As Russia Runs For the Closet, Afghanistan Comes Out
By Nemat Sadat
Photo by Brian Harkin
My coming out launched a hurricane upon my landlocked country of origin where homosexuality can be penalized with the death penalty. In the last year, as Moscow’s imbroglio with the west intensified over Russia’s anti-gay law that spilled over during the Sochi Olympics, neighboring Afghanistan has emerged as the new frontier in the push for LGBTQ rights floating around the world.
The tidal wave surged last August when I broadcasted this message on Facebook:
“I’m so happy to have finished the process of ‘coming out’ to the entire world. Burden lifted forever. For the last few people in the planet who don’t know, let me tell you now: Yes, I’m proud to be gay, Afghan, American and Muslim. So get over it! Now, I can live life without all the aunties & uncles harassing and pressuring with questions like why I haven’t married a woman. If they do, I will simply shake my head, snap my finger, toss my hair and tell them I am marrying a distinguished gentleman and in Pashto we call it خاوند “khaawand” (owner, proprietor husband) and if you want to offer your son or nephew for my hand then tell him I want a platinum ring on my finger, a Central Park wedding ceremony and a Manhattan skyscraper rooftop reception afterwards. I have it all planned out. The bespoke lifestyle awaits. Oh yeah!”
I didn’t plan on coming out so dramatically but living in a repressing society finally got to me. I was born in Kabul in 1979, the year the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. A year later my family and I went into exile and we resettled in Southern California in 1984. Decades later, in 2012, I moved back to my homeland to be a professor of political science at the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF). Unable to cope with life in an oppressive war zone, I started talking about controversial topics on social media as an outlet to my frustration.
A year later, in July 2013, the Afghan government alleged that my public outreach was subverting Islam in Afghanistan, so they pressured AUAF to fire me. A month later, from my new bedroom in New York City, I took a huge leap of faith to announce my sexuality in a plea to reconcile my identity conflict and finally be accepted by my family and nation.
Instead, I was disowned by my father who was ambassador to West Germany under the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), the communist regime, which rose to power with the collaboration of the Kremlin and ruled from 1978 to 1992. My father said that he and his three younger brothers joined the PDPA to fight for equality in Afghanistan. How ironic that, after I declared myself gay and condemned the violence against persecuted minorities in Afghanistan, that they would isolate me and try to sabotage my efforts to spread universal human rights. The reaction from Afghanistan was much worse. I received thousands of death threats from angry Afghans who were flabbergasted about my insistence that I’m both a proud homosexual and a Muslim.
Despite the backlash of a mostly homophobic nation, there is a silver lining to my story. Since my coming out, I’ve received hundreds of messages from closeted Afghans who regard me as their hero in life for giving them hope and raising global awareness about gay rights in Afghanistan—a subject that wasn’t a topic of discussion until now.
So it isn’t just Moscow that has a gay problem on its hands. Now Kabul has to comply with international norms by reversing the historical injustices that has denied sexual minorities their basic right to be recognized under the law.
In late October, two months after my revelation, a second revival to my coming out exploded on the web after several Afghan news sites published “gay Afghan man admits his homosexuality,” and the story went viral again; this time igniting a global tsunami that rocked the Afghan world—both inside the country and in the diaspora.
Within days, dozens of Facebook pages popped up with images of me cross-dressed as a transgender from a play I performed in England last year. After some tabloid news sites published a sensational article that claimed I had sex with 200 men in one year, and the Afghan rumor mills spread my alleged promiscuous affairs at rapid speed. Local print newspapers in Kabul published articles that I was going to release the names of closeted bureaucrats in the Afghan government. On the airwaves, an Afghan TV station claimed that Gul Agha Sherzai, the flamboyant politician who is running for President of Afghanistan in this year’s election, had sent me an open love letter and requested for my hand in marriage. I became the butt of jokes and ceremonialized in a way that was unprecedented in the history of Afghanistan if not the entire Muslim world.
Meanwhile, the very same people who called for my beheading had made so much noise on the Internet and on the Afghan street that the international media found out and started contacting me for interviews. In Afghanistan, the common sentiment is that I’m a coward for confessing my desire for a man while my friends in the west laud me for my courage and regard me as a great liberator of the 21st century.
Six months since my coming out, Afghanistan is no longer the same. Allover the country, Afghans are candidly talking about homosexuality in a way that would have been unimaginable before I released the valve. In an interview last October with Voice of America Dari, which was their most-read story in 2013, I differentiated between violent bachabazi (pederasty) and same-sex love among consenting adults. A few days after my talk, Afghanistan’s human rights commission launched an investigation into pedophilia.
As athletes and tourists at Sochi prepare to return to their home countries, it's important to note that, despite the international outcry against Russia’s hostility towards gays, the U.S. didn’t boycott this time as it did the 1980 Moscow Olympics in response to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. In retrospect, we know the Soviet Union was on the wrong side of history when it invaded a peaceful Afghanistan that posed no harm to anyone. Assuming the no-harm principle, where is the logic when Russia wages a war on gays who pose absolutely no threat to national security? On the contrary, all indicators show that an inclusive society that protects every citizen will remain stable and united in the long run.
It’s too soon to tell what the enduring ripple effects will be from the gay storm that's saturated Russia and now Afghanistan. While the offensive against Russia’s institutionalized homophobia has been driven by Western states and civil society, in Afghanistan it took the trailblazing act of just one person to awaken the gay movement.
No one would have guessed that from my laptop, thousands of miles away from Afghanistan, I could ignite a revolution that has engaged millions in a national discussion about a topic that was previously taboo. Even I didn’t anticipate that. But if social media prompted the downfall of dictatorships in the Arab World then why can’t it energize the LGBTQ movement in Afghanistan or Russia?
Some have called me the Oscar Wilde of Afghanistan. I just hope I’m alive to see the day when the first lesbian couple legally marries in Russia and on Afghan soil.