|Jennifer Josef, ILGA-ASIA|
|Jennifer Josef, ILGA-ASIA|
Just months ago, a raid by Egypt’s vice police would have been a concern at gatherings such as this fete for a man in red shorts who was turning 26. But on the recent sweltering Thursday night, as men in pastel-colored, V-neck T-shirts streamed in, a crackdown was the last thing on Bidak’s mind. She worried whether a certain woman might walk through the door.
Bidak doesn’t have a girlfriend. “I have drama,” she said.
Egypt’s gays emerged buoyed from the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in February. Increasingly visible and willing to speak up, they show how upheavals across the Arab world could prove to be social and cultural revolutions, albeit with uncertain outcomes.
Could Egyptian gays emerge as the pioneers of social liberalization in a region where a wave of revolts has forced out autocrats and raised the prospect that largely youth-led movements could upend dogmatic mores? Or in the months ahead, might gays and other liberal groups lose out against a rise of fundamental Islamists — another long-oppressed segment of society empowered by revolution?
Here in Egypt, gays and lesbians have turned a handful of public venues into spaces where it’s safe for men to dance with men and where women sit on each other’s laps. And activists are quietly putting together campaigns they hope will enable gays and lesbians to live openly in a country where sexual minorities have long been ostracized.
Web sites used to meet gay men are once again wildly popular because police appear to have ceased using them to conduct sting operations. Some people have gone as far as creating an anonymous Facebook page with a provocative goal: “A Gay Pride March for Egypt in 2020.”
Most of the revelers at this second-story venue, tucked behind the courtyard of a decaying downtown building, were in their 20s and 30s. They tossed back bottles of $3 Egyptian Stella beer and glasses of lukewarm red wine. A DJ alternated between pop hits — lots of Lady Gaga — and songs in Arabic.
Scott Long, an American human rights researcher who has studied Egypt’s gay community for years, watched in amazement as hips swung on the wooden dance floor.
“For me, it’s an astonishing thing to come here and find that there is a community,” said Long, 48.
A community upended
A similar community had begun to take root in the late 1990s in Cairo at a handful of bars, including one at the Ramses Hilton hotel. The Queen Boat, a nightclub that operated out of a docked, vessel-shaped venue on the Nile River and named after the last queen of Egypt, was a favorite meeting point.
But in May 2001, vice officers raided the disco — spurred, Long said, by a war of words between the Mubaraks and a rival political family, the Sadats, who offended the president by suggesting a prominent relative of his was gay.