When I was selected for an internship at a university in Kuwait, my family and friends were all puzzled by my decision to willingly leave my cozy place at Dartmouth College and move to a small Islamic emirate for three months. “I hear Kuwait has a great rooftop gay scene,” they would joke, making light of the tragic deaths of accused homosexuals at the hands of ISIS. It was a tough decision, as I knew the consequences I could face as a gay man if that fact were to be discovered in Kuwait — at best, my privileged status as a white American expat would likely mean that I would be deported, but at worst, I could face up to six years in a Kuwaiti prison. While I tried to be quite cavalier about going back into the closet to those who were concerned, I admit now that I was terrified. There was no way to prepare for the strange transition back into a life of constant secrecy and fear.
In Kuwait, it was easy to think I was back in America, imbuing me with a false sense of calmness and familiarity. When walking along the shore of the Persian Gulf, I saw little girls in pink fuzzy jumpsuits riding Big Wheels, and 12-year-old boys in skinny jeans huddled in a circle trying to light their first, thrillingly illicit cigarette with an empty lighter they’d found on the ground. But when my morning wake-up call was also the call to prayer ringing through the city, my positioning in a country under Islamic law was undeniable and inescapable. The omnipresent adhan, something harmless and holy to Muslims, can cause unease to those who know they are not welcome in this society, whether that person is gay, like me, or, like my roommate, a Kashmiri Pandit — a group violently forced out of their homes in the 1990’s when mosques used the call to prayer to declare that all Kashmiri Pandits had to leave, convert to Islam, or be killed. For both of us, as Dartmouth students growing up on the East Coast, this relatively new feeling of isolation and unconscious ostracism was exacerbated by the fact that fundamental religious beliefs were widely supported by the Muslims surrounding us every day.
These observations should not be read as an attack on Islam itself, but rather as an attack on the human tendency to pervert hegemonic institutions in order to justify prejudices and ferment hatred. The intent is less about holiness than it is about exerting control over people who are labeled “other.” The issue of homophobia is not unique to any one religion or people — the hatred of queer people is as often rationalized through interpretations of “god’s will” as it is through general disgust of what societies consider “aberrant.”
While many Kuwaitis are quite conservative, Kuwait’s legal system is indeed civil, as there are no Sharia courts for Western non-Muslims. However, the existing laws of Kuwait are influenced by Islam, and Kuwait’s Amir has advocated for stricter enforcement of laws that uphold conservative Islamic values. Since the Amir ordered the creation of a committee to accomplish this task, there have been increased police crackdowns on gay and “feminine” men, leading to violent beatings, arrests, and deportations. While many Western styles, songs, and products have permeated Kuwait, it is outright dangerous to conflate that with Western liberalism.
Kuwait’s protections of freedom of expression are almost as unimpressive as its protections of LGBTQ people. One of my roles at the university was to “review” submissions to a literary magazine on campus — a euphemistic job description for what amounts to censoring anything considered culturally, politically or religiously sensitive. When I came across a poem brimming with homoerotic innuendo, I was faced with a moral dilemma: My professional side told me to flag it, but my identity as a gay man told me to let it pass through. But the implications of either of those decisions rendered the reality for gay men in Kuwait quite clear. If I had flagged it, I would have put the author at risk within the university, but if I hadn’t flagged it, I would have put him at risk within the greater Kuwaiti community. As I considered these possibilities anxiously, I began to think, “Is it only me who is framing this as homoerotic? It’s vague enough. If I flag it, will I, in turn, be questioned about how I managed to catch something that truly only a gay man well-versed in Oscar Wilde and homoerotic innuendo would be capable of catching? Is my skill in censoring homoerotic content a stark indication of my own guilt of the very aberrant lifestyle I am trying to censor?” This sort of damned situation is what supplants the feeling of community usually experienced by queer people towards one another — indeed, the loss of community is one of the saddest casualties of systemically ingrained homophobia.
Loss of community is by no means the only tragedy endured by queer people in the Middle East. One day, about a month into my new life in Kuwait, my roommate shared a devastating story with me: A teenager in nearby Riyadh, Saudi Arabia came out to his parents, who then threw him out of the house. Having nowhere else to turn, and risking capital punishment if discovered by his government, the boy took his own life. He was only 15. This tragic story touched me, terrified me and broke me. I was angry at Sharia law, at whatever God there is that governs over this unjust world, and at myself for not magically saving this unknown boy in distress. After minutes of sad and agonizing silence, I looked at my roommate and said, “I am glad he killed himself, because at least then he died on his own terms; they didn’t get to kill him.”
That state of fear worsened with each passing day, relentlessly occupying my thoughts and interrupting my actions. It reached a new height after I made a foolish mistake that could have cost me my visa, or much, much more. While traveling to India one weekend, I sent a text to whom I thought was my roommate, but was actually my boss. My boss, the same guy who asked me only days before what I thought of “the tits on that secretary,” received: “Every special forces guy at this airport is hot af.” Not realizing my mistake for over an hour, it wasn’t until my boss responded, wondering what the hell I meant, that the gravity of my situation was realized. I frantically sent him back some clever excuse, but that didn’t stop me from having a panic attack. While my flight was boarding, I was vomiting in the bathroom in a hopeless attempt to alleviate my stressed and knotted stomach, barely collecting myself into a presentable state in time to catch that flight.
But the most unsettling experience of all occurred at an otherwise uneventful dinner party. One of the university’s students had invited me over for dinner with his family. As he drove me to his house, we had discussed a range of topics about U.S. universities, and I had mentioned one of my gay friends. After a long pause, the student pulled the car over and looked at me: “I trust you because you’re an American and you might be the only person that I am friends with who won’t turn me in for this. I am bisexual.” When I asked him how his family would view it, he gave a chilling response: “My family believes in honor killings. If they ever knew, they would murder me.” Fifteen minutes later, I was having tea with his parents in his living room, trying to not noticeably tremble every time one of them made a sudden movement. I vividly remember looking at their eyes, so tranquil and hospitable, and wondering how they would change if I simply said, “I’m gay.”
Devon Kurtz is a student at Dartmouth College and the incoming editor in chief of The Dartmouth Review, an independent college newspaper.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.