Nas Mohamed had to keep his homosexuality a secret for many years to survive in Qatar, where he was born, despite “knowing about it since he was little”.
“I remember when I was 11 or 12 years old and I was thinking about it, but I didn’t know what it really meant to be gay,” he says, now 35, in an interview with BBC News Mundo, the BBC’s Spanish-language news service.
“I didn’t have access to anything. There was no internet, there was no gay community in my city and I wasn’t exposed to anything. I didn’t understand what was happening to me.”
Initially, he decided to ignore and repress any thoughts related to sex and his sexual orientation.
He preferred to focus on medical school studies and religion; he was an “extremely religious” person, who knew the Quran by heart.
So he spent his adolescence and early adulthood—during which he had only to ignore advice that he should take a wife.
“Many of us are pressured to get married very young, sometimes before the age of 20. For me, the hardest thing was trying to resist the pressure around me to get married”, he reveals.
“I had to give a good reason for not wanting to get married, so they wouldn’t be suspicious.”
It was during a trip to Las Vegas, aged 22, that he confirmed he was “definitely” gay. At an LGBT+ nightclub, he felt really free for the first time.
“I realized that I didn’t have any kind of tendency or desire to have heterosexual sex. I was in shock. So I started reading and learning more about myself and what it meant to be homosexual,” he says.
But after returning to Qatar, he had to completely repress the sexual desire he had awakened in him.
“I lived in constant fear. I thought they would kill me if they knew I was gay, if it became public. Honor killings are very tribal in Qatar. Some families do it, some don’t, and the government tries not to intervene.”
Upon graduating in 2011, at age 24, Nas made the decision to “temporarily” move to the United States, where he would spend three years doing a residency to complete his professional training as a doctor.
After completing his residency at a hospital in Connecticut and a research fellowship at the State of Pennsylvania in 2015, he applied for asylum in California, saying he would be persecuted in his country because of his sexual orientation.
The end of the relationship with the family
Nas Mohamed had to hide his homosexuality to survive in Qatar. — Photo: BBC
But before applying for asylum, he called his parents to explain why he would not be returning to Qatar.
“I confessed to them that I was gay and that I didn’t feel safe at home, that I didn’t think I could go back. We had a big fight and then talked a few more times, but it never ended well,” explains Nas.
He says that, unfortunately, the relationship with his parents ended on that first phone call.
“Out of tradition and shame, I imagine they made up a story for the rest of the family. I don’t know what they were told, but I think now everyone knows the real reason I left, thanks to my interviews.”
Nas Mohamed gained notoriety this year after publicly speaking out about his homosexuality.
Many gave him the title of “1st Qatari to come out publicly”, after giving interviews to different media.
He explains that he decided to come out now precisely because the World Cup, which takes place at the end of this year in Qatar, has put the spotlight on this country and on all the allegations of human and minority rights abuses that are regularly reported in the Arab state. .
Earlier this year, Nasser Al Khater, chief executive of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, assured a press conference that all fans are welcome in Qatar, as long as they respect the country’s traditions.
“I would like to assure any fan, of any gender, (sexual) orientation, religion or race, that they can be sure that Qatar is one of the safest countries in the world and everyone is welcome here,” he said.
“Public displays of affection are frowned upon, not part of our culture, and that applies to everyone.”
But several associations, such as the European Gay & Lesbian Sport Federation, have complained that security guarantees for LGBTQ+ people in Qatar remain inadequate months before the start of the World Cup.
Nas says he didn’t come out to tell his own story, but to make that of all members of the LGBT+ community in Qatar known.
“It’s very dangerous to come out when you’re a Qatari, and I’ve been preparing for it for months.”
He says that through his recent work as a spokesperson for the LGBT+ community in Qatar, he realized how big the community is in his home country.
But everyone hides their sexuality and is afraid to talk about it or confess to someone.
According to him, this is because the Qatari police have a team dedicated to “hunting” LGBT+ people – and when they find a member of the community, they take their phone and dig through their contacts to try to locate others.
“I know gay people who don’t even know that other people close to their circle are (gay), as it is very dangerous for one LGBT+ person to meet another.”
Being gay is illegal in Qatar.
According to article 296 of its penal code, penalties for same-sex sexual relations range from 3 to 5 years in prison to even the death penalty — although there is no evidence that death sentences were applied for sexual intercourse. consensual meetings held privately between adults of the same sex.
Nas says that within the Qatari gay community censorship reigns and nothing is transparent, but he guarantees that not everyone lives under the same conditions.
“There are LGBT people who live well. They are a lucky minority, because they are very wealthy, with very large families, and they are accepted on the assumption that it has to be a family secret.”
But he adds that even these people live with many limitations in what they can do — and some often have mental health problems.
“Many of us weren’t so lucky, and horrible things happened to us.”
Nas Mohamed has applied for asylum in the US and currently lives in San Francisco, California. — Photo: BBC
Nas says that although he no longer lives in Qatar, he still fears for his life. He received a barrage of insults and death threats after making his homosexuality public.
“Even living here in San Francisco (in California) I don’t feel safe. Because there is a lot of hatred and violence against us”, he adds.
He has had to close almost all of his social networks to reduce the number of hateful messages he receives daily, with the exception of one Instagram account that he uses as a platform for his activism.
But just as hate mail arrives, he also receives thanks.
“I am grateful for being the voice of many people who cannot speak. Many people from the LGBT+ community and many allies from all walks of life in Qatar have reached out to me.”
‘My own family would kill me’
The US government granted Nas asylum in 2017 after an intense court battle. Since 2015, he has made San Francisco his home and says he could never return to Qatar.
“Without a doubt I would be mistreated on arrival. I think my own family would kill me for what I’m doing. There are people telling me on Instagram that if I step there, they will help me to know Allah,” he says.
He adds that he can also be sued by the government of Qatar for “breaking the law”.
Nas hopes his story will serve to inform many people about how “backward” Qatari society is in terms of the freedoms and rights of the LGBT+ community. And he appeals to foreigners who will visit the Qatar during the World Cup so they don’t hideas it insists that visibility is important.
He also hopes this will help other gay and transgender Qataris to have documented stories to show as evidence if they plan to seek asylum in other countries where they can live freely.
“We are a population that needs help and support. What is happening in Qatar is not just affecting Qataris, but the LGBT+ community around the world”, he observes.
“We need our rights to be universally respected, that wherever we go we are treated equally and as human beings with rights, not criminals. We need more voices.”
This text was originally published at https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/internacional-61894518