Coming Out On Facebook May Soon Be A Death Sentence In Saudi Arabia
Facebook is making you gay—at least, according to Saudi Arabia. In recent weeks, government officials and local prosecutors have been attempting to curb what they reportedly believe is an outbreak of homosexuality caused by the widespread adoption of social media in the country. PinkNews, an LGBT-centric publication based in the U.K., is reporting that the Middle East nation may reinstitute the death penalty for homosexuality, in fear that the Internet is “turning people gay.” Soon, even coming out online in Saudi Arabia may be a death sentence.
Laws that mandate capital punishment for gay people are already on the books in Saudi Arabia, but they are rarely enforced. Currently, same-sex intercourse between two men is classified as zina in Sunni jurisprudence, which means it’s punishable by death or lashing. In 2002, three men were beheaded for the fact of their sexual orientation, although the official charge from Saudi authorities was the vaguely worded crime of “luring children and harming others.” More recently, a Medina man was subjected to 450 lashes and given three years in prison for arranging hookups with other men via his Twitter account.
In one way, Saudi officials are correct: Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have been a major boon to LGBT people attempting to live their lives in a country where repression is national policy. These websites give queer people a place where they can connect with others, which is why social media has long been at the center of the government’s anti-gay crackdown. In 2014, the gay dating app Grindr began displaying warnings to users in countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt that police “may be posing as LGBT to entrap you.” Egypt does not mandate the death penalty for homosexuality, but 10 countries—including the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Somalia—still do. The Grindr messages also ran in Russia and Sudan.
These anti-gay operations have been growing in recent years. In 2014, two men in Egypt were arrested for advertising their apartment as a hookup spot on Facebook, charging $200 a night to men who wished for rent the space. Each received two years in prison. Last year, an illegal same-sex wedding in Riyadh, the nation’s capital, was cut short when police raided the ceremony and arrested the couple. Okaz, a newspaper based in Jeddah, reports that in the past six months, 35 men have been prosecuted for sodomy, while another 50 were apprehended on the charge of “cross-dressing.”
Although the country might point the finger at Facebook for this uptick in arrests, the truth is more complicated. According to the Atlantic’s Nadya Labi, the country has long had a flourishing queer culture, one that both hides in the shadows and often operates in broad daylight. The Saudi men Labi spoke with referred to Riyadh as a “gay heaven.” Radwan, who was born in Saudi Arabia and grew up in the U.S. before returning to Jeddah as an adult, adds that it’s surprisingly easy to be “picked up” (e.g. for sex) in Saudi Arabia—even on the street. “You can be cruised anywhere in Saudi Arabia, any time of the day,” he said.
When it comes to same-sex relations between two women, Saudi society often looks the other way. Yasmin, a college student living in Riyadh, tells Labi, “There’s an overwhelming number of people who turn to lesbianism.” At her university, one building is a notorious hangout spot for students wishing to kill time between classes by partaking in Sapphic pleasures in its spacious bathroom stalls. The building’s walls are littered with graffiti that offer faith-based warnings to all who enter: “She doesn’t really love you, no matter what she tells you” and “Before you engage in anything with [her] remember: God is watching you.”
Why is queerness is so ubiquitous in a country where it’s so dangerous? Some say that it’s a product of gender segregation. This February, a Saudi researcher released a report that linked the total division between sexes with a rise in “situation-based” homosexual behavior, one that proved extremely controversial. Nonetheless, it makes a certain amount of sense. In a society where it’s forbidden to mix with member of the opposite sex—so much so that even religious spaces are divided by sex—the faithful may have no other outlet for their desires. Yasmin adds that the young women seeking carnal interludes in university restrooms may not be lesbians, per se. She refers to them as akin to “cellmates in prison.”
Yasmin’s take is compelling, but it’s not entirely accurate. If homosexuality were a temporary stopgap prior to getting married, why were four adult gay couples arrested in Saudi Arabia last year? A 2014 survey discovered that these are not isolated cases: In Iran, nearly 20 percent of college students identify as gay or lesbian. That figure is much larger than the recent Public Religion Research Institute report showing that “seven percent of [U.S.] millennials identify either as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.” Those results are particularly noteworthy in a country that not only puts gays to death, but doesn’t even recognize that its LGBT population exists. In 2006, former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad infamously said: “We don’t have any gays in Iran.”
The real takeaway from these reports should be obvious: Repression doesn’t work.. It may even make the “problem” these countries are trying to fix even bigger. For years, conservative religious countries have attempted to control LGBT people with a campaign of harassment and violence, but increasing numbers of queer folks continue to make themselves visible—in any way they can. After news broke that Saudi Arabia was considering the death penalty for disclosing sexuality on social media, Twitter users protested by doing exactly what the proposed new law prohibits: coming out. The hashtag “You will not terrorize me. I’m gay” began trending in the country last week.
Those seven words speak to the powerful resilience of queer people. Even if Saudi Arabia and other countries like it police every social media platform in existence, the LGBT community will continue to do what it has always done: survive. In a country that is determined to ignore, silence, and exterminate its queer population, the simple fact of existence continues to be a radical form of resistance.
Nico Lang is a Meryl Streep enthusiast, critic, and essayist. You can read his work on Salon, Rolling Stone, L.A. Times, Washington Post, Advocate, and the Guardian. He’s also the author of The Young People Who Traverse Dimensions and the co-editor of the best-selling BOYS anthology series.