I noticed them mostly at night. In some corners of the narrow streets of Damascus’ old town, in parks or nightclubs, my attention was drawn to groups of men who looked, dressed and talked differently.
Homosexuality in Syria’s capital is becoming more and more visible, despite the fact that it remains a taboo issue.
But my primary interest was not to write a sensational piece about a poorly understood social group in my part of the world.
I wanted to show the courage of a group of people who were ready to defy strict social norms and discriminatory laws to assert their right to be different.
It was far from being a straightforward story, however. Between conceiving the idea of my article on homosexuality and actually writing it, I vacillated between excitement and hesitation.
I even thought of abandoning the story altogether because I sometimes felt that I wouldn’t be able to enter the world of homosexuality. I was also faced with the difficulty of finding gay men and women who would speak openly to a journalist about their sexuality and their everyday problems.
Eventually, after getting encouragement from my editors to pursue the topic, I devised a concrete plan to write my story.
I decided to go to a nightclub known to be frequented by gays. I also wanted to explore a Facebook group dedicated to Syrian gays to learn more about their lifestyles, aspirations and worries.
I met my first interesting interviewee, Nour, by chance at a sports centre. She seemed different so I approached her and later discovered that she was gay. Her story was inspiring. She had suffered greatly after her longtime girlfriend finally got married to a man. But she had decided to move on with her life and refused to accept a similar fate.
Her courage gave me a moral boost and she was one of the few interviewees who agreed to speak to me on the record.
Then, through friends, I met Alaa, who had been treated cruelly by his family after they discovered he was gay.
It was very touching to hear Alaa say to me, “I wish all people had the openness of journalists. I just want others to listen to me and respect me.”
I really felt it was my mission to make people understand that gays were normal human beings with rights.
Online, I got to chat with all sorts of gay men. Many were not comfortable with their sexuality. Some outwardly led a heterosexual life and just wanted discreet, quick sexual encounters with other men.
I also spent some time observing cruising spots in Damascus where I would see young men posing on the street late at night, waiting for someone looking for adventure to pick them up.
I felt it was also necessary for me to spend some time with a group of gays as they went out partying or socialising. I managed to get myself invited with a friend to a café near the Damascus castle with such a group. It was striking how funny and friendly they were.
Sadly, the reality was not always that cheerful. For my article, I thought it was important as well to meet officials to ask about arrests and legal cases involving homosexuals. It is a sad fact that the Syrian penal code prohibits sexual intercourse between people of the same gender, with sentences of up to three years in prison.
After completing the article, my overall impression, however, remains one of hope.
There are deep social changes driven by Syrian youth. Many youngsters are fed up with conservative values. They want more freedom, the right to cohabitation and civil marriage. And so, the growing visibility of homosexuality is an indicator of a cultural and social revolution in the making.