I am in my hotel room in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia,
speaking on the phone to one of several men I contacted via e-mail before I arrived, in the
hopes of getting a glimpse of gay life in what may be the most closed society
remaining in the world. Like the three others I end up interviewing during
my short stay in this complicated country, this man feels most comfortable
meeting me in the relatively safe space of my hotel lobby.
"How will I know you who you are?" I ask as we arrange a meeting time.
"I'll be wearing a red T-shirt," he says. "Believe me, no one in Saudi
Arabia wears a red T-shirt!" he says about the conservative dress code here.
In public, every Saudi woman wears the obligatory abayeh, the black garment
that covers her body from head to toe. And while it's not uncommon to see
men dressed in Western slacks and collar shirts, by far most men dress
conservatively and traditionally, too, in the white, floor-length robe called
a dish-dash, topped with a red checkered kifeyah headdress.
I enter the lobby at the designated time, on the lookout for the signature
coloured garment. I spot "Haitham" immediately. (All the men I interviewed in
Saudi Arabia asked that their real names not be used.) But even without the
red signpost, gaydar would have quickly led me to my mark.
A 28-year-old architect, Haitham could be a gay man right out of Chelsea or
the Castro. He's wearing red sneakers and tight jeans, and his hugging red
shirt shows off a muscular body that is obviously a regular at the gym. A
sharp jaw line cuts his angular face, and his eyes are dark and deep. The
short, thick black curls on the top of his head are kept stiff with mousse.
Later, after we go to my room, the only place Haitham and the other men feel
safe speaking openly, he tells me that his dress code is one sure sign to
other gay men of his sexuality. But more importantly, it's a symbol of just
how much the country has opened up for gay men in the past decade. These
days, he says, gay men can be "out" in the way they dress. "If I wear a
tight or flashy T-shirt, straight men just think I am trying to show off," he
says, smiling. "But other gay men know."
The number one way people meet is through the Internet, he says, including
several sites specifically for gay men in Saudi Arabia. "The government
blocks a lot of sites," he says, "but if you know how to navigate the Net,
you can get around it."
The opening up of gay life in Saudi society includes a network of private
parties, at least one each weekend, attended by anywhere from 20 to 50 men,
says Haitham. There are several cruisy streets that men drive back and
forth on after midnight. (No one walks anywhere in Riyadh.) And Riyadh even
boasts three gay cafes, two of which draw mixed crowds, but one of which is
90 percent gay.
Only after promising that I will not reveal it in my article, Haitham tells
me the name of the gay cafe, and draws me a map of how to get there.
The next night, I convince a reluctant "Fahed" who I meet by chance in the
hotel lobby to take me to the gay cafe. We arrive about 10 p.m. on a
Wednesday night, and yet the place is packed, with most of the small, round
chrome tables and matching chairs placed outside to take advantage of the
warm night air. I am surprised that the men sit so freely in the open. Even
more surprising is that most of the customers are clad in the Saudi dish-dash
and kifeyah, rather than the jeans and T-shirt look sported by Haitham and
Fahed. At first, I wonder how gay this cafe really is. But within minutes, I
feel the heavy gazes of men cruising a newcomer, and all doubts melt.
Inside, the walls are painted a bright peach, and colorful strands of neon
light overhead liven up the place. The waiters are mostly Filipino, and rush
back and forth from the kitchen with trays of hot sandwiches, cappuccinos and
Fahed, a tall, slim 25-year-old who drives his father's Mercedes, is a little
nervous about being at the coffeehouse. He's been before, but not for a
several months. The last time he visited, he found a note from an anonymous
admirer on the car windshield. It freaked him out that a secret suitor knew
what car he drove.
Like the other men I spoke with while in Saudi Arabia, Fahed is highly
educated, speaks nearly perfect English, and is comfortable with himself as a
gay man. His fears about coming out revolve almost exclusively around his
family rather than the government or religion. All four men I interviewed,
including Fahed, rolled their eyes and laughed when I inquired about whether
the Saudi government executes men for being gay.
"Oh come on, please, that is so exaggerated," insists Fahed. "Americans love
those kind of dramatic stories, but they are mostly lore. I mean, it's well
known there are several members of the royal family who are gay. No one's
chopping their heads off."
"Of course, there are no gay rights groups," he adds. "Political groups of
any kind are not tolerated."
But more than fear of the government, family shame keeps gay men in the
closet here, he says. "If I would come out," Fahed says slowly, shuddering
at the mere thought, "I wouldn't just ruin my life. I'd ruin four other
lives too," referring to his brother, sister, mother and father. His father who's
a highly placed Saudi government official would certainly lose his job,
and the family would be totally disgraced, he says.
So while things may well be easier today for gays in Saudi Arabia than in the
past, he says, "There is always a limit. There will never be a real gay
You can write to Mubarak Dahir at MubarakDah@aol.com.