“This one gooood for your eye-bags!” says the effeminate Filipino makeup salesman, holding up a tube of concealer to his tittering female colleague in what is obviously a catty form of affection.
In the five minutes I’ve spent in Sephora browsing men’s fragr-ances, I’ve seen him touch up his face powder and smooth his heavily arched eyebrows twice.
Nothing unusual here, you might think. I mean, there are fey gay men working in makeup concessions the world over, right?
What makes his behaviour stand out is that I’m in Dubai, a province of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) governed by a dictatorial royal family, and a Middle Eastern hotspot attracting the gaze of the world. Like Las Vegas, Dubai was built in a desert from nothing and, like Vegas, Dubai (in the Arab world anyway) is known as sin city.
Despite being conservative by Western standards, this is the city to which alcohol- and sex-hungry Arabs flock in droves to get their fix, including the gays. Not that gay sex is anything unusual in the Arab world. Growing up, the women are shut away, so budding sexual desires are commonly sated between friends.
I arrived in the city during the height of summer almost three years ago to take a section editor job at a large fashion and celebrity magazine. My friends back home in London joked about my forthcoming years of celibacy and, though I laughed along with them, my bravado faltered as the plane touched down on the tarmac of Dubai’s airport.
From the outset, I’m under no illusions about Dubai’s official attitude to homosexuality. Soon after arriving, in order to secure a working visa, I’m tested for HIV. And, at my publishing company, I’m told in no uncertain terms to avoid using gay references within features which, when writing about fashion and celebrity, is particularly difficult.
However, while on the surface conditions for gay Dubaiians might seem bleak, thanks to some quickly acquired gay friends I learned that, despite the legalities, a vibrant gay scene flourishes.
In fact, thanks to a huge population of young professional expats, the scene is one of the most multi-cultural and diverse around.
I make my first visit to the city’s most popular gay club, Submarine. Entering through a small, dark underground car park on a Thursday evening, my friend and I encounter the uneven door policies that are common in gay venues (a vague attempt to curb gay activity). Men arriving solo or in all-male groups pay more, queue separately and are often denied entry altogether.
Inside, the place is packed to the rafters with a United Nations of men: butch Lebanese and their Asian playthings mingle with trendily dressed Europeans, all gyrating together, creating a sea of bulging biceps and tank tops. A Syrian man moves close to me on the dancefloor before whispering “Touch my cock.”
Passing on that offer, I quickly meet an equally forward New Zealander working as crew for Emirates Airlines (where a large portion of the city’s gay contingent works).
Despite the fact that the UAE employs strict censors to prevent access to pornography and dating websites, an easily downloadable program that bypasses censors means that sites such as Gaydar and Manjam are extremely popular methods for hookups.
Still, gays in Dubai can’t afford to let down their guard. Every so often, the authorities will do something to bring them sharply back to reality. For example, a recent book festival in the Middle East banned a British author because her novel contains references to homosexuality.
Several years ago, Dubai’s first publicly advertised gay night (featuring a drag act from the UK) resulted in the closure of the club hosting the event. And, for a period of time, police patrolled the plethora of Dubai malls, searching for “obvious” signs of homosexuality.
According to the International Lesbian and Gay Association, consensual gay sex in Dubai is punishable by up to 10 years in prison, although punishment can be more severe if defendants are charged under Islamic law.
Yes, Dubai has become a gay mecca of sorts in an area of the world rife with intolerance. However, like many things in the city — the slave-like treatment of construction workers, for example — everyone knows about it, but nobody makes it “official.”