Conflict & Justice

LGBT rights a low priority for Pakistan


Pakistani men gather to pray during Eid in Karachi October, 2012. In a country that focused so heavily on the Islamization of its citizens and fighting the war on terror in the past decades, LGBT causes have little significance. Despite a Pride Parade in 2011, US help has done more harm than good for furthering gay rights in the country.



The gay and lesbian community in Pakistan is starting to come out, but discreetly.

Many meet in secret, creating safe spaces for LGBT people who have been shunned by their families or beat up for being gay. 

An article in the New York Times earlier this month tells a story of a tolerated, yet hidden, subculture, comparing it to the US military's now-repealed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. 

“You can live without being hassled about [being gay]," said one man interviewed for the article, “as long as you are not wearing a pink tutu and running down the street carrying a rainbow flag.”

But others in Pakistan have had a different experience than the one described in the Times. 

While that article profiles two women running an NGO known as "O" who seem to have a community of likeminded, 30-something LGBT Pakistanis, it's clear that this group enjoys a luxury that many others don't.

In an extreme environment like Pakistan, being gay is dangerous, and coming out just isn't an option sometimes. It wasn't an option for Muhammad Hassan (not his real name) for a very long time, until he finally realized he had no other choice. 

Hassan was every Pakistani mother’s dream come true; he was a star student, naturally outgoing and religious at the same time. He was a debater, a class monitor and a head boy in school.

In his mother’s eyes, Hassan could do no wrong.

And yet, on the cusp of adulthood, Hassan also had a secret which he desperately wanted to bury.

Hassan’s secret made him consider the possibility of hanging himself from a ceiling fan or taking an overdose of pills. In the end, he preferred jumping off a nondescript bridge on the outskirts of Lahore. He was confident that this was a better way to die.

Jumping off a bridge would bring less shame to the family he argued, probably because his body would never be found in the water.

Even in his death, Hassan wasn’t ready to shatter his mother’s image of him as the perfect child.

As a child, Hassan realized something was different when his friends started talking about girls. He recognized that he had a problem, and it scared him. Hassan hoped his feelings would go away if he just gave it time and prayed enough.

When he was growing up in the 2000s, there were no voluntary support groups or established organizations he could get in touch with to discuss sexuality in religiously conservative Pakistan. Hassan needed money to go see a psychiatrist, which he didn’t have at the time, so he started tutoring younger kids without letting his parents know.

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He used the hard-earned money to discreetly meet as many psychiatrists as he could in Lahore, and once even an American sexologist in another town.

But the numerous therapists and psychiatrists didn’t help – one even tried to set him up with girls.

So Hassan turned again to prayer, hoping that his struggle was was test from God that could be overcome.

In 2003, when Hassan was 17, he approached his parents and told them he wanted to travel to Mecca, Saudi Arabia for a pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest site, a place so holy that according to Islam, no prayer made there is ever turned down.

When he returned to Pakistan, however, Hassan’s feelings towards his same gender refused to go away. For the next six months, he was consumed in prayer, pleading with God to make him normal; to crush his desires, to cure his disease.

It wasn’t working.

Low on the ladder of priorities

At this time, Pakistan was still reeling from a decade-long, state-led Islamization campaign intended to secure ideological support from the Pakistani people for a jihad against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Incidentally, it was in step with US interests at the time to stir up religious extremism in the Muslim world against “Godless communists,” who were invading a Muslim country. Flush with aid from America, Pakistan tried to promote a conservative interpretation of Islam.

The LGBT community didn’t have any official rights to begin with and outside forces, like Western NGOs and equality advocates, haven’t exactly helped.

“No one is ready to recognize that homosexuality exists in Pakistan,” says Akhtar Balouch, a human rights activist and a council member at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “Our society is very far away from coming to terms with and recognizing homosexuality, even though everyone knows that it exists in Pakistan.”

In June 2011, the US Embassy hosted its first lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Pride Celebration in Pakistan. Religious leaders and demonstrators slammed the move as an assault on “Pakistan’s Islamic culture” and part of an “American conspiracy.”

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Religious leaders argued that after weakening Pakistan physically via the War on Terror, the US is now trying to morally weaken the country by unleashing “cultural terrorism” by supporting LGBT causes in Pakistan.

“The damage that the US pride event has done is colossal,” said an anonymous 33-year-old LGBT rights activist to the New York Times, “just in terms of creating an atmosphere of fear that was not there before. The public eye is not what we need right now.”

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s liberal elite view LGBT rights as a first world problem.

In a country where the state is struggling to meet the basic needs of its people, gay rights aren’t a priority for most liberal politicians or public figures. When people are dying of hunger and bombs, there are bigger problems to deal with first.

“I thought my struggle would end when I came out,” said Hassan. Instead, he quickly discovered that the prospect of building a meaningful gay life and relationships is non-existent in Pakistan.

“Gay people here hide behind layers of protection, they have fake names, fake ids and alternate phone numbers,” said Hassan. “You can never know who they really are.”

A decision to lead the charge

Hassan has seen YouTube videos of gay men being tortured in Muslim countries like Iran and Egypt, and knowing that Pakistan is far more radicalized and intolerant than those societies, is what originally prompted Hassan to consider taking his own life.

But instead of jumping off that bridge in Lahore, Hassan came out. First to a female friend, then to his mother, who didn’t take it well.

Hassan decided he deserved to live, and that when the time came, would lead the charge for LGBT rights in Paksitan.

Despite everything, Hassan does not support any American attempts to thrust the LGBT cause into the national spotlight in Pakistan. He believes last year’s pride celebration did more harm than good.

“In a country as radicalized as Pakistan, the Americans triggered a spark among the conservative masses,” said Hassan. “It provided ammunition to the extremists, not just against the US but also against the LGBT community, which wasn’t on top of their mind otherwise.”

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Hassan believes that such an event could have provoked meaningful discussion if the LGBT community felt safe enough, physically, to counter extremist propaganda with their own rallies. But, it’s simply not safe for the LGBT community to come out in public and rally their cause or tell their side of the story.

If the US really wants to help the LGBT community, Hassan recommends that they identify role models in the community and help them build a discrete network of support groups that can help boys like him, when they feel most alienated from Pakistani society.

As the global LGBT rights movement secures new and public gains around the world, Pakistan continues to struggle with battles that are intensely private and personal in nature.

“When gay people come out in other countries, they feel liberated,” says Hassan. “In this country, they only feel fear.”

Despite the advice of family and friends, Hassan isn’t ready to emigrate out of Pakistan. Instead, he wants to become a trailblazer for the LGBT rights movement in the country, one day, when Pakistani society is ready. 

For more of GlobalPost's coverage of LGBT rights around the world, check out our Special Report "The Rainbow Struggle: A Global Battle Over Gay Rights."