They Have Starbucks in Cairo, Too


By Jordan Gerstler-Holton

Globe-trotting gays penetrate Egypt deeper than ever.

Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection

In early February 2011, with Egypt’s uprising in full force, Nic, a 51-year-old lawyer based in London, turned to a gay social network to find out what was happening. “Being gay, at least, there was a common interest, one thread there,” he recalls. That was when he met Omar, a 24-year-old Egyptian who declined to give his real name for fear of being outed. After chatting for over a year, Nic traveled to Cairo in March and April to see him.

Gay tourism is hardly new to Egypt. For over a decade, travel guides have touted discos, train stations, public restrooms, and even Tahrir Square, the iconic center of Egypt’s revolution, as gay cruising grounds. However, burgeoning gay social networks now facilitate connections with greater ease -- and across borders -- at a time when socially conservative Islamists are taking control of the country.

The most popular gay social network in the Arab world is Manjam, which has 100,000 members in the region, including 28,000 in Egypt.
Despite opposition to homosexuality in conservative Muslim countries, Greg Mills, Manjam marketing manager, says the company has “never directly experienced any problems from any government.”

Uwe, a 39-year-old airline strategy consultant, and Carlos, a 28-year-old Spanish teacher, are married and live in Germany. They met Omar on Manjam two years ago, shortly before their first trip to Egypt. Since then, Uwe has returned 10 times, and Carlos five.

“We have more of a gay social life in Egypt than we have in Germany, and we go out with friends more in Cairo than we do in Cologne,” says Uwe.

Rights groups report that Egypt’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, who remained concealed during the recent revolution, continue to face harassment, arrest, and even torture. Of more than two dozen gay online network users interviewed for this story, however, few believe their online activities put them in danger.

“I figure, what are you doing on the site if you’re not gay yourself?” says Omar with surprising confidence, straining to be heard over loudspeakers blasting the Islamic call to prayer from a nearby mosque. Along the unpaved surface, a wobbling truck kicks up dust. Mangy dogs scouring for food among heaps of garbage make way for the passing vehicle.

This is Omar’s district of Al-Duwayqa, which made headlines in 2008 when a rockslide flattened an entire neighborhood, killing more than 100 people and leaving thousands homeless. Otherwise, the area is virtually undistinguishable from the other informal, squatter-constructed communities that dot the sprawling Cairo metropolis.