #لما_عرفوا (When they found out) through which people share their coming out stories. Apart from advocacy work and documentation, one of their main activities is holding monthly sessions that provide safe spaces for LGBTQ individuals to meet and discuss a range of themes, from internalized homophobia to discrimination within the community.

N.S is critical of the view often espoused in LGBTQ conferences abroad, “that you have to be visible to be effective.”

A.S maintains that “visibility is overrated.”

“There’s this feeling that we have a roadmap because they [the West] are ahead of us, but that’s not true. We can’t follow the same roadmap because it’s a completely different context. She points out that, within the same country, there are differences in context, saying “The LGBTQ movement in New York City isn’t comparable with that in Texas, for example.”

“It’s not about a group of individuals coming out to society,” she asserts, “but rather about the issue itself ‘coming out’ for social discussion.”

Although Heba finds the idea of coming out “exhausting,” she says that in some conversations, she feels compelled to assert her identity as a lesbian woman, a label she considers contested and conflicted, “to make the statement that I, and people like me, exist.”

She says that lesbian and bisexual women in Egypt are often less visible and taken less seriously, in part because female sexuality in general is not often publicly addressed, a fact that both annoys and, to a certain extent, protects her.

“There’s a huge difference between being a gay man and being a lesbian woman, because there’s basically no visibility for women at all,” she says. She finds the prospect of visibility for lesbian women in the current context, in the absence of a proper rights movement, completely terrifying.

“I think about it on an individual level. What if my neighbors notice?” she says. “What if the doorman realizes that the girl who comes over every day is my girlfriend and not my best friend? What if my mother finds out?”

In late July, Dalia Alfaghal experienced these consequences first-hand when she came out online, sharing her joy that her father had wished her happiness in her relationship after an unpleasant conversation the previous night. After her Facebook post went viral, the young Egyptian woman – who lives in San Francisco – received hate messages, insults and death threats because of her sexuality, which she said did not surprise her from a society that has normalized “the culture of affront and abuse toward women.” In a video, Dalia later commented that “coming out is not the only way to do it,” and urged queer youth in the Middle East and North Africa to “find your supportive circle. […] There are people out there who will support you and be there for you.”

Waiting for ‘the moment’

Not everyone feels they need acknowledgement, even from those close to them. For Salma, a woman in her mid-30s, making an announcement about her sexuality in a context like Egypt is totally unnecessary, if not counterproductive.

“You can live a particular lifestyle, sexuality being a part of that, without having to announce it,” she says. She believes that because issues generally regarding sexuality are rarely discussed in public in Egypt, it’s easy to capitalize on that and separate one’s private and public images.

She refers to coming out as a “constant moment,” a process that extends potentially forever and happens on several levels, whether within friendships, workplaces or families.

“Even if there are opportunities for that kind of disclosure,” she says, “I don’t usually take them, and I’m not obligated to. Even though there might be a safe space, I don’t usually feel I want to share that particular part of myself.”

Having spent some time in Europe, Salma sees the benefit of coming out in affiliating yourself with a particular community. “But here,” she says, “that moment doesn’t have the same cheerleader quality to it.”

Neither hopeful nor expectant that anything will change in the near future, she feels cautious about the risks associated with being visible as a group.

“Here, there is no moment, and there probably never will be. But so what?” she says. “Being silent in the sense of not coming out doesn’t have to mean that you’re somehow suffering. It’s just a way of being. You just get used to it.”

*Names and other details in this story have been changed to protect interviewee identities.

**LGBTQ is shorthand for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer (or sometimes Questioning). Its use is not to imply either that this is the term people always use in Egypt or elsewhere, or that people who fall under this umbrella identify as one community and have the same interests.

*** The individuals interviewed for this article do not comprise a representative sample of Egypt’s LGBTQ community and speak on behalf of themselves and their own experiences.

Lara El Gibaly 

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