Marco Werman: There are a few places around the world that you might associate with gay liberation. San Francisco, Greenwich Village, Provincetown, Massachusetts. Almost certainly you wouldn't have put Karachi in Pakistan on that list. And yet, a British-Pakistani journalist reporting for the BBC has been discovering what he says are some openly gay scenes in Pakistan, one of the most conservative and religious countries in Asia. Mobeen Azhar joins us from London. It's really surprising, Mobeen, I've got to say. Were you surprised by what you found?
Mobeen Azhar: Hi, Marco. Yeah, I was really surprised actually. I mean, I'm from a Pakistani background, so I'm second generation British-Pakistani, and when I was growing up I always associated Pakistan with family weddings and religion, really. And so as a child and as an adolescent, I always thought Pakistan was hugely conservative. It was only a few years ago when I was working in Pakistan that, let's say, I began to pick up on certain signals and it became really clear that there is quite a vibrant gay scene out there, surprising as that might seem.
Werman: Certain signals, what are the signals in Pakistan that somebody might be gay?
Azhar: Well, I think there's lots of different scenes, so for example, amongst the middle classes there's a party scene which involves, like in any other country, it involves things like free flowing alcohol, which many listeners might find surprising, and it involves dancing, it involves lots of listening to Madonna and Lady Gaga records.
Werman: Yeah, I find that totally surprising. All of it.
Azhar: Sorry to fulfill stereotypes there, but you know that's just the fact of it. Even amongst the common man, as it were, gay sex is available in abundance, and that can really come about in quite strange ways. So I've spoken to people who tell me about particular bus routes in Lahore, for example, which are known to be places where you can pick up other men. There's lots of outward signs of religious conservatism, but if you scratch that surface there is a whole other scene going on. Lots of people will say that it's a great place to be gay. I wouldn't agree with that but there are those out there and there's people that I met that said they have a wonderful time and really enjoy the gay scene.
Werman: What about interviewing people about this subject? Was it difficult to gain access and gain the trust of the people that you spoke for this documentary?
Azhar: Well, this is one of the things that I was really worried about actually, so what I did as soon as I got to Karachi, is I used my smartphone to use a particular app called Grinder that some listeners might be familiar with that uses the global positioning system to tell you how far away you are from other users, and it's tailored for gay men. And I put a message out saying I'm a documentary maker, I'm looking for people to tell me about gay life in Pakistan. And you know, I thought, no one's going to respond, or if someone responds they'll respond anonymously and they'll be really shy, but I thought it was worth a try. Within the space of ten minutes, I had perhaps 30 replies. I had so many replies from people saying, do you want to meet up? I'll tell you about the gay scene, there's a party tonight.
Werman: So some men, 30 men in the space of five minutes, seemed eager to talk about their lives as homosexuals in Pakistan. Are they that eager to sort of be outed in Pakistan?
Azhar: What I soon discovered from going to some of these parties, is that there is an abundance of sex, so lots of people will constantly offer you sex. But what is a lot more difficult is anything more long-term than that. So what I mean by that is society seems to turn a blind eye if you're a man and you want to have sex with another man, but if you want a relationship, that seems to be beyond the pale. No one is open about their same-sex relationship really, and it was very difficult to find people who, one, had even invested in any kind of relationship, and two, had a happy story, could talk about familial acceptance or society's acceptance. That just doesn't happen.
Werman: Wow. Just extraordinary. How did people react to you as a British-Pakistani man intrigued by what was going on in the gay community in Pakistan? Was there any curiosity in the debate in the West about gay issues, like gay marriage, for example?
Azhar: There's a huge amount of curiosity. On a social level, I think they were more willing to speak to me because I don't live in Pakistan. Interestingly enough, a lot of people would speak to me about the whole gay marriage debate in the US, and that's something that they're following. So whilst Pakistan itself might not be ready, in the words of a lot of the contributors, for the gay liberation movement, they are certainly following that debate internationally.
Werman: British-Pakistani journalist Mobeen Azhar. We'll link to your documentary on gay life in Pakistan on TheWorld.org. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
Azhar: Thank you, Marco.