In Pakistan, ‘gay’ isn’t a word you use in polite society. In fact, a polite term for it does not even exist in Urdu, our national language. No one in my school was openly gay, and the only two such people I know of are my parents’ age. Everyone at home knows that outwardly, being gay is a taboo associated with a serious sin; very few of us are aware of or willing to acknowledge the reality that there is actually an extensive gay community in existence. I recently read a BBC article titled Gay Pakistan: Where sex is available and relationships are difficult, and it uncovered a facet of my society that I have to admit I had previously been oblivious to. For me to read that gay men view Karachi as a “gay man’s paradise” was shocking, to say the least. Granted, this paradise is only in terms of clandestine sex, for we’re a long way off from any kind of explicit acceptance of same-sex relations. Prior to reading the article, I would not have believed that Grindr is active in Karachi – I think that in itself proves how good we have become at turning a blind eye to things that are not socially acceptable. If we don’t talk about it, it simply doesn’t exist. I am frustrated by how this national silence obscures much of reality from view.
These realizations took me back a few months to June, when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide. I was in Karachi at the time, and the majority of reactions I heard were negative. These were echoed by the harshly critical and often insensitive posts and comments that flooded half of my Facebook news feed. The other half was the polar opposite — enthusiastic, celebratory responses in support of the decision that I was very happy to see. Needless to say, this latter half was made up mostly of my Swarthmore friends and peers. I found myself feeling like I was part of two worlds at once, something I have experienced often since coming to college. On certain issues, these worlds seem diametrically opposed, and I sometimes feel like I cannot belong to either one of them exclusively.
The same was true on this particular occasion. Having been at Swarthmore for a year at this point, I had queer friends for whom this decision was deeply significant and personally impactful. I definitely shared their happiness and still do, but if I’m being honest, beyond that, I was indifferent. Quite frankly, being in a country that is rife with sectarian violence, religious extremism and political unrest, gay marriage legislation in the US simply doesn’t top my list of concerns, and shouldn’t for anyone else. I didn’t feel like I had enough insight or connection to the issue to post about it myself. However, I found it ridiculous that other Pakistanis would spend hours on social media, mindlessly arguing about an issue that has neither direct nor indirect impact on them. I am not trying to dismiss the importance of the legislation; it is clearly a watershed in recent LGBTQ history. But once again, everything is relative, and the bottom line is that in Pakistan there are other, more pressing battles to be fought first. Where I’m from is inseparable from who I am, and will always take precedence above all else.
Reflecting on the experience, I realize that what was most exasperating to me was the way in which some people who opposed the ruling tried to isolate it and represent it as a ‘Western problem’ of sorts, characteristic of the reckless ways of overly liberal societies. But I wonder, what claim to moral superiority do members of my society possess? Gay communities exist worldwide — instead of acknowledging ours and protecting its rights, we have made sure it remains underground, and then proceed to criticize societies that choose a different course.
Naturally, while Pakistani society is not without flaws, it carries within it the capacity for progress and positive change. The point I am trying to make is that the way to spark social change is to direct our focus and energy into the immediate environment where change is required. We need to stop concentrating so much on what we perceive as broken in other communities if we have not yet even begun to fix what is broken in our own. Swarthmore, being as liberal and progressive as it is, allows us the space to approach issues from a wide range of angles, and the freedom to decide which one to adopt. My hope is that we can carry this culture out into the real world with us, and translate it into real change in the places where it is most needed.