Vancouver
5 min

The cost of being gay

Queer lives beyond the West

THEN AND NOW. Ashraf Zanati (left) was sent to jail in Egypt for being gay. John Scagliotti's globe-trotting documentary, Dangerous Living: Coming Out in the Developing World, details the challenges of being lesbian or gay in developing countries-including Zanati's story. Today Zanati lives in Vancouver and sat down for an interview with Xtra West. Credit: Xtra West files

“There’s a price to pay for visibility,” says one of the brave interview subjects of Dangerous Living: Coming Out in the Developing World. The engrossing documentary surveys social conditions for minority sexualities in places far, far from Vancouver, including Pakistan, Egypt, Honduras, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Namibia.



The story John Scagliotti’s globetrotting film tells is sobering but ultimately optimistic. It’s one in which oppressive forces-militaristic governments, holier-than-thou religious leadership, and convention-or-bust family structures-strive mightily to restrict, ostracize and condemn unwelcome citizens of whose love they disapprove.



It describes rape, imprisonment, suicide, fear and exile on the one hand, and yet triumphant-and enduring-instances of freedom and happiness on the other. And it suggests that while repression is an ongoing fact, it’s a losing cause.



Director Scagliotti tells Xtra West from his home-studio in Vermont that Dangerous Living sprang naturally from his work on After Stonewall.



At the Sydney Gay Games “we met these fantastic organizers from countries like Brazil and Thailand, and it got me thinking what brave souls they were and that we in the West needed to know about what they were doing.”



The result: two years of travel, interviews and collecting hard-to-obtain stock footage. For the veteran filmmaker, the transcontinental trips revealed a surprisingly familiar cultural unfolding.



“I think the thing that amazed me was the similarities to the West. I had thought the cultural differences would be much different as to gay identity. It seems that economics are a major factor for coming out, but that was true in the West. It is just that the West had a faster-growing middle class and educational opportunities for that class. As that class got bigger and bigger, those people, especially young ones, went to the city meccas like SF, Toronto, NYC, Miami, LA, Paris, Amsterdam etc.



“The same thing is happening now in the developing world as more people take part in educational and economic opportunities, especially in cities like Mexico City, Rio, Kuala Lumpur, where more and more folks are identifying as gay or lesbian.”



Scagliotti does not see equal-rights politics as local or national, but instead part of a linked global undertaking.



“The changes of the 20th century are big-every institution in the world is now having to deal with the same issues. Churches, families, the military-all are caught in the process of change that began in the ’60s when gays and lesbians began identifying as a conscious group.



It’s everywhere, and the repression to stop it-whether like Bush’s attempt to stop gay marriage or in Egypt, where fundamentalists have created a climate of increased homophobia and hard-line tactics-that the organizers will continue to battle. Now that the Western world is becoming more sophisticated in dealing with international affairs, the growth of human rights groups will be a major factor [in securing queer rights] over the next 20 years.”



Though thousands of kilometers away, Don Wright couldn’t agree more. The producer of Amnesty International’s film festival, he imagines Scagliotti’s documentary as both educational and an incitement to action.



In putting together the program for Out On Screen, Wright was startled and yet motivated to “hear from courageous activists who face unbelievable pressure-including death threats-for working to defend the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.



“I’m hoping audiences will learn that people continue to be harassed, arrested, and sent to prison for lengthy sentences solely on the grounds of their sexual orientation.



“The struggle for equality and fair treatment for LGBT persons is far from over, and with this film we see some of the international dimensions of that effort. I think many audience members will identify with the people featured in the film, and hopefully be moved to look for ways to link their own local struggle with the emerging international movement for LGBT human rights.”



He also points to the relationship between the push for queer equality and a larger project of universal human rights.



“It is a very direct issue around oppression based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but it is linked to bigger issues around lack of respect for human rights worldwide. For example, the message we keep getting is that we must give up some rights in order to have security. That sets the stage for governments to more easily diminish or preclude other rights. We have to work hard together to reach a point where all people enjoy all rights at all times.”



As a kind of litmus test, Scagliotti documents a 2001 case in Egypt in which 52 men were arrested (for “habitual debauchery”) while on a Nile boat cruise. The case illustrates how quickly surface tolerance can turn to active persecution.



One of the gay men interviewed for Dangerous Living, Ashraf Zanati was also one of the 52 men arrested and detained in Cairo aboard the riverboat.



Following his release from prison in May 2002, he left Egypt and relocated to Vancouver. Speaking with him on a bench looking onto English Bay, it’s clear that he’s happy to be free of a restrictive government (of his first Pride parade, he says: “Omigod, you don’t see that in Egypt. I was so excited”) and yet homesick for a place to which he cannot return.



He talks of the whole experience as being life-changing: It awoke him politically even as it forced him into exile.



The year he spent in prison was financially costly-the Egyptian prison system requires inmates to pay for their food, room, clothing, etc. But it was personally devastating as well. He says that once released he could not return to his job, nor feel comfortable.



“I couldn’t even walk down the street-my life had been taken away from me.”



While he describes the ‘Cairo 52’ case as actually being about political scapegoating and a rivalry between powerful families (and his being at the wrong place at the wrong time), he describes the overall changes in Egypt as steps backward, ones that evacuated queer social spaces and forced men and women back into the shadows.



“Homosexuality is everywhere, people don’t talk about it. It’s like England 50 years ago. Someone is married but has a boyfriend in secret. It’s secret, but it works.”



He does not see Egypt as developing a Western-style middle-class gay presence because of the culture’s general religiosity and the entrenched taboo about sexuality. Accordingly, his activist’s aims are more modest: “I want gays to be left alone, not to be traced on the Internet, nor be arrested, and to not live in suspicion of being followed. That destroys lives of people who are innocent.”



In himself as well, he says, he detects a change. He went from living a largely apolitical life (“I’m usually a person who doesn’t think much about freedom or who is gay or not”) to coming to see how easily he-and those others he met in prison with far fewer resources than himself-could be damaged by the choices made by those in power.



“I realized that there are other people who are deeply affected by such things. I was not really aware of them as I am now,” he says, aiming toward an activism in everyday life.



As the story of coming out in the developing world unfolds, it is perhaps best to consider the words of another who experienced both repression and freedom. A lesbian from the Philippines is interviewed near the conclusion of Living Dangerously. Her exultation at coming out speaks volumes: “When I finally acknowledged it, it was like a dam burst. How can you stop it?”



* Don Wright is Regional Development Coordinator with Amnesty International. Based in Vancouver, he can be reached at dwright@amnesty.ca (or 604.294.5160). See www.ai-lgbt.org for related information.



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