Premiering on the BBC two years ago, the documentary How Gay is Pakistan? didn’t quite make the splash it should have. Luckily, it came to Netflix this month, giving the documentary another chance for queer millennials everywhere to view it.
The 50-minute documentary follows Mawaan Rizwan, who at the time of filming was a moderately famous YouTuber. After five years of doing ridiculous skits on YouTube, he came out to his parents as a gay man at the age of 24.
They did not take it well.
This led Mawaan to wonder why his parents — both Pakistani — don’t accept gays. It also made him wonder, “How gay is Pakistan?”
In order to answer that question, he returned to Pakistan, his birthplace, after over a decade of growing up in Essex, England.
Pakistan overwhelmingly disapproves of homosexuality.
In 2013, Pakistan asked its citizenry whether they felt homosexuality was acceptable; only 2% of Pakistanis said yes. In large part this is due to the fact that Pakistan is a predominantly Muslim country. About 97% of Pakistanis are Muslim, and Pakistan has been called a “global center for political Islam.”
Returning to Pakistan, Mawaan explored the country’s underground gay culture, life as a transgender woman, LGBTQ centers, medication guaranteed to turn gay men straight and the surprisingly large number of straight-identifying men who openly have sex with other straight-identifying men.
Upon arriving, Mawaan first explored Pakistan’s gay nightlife scene. To say there was a “thriving” gay community would be a stretch, though LGBT individuals did meet to dance behind close doors. It was important to keep these events on the down-low, because if extremists were to discover the location, they could easily prepare an attack.
Kami, a transgender woman who Mawaan follows throughout the documentary, tells a story of a time when men showed up with guns to an LGBTQ event. When they started firing their guns up in the air, everyone attempted to disperse. The transwomen who weren’t able to disperse quickly enough were sexually harassed and raped.
While this is a particularly terrible and extreme example of the dangers transgender and gay people face in Pakistan, it illustrates the risk as well as courage it takes to throw a meetup with fellow members of the LGBTQ community.
Exploring Pakistan’s transgender community
In Pakistan, transgender women are known as hijras. Even though some estimate there are over 1 million hijras living in Pakistan, Mawaan states in his documentary, “Hijras are often rejected by their families and live on the margins of society.”
Because of this, they often live together, and the younger hijras have a guru — an older hijra to help them with the problems they face, including housing, boyfriends and transitioning. Basically, these gurus act as mentors. A guru also gives or withholds permission for the younger hijra to be castrated, which many trans women in Pakistan consider the final stage of transitioning.
In How Gay Is Pakistan?, one of the gurus has a particularly bleak outlook on dating and life as a transwoman. She believes no relationship with a hijra can ever last long-term.
“In the bedroom, straight men treat us like queens,” she says. “They lick us like dogs, but then they’re too embarrassed to introduce us to their family.”
This ties into the deep irony of how gayness is viewed in Pakistan. Expressing one’s sexual identity as a gay or transgender person is shunned, yet the physical act of gay sex or sex with a trans woman is not.
Let’s not pretend gay sex isn’t happening in Pakistan.
In How Gay Is Pakistan?, Mawaan explores the hotel cruising scene in Karachi, the nation’s most populated city at nearly 24 million people. Both the BBC and The Atlantic wrote pieces in 2013 calling Karachi “a hotbed of gay sex, even if actually maintaining a gay lifestyle is still incredibly difficult.”
This is quite bizarre, given how homophobic so much of the country is and the fact that homosexual activity is illegal and punishable by a prison sentence in Pakistan. While illegal, though, arrests and convictions are rare for homosexuality. Police usually turn a blind eye as long as the sexual activity happens behind closed doors.
A number of uneducated and underpaid laborers from rural areas go to notoriously cruisey hotels in Karachi to have sex with other men.
Qasim, the head of one of the few LGBTQ centers in Pakistan, explains that “A lot of straight men in Pakistan have sex with other men — not because they’re attracted to men but because females are not easily accessible.”
They can’t afford to sleep with female prostitutes, so they sleep with each other. For just 20-40 rupees (roughly 30-60 cents in U.S. dollars) they can spend the night at one of these hotels. But there’s a problem: These men know nothing about safe sex and STIs. As a result, many of the men acquire STIs, including HIV.
That’s why the LGBTQ center sends out counselors to hand out condoms and explain how and why to use them. The counselors are familiar with most of the men at these cruising grounds, but when they see someone new asking for condoms, they make sure to have a brief sit-down in a nearby cafe to chat with them about safe sex.
Pakistan’s LGBTQ health center employees are true heroes.
The men who work in the streets and at Pakistan’s LGBTQ health centers are heroes who risk their lives each day they come into work. Qasim states that one could easily throw a bomb through the window of the LGBTQ health clinic, and no one would care or do anything.
They risk their lives because these health centers are crucial to LGBTQ life in Pakistan. Transgender women and gay men come from over 1,000 miles away to speak with a doctor in an LGBTQ center. They come to get tested, discuss hormone treatment or simply exist in a safe space and feel a sense of community.
“This place is like heaven,” one trans woman says in the film.
The documentary How Gay Is Pakistan? is a must-see for all, but especially queer millennials. As many of us become more and more consumed by what’s going on the United States — despite those issues being important and worthy of our attention — it’s also necessary that we be aware of LGBTQ life and culture beyond our nation’s borders.
How Gay Is Pakistan? is available to stream on Netflix.