Will Yemen’s Gay Community Survive the Iran-Backed Militias Trying to Take Over?

Ben Gladstone

Ben Gladstone

Tower Tomorrow Fellow; Brown University, Class of 2018

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~ Also in this issue ~

~ Also by Ben Gladstone ~

From the Blog

Being gay in an Arab state is never easy. Since the Houthis made their move on Yemen, it’s become unlivable.

Since the civil war in Yemen began, Kamal Al-Solaylee has received more pleas for help than ever. Al-Solaylee is a gay Yemeni professor of journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto, and friends of friends are reaching out to him with increasing desperation, looking for a way to escape Yemen. While the takeover of much of the country by the radical Houthi militia has had serious consequences for the entire population, it has been particularly tough on gay Yemenis, many of whom fear that “they have no future there.” Al-Solaylee, originally from Yemen’s second-largest city of Aden, is watching all this unfold from afar, and often finds himself unable to do more than send online resources.

The civil war in Yemen has been ongoing since last year, when the Houthis occupied the capital city of Sana’a. They allied themselves with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh—a dictatorial strongman who was ousted in a popular revolution in 2012—against internationally recognized President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and his supporters. The Shi’a Houthis are backed by Iran, with an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah presence supporting them in Sana’a. At the same time, Saudi Arabia is leading a predominantly Sunni Arab coalition to combat the insurgency and restore Hadi’s government.

The gravity of the situation for gay Yemenis is indicated by the fact that most of the sources for this article refused to allow their real names to be published. Safe in North America, Professor Al-Solaylee allowed me to use his name. But five individuals with whom I spoke—four Yemenis and a Western aid worker—asked to remain anonymous. I will refer to them as Yasser, Sameer, Jamil, Amin, and Andrew. Clearly, gay Yemenis now feel a pressing need to conceal their identities.

It is true that, prior to the civil war, Yemen’s gay community was very much underground. In many ways, however, it was able to thrive. Now it faces an entirely new set of challenges and threats.

What Professor Al-Solaylee calls a “nascent gay community” existed in Aden, Sana’a, and other Yemeni cities before the war. For those who could find it, “there was a very thriving underground gay scene” all over the country “that revolved around house parties and personal contacts.”

Sameer, a 29-year-old from the contested city of Taiz who now works in Belgium, has a light-colored beard and an easy smile. He says that a gay community existed in his hometown. “I had my gay group in Yemen as well,” he says. “We were meeting and we had our own activities.” He had a boyfriend as early as age 16.

Not everyone had equal access to that scene, of course. Members of the upper and middle classes, for example, often felt a degree of personal security that allowed them to participate in ways that those of lesser means could not. Moreover, there was a discrepancy between the gay male scene and the lesbian community. “The systematic suppression of female sexuality in Yemen must help to diminish the number of women that feel able to acknowledge sexual desire to their own sex,” explained Andrew, an aid worker in the country since 2010. Nonetheless, he said, he does “hear of plenty of stories of exploration between females.” I could not find a single one to interview for this article.

For others, gay life centers entirely on social media. “The internet is the only platform where gay people over here can be themselves without the fear that people around us will know the truth,” Yasser, a 27-year-old resident of Sana’a, told me. He has a Facebook account under a false name, and uses it to administer a small group for gay and bisexual Yemenis. One member of the group, Amin, is a 23-year-old student at Sana’a University who uses the internet in a similar way. Some of his closest friends are gay, and he communicates with them almost daily, but his relationships with them are confined to Facebook. “I’ve known them for a very long time, but I don’t know their real identities or even what they look like,” he told me.

A night market in Hodeida, Yemen's fourth-largest city. Photo: Rod Waddington / flickr

A night market in Hodeida, Yemen’s fourth-largest city. Photo: Rod Waddington / flickr

There are a handful of Facebook pages focused on Yemen’s gay community. One of them, entitled “gays in yemen,” has the stated goal of “spreading awareness about homosexuality and the promotion of gay rights in Yemen and abroad.” Last month, it posted a congratulatory message to the United States after the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality. Others, including “Gays Yemen” and “Yemen Gay,” primarily post photographs of gay individuals and couples. In many ways, Facebook has allowed the Yemeni gay community to come alive even for those who cannot connect with other members of the community in person.

“The Facebook network of second-life gay profiles is truly revolutionary. This has made an amazing difference to the lives of literate gays,” Andrew told me. But he cautioned that social media is also a weapon in the hands of Yemeni homophobes, who use it to publicize the identities of people they suspect of homosexuality, outing them to their families and tribes.

