The secret life of Pakistan’s LGBTI community


Walking briskly through the Sadar market in downtown Karachi, 46 year-old Wajid Ali looks no different to any other man in the market.

But Wajid is gay and if the people around him knew, it would be impossible for him to move around with such ease.

There are some places where he can hang out with like-minded people. Jahangir Park, just a mile away from the market, is one of them.

It is a place where gay men from Karachi’s relatively poor local neighbourhood meet secretly in the evenings.

“Our behaviour and lifestyle makes us different to the majority of the population, so we continue to be physically and psychologically tortured. Honestly, there is no safe space for us to speak out about our lives,” a gay man at Jahangir Park who wished to remain anonymous told Equal Times.

When asked what would happen if people knew he was gay he replied that he would be physically attacked and beaten. “People would see it as their moral and legal duty to do that.”

Things are a bit different for Karachi’s more affluent lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) population, who meet at the frequent parties and gatherings in the city’s well-organised, secret underground scene. They don’t have to worry about meeting up in parks; they communicate online.

There are more than a dozen of dedicated groups for LGBTI Pakistanis on Facebook alone.

But for the rest, keeping one’s identity secret – or adopting a new one – is the only option.

Homosexuality is considered a taboo in conservative Pakistani society and there are laws which, although rarely enforced, render homosexual acts illegal.

That didn’t stop Pakistan from being named the world leader for Google searches of the term “shemale sex”, second for searches of “man fucking man”, and third for “gay sex pics” last year.

Wajid, who is a LGBTI rights activist, told Equal Times that there is a burgeoning network of activists in almost every city in Pakistan.

While there are no official statistics about Pakistan’s LGBTI population, Wajid predicts that in Karachi alone – a city of nearly 20 million people – the number is over 50,000.

“We sit together, talk on the phone and communicate regularly to share our experiences,” he said.

“But we have not yet decided to launch a public movement for our rights since it poses a deadly threat to us.”


Being transgender: more acceptable than being gay

Stating the case of a gay couple caught by police, Wajid tells Equal Times that the only way to avoid serious danger is for homosexuals in Pakistan to pretend to be transgender, as this is more socially accepted.

Pakistan’s transgender population – known as khwaja seras, transgender courtesans, or less politely as hijras, a catch-all term for hermaphrodites, transsexuals, eunuchs, and transvestites – proudly narrate a history of being distinguished servants to the royal families of Muslim emperors in the 18th and 19th century.

Legend has it that they were given this position since the emperors were sure that transgender women would not make advances on their queens and princesses.

With the passage of time however, their role evolved into ‘party makers’ on the occasion of births and weddings in lower-middle class Muslim families in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

Even today, it is not uncommon for a group of transgender women to enter a house where a boy has recently been born – uninvited – and proceed to dance and sing for the family for a small fee.

But as a transgender community leader Bindya Rana explains, this tradition is vanishing fast, and transgender people also have to deal with discrimination and social exclusion.

“We have never been given our due share in decent jobs despite the proven fact that transgenders can do all the tough jobs any man can do,” Rana told Equal Times in Karachi.

Nowadays, the sex trade, dancing and begging are some of the few avenues left for the 50,000-150,000-strong transgender population in Pakistan.

In 2012, the Pakistani Supreme Court allowed for a “third gender” category to be added to national identity cards, bolstering their legal rights.

But legislation doesn’t always translate to everyday life.

A few months ago, a private TV crew conducted a night-time raid of the house of a transgender woman and broadcast it live on a TV crime show.

According to Rana, this humiliating episode reflectes an underlying attitude of disrespect and a lack of acceptance towards transgender people, despite the laws. “This marginalised community was picked on for the sake of higher ratings,” says Rana.


Women who love women

In the male dominated Pakistani society, being a lesbian is perhaps the most challenging sexual orientation because the space for women’s freedom is already limited – never mind for women who love other women.

According to Rana Asif, of the Gender Interactive Alliance (GIA), while there is no legal basis for the discrimination of the LGBTI, religion tends to muddy that water. “The Pakistani constitution does not curb the rights of gays or lesbians directly but the core idea of the constitution, which states that there should be no law against the basic principle of Islam, denies gays and lesbians the right of identity, the right to marry and other rights that homosexuals enjoy in some other countries of the world.”

A top female fashion model told Equal Times, on the condition of anonymity, that while there is a bit more freedom in the creative industries, gay women in particular, still avoid making their sexual preference public.

“Some girls, especially the younger ones, boldly claim the fact that they are interested in other girls, but you still won’t find anyone admitting to being in a serious relationship or wanting to get married because they know this is not possible in Pakistan,” she said.

Wajid believes that a day will come when people in Pakistan will accept the LGBTI community but until then, he will continue to stay in the closet.

“Gay rights are basic human rights; it is not something out of this world.”