By Irene Morse
Sept. 9, 2014
Everyone has untagged themselves from that one photo that featured an incriminating red solo cup, but in Egypt the stakes are much higher when it comes managing your online presence — especially if you’re gay.
In August, a video of two Egyptian men exchanging rings on a Nile riverboat surrounded by excited friends went viral on YouTube. Presumed to be Egypt’s first same-sex marriage ceremony, this video naturally prompted attention from Egyptians, the global LGBT community, and eventually police.
After watching the blurry, minute-long video who knows how many times, Egyptian police were able to identify nine of the 16 participants and to locate and arrest seven of those nine. These men will be detained for four days while the investigation continues and “medical tests” aimed at determining whether they are gay are performed. The prosecutor has (of course) declined to comment on what the tests involve, how the doctor reaches a final conclusion or whether simply partying on a Nile riverboat turns you gay, in which case most Egyptians probably are.
Interestingly, Egypt does not actually have a law against — the seven detained men were charged with inciting debauchery and undermining public morals. The true nature of the viral video is still in question, as one member of the boating party has anonymously asserted that it depicts a birthday celebration, not a wedding, and that he would never consider being with a man.
No matter the video’s true intent, human rights groups have been rightfully agitated by the actions of the Egyptian police, especially because discrimination against the LGBT community (and those who are perceived as LGBT) is rife in Egypt. In April, four Egyptian men were sentenced to up to eight years in prison under the debauchery laws after police discovered women’s clothing and makeup at a party they attended. In 2001, police targeted the Egyptian LGBT community in a raid of the Queen Boat nightclub, eventually trying a group of 52 men famously known as the Cairo 52. Of those men, 23 were sentenced to up to three years in prison, and many endured painful and humiliating beatings, harassment and “medical tests” during their time in detention.
Egypt, like many countries in the Middle East, presents a paradox when it comes to the question of homosexuality. Homosexuality is not explicitly mentioned in the Egyptian penal code, and in the 90’s, Cairo was considered a haven and party destination for the LGBT community. Perhaps the reason for this tolerance lies in the unspoken understanding that same-sex relationships have long been a part of Egyptian culture. As long as an Egyptian man went home to his wife often enough to avoid arousing suspicion, he was free to pursue more taboo recreational activities.
Therefore, in the Middle East, homosexuality is rarely understood as an unchangeable identity and more often associated with prostitution and licentiousness, which is why gay Egyptians are arrested and convicted in such a backhanded manner. It’s also part of the reason why the advocacy of American LGBT groups in the Middle East has been widely criticized. Organizations like the Human Rights Campaign are using a Western cultural vocabulary that is fundamentally incompatible with the traditions of the Middle East.
However, regardless of cultural misunderstandings, everyone can agree that Egyptians shouldn’t be subjected to unfair show trials, prison abuse or arrest based solely on the color of their underwear. This is especially true in situations where the facts (or the faces) aren’t entirely clear, as was the case with the viral video. It may take awhile before the Egyptian government realizes the full ridiculousness of their attempts to penalize the LGBT community. In the meantime Egyptians will be busy untagging themselves from photos that are just a little too fabulous.