‘Pakistan is a homophobic place,’ Karim continues. ‘As in any other conservative society, queers can have all the sex and love that they want – as long as they’re quiet about it. One of the problems with this is that people can get away with a lot of things, murder included.’ He pauses. ‘There are no codes, no rules. So if someone f***s you over, you’re totally alone.’ His earlier nonchalance gives way to a more contemplative tone. ‘You’re already a criminal. And that’s tricky business.’ Murders often go unreported and uninvestigated. [The prohibition against homosexuality in Pakistan is on both legal and religious grounds.]
Aliya (not her real name), a 24-year-old urban planner, says she has not met a lot of queer women or transgender men (those born women) in Pakistan. ‘We have no local lesbian culture that female bodies can be inspired by or want to emulate – in fashion, style or living habits,’ she says.
Aliya has short hair and is dressed in a khaki-coloured kurta. She says she likes to switch it up, and admits that the surroundings affect her deeply. ‘It’s almost as if, the minute I re-enter Pakistan, I can only remember how to flirt with male bodies. Somehow, I can’t make that intimate connection or even casually flirt with non- masculine bodies anymore – the prevailing homophobia impairs me.’
Aliya says her horizons are limited by class, ethnicity and gender. ‘I have only been able to interact with queer folks in my [social] class – and our worlds are tiny, and filled with fear,’ she notes. A few years ago, she hung out in some underground queer circles, and recalls liking the idea of a safe space that was supportive and could be used for organisation and activism. But the reality was never quite like that. The lesbians and queer women she met there, Aliya says, were a lot older than her and seemed to be at a different stage in their lives. ‘They were surprised by my being so much younger than them,’ she recalls. ‘It seemed as though one had to go through a terrible marriage or horrific engagement to discover [one’s] sexual identity!’
Certain ingrained cultural traits have actually aided closeted lifestyles, Aliya says. ‘If I were to sleep over at a girlfriend’s place, my parents would not be offended or even think twice about it,’ she smiles wryly. ‘But if I want to sleep over at a boyfriend’s house, they wouldn’t even consider the possibility! Perhaps the thought hasn’t even entered their minds that I may actually be sleeping with the girlfriend, and only be sleeping over at the boy’s place.’ She continues: ‘At times it works out perfectly, but only for a little while. The secrecy is fine when you’re 17, but it soon becomes exasperating.’
South Asian history is steeped in evidence of fluid sexual practice, but in modern-day Pakistan there has been significant re-writing of history. Classical poetry carries references to homoeroticism; monuments and legends bear witness to queer love affairs and homosexual devotion; love is celebrated regardless of orientation. This past, however, is not easily reclaimed. Polyamorous love – having multiple sexual partners at any given time – has also been written out of the region’s many histories, and has largely disappeared from the public imagination.
Each spring, the people of Lahore celebrate Mela Chiraghan, the Festival of Lights. The festival commemorates the work and love of the Punjabi Sufi poet Shah Hussain, who took on the name of Madho Lal, a Brahmin boy with whom he had fallen in love. Thousands attend this festival and participate in the rites of commemoration and celebration. Yet there is no public acknowledgement of the love shared between Shah Hussain and Madho Lal, and of how Shah Hussain eventually became Madho Lal Hussain.
Queer culture is finding expression, albeit at times in very particular ways. Bagh-e-Jinnah, a park, is a well-known gathering spot for Lahore’s queer community. The gardens in Lahore’s older neighbourhoods are usually frequented by men, seeking refuge from both the sun and society. Here, men sitting with other men, walking close to other men, their bodies nudging each other, often attract less attention than a man and a woman together. But Karim is wary. ‘I don’t go there; it’s sketchy. I meet people online, usually. It’s discreet,’ he says. ‘It’s the standard cliché of gay life in a closed society, where people don’t want to get caught.’
In a country with a population upwards of 170 million, the people of Pakistan continue to live in small worlds oppressed by social practice and propriety. Freedoms are limited, as are opportunities for people to come together and engage with each other regardless of class, gender, religion, ethnicity or sexuality.
‘There’s no grand concept of coming out in Pakistan,’ says ‘Fayaz’, a 26-year-old gay man living in Lahore, echoing a sentiment shared by many. ‘If you live in Pakistan,
the coming-out process is never over. You’re always coming out. There’s always the hope that you might change your mind and decide you want to get married the traditional way – the only way – and give up your gay lifestyle.’
Across the border, as India rescinded its repeal of Section 377, and at home, a television show host ‘outted’ a gay couple on public television handing them over to the police – it doesn’t look promising. But the resistance against systems of heterosexist oppression continues, and questions of oppression and exclusion within queer circles come up, and are addressed, and in that struggle there is hope.