It was May 11, 2001, and the Queen Boat nightclub was floating down the Nile River in Egypt with a flurry of music, laughter, and partying. However, late into the night, things suddenly went very wrong.
Mazen, a man who was aboard the boat, told Oprah Winfrey in 2007 that men looked at him and the others and declared that they “looked like a gay.” Him and 51 other men were immediately arrested on the grounds of obscene behavior.
This case would get the world’s attention and the men would be known as the Cairo 52.
Hossein Alizadeh, the Middle East and North Africa program coordinator at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), explained that in all of the Middle East, Turkey is the only country that has completely secular law. In Arabic nations there is no law against homosexuality, so when law enforcement wants to go after someone who “looks gay,” they charge them with morality crimes such as debauchery and prostitution.
“Homosexuality is considered to be extremely stigmatized, so when you talk about same-sex practices, it’s something that people feel very uncomfortable talking even about, let alone observing it or allowing it to happen,” Alizadeh said.
Formed in 1990, IGLHRC took on the Cairo 52, its first big case, and sent a member to Egypt to attend the trial and serve as a community liaison to educate locals about homosexuality and LGBT rights. It also served as an opportunity for the organization to show the lack of LGBT rights around the world, not just in the Middle East.
Mazen said in the Winfrey interview that once they were in jail, the men were beaten until they admitted they were gay. They were also told to pull down their pants so the police could see what color underwear they were wearing, according to the New York Times — apparently, colored underwear was a sign of homosexuality. Even though they were all wearing white underwear, the torture continued. They were stripped naked and told to go on their hands and knees so a doctor could perform anal probing to determine their sexual orientation, supposedly by finding traces of semen.
“It was horrible,” Mazen told Winfrey. “I didn’t have rights.”
Unfortunately, in the Middle East and other places around the world, anal probing is a common practice even though modern medicine has completely dismissed it. Also, homosexuality is seen as an illness and doctors will oftentimes prescribe medications or conduct electric shock therapy to “cure your homosexual tendencies,” Alizadeh said.
During the trials, the government gave the media the full names of the men being tried, their addresses, and photos to print. It’s also believed that not all 52 men actually came from the boat but some were arrested in the streets. Of the 52 arrested, 23 were found guilty of contempt of religion and immoral behavior, according to the BBC. Mazen, after two suicide attempts in jail, fled to Paris when he heard rumors they might be tried again — and he was right. In response to international outcry from the Queen Boat Trial, then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ordered a retrial in November 2001, according to the New York Times. Fifty men were retried — those who were originally convicted were found guilty a second time and their sentences were made longer in March 2002.
That was 13 years ago, and because of upheaval in the region, not much has improved.
“In Egypt, unfortunately, I can’t say there has been progress,” Alizadeh said. “Because of the Arab Spring, there has been unfortunately a few steps backwards in Egypt, and also the crackdown of the government. We had a series of unsuccessful attempts by the civil society to create a more secular, liberal society, and unfortunately those have failed.”
In December 2014, about two-dozen men were arrested at a bathhouse in Cairo and paraded half naked in front of television cameras on the way to jail. Since 2013, according to the Washington Post, more than 150 people have been arrested in Egypt in a similar fashion. Earlier in 2014, four men were arrested for debauchery and prostitution after attending an all-male house party and were sentenced between eight and 12 years in prison.
In August 2012, 36 men were arrested from a gay movie theatre in Lebanon and subjected to anal probing. In August 2014, 27 men were arrested in a Turkish bathhouse in Lebanon, including the owner and some staff.
However, in the rest of the region there has been progress for LGBT rights, particularly in Morocco, Turkey and Tunisia. While the Middle East and North Africa aren’t the safest places in the world for LGBT people, the fact there are even conversations about homosexuality is a huge step.
“Back in the 2000s, we’re talking about an era that you didn’t even have a word to describe homosexuality. In most Arabic documents at the time they used to refer to homosexuals as sodomites,” Alizdeh said. “Out of that fiasco, what came out was a greater understanding of the dangers that exist. There was a new discourse that happened that emphasized the importance of personal rights and personal space.”