Outside of their resilient online forums, Yemeni sexual minorities have long endured significant hardships. Yemen is one of ten countries in the world in which homosexuality is punishable by death. Traditionally, that death penalty is not enforced, but citizens have been imprisoned for their sexual orientation. “Due to the government’s persecution, the tribal society, and the customs and traditions in Yemen, gays in Yemen are nonexistent in public,” said 27-year-old Sana’a resident Jamil, whose thick hair is often hidden by a fedora or hooded sweatshirt. According to Sameer, the most serious issue connected to the legal ban on homosexuality is that victims of hate crimes cannot seek help from the authorities. “I don’t feel like there is anyone to defend me,” he said. Meanwhile, said Jamil, “Gays in Yemen are subjected to all sorts of harassments that might even lead to death.”

A market in Sana'a, Yemen's capital city. Photo: YXO / flickr

A market in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital city. Photo: YXO / flickr

Yemenis are so guarded about their sexual orientation, Yasser told me, that two gay men might meet and deny their homosexuality to each other, never detecting the other’s secret. “We are in a conservative and religious society,” Amin explained, “and if they knew about a person like me, gay, I could become an outcast.” Andrew agreed, saying that the “biggest danger” facing Yemeni sexual minorities today is “families keen to protect family, tribe, and community honor.”

Moreover, Andrew said, “Even those that most accept themselves will still succumb to pressure to get married.” Raising a family is “the most important duty” in Yemen, so many gay men often find themselves leading uncomfortable lives in heterosexual marriages. Most of them continue to pursue sexual relationships with other men and occasionally have long-term boyfriends. “In some communities,” Andrew added, “it will even be tacitly understood and accepted.”

In the past, sexual minorities were at least able to form something like a community. But due to the civil war, maintaining that community is more difficult than ever.

The civil war has been a brutal one for all Yemenis. “I was in Yemen since I was small, and we had war before,” Sameer said, “but this war is the worst thing. What you see in the news is nothing compared to the reality.” Al-Solaylee agreed, emphasizing how little regard some of the parties involved have for human life. He also cautioned against using the word “rebel” to describe the Houthis, decrying any positive associations the word might evoke. “They’ve clearly done a lot of things that would be crimes against humanity,” he said. According to Yasser, “The situation in Yemen is moving fast from bad to worse. As long as the Houthis and [ex-president] Saleh are in power, we will be moving backward.” Sameer gave a particularly powerful explanation: “At the end the ones who are dying are the Yemeni people. This war is not our war. It’s a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.”

Most of those I interviewed were very clear that Yemen as a whole, and not just its gay community, is suffering right now. Nevertheless, the devastation has a particularly severe effect on sexual minorities. The gay scene, according to Al-Solaylee, has “completely dissipated with this most recent war.” In part, this is because the Yemeni social scene at large has deteriorated. “The situation is very bad for people in general and for gays as well,” Sameer told me. “They can’t go out because they don’t feel secure.” Major cities such as Taiz and Aden have seen protracted battles between pro-government and Houthi forces, sending residents fleeing for cover and creating an environment that is far from conducive to social events like house parties. While Houthi and Saudi bombings certainly affect everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, they harm the gay community to an even greater extent by making social meetings impossible and eliminating spaces in which gay Yemenis were once able to express themselves.

Houthi rebels surround the presidential palace in Sana’a, Yemen. Photo: Tomo News US / YouTube

Houthi rebels surround the presidential palace in Sana’a, Yemen. Photo: Tomo News US / YouTube

One reason is practical in nature: power outages. This is a hardship for everyone, but especially for gay Yemenis who depend on the support of their online communities. Sameer’s family, for example, regularly loses electricity for long stretches of time. Yasser, to whom I sent questions through Facebook, scrawled his responses by hand and took photos of the pages so he could send them to me despite the blackouts. People like Yasser, whose entire experience with other gay Yemenis depends on access to the Internet, suffer even more than others. Nevertheless, Andrew is hopeful that the online community will survive. “The Facebook network is one that will survive the current war intact,” he said. “Internet and power outages may break connections momentarily, but the moment the services return, so the connections will revive.”

Many gay Yemenis are particularly concerned by the rise of radical religious groups. The war has reinvigorated Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and allowed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to gain a foothold in the country. Andrew explained that members of AQAP are “notable for their executions of people accused of being gay.” He also drew attention to the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood, which has a similar record.

