Sitting on a bench in the shade of the cool palms of Lahore's Lawrence Gardens, Tariq thought carefully over what to say next. For years he had kept his sexuality a secret, knowing all too well the risk of revealing himself as gay.
"My life is a lie and I know it," the 24-year-old fine arts student told IRIN. "But this is the reality of Pakistan and this is the reality I have to live."
For thousands of gay people in Pakistan today, that reality is repeated again and again. The idea of 'coming out' has never been an option for him, Tariq stressed. Like most people interviewed by IRIN, he declined to use his real name. Part of the 'lie' is living up to family and societal norms, with Tariq himself conceding he has recently agreed to a marriage arranged by his family.
LIVING WITH DENIAL
With denial as their constant companion, gay Pakistanis live in constant fear of being 'outed' in this staunchly conservative society which is largely ignorant and intolerant of sexual minorities. The vast majority of gay people just do what is expected of them and remain quietly in the shadows, a way of life common throughout this South Asian nation of 140 million. To act in any way effeminately is a sign of weakness and a blemish on one's own masculinity in this most 'macho' of societies. To be gay is to be deviant, an aberration against God's will which gay men in Pakistan go to great lengths to disguise.
Gay men living in the larger cities such as Lahore, Karachi or the capital, Islamabad, fare slightly better in the mildly more tolerant atmosphere of urban areas. Here they enjoy higher levels of education and many hold well paid professional jobs. Those living in impoverished rural areas remain closeted together fearing the extreme conservatism of their villages.
"I live in two worlds," Umjad, a 28-year-year old marketing executive for a major multi-national, told IRIN at a friend's upscale apartment in Karachi's Clifton Beach area. "Sometimes I feel like a Hollywood actor. I'm always trying to balance both lives." In an effort to do just that, each week Umjad and his friends gather informally at a friend's house in what undoubtedly is their only chance to be themselves.
"Sure it's difficult. You can't be openly gay if you want to be accepted or if you want to have a good job," Itfan, Umjad's 42-year-old friend remarked candidly, his friends nodding with approval. "But there is a greater sense of solidarity amongst gay people in Pakistan now than ever before." Though low by Western standards, part of this solidarity came with the evolution of the internet which revolutionised opportunities for gay Pakistanis to meet each other and discuss issues impacting them.
"I used to feel so alone. Now I know there are lots of people like me," Zubair, a slender 24-year-old added.
"It changed my life," another quipped.
HOMOSEXUALITY AND ISLAM
Yet for most gay people in Pakistan, having to wrestle with one's own sexuality and being constantly concerned about being discovered, life remains a constant battle. Can you be true to yourself, while adhering to the strict Islamic morals the country prides itself on?
"The issue of 'homosexuality' is sensitive and is not publicly discussed but there is, at the same time, a level of acceptance amongst men," Hina Jilani, a leading human rights activist and lawyer, told IRIN in Lahore.
That tacit acceptance can be best seen in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP), where ethnic Pashtun men are well known for taking young boys as lovers, a practice now deeply embedded in the local culture and an obvious consequence of the strict segregation of women there. But according to a Boston Globe report published in July 2004 entitled "Open Secret", homosexuals in Pakistan walk a fine line between harsh legal and cultural prohibition and a form of unspoken social acceptance.
"Islamic tradition frowns on but acknowledges male-male sex and this plays a role in permitting clandestine sex so long as it is not allowed to interfere with family life, which is of paramount importance," San Francisco-based sociologist Stephen Murray was quoted as saying in his 1997 collection of scholarly essays entitled "Sociological Control of Homosexuality: A Multi-Nation Comparison". Cultural and religious tradition keeps such relationships largely hidden in Pakistan, he wrote, adding there is no gay life in the Western sense of the word, and any sexual relationships between men have to be concealed and managed behind the context of marriage to a woman.
Further complicating the matter, Murray noted that the most common form of male homosexuality in Pakistan was pederasty, whereby an older man entices or coerces a younger male into sex, sometimes using physical force. Such incidents serve only to blur the issues of homosexuality and exploitation, the Boston Globe report said, making it even more difficult for gays to be open about their sexuality and assert their need for rights. This drives them further underground.
