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WORLD

Struggle for gay rights in the Middle East

By CNN's Hala Gorani

story.youssef.jpg
Youssef is openly gay and says he doesn't care who knows it.
start quoteRemember that not too long ago, it was unacceptable to be openly gay in the West too.end quote
-- Iraqi blogger

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BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN) -- We were filming an interview on a Beirut street with Youssef, a 21-year-old Lebanese man from a conservative Shia family.

A car slowed down. "Foufou!" the driver screamed in our direction.

"He called you foufou?" I asked. "Yes," Youssef answered. "Foufou means 'fag.'"

Youssef then told me that when he came out to his family, two of his brothers kidnapped him at gunpoint and held him hostage in the family home for weeks. "It was their honor in the garbage," he said.

Youssef is a rarity in the Middle East. He is openly gay and says he doesn't care who knows it.

Most gays and lesbians in the region would only agree to speak to us anonymously. It took months to find willing participants. Often, we would meet in hotel lobbies and film interviews in silhouette, hiding identities and distorting voices.

One Saudi man told me he felt he had to leave his home country because even the rumor that he was gay was enough to destroy his reputation.

On another occasion, we were taken to a nightclub in a Middle Eastern capital, one of the few places across the region where gay men and women socialize in public. We were told not to show faces because people's lives -- and livelihoods -- could be destroyed in an instant if we did.

When I first told a few of my Middle Eastern friends I was thinking of doing a story on homosexuality in the region, they all had the same reaction.

"That's one of the biggest taboos there is in this part of the world," one told me.

"Be careful how you do this," another said.

A real hot potato issue, and one that is rarely -- if ever -- covered on television.

I then asked our Arabic speakers at CNN what word they thought was the best translation for "gay" in Arabic.

Heads were scratched. "Luti," one suggested. "Shaz," another offered in an e-mail.

Those terms are widely understood, but essentially translate as "pervert" or "deviant" in Arabic.

The only neutral term in existence is the recently coined "Methleen Al Jins," meaning "the same kind or gender" -- the closest equivalent of the word "homosexual."

So this is an issue so taboo, there isn't even a commonly understood non-pejorative word to describe it in the Middle East!

Search for answers

We started our search for answers in Lebanon.

Beirut-based Georges Azzi, head of Helem, the Middle East's first and only gay rights organization, told us that "homophobia and sexism are related in the region."

According to Azzi, an effeminate man is seen as having "lowered himself to the level of a woman," so is regarded poorly in the region's male-dominated societies.

Interesting -- but what about complaints that governments in the region sometimes target homosexuals?

In 2001, Egyptian authorities raided a gay hangout on the Nile called the Queen Boat. Dozens were arrested and jailed on charges of "debauchery."

More recently in the UAE, there were similar arrests at what authorities called a "gay wedding."

According to Scott Long, of Human Rights Watch, when governments crack down on homosexual gathering places, they do it for political rather than purely moral reasons.

"They are saying to their people that they are defending what is authentic, what is Islamic," he told us from his New York office.

Homophobia used as a weapon

And nowhere more than in Iraq is homophobia becoming a socio-political weapon that is making life for gay men nearly impossible.

We spoke to an Iraqi blogger. Understandably, he also asked us to hide his face and distort his voice on camera.

He told us radical religious militias are attacking homosexuals, adding that "even that thin layer of security [gay men] once had is now gone."

Recently, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani lifted a fatwa calling on the killing of gays in Iraq. Will it curb homophobic attacks there?

As for the region as a whole, the Iraqi blogger added some interesting perspective, especially considering the current situation in his country.

"Remember that not too long ago, it was unacceptable to be openly gay in the West too."

He said : "You must give the region time."

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