Introduction: It’s difficult to write an informed and useful report about something unseen and unheard. In Yemen, homosexuality is both because no one is willing to speak or write about it in public or in the media, despite the inevitable presence of a gay underground that is kept well hidden from the scrutiny of the morality thugs and violent authorities.
Finding Gay Life is a Challenge
In more than a decade of recording thousands of news and reports about LGBT life around the world, GlobalGayz has only found eight reports about homosexuality in Yemen. Five of these eight are responses (four against, one in favor) to the single issue of gay marriage. Two other stories tell about journalists being arrested for writing about homosexuality and a magazine being shut down for that reason. The remaining report is about the murder of of three alleged gay men by a vigilante jihaddist gang.
Not an encouraging introduction of gay life in Yemen.
Other researched sources have similar daunting information about LGBT life in Yemen. WikiTravel posts this: “First, homosexuality is illegal in Yemen in accordance to the country’s Shari’ah legal system. Punishment ranges from flogging to death. Yemen is one of only seven countries to apply a death penalty for consensual sexual acts between adults of the same sex. Freedom of speech, religion, and the press are all restricted. Gay and lesbian websites are blocked by the government. The official position is that there are no gays in Yemen, yet Yemeni law that stipulates severe punishment for homosexual activity acknowledges its existence.” (http://wikitravel.org/en/Yemen)
One Sana’a-based journalist has said, “in Yemen there is no gay community, because according to Islamic Sharia it’s prohibited, Yemen isn’t the United States. It’s a very conservative society and no one will admit that they’re gay.”
Other sources report that information on whether death sentences have actually been carried out is not reliable, given the secretive and ruthless nature of Yemeni authorities. Only three Muslim nations (Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan) are known to have carried out the death penalty for alleged homosexual acts recently years (1990-2010).
There Are Gays Everywhere
There are of course gays in Yemen, as everywhere, especially in the capital of Sana’a. “Yemen is the same as other Arabic societies – homosexuality is practiced in private,” said Arab activist Ali Hilli in London. But the ‘community’ is very closeted and underground for obvious security reasons.
However, the homosexual ‘lifestyle’ was outed in 2010 when from a safe distance in Paris the Yemeni author and filmmaker Hamid Aqabi published a review of an Egyptian film, “Heena Maysara” (“Till things get better”), which contains a lesbian love scene. In his comments he noted that homosexuality was “part and parcel of our society” and went so far as to call on the parliament to extend more rights to gay people and suggested that the Yemeni government consider allowing gay marriages, as in the West.
Needless so say, such a daring and confrontational commentary, which appeared in A-Thaqafiyya magazine in Yemen (accidentally, possibly due to an oversight by the editors), fueled angry responses among Muslim clerics and the general Yemeni population, some of whom demanded that Aqabi be severely punished and put on trial. Soon after, the magazine was shut down.
Such hysteria and over-reaction toward the toxic issue of same-sex relations is not uncommon in Yemen and no change in this attitude is expected anytime soon. It is a deeply embedded prejudice and deeply embedded in history thanks to rigid Sharia law and fundamentalist Islamic culture.
As for visiting and traveling in Yemen, the country is currently in the throes of a civil war and tribal conflicts. There is a risk of injury and kidnapping for tourists. WikiTravel further reports: “Yemen is not an easy country to get around, as for foreign nationals travel permits are required and in some regions independent travel is not possible. In case of any problem the Ministry of tourism will not be able to help you if you choose to travel with a non-registered tour operator or services provider. All travel outside the capital require a travel permit (tasriih) from the tourist police. Take photocopies of tasriih for military checkpoints along the way. It’s inconvenient, however it’s designed to prevent travelers from unwittingly venturing into areas of warfare and unrest, and vice versa.
“Some areas of the country are off-limits to travel without military escorts, and still other areas are totally off-limits to travel. While the concept of staying informed about local conditions in your intended destinations is an overused one, in Yemen it is essential, as failure to do so may result in kidnappings or worse.
“Visa regulations change quite regularly; sometimes it depends on the mood of the official dealing with you.
“While Yemen has often attracted negative media attention as a result of kidnappings of tourists and internal strife, this should caution but not wholly deter the careful traveler. The country is beautifully rugged and mountainous with fertile valleys, unique architecture and curious watchful faces. Anyone entering the country should try to keep up-to-date on the exact security situation of their intended destinations and be prepared to change plans if the situation mandates it.
“Intrepid travelers can take advantage of the local intra-city bus service, which is cheap, comfortable, and an affordable way to see the country. Tourists (especially from non-Arab countries) are not allowed to use public transport on roads linking the East and the West of Yemen. There are no trains to or within Yemen. It is possible to cross the Omani-Yemeni border in a car, although the border posts are often difficult to negotiate.
“Yemen is officially a dry country, however non-Muslims are entitled to bring up to two bottles of any alcoholic beverage into the country. These may be drunk only on private property, and venturing outside while under the influence is not a wise decision.
“This is a Muslim country. As such, be sensitive about where you point your camera. There are many great photo opportunities around every corner, but when photographing people always ask first.
“Despite being close to the richer oil-producing countries, Yemen is one of the poorest states on earth. Living conditions for many locals are very tough. As a tourist, expect local merchants to demand higher prices from you. While being mindful of the poverty level in Yemen, tourists should resist sympathetic urges to pay the merchant’s first price. Bargaining is a way of life in much of the world and is expected of all buyers.”
By Richard Ammon