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Friday, September 27, 2013

Pakistan, Citing Religious and Social Values, Bans L.G.B.T. Web Site

The Queer Pakistan Web site was meant to be a virtual refuge for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in a religiously conservative country where homosexuality is illegal.

But this week the Web site, queerpk.com, said it was shut down by the Pakistani authorities, who reportedly said that the content was against Islam and the values of Pakistani society. The administrators of the Web site responded by taking measures to work around the ban, which they said drove up traffic to the site after they redirected it.

Since it was founded in July, Queer Pakistan has served as an online portal where gays, bisexuals, transgender individuals and lesbians could meet and get advice. A series of messages on the site’s online support group suggests both the risks and confusion of users reaching out for support, some of them anonymously, using only initials or apparently using pseudonyms.

“I am new to this group and I am a lost soul,” said one person who wrote in seeking advice from “professionals that can help me with my confusion.” Another person wrote asking for “treatment.” There were also questions about health issues, or whether there were lesbians in Lahore and Karachi.

The site featured an online television section of gay short films with subtitles in Urdu. But it also tracked homophobia in the media and in other public forums in Pakistan, like the remarks by a Pakistani television figure who said transgender people should be killed.

The banning of the Queer Pakistan Web site has renewed attention on Pakistan’s gay and lesbian citizens, just as its establishment in July did. Even though homosexuality is outlawed in Pakistan and is considered repugnant to the tenets of Islam, it is privately tolerated in some sections of society, and the law is rarely brought to bear against people for homosexual behavior.

In August, a report by the British Broadcasting Corporation, which Queer Pakistan linked to on its Facebook account, quoted Pakistani gays and lesbians describing what they must do to live in their society, including taking part in invitation-only online support groups and arranging marriages of convenience with members of the opposite gender. It quoted a researcher, Qasim Iqbal, as saying:

Gay men will make every effort to stop any investment in a same-sex relationship because they know that one day they will have to get married to a woman. After getting married they will treat their wives well but they will continue to have sex with other men.

A lesbian named Beena, in Lahore, said she and her partner were considering arranging a marriage with two gay men, and pooling their money to share a two-family house. She was quoted as saying:

Gay rights in America came after women had basic rights. You don’t see that in Pakistan. You are not allowed a difference of opinion here. My father is a gentleman but I wouldn’t put it past him to put a bullet through my head. I’m all for being ‘true to myself’ but I don’t want to die young.

While homosexuals in Pakistan already use dating Web sites and other forms of Internet communication, the Queer Pakistan site apparently distinguished itself by being a rare forum that openly addressed homosexual issues in Pakistan.

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority spokesman was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying that the authorities had halted access to the site after complaints from Internet users. “We blocked the Web site under the law because its content was against Islam and norms of Pakistani society,” said the spokesman, Kamran Ali, according to the news service.

On Friday, Queer Pakistan said on its Twitter feed @queerpk that the ban had driven up interest in the redirected site.

While the site was still accessible outside Pakistan, the BBC journalist Iram Abbasi said in a report about the ban that the site displayed a message saying that because of forbidden content, access inside Pakistan had been denied.

This week the head of the BBC’s Urdu service in London, Aamer Ahmed Khan, drew attention to the ban on his Twitter account, @AakO, and to the report in Urdu by Ms. Abbasi.

Last month the site published a blog post with the headline “The Coming Out for a Pakistani” to address the difficulties.

For a regular Pakistani youngster the internet is the major source of all kinds of knowledge and happenings around the world. Same goes when a young gay Pakistani approaches the internet with his major life problem about being a homosexual. As the internet is dominated by content from western countries almost all the websites about being gay encourage you to ‘come out of the closet’ and tell the whole world you are gay and be yourself. This is great advice but only if you are living in a free country where laws and legislation are strict and there aren’t any religious fanatics going around running their own rule.

In Pakistan things are different. We are not going to be appreciated even by the most educated people if we be who we are in public. Moreover we also run a great risk of being harmed. It doesn’t matter if you are a boy or a girl. The risk is almost the same.

The site also linked to an article carried by SAPA, the South African press agency, and the German Press Agency, profiling the site and quoting one of its founders, who was partly identified as Fakhir Q. The agency reported:

“The main motivation is our own life stories,” said Fakhir Q, one of the people behind the pioneering Queer Pakistan website. “We have been through a lot and we know how it is growing up in a society like Pakistan with practically no support whatsoever.”

“So we want to provide a platform for people like us to show them they are not alone,” Fakhir said, giving only his first name.

He said the response to Queer Pakistan has been “remarkable,” with interest from all parts of Pakistani society.

The membership is from both the genders, with some 44 percent identifying themselves as female and 56 as males.

“It’s pretty diverse, goes from lower-middle to elite-protected class. The age group is 19-35,” Fakhir added.

The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority has previously tried to shut down chat rooms in a move it sees as protecting moral values, according to reports in the Pakistani press this month.

Late last year it also tried to block access to YouTube to prevent people from seeing the film “Innocence of Muslims,” a low-budget film mocking the Prophet Muhammad.

Declan Walsh contributed reporting.

Follow Christine Hauser on Twitter @christineNYT.