I recently spent a weekend in Dubai, where evidently all I did was eat Mexican food, go shopping, and hang out with gay men. I might as well have been in Los Angeles.
And in fact, the comparison isn’t entirely inappropriate. As in LA, human amusement
in Dubai seems consist of going to the beach, lolling mindlessly by the pool, and visiting these huge, over-the-top shopping malls. And oh. Yeah. You also have to drive to get around anywhere…
But one key difference is that in LA, the gay population is very visible. Just go to any Starbucks in West Hollywood and you’ll see a plethora of tanned, muscular physiques, tight black T-shirts, and designer handheld pooches. In Dubai, you have to look a lot harder to find the gays, but they’re definitely still there.
During my weekend there, I looked up “Adrian,” a friend-of-a-friend, who has been living in Dubai for six years. As a gay Australian working in the tourism industry, he’d traveled to many a country and sampled the gay lifestyle there. “Lebanon?” he said. “I’m convinced that entire country is gay.”
Dubai, he said, was very gay, too, but not in the same way. As homosexual acts are technically illegal in the United Arab Emirates, and gender relations are overall conservative, most LGBTs conceal their sexual orientation in public. But get them to the right bar or club, and it all comes loose. Adrian told me about a hulking airline pilot named Mohammed, who was prancing around on the dance floor the other night, screaming “Just
call me Mimi!”
But there’s a very good chance Mohammed/Mimi is married (to a woman) with
children. After all, it’s taken for granted in Gulf culture that as a man, you will have a family, regardless of your sexual orientation. All people are expected to become breeders. And a great number of marriages are by arrangement, and not for love. Adrian described a Kuwaiti gay couple who had had a relationship for years, since they were very young. One got married and one managed to stay “single.” But they continued to see each other over the decades, on fishing trips and weekends away.
“It’s all very Brokeback Mountain,” he explained, slurping down his third margarita.
“Does the wife know?” I asked.
Adrian shrugged. “It doesn’t really matter. That’s not what their marriage is about.”
Is it hypocrisy? Or is it just another culture’s approach to marriage and sexuality? My openly gay Western friends are often shocked when I describe this. One said: “How do they do it? It’s tough enough to try and lead a double life as a gay man working in finance!”
But as The Atlantic suggested in its famous 2007 article “The Kingdom in the Closet,” in a restrictive Muslim society, it’s almost easier to have a gay relationship than a straight one before marriage because there’s such strict separation between the sexes. Likewise, homosexuality is more something that you do, than something that you are. It’s a behavior, not an identity. In the West, where LGBT rights have become such a politicized issue, gay activists walk down the streets of New York holding signs that say “Did I vote
on your marriage?” People’s identities are defined by their sexual orientation, and in an arena where rights and privileges are debated in public, that often creates divisions and oppositions. In the Arab world, it’s hidden and therefore, perhaps less divisive.
Later that evening, Adrian and I swung by Zuma, a trendy sushi bar with elaborate cocktails and a kicking DJ. It was very much like the original Zuma in London, where everyone looked beautiful, heterosexual, and immaculately groomed. Hm, I thought. I could easily be in Knightsbridge.
After Zuma unexpectedly shut its bars at 11:30 (a new law in the business district), we went to a notorious nightclub called “Balloon” once described to me as “the gayest club in the world.” As a fag hag, I was very curious. After all, I lived in Vauxhall, London for
eight years and often found myself in Soho. To call something the gayest club in the world is a very big statement to me.
“Balloon” is tucked inconspicuously in the bowels of a three-star hotel, where no one would suspect the gayest club in the world throbs to the beat of its own Kylie soundtrack. We drifted down the hallway, passing a cheesy Mexican-themed restaurant, and arrived at the entrance to “Balloon,” where I (as a woman) was allowed to go in for free and Adrian was charged AED 100 (about $27).
It may be the gayest nightclub in the world, but it still charges cover like a straight club.
As it was still early, I only saw a bunch of men randomly sitting around while music blared. So in essence, not really different from any other nightclub in the Middle East.
“Wait,” Adrian told me. “It’ll get busier.”
Despite the dance music, I noticed a few televisions showing a football game. In a gay club?
“At midnight, will the façade come down, and they’ll start showing musicals?” I joked.
I wish I could tell you something insanely gay happened, like a bunch of Arab men launching into an impromptu mass synchronized Vogue, but it didn’t. What struck me was the diversity of gayness in the place. You had everything from very camp, very effeminate boys, to the hairy middle-aged “bears” and everything in between – all styles, all races, Arabs, Africans, Asians, Western ex-pats. In London, gay clubs are often pigeonholed into the one for bears, the one for twinks, the one for slim Asians and the older white men who love them, etc. But here, in a society where gay culture is often concealed from the mainstream, an underground gay club is equal opportunity, indiscriminate, all-encompassing.
Have gay men in the West become victims of their own exclusivity?
By the time we sloped out of that club at an early 2:00am, the place was hopping with every possible strain of gay man you could imagine – plus a couple of fag hags.
“Surely the police must know about this place, right?” I asked Adrian, as we emerged
back into the anodyne hotel corridor.
He answered that they probably do, but they tend to turn a blind eye. Everyone knows there’s a gay community somewhere in Dubai, just no one says anything about it.
So no one actually gets arrested for being gay then?
Adrian smiled. “They don’t like it when you go in drag. You dress up as a woman, you’ll get arrested.”
See, I told you they like to keep the sexes separate around here.