An article (“Lady Boys: A defense of Egyptian homosexuals?) in today’s English-language version of Al-Masry Al-Youm, an independent Egyptian newsletter, reviews journalist Ahmed Saad’s new novel, Shab Takaya, about life for gay men in Egypt. Saab is “a self-proclaimed gay rights activist,” though a closer look at his work reveals that his use of the term is questionable.
A little background: Male homosexuality is illegal in Egypt, and punishable with prison terms of up to 10 years. In 2001, 52 men were arrested at a gay discotheque in Cairo and charged with “obscene behavior.” The case of the so-called “Cairo 52,” widely publicized in internationally, became a symbol for intolerant attitudes toward gays in Egypt and, more broadly, the Islamic world.
The book reviewer describes Saad’s book as “the first Egyptian book that seeks to defend homosexuals on the basis of Islam,” but admits that it “offers a complex and seemingly contradictory perspective.” The book’s intention is to “convince its intended audience–heterosexuals in Egyptian society–to sympathize with the plight of Egypt’s homosexuals and put an end to their societal persecution.”
Since Saad’s book has been seriously suppressed in Egypt, it is unclear whether the work will be widely read or have much effect on the way Egyptian society perceives gay men. But if it Saad’s message were to reach Egyptian society, would it be a positive or negative influence?
In some ways, Saad’s book does represent progress, and a significant breakthrough. Saad’s stance is much more compassionate than other responses to homosexuality in Egypt and the broader Islamic world – executing, imprisoning, or ostracizing gays – but Saad’s viewpoint could hardly be characterized as a defense of gay people.
Saad claims that his “merciful approach” to homosexuality is based on the Qu’ran. This approach is, in a word, Repent.
Based on the writings of the Quran, many Muslims believe that homosexuality is a crime punishable by death. Saad sees this attitude as a disastrous textual misinterpretation, and reminds us that God only punishes those who refuse to atone for their sins. Instead of condemning homosexuals, Saad told Al-Masry Al-Youm, we must “adopt a merciful approach and help them to repent.”
Nevertheless, the book suggests the possibility that homosexuals may be executed if they refuse to commit to a heterosexual way of life. If you think homosexuals should be persecuted, he writes, “don’t forget that God” waited until “after they refused his guidance to sentence them to death.”
The “merciful approach” that Saad is advocating is that homosexuals should be given a chance to repent – and then, if they don’t, they should be executed.
The article then confirms that Saad does indeed support the execution of homosexuals who don’t repent after they are offered the option of doing so:
Saad explicitly confirmed what the book merely implies. “As the homosexuals of Sodom and Ghomorra were executed because they didn’t heed God’s words, homosexuals should be ‘stoned to death,’ as Islam decrees, if they refuse to reform,” he said.
This hardly seems like the words one would expect from “a self-proclaimed gay rights activist.” The idea that homosexuals can and should change, and that “every gay man deserves a second chance at heterosexuality,” has a twin in the West: the ex-gay movement. (“Ex-gay” programs, most of which are religiously based, attempt to change gay, lesbian, and bisexual people into heterosexuals.)
Does Saad’s stance represent a step in a positive direction for gay men in Egypt? In some ways, yes – he advocates for some degree of social tolerance and compassion. But calling for people to change their sexual orientation is by no means a compassionate approach. If the ex-gay movement in the West is any gauge, religious programs that attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation can be extremely harmful. Peterson Toscano, a survivor of several ex-gay programs in the United States, describes some of the ways that ex-gay programs can harm people: emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, relationship-wise, financially, sexually, physically, and career-wise, among others. There are also some serious doubts as to whether these programs actually work. In 2009, the American Psychological Association adopted a resolution condemning “reparative therapy.”
Does Saad, a supposed activist, truly speak for gay men in Egypt? The book review reports that Saad’s book has come under criticism from “homosexuals who believe that the writer’s ideas only serve to further stigmatize them.” This is not surprising – after all, Saad advocates execution for gays who refuse to change. Despite being described as a “gay rights activist,” Saad “said during the interview that there is no such thing as an individual right to homosexuality.”
While Saad’s position on homosexuality is far from affirming, it might still do a small amount of good for gay men in Egypt. The most positive way to view Saad’s stance toward homosexuality might be through the lens of a harm-reduction model, as applied to homophobia: “a set of … strategies that reduce negative consequences of” homophobia.
However, Saad’s recommendations for dealing with homosexuality should come with a warning label: Attempting to change sexual orientation may result in more harm than good. And anyone who advocates for the execution of gay people is not, by any stretch, a gay rights activist.