Mahmoud Hassino knew he was gay at age 12. He wasn’t attracted to girls, but he was very interested in his male friends. Later, as a teenager growing up in Damascus, his mother figured out his sexual orientation and gave him what he later realized was good advice.
Don’t admit your homosexuality, she cautioned the Syrian youth. “You will have trouble finding work and socializing with people.”
Despite tight cultural restrictions, Hassino says, he had no problems finding gay partners. “There are gay men everywhere,” he says with a quick smile. “You just had to have good gaydar.”
Last year, Hassino joined millions of other Syrians in the uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. He marched in demonstrations and participated in underground meetings. Dozens of gay men and lesbians have been killed during the uprising, but most Syrians are unaware of their sexual orientation.
Hassino eventually fled to Turkey because of his anti-regime activism. He recently found out his Damascus apartment had been destroyed in a government attack. But he continues to write about his homeland in an effort to shine light on its gay subculture and support the opposition movement.
Homosexuality remains a criminal offense in Syria, despite promises of reform by President Assad when he took office in 2000. In March and April 2010, the government arrested groups of gay men who were having parties at private houses in Damascus. Three men were arrested on drug charges.
Others were kept in jail for three months “until their families and everyone in the neighborhood knew,” says Hassino. “Some had to flee Syria to other countries.”
Hassino says that while gay men undergo harassment, lesbians face even more difficulties. When the family of one lesbian friend found out about her sexual orientation, they “forced her to marry an older guy,” recalls Hassino. “Now she’s living like a maid taking care of him and his children.”
In recent years, gays have secretly organized in an attempt to change the law and educate their fellow citizens. In 2009 some 200 gays organized a group called “I’m just like you.”
"I'm gay and I have a right to my opinion,” gays wrote in their appeal, as quoted by Agence France Press. “I belong to this society, and it owes me some respect. I'm gay—I don't come from another planet."
While homosexuality remains illegal and gays must lead double lives in Syria, a 2009 UNHCR report notes that other Middle East countries are far worse violators of gay rights. Seven Middle East nations proscribe the death penalty for homosexual acts.
As a result, Hassino concedes, some gay men and lesbians still support Assad. They fear that if conservative Islamists come to power, they will face even more repression.
Hassino, who wants to reach out to gays who are pro-Assad or on the fence, has started an online, Arabic-language magazine, Mawaleh, which means “nuts” —a reference to the food, not a double entendre. The magazine attempts to reach lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered Syrians regardless of their political views.
“We all want a secular Syria,” says Hassino. And those who support Assad, he argues, “must have a backup plan” in case he falls.
But as the civil war intensifies, the secular forces within the opposition are losing strength. And Hassino’s views are very controversial, even among the secular opposition.
Miral Bioredda, a secular leader of the Local Coordinating Committees in Hassakah, a central Syrian city, says he personally views homosexuality as a private matter, “but Syrian society would say ‘no way’ if gays rose to claim their rights. Developing a civil society will take time.”
Others are less tolerant. Interviewed in Turkey, Nasradeen Ahme, a member of the Free Syrian Army, who also considers himself part of the secular opposition, says: “If I was in charge, I would enforce tougher laws against homosexuals. If someone said homosexuals should be stoned to death as in Iran and Saudi Arabia, I would not object.”
Hassino acknowledges that such conservative views mean homosexuals face challenges whoever wins Syria's civil war. “This is a bigger problem than the law now,” he says. “Social traditions are influenced by the religious traditions. Most people reject homosexuality.”
Hassino argues that the right to organize and speak freely will benefit all Syrians, and eventually help gays as well.
“The intelligence services arrest people if they're discussing any kind of social or political change,” he says. Without freedom of speech, we can't address these issues.”