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From the streets of New York City to the townships of South Africa, the LGBT rights movement and its opposition are engaged in an unprecedented international battle. GlobalPost presents an ongoing series of reports from key locations at this pivotal time in history, telling highly personal, often overlooked stories from the fight.
Revolutionary optimism retreats as Islamic parties take power.
CAIRO — Long before Tahrir Square captured the imagination of the world as the stage for Egypt’s revolution, it was an infamous, clandestine meeting place for gay Cairenes.
Gay men could be seen in Tahrir cruising with knowing glances as they leaned against the guardrails, Cairo’s traffic swirling around them. They were hidden in plain sight.
In many ways, the huge demonstrations of early 2011 that took place in Tahrir Square and led to the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak inspired Egypt’s gay community to join the call for a new, more democratic nation.
But now more than a year into the revolution, Egypt’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community has stepped back out of the public eye and retreated into the shadows once again.
Their high hopes for a more open, accepting society have been put on hold as the ruling military continues its firm grip on power and socially liberal revolutionaries have largely failed to secure positions in the legislature.
“The best of the country is involved in this. But they wonâ€™t win.”~Taher Lamey, doctor
On a recent reporting trip to Egypt in the days surrounding the anniversary of the ‘January 25 Revolution,’ Tahrir’s central location in Cairo made it a rendezvous point for many of my interviews. And here I met Taher Lamey, a doctor and member of the LGBT community who volunteered in the tented field hospitals of Tahrir helping victims of attacks by Egyptian security forces.
Tall, with light eyes and a broad smile, Lamey led me several blocks away to the Ministry of Information known locally as “Maspero,” where protest marches have been held to challenge what Taher calls “lies” and “twists of the truth” by the government.
Along the way, Taher pulled me by the hand, making sure I was not lost as crowds jostled us, some curious, some angry that a foreign journalist was here. A few of us had already been attacked and I would often overhear conversations suggesting I was a CIA agent or a spy for the Israeli Mossad. Taher said such violence rises up out of nowhere, and, as he put it, “it looks suspiciously like somebody presses a button and the thugs appear.”
At one of the demonstrations at Maspero, the military killed 27 Coptic Christian protesters in October.
Copts are a religious minority in Egypt, making up less than 10 percent of the population, and how the religious minority is treated is a kind of litmus test for how other minority communities in Egypt, such as the LGBT community, might be treated.
Taher is not so hopeful, saying, “We’re still a long way from establishing any kinds of rights for gays and lesbians … If anything, we’re going back.”
This was not Taher’s first impression. In the heady days following the toppling of Mubarak, he said he had high hopes for the revolution. He said, “The best of the country is involved in this. But they won’t win. If these people were in charge you would expect a lot from this country. International connections, democracy, social justice, social welfare..”
And, he believes, LGBT rights.
“I’m sure also that would have definitely been better because they’d have been liberals, ” he explained.
But in a country whose newly elected parliament is controlled by a two Islamist parties that control more than two-thirds of the seats, that possibility, he added, is “a long way off.”
Taher sighed and said he’s thankful he also holds a Dutch passport.
“I could leave. I have a fear of what happens next. I think we will be the next Iran,” he says.
The fear of Egypt becoming an Islamic state runs deep in the country’s LGBT community, and indeed in some corners of Egypt’s wider, secular minority that was so active in the revolution.
“There was a joy and openness after the first days of the revolution,” said Azza Sultan, a Sudanese lesbian living in Egypt, and a member of Bedayaa Organization for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex (LGBTQI) of the Nile Valley, operating in Egypt and Sudan. “But most of them returned again to hide.”
A number of gay men and lesbian women say the rise of Islamist political parties — particularly the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafi al-Nour Party — could further marginalize the gay community and cause the issue of gay rights to once again fall completely off the political agenda amid the turbulence and paranoia of a country in transition.
“Many believed that the collapse of the previous political system will open doors for them to live without stigma or discrimination,” Azza said. “I was very optimistic and very positive but now especially that it has been a year and none of the revolution demands have been met, I started to worry.”
Azza said the Muslim Brotherhood wants to impose Sharia law on Egypt, a double bind for all women and most pointedly for lesbians.
“It is very difficult for them to take any decision in their lives, or to move towards independence.” she said referring to all women.
And, she added, “If it is that hard for heterosexual women it is definitely harder for a lesbian one.”
Still, Azza said, “There is a glimmer of hope that the future will be better than the past.”