"Many organisations who have tried to work on the rights of gay people have really used HIV/AIDS programmes to approach the subject and cannot [do so] openly," Jilani maintained.
IN THE SHADOWS
One local NGO responding to a request for an interview by IRIN underscored the concern people working to tackle the subject face.
"This is a critical issue in our society. We have to be careful for that. Please let us know how many persons will be with you," asked the NGO employee warily, inquiring whether any journalists or anyone from the authorities would be present at the proposed meeting. "Human rights activists like us struggle for the rights of people including gays and other youngsters. If you want to find a person who is campaigning openly for gay rights only, the answer is NO," he said adamantly, going on to describe homosexuality as a harshly punishable sin and a crime.
"Some religious persons may kill the person who talks about gay rights," he warned.
A VOICE ABROAD
Even so, while activists on the ground may prefer to keep a low profile on the issue, those abroad are more vocal.
"The lack of proper democracy and the lack of respect for internationally set standards of human rights makes the lives of LGBT [lesbian gay bisexual and transgender] people in Pakistan more difficult," Kursad Kahramananoglu, who heads up the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), the oldest and only membership-based LGBT organisation in the world, told IRIN from London.
ILGA often receive requests from LGBT people in Pakistan for help in receiving political asylum in western countries, he said, noting that because of a lack of resources they are unable to deal with individual cases.
"However, I can tell you one of the active members of the ILGA organisation now lives in London because it was not possible to live as an open gay man in Pakistan," Kahramananoglu said.
With regard to members in Pakistan, he replied: "We cannot for reasons you can appreciate give their contact details," explaining it was precisely this issue of confidentiality which has been used against the ILGA at the United Nations in the past.
The government in Islamabad has never hidden its intolerance towards the issue of gay rights. In April 2003, a UN vote on homosexual human rights was derailed at the last minute by an alliance of disapproving Muslim countries, including Pakistan, which introduced amendments designed to kill the measure.
The amendments removed all references to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, rendering the resolution meaningless, a 25 April 2003 Guardian report said. The resolution, was sponsored by Brazil with support from 19 of the 53 member countries of the UN Human Rights Commission. It called on member states to promote and protect the human rights "of all persons, regardless of their sexual orientation".
"Pakistan, which prides itself on being the land of civilised, educated, humane people, cannot do anything else but see the truth. At present they are in denial," Kahramananoglu charged. "They say homosexuality does not exist in Pakistan and that if it does it must be the corrupt effect of these degenerate Western infidels! And yet they admire and work hard to achieve most other things from the West. What will the Pakistani government do if and when the Netherlands or Canada appoints a legally married gay Ambassador to Pakistan with his lovely partner? Cut diplomatic ties with the Netherlands or Canada?" the ILGA official asked.
Such questions might best be put to the country's lawmakers, with Pakistan reportedly being one of the few countries in the world where homosexuality is punishable by death. According to ILGA, Pakistan is one of only eight countries today still retaining capital punishment for homosexuality. Others include Mauritania, Sudan, Afghanistan, the Chechen Republic, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The situation with regard to the United Arab Emirates is unclear.
According to Jilani, while homosexuality is an offence under Pakistan's Penal Code (PCC), the law does not specifically refer to homosexuality.
"In the Pakistan Penal Code the provision defining the offence and prescribing the punishment for it is titled "unnatural offences", she said, noting that while there were several convictions under this statute each year, it is not possible to give precise statistics.
Under section 377 of the PCC, whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which [shall not be less than two years nor more than] 10 years, and shall also be liable to a fine, she explained.
Yet such ambiguity in the law makes the challenge of changing society's perception of homosexuality all the more difficult. For there to be any hope of progress for the gay community, it will be necessary for the attitudes of ordinary people to change. Meanwhile, for men like Tariq, whose hope for progress remains minimal, the precarious balancing act of living two lives continues.
"People here are not ready to talk about homosexuality so they are certainly not ready to talk about gay rights," he said in a matter of fact manner. "They tell me it's a sin to be gay. But the real sin is not being allowed to be who I am."