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Fear and loathing keep Egypt's gays in the closet
But a spate of recent arrests has stirred cautious debate and raised awareness in Egypt, a conservative country where homosexuality is widely condemned as immoral.
"Hiding is worse than being arrested...I want to feel dignity. When I was harassed, my friends told me, 'Cut your hair.' But I said no. That's not me. I don't want to hide," said one gay rights activist whose wears his curly black hair in a ponytail.
"I don't want to stay in the closet forever. I want to help people come out. I feel that I wasted my life in the closet," said the man, who called himself "Horus", after the falcon-headed Egyptian god who was the patron of the living Pharaoh and is sometimes associated with homosexuality.
An underground gay scene flourished for years in Egypt despite being viewed with disdain by most members of the Muslim and Christian communities. As long as gay life was discreet, it was long tolerated as an open secret.
Lesbians are virtually invisible in Egypt. Activists said the concept of two women having sexual relations was incomprehensible to most Egyptians, adding they were not in contact with any lesbian groups.
A landmark court ruling in November against a group of men accused of being gay frightened Egypt's gay community, most of whom keep their sexuality secret.
An Egyptian court sent 23 men to jail for one to five years on charges including "practising sexual immorality", a local euphemism for homosexuality. Another 29 were acquitted.
Human rights groups condemned the verdicts as a miscarriage of justice. But Egyptian officials said the West has no right to impose its values on Egypt, an Arab country where they say cultural norms make overt homosexuality unacceptable.
"When push comes to shove, most people will say that homosexuality is a horrible thing, but not in the sense of 'Put them in jail'," said Hania Sholkamy, a professor of anthropology at the American University in Cairo.
"Homosexuality is there. It's more accepted as a certain phase in life,...as long as they click out of it and then get a wife and 'become straight' again."
But talking about one's homosexuality, or claiming it as an identity, is still not acceptable in Egypt, she said.
CLIMATE OF FEAR
Activists say gay life in Egypt has not died out completely. But the continued crackdown has injected caution into a community adjusting to changing rules on what is safe and what is out-of-bounds.
Night after night, the Queen Boat nightclub where many of the convicted men were arrested turns on its lights.
But the club, moored along the banks of the Nile near one of the city's most elegant luxury hotels, sits half empty. Another Cairo pub frequented by gays has become a no-go zone.
"It's filled with (heterosexual) couples," one gay man said.
A web site geared to Egyptian gays warns readers about the perils of being gay in Egypt.
"Guess who's watching? Egyptian state security. Try to avoid always logging on from the same location," the site warns.
Gay men meet in small circles or talk over the Internet. They do not give out real names or personal phone numbers to strangers, at least not anymore.
Some have already left Egypt for the West, and more are thinking about it.
"Almost everyone I talked to wants to leave. They just can't," a second gay activist said. "I personally know four people who got political asylum in the United States."
But activists note that compared to some other Middle Eastern countries, Egypt is relatively open.
"If there is going to be an alternative movement in the Middle East, Egypt will be the place it will start," said Scott Long, programme director for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, a US-based group that has been monitoring the situation.
"I don't mean just a gay movement. I mean movements that talk about societal transformation," he added.
Since the Queen Boat arrests, more men have been quietly detained in Egypt, accused of being gay. Some have been convicted and jailed.
An Egyptian court jailed five men for three years in March for "practising sexual immorality". They were also accused of wearing women's clothes and make-up.
No one seems to know what prompted the string of arrests after so many years of unofficial tolerance.
Some cite an attempt to divert attention from a battered economy. Others say Egypt's gay community was becoming too organised, too vocal and most of all, too visible.
Prior to the arrests, Horus said he had started distributing information to confused gay men in Egypt over the Internet. When people needed legal aid, he and others helped arrange it. He also shared information with Western gay rights groups.
Whatever the reason for the crackdown, the men's case has brought the issue of homosexuality to the dinner table in Egypt, where gender roles are clearly defined and young men and women are expected to follow them.
But most people agree that open debate over homosexuality, or a full-fledged gay rights movement, remain a long way away.
"We need to work on the basics first," Horus said. "We are not looking for the right of marriage...(We are looking for) the right to exist."
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