'The West paints such a pretty picture of coming out': Egypt’s LGBTQ+ community reckons with Pride

Despite Egypt's revolutions, the prayers of its LGBTQ+ community have been left unanswered [Getty Images]
7 min read
30 June, 2021
Despite Egypt's revolutions, the pleas of its LGBTQ+ community have gone unanswered. In light of Sara Hegazy's death, the prosecution of same-sex relationships and widespread antagonism, what does being queer in Egypt really look and feel like?

By day, 28-year-old Shrouk El-Attar is an electronics engineer. By night, she transforms into Dancing Queer, a belly dancing drag king. Dressed in a colourful, sparkling sequined belly dancing outfit and a beard, Dancing Queer floats across the stage, waving an LGBTQ+ rainbow flag.

Shrouk is a queer Egyptian LGBTQ+ rights activist who left Egypt when she was just a teenager and sought asylum in the UK. “In Dancing Queer I mix two of the biggest parts of my identity: being Egyptian, the art of belly dance, and being queer, the art of drag,” she says.

For Shrouk and other members of Egypt’s queer community, this Pride month has been bittersweet. Those living in Egypt and the region celebrate discretely against a backdrop of a brutal crackdown on homosexuality by the government. For those abroad, Western experiences of Pride often do not account for their social and cultural realities.

Intertwined in a struggle for collective liberation, Egypt’s queer community finds ways to celebrate their identity and community this Pride.

"In Egypt, homosexuality is not explicitly prohibited under law, yet queer Egyptians are routinely arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned under laws prohibiting debauchery and prostitution"

Reckoning with Pride

Shrouk has done a fair share of soul-searching about what this month means for her. Pride Month used to make her feel disappointed and ostracised by her culture and made her idealise the West and Western notions of queerness. “I used to think to myself ‘this is what progressiveness looks like’,” she says.

But soon she was made to feel that her queerness was irreconcilable with her Arab and Muslim identity. “It’s hard coexisting… the LGBTQ+ community can be so unaccepting of people like us.”

Salem*, a 21-year-old queer Egyptian, also struggles to identify with the Western experience of Pride. “There’s such an emphasis on being ‘Out and Proud’ or ‘Queer and Here’ but I've never even had the opportunity to be queer and here, so that feels so unfamiliar.”

Over the years, finding their own meaning of Pride has meant going on a journey to unlearn colonial histories and deep-rooted institutional racism, and discover the parts of Egyptian traditions that embrace gender and sexual fluidity.

“It’s so messed up that we don’t know our own history,” Shrouk says, “when most of the laws that are currently used to criminalise homosexuality in the MENA region and across the world were forced on us by colonial powers.”

Although many nations in the region insist that homosexuality is a Western import, both she and Salem have learned that, before colonialism, Arab and Islamic traditions had queer-friendly histories.

“It’s so easy to place blame and say Islam is homophobic or Egypt is homophobic when there is so much more to it… It's taken a lot of unlearning to see that it's colonialism that imported with its homophobia,” adds Salem.

"The universalised Western queer experience places such an emphasis on 'coming out' and openly living as LGBTQ+ as a requirement for being authentic"

Now, Shrouk’s Pride embraces and celebrates both her culture and her sexuality through Dancing Queer. “For me, that’s just a massive F*** you to the Western concept of Pride. Because it’s all of me.”

Dancing Queer is also an act of protest against the persecution of the LBGTQ+ community in Egypt. With proceeds from the shows, Shrouk contributes towards bail funds, legal fees, and other grassroots LGBTQ+ activism initiatives in Egypt.

Salem, who only shares his sexual orientation with his closest friends, still struggles with Pride. “It’s difficult being proud of something that I've antagonized over for so long. People don't talk about that enough”.

He celebrates Pride and his identity in much more personal and private settings. Rather than “coming out” he chooses to "come in", a safer alternative that allows him to celebrate his sexual orientation, allowing those he trusts most to come into his space, creating a community free from judgement.

“That’s what makes me proud… facilitating spaces of inclusion because for so much of my life I felt I was not included.”

'The West paints such a pretty picture of coming out'

Growing up in Egypt, Salem always knew he was different. “From a very young age, the lines were blurred for me,” he recalls.

