On September 6, Egyptian officials arrested seven men for “inciting debauchery”—one of the many ambiguous charges used to criminalize homosexuality in the country.
The men initially came under suspicion because of a video showing them attending a ceremony on a boat in the Nile River. Word got out that the ceremony was actually a same-sex wedding. One of the offenders came forward to say that he is straight, and what the video shows is just a celebration among friends. After a cursory investigation, the Egyptian government tentatively agreed.
Nonetheless, the men who were detained were subjected to “forensic” tests that Human Rights Watch (HRW) has decried as “medically and scientifically useless in determining whether consensual anal sex has taken place.” All the same, the inconclusive test results led to the seven men being released. HRW described the invasive procedure as one where “police massaged their buttocks and examined and sometimes probed their anus,” which may qualify as torture under some international definitions. The use of such tests is rampant in Egypt, and recalls the “virginity tests” performed on women who claim to have been raped.
The past few weeks have been difficult for gay Egyptians. In addition to this latest crackdown on “public mortality,” there was also the revelation that Grindr users were visible (and vulnerable) to the police and others who would do them harm.
There was a bright spot, however: Egaypt, an online magazine, anonymously launched on Storify and was distributed via Twitter. The first—and so far only—published story delves into the complex lives of Egypt’s gay men and depicts a culture of underground gay spaces. It recounts the author’s recent trip to a hammam, a “Turkish bath,” that’s a bit like a bathhouse in the U.S.
Parties on the Nile are routinely targeted and raided by Egyptian authorities. As prior incidents show, hammams are hardly immune to harassment either. What the author describes though is “an ancient, forgotten place” that’s been able to survive only because it has been “forgotten.” As the writer explained, “As a gay man, it can be easy to lose hope [in Cairo], but I found that I have yet to discover all of the city’s secrets, and that has made all the difference.”
For the moment, optimism seems to be winning out in Egypt.