Equally worrisome are the Houthis themselves. They are an extremist religious group sworn to restore the imamate that dominated North Yemen until 1962. As Sameer put it, “Al-Houthi is more or less like Iran. They will have a system like Iran’s, the Khomeini system. Both of them are religious and extremist. I prefer not to live in their area.” The system to which Sameer refers is the harsh legal code instated after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, still enforced under the current leadership of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As mentioned above, Yemen’s death penalty for homosexuals is not enforced, but Iran has a history of executing gay men in a disturbingly public manner. In addition, Iranian officials sometimes torture gay citizens by forcing them into unwanted sex change operations.

Aden Mall. One of Yemen's most liberal cities, Aden is now under attack by the Iran-backed Houthi militias. Photo: eesti / flickr

Aden Mall. One of Yemen’s most liberal cities, Aden is now under attack by the Iran-backed Houthi militias. Photo: eesti / flickr

Al-Solaylee explained that part of the Houthis’ motivation for targeting Aden to the extent that they have is the city’s liberalism. After two decades of communist rule—the southern “People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen,” which survived from 1970-90, was the only communist state ever to exist in the Arab world—along with other factors, Aden remains a bastion of progressivism. It has greater gender equality, more racial diversity, and, as Al-Solaylee put it, turns “a blind eye to homosexuality.”

“If there is one place where any kind of nascent gay movement could have been born in Yemen it would have been in Aden,” Al-Solaylee said. “Obviously, it’s the target of a very religious-based sect like the Houthis. Their vision of Yemen is very different from the relatively more progressive one.”

As dire as the situation appears, gay Yemenis have not been dissuaded from advocating on behalf of their community. In their own ways, activists have taken it upon themselves to improve the situation of sexual minorities in their country.

Some are active online, working to maintain and strengthen the gay Yemeni Facebook community. Yasser administers a Facebook group for Yemeni sexual minorities, while Sameer manages a page “against the ones who harass the gays in the streets.” Gay Sana’a residents who are victims of hate crimes can contact Sameer privately to report an incident. He will publish a description of the perpetrator and information such as license plate numbers, so that other gay Yemenis know to be wary if they encounter the person. “I wanted to do something to help, because I had a bad experience before,” he told me. He has even had conversations with a Yemeni police officer about cracking down on harassment; in contrast to the usual apathy and even animosity of Yemeni law enforcement toward sexual minorities. The link to his page can be found here.

Al-Solaylee has written a memoir about his experiences as a gay man in the Arab world entitled Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes, and works to foster a conversation about these issues in the Yemeni diaspora. He has also lobbied State Department representatives, urging them to give priority to Yemeni sexual and religious minorities seeking visas and refugee status.

Back in Yemen, Jamil hopes to start building a gay rights movement after the war. Several of the people with whom I spoke noted the absence of any institutionalized effort toward equality, but Jamil said that he is “ready to gather a large amount of gays, and we will be a special organization.” He admitted that any such organization would have to begin in secret, but suggested that it might become more public over time. He appealed to Americans and Europeans for “educational, moral, and financial support.”

Despite the carnage of the Yemeni civil war, many members of the gay community continue to help one another and strive for progress.

There are several ways in which the United States could support that progress. On a general level, American politicians should be more proactive in opposing Iran’s sponsorship of the Houthis and pressuring Saudi Arabia to do more to avoid civilian casualties. This would lessen the humanitarian toll of the conflict, creating an environment that is more conducive to the underground gay scene.

In regard to the gay community itself, special refugee status should be awarded to Yemeni sexual minorities, as Al-Solaylee has suggested. In addition, a fund should be established to help such refugees travel safely from Yemen to the U.S. In the long run, there may even be opportunities for American citizens to support Jamil’s dream of a Yemeni gay rights organization.

Even as I write this, anti-Houthi forces are making tremendous advances in Aden, capturing the city’s main port and pushing the Houthis out. Just as pro-government forces are liberating that urban stronghold of progressive culture, the whole of Yemen may soon be liberated as well, and the Yemeni gay community will have fresh opportunities to advance its rights.

Even in peacetime, however, homosexuality in Yemen has always been suppressed. Whatever the outcome of the civil war, the country’s gay community has a tough battle ahead before any semblance of widespread acceptance can be achieved.

Banner Photo: Wochit News / YouTube