Before he was introduced to the concept of queerness or had the terminology to express his sexual identity, he remembers being aware that he wasn’t like most other boys. “I didn’t like football, and I used too many hand gestures.” But homosexuality was never acknowledged or discussed.

Now a university student living in another Arab country, Salem privately identifies as queer but feels that the risks of “coming out” are too costly.

In Egypt, homosexuality is not explicitly prohibited under law, yet queer Egyptians are routinely arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned under laws prohibiting “debauchery” and “prostitution”. According to LGBTQ+ activism organisation Bedayaa, recent years have witnessed an escalation in state violence against the LGBTQ+ community.

In October 2017, a photo of a young woman proudly raising a rainbow flag at a concert in Cairo went viral on Egyptian social media. That young woman was Sara Hegazy. In that “moment of existence and recognition”, Hegazy “became the icon of visibility for the LGBT community in Egypt,” says Bedayaa. The crowd cheered.

Perspectives

Shrouk met Hegazy on a secret WhatsApp group for LGBTQ+ Egyptians. In the months before the concert, Sara was trying to convince her to come back to Egypt, assuring her that the situation was improving. She remembers seeing the viral picture and feeling a fleeting sense of hope. “When I saw that picture, I thought to myself ‘She must be right, things are getting better.' It wasn’t until later that I realised it was a short-lived, false sense of security.”

The concert ignited a government witch-hunt, as Hegazy and many others were arrested for their sexual and gender orientations. "There were literally live messages of people hearing footsteps at the door and being snatched away... It was a difficult time to trust anybody,” Shrouk says.

When Salem heard the news, he felt an overwhelming fear, for himself and his friends. As word spread that the Egyptian authorities were using social media to profile and arrest people, he remembers deleting anything that could identify him.

Hegazy wrote that she was tortured in prison, and upon her release, she sought asylum in Canada. Separated from her family and friends, and traumatised by her experiences, Sara took her own life in June 2020.

sarah hegazi instagram
Sara Hegazy was driven to take her life by Egypt's state-powered, lethal patriarchy

For Salem, witnessing what happened to Sara Hegazy was an acute reminder of the risks of “coming out”.

“If I had thought about coming out ever, now I wasn’t going to do that… I just felt really defeated at that moment.

“The West paints such a pretty picture of coming out,” he says. But the reality he is faced with is not nearly as rosy, and he knows that coming out would mean jeopardising his relationship with his family and sacrificing his safety within his country and community.

“I just think, ‘is it really worth it?’” For now, he has decided it is not.

Salem reflects on how the universalised Western queer experience places such an emphasis on “coming out” and openly living as LGBTQ+ as a requirement for being authentic. But he knows that his decision not to “come out” does not detract from the validity of his identity.

“People say ‘you have to live your true self' and I am living my true self. There are different facets to me. My sexuality is just one part of who I am... And I choose to explore my sexuality and my queerness when I want to, and how I want to.”

A brighter future

One year after Hegazy’s death, the Egyptian and global LGBTQ+ community is celebrating the memory and legacy of a fierce activist. Outpourings of solidarity and love-filled social media, accompanied by promises to keep raising the flag in her memory.

“Sara Hegazy put us on the map. Before her, people didn’t think of LGBTQ+ rights in Egypt. This year during Pride, I want to celebrate her and how far the Egyptian queer community has come,” Shrouk says.

Analysis
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According to Bedayaa, Egypt continues to arrest, imprison, and routinely torture members of the LGBTQ+. In 2019, 92 people were prosecuted for their sexual orientation.

Still, Egypt’s queer community has found ways to subvert both a repressive society and confining Western experiences of Pride to carve out a unique space. Each in their own way, they radically celebrate and assert their existence and further the struggle for liberation. And they have hope for the future.

“I’m so hopeful,” Shrouk says. “It’s the worst sacrifice that Sara has made, but because of it, people are talking more and understanding more. Because of Sara’s sacrifice, I can see things changing quicker in Egypt.”

Nadine Talaat is a research analyst and freelance writer based in London. Her interests include Middle East politics, US foreign policy, and media studies.

Follow her on Twitter: @nadine_talaat