Amman is well renowned for being a city of contrasts, where the hijab and the belly dancer walk side by side with little friction. Thus, on arrival, as a gay man from England with very little experience of discrimination or difficulty based on my sexual orientation, Amman did not seem like a particularly threatening city – being gay is legal in Jordan, it being one of the only countries in the Middle East, Africa or Asia where homosexuality is a recognised state of being. There are a very few (mostly underground and unknown) gay cafes and bars, predominantly located around the fashionable and touristy First Circle, the site of Rainbow Street, Amman’s most popular nightlife strip.
Despite the supposed legality of homosexuality, I was cautious of being openly gay here. Stories such as straight men using the gay dating app Grindr to find, locate and target gay men terrified me. In Iraq, Jordan’s neighbour, openly gay men and women are targeted and mutilated systematically, with such stories as men having their bottoms sewn together, a brutal and dehumanising practice. Despite supposed legality in some countries, such as Jordan and Israel, homosexuality across the Middle East is not tolerated.
We stumbled upon a particular gay café in Amman, which we had been told about in the guide books. Here the scene was supposedly very open and tolerated. On entry, this certainly proved the case. Even Babylove on the most heated of Tuesday nights has never seemed so charged and electric. There was a lot of groping, a lot of touching and dancing. Men were openly flirting with men and even more openly using the ladies’ bathroom.
As the night progressed we found ourselves in conversation with a group of fellow foreign students who were leaving Amman that day and we all got to dancing and laughing. The drink flowed and the night seemed to be free.
A touch. A kiss. A peck, even. Little more was exchanged; it was barely noticeable. Easily done. Harmless, you might say. No. We were not thrown out, but we were no longer a tolerable presence for the staff. What seems like such a harmless and normal, in fact pedestrian, act in the UK, changed the atmosphere of the room instantly. Whilst the (male) belly dancer continued, the staff and many customers were shocked. The fellow clientele seemed to understand the state of play: groping was fine, but kissing a taboo. Nobody else would have done it. A very sweet Jordanian man pulled us apart before we got into serious trouble, but I knew it was time to leave. Time to leave and never go back, in fact.
I was shocked. Shocked that in such a modern and friendly society, where being gay is legal and the police will not (supposedly) arrest you for it, I would be pulled apart from a man I had little more than brushed my lips up against as we danced casually, like everybody else in the room, in such a hostile fashion.
Originally, we were billed to go to Beirut, where homosexuality is strictly outlawed, but much more widespread. Beirut, in fact, is famous for its gay nightlife with the relatively well known P+C fancy dress party being the hub of the scene. Lebanon is not as tolerant as that makes it seem, with the major threat for a gay man coming from the police, who are ubiquitous in the city, as martial law rules. However tolerant these countries may seem, there always seems to be a threat. A gay student from Oxford several years ago was beaten up on the streets of Beirut, because he was less than cautious about his sexuality.
Amman is not like Beirut. However, Amman presents its own threats. The threat of the police is not as much of an issue, but the threat of a loss of reputation is. Amman is the kind of place where you quickly build up an identity and a group of friends. Whilst talking to a Jordanian about gay life in Amman, he told me that, sometimes, when discovered as being gay by neighbours, there have been cases of people being hounded out of buildings, or even areas of town. Thankfully, since my night, there have been no repercussions.
The most important addition to this story is the Jordanian perspective. Within these conflicts of legality and acceptance, it’s hard to imagine how a gay adolescent is supposed to understand the sexual urges he is having, when there is no real social outlet for his feelings. Since a 2011 clampdown on the homosexual sub-culture in Amman, there exists only one mainstream club left which openly caters for the gay community. However, the difficulty of coming to terms with your feelings in a society that discourages any open expression of love between the same genders presents a much greater problem.
Coming out as gay in the UK where I had a large support network and was never discriminated against was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. It was also one of the most positive things I have ever done in my life. What I did not realise on coming to Jordan was that ‘coming out’ is not even a thing here – gay men usually get married in the conventional way, and have to live out their fantasies in different ways.
This is the real tragedy about homosexuality in Jordan: the only reason I was not harassed because of what I did by the staff at the café is because I am not Jordanian. It was made very clear to me that had I been Jordanian the situation would have been much more serious. I now feel less than safe in the city I am beginning to call home. I now feel like I cannot express myself as I wish and be who I want to be. I know that in 8 months time I will be returning home without any fears. Imagine being Jordanian.
I have chosen to remain anonymous in this article, because I do not want to attract any undue and unwanted attention in Jordan or elsewhere. In this country I have to pretend not to be gay; I cannot willingly endanger my safety here.