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What Life Was Like Growing Up Gay And With Raging Hormones In Dubai

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By Edwin Thomas for Cake:

While I was doing my undergrad in Bengaluru – India’s Silicon Valley – I would be the go-to person for all things gender, sexuality, sex, masturbation, orgasms, lubrication and so on and so forth. I was a lab rat for my peers’ numerous psychological (and even one sociological) studies which almost always began with “Homosexuals In Bengaluru…”, in addition to being sought for inputs regarding sexual identities that even remotely strayed from the norm.

I became the College Spokesperson for the plight of homosexual people and their like. But having been born and bred in the sand dunes of the Middle East, I was on double duty as a Non-Resident Indian (NRI) spokesperson too. However, not many were inquisitive about being queer in the UAE, even though it’s a fascinating cocktail when the two identities combine.


Growing up as a conflicted, teenage gay boy, with raging hormones in Dubai had its perks. I had the privilege of exercising my sexuality within an ethnically-defined, Gulf Malayali, diasporic space – that was mostly online – without identifying myself with the Indian queer movement, and all of its complexities of class and caste.

Analysing my trove of fascinating sexual experiences, I believe it is safe to say that the Gulf Malayali man is a horny one at that and I was no exception. I like to lovingly call them ‘try-sexuals’ – because most will ‘try’ anything for the fun of it, not because they necessarily subscribe to any particular queer identity. For many of these men – who only see their families back in Kerala once a year, and whose exhausting work hours leave them with little access to leisure activities – it is just about meeting someone and having sex.

In Dubai, interactions are based strictly on class lines. You can’t just walk into a bar on a Friday night, meet up with some friends, have a fun night of drinking, and maybe get lucky. Bars are super exclusive and expensive, social drinking is looked down upon, and hitting on women publicly can get you in trouble – all of the above can also land you in jail, some way or the other. And if it wasn’t obvious yet, the city doesn’t exactly host gay pride. After all ‘consensual sodomy’, as it is called, is penalised with imprisonment for up to 10 years and even deportation, in some cases.

All of this pushes the Gulf Malayali into alternate ways of looking for sex. That’s where the internet comes to the rescue.

I first tried the online space as a teenager, and my online handle was pretty straightforward – ‘gayinDubai’. I encountered mostly middle-aged men. Prior to one brief sexcapade, a 40-year-old, asked me to show him a picture of my parents so that he doesn’t end up having sex with a minor — whose parents he may know. Another, who seemed young on chat, turned out to be someone who couldn’t walk up the stairs without huffing and puffing. Wilted experiences, but I digress.

Flaccid penises aside, there’s a lot more to being ‘gayinDubai’ than what meets the eye (thank goodness). Today, if my libido is comparable to Samantha’s from ‘Sex and the City’, my Dubai-ness or Gulf-ness has a lot to do with it. And we’ll get there, nice and slow, slowly and carefully, inward and… you get the point.

Being a ‘Gelf Malayalee’

GayInDubai - Edwin Thomas - Article Image 2
Ethnic Day at college. Image credit: Prof.Shantaraj

When it was decided that my middle-class, hetero-normative, Gulf Malayali family should be just as boring as any other, little did anyone know that a unique little snowflake was about to shake things up a little – moi.

While many of my ‘Resident Indian’ friends like to think that we shower in gold and shit in cash, it’s a whole different experience when you are trying to live in a country searching for ‘better prospects’, and scrambling to pay house rent on time.

This was our ‘normal’. A normal constructed on the backs of South Asian workers and professionals, like my parents, in search of a better future. Close to our eyes was a dazzling lifestyle executed and exercised by white people, Arabs and some super-rich NRIs, while we were standing on the observatory decks of the Burj Khalifa, treated as second-class people in a country I still call home.

In the dating scene too, being able to exercise an ‘alternate’ sexuality has a lot to do with class politics. White people and Arabs have pubs or nightclubs that operate as far more liberal spaces, in which even ‘alternate’ sexualities thrive, as long as you are discreet, look a certain way (buff, buff and really buff) and are ready to shell out a certain amount. But if you’re brown-skinned and not deep-pocketed, there is almost no question of wanting to express your sexuality.

The Cosmopolitan ‘Sexile’

The Indian queer movement was something I could never relate to, because I always felt that there would be no room for a ‘spoilt NRI’. Having lived in a place like Dubai with a conflicted national identity, my ideas of queerness were more or less always cosmopolitan, not influenced or affected by any one nationalism.

Theory would call me a ‘sexile’ or a ‘sex exile’ – one who is culturally not bound by the identification or duties that is supposed to be carried out.

But it has its privileges: due to Dubai’s multiculturalism, there isn’t a presence of a single, overpowering, nationalist queer identity. This means I could and can engage with a community of queer people from different parts of the world who bring in their own cultural subjectivities, thereby, creating a melting pot of queerness. This made it far easier for me to adapt myself to the American gay rights discourse that virtually takes the world by storm, because there was no specific cultural conflict coming in my way. Our floating idea of a community, which was already highly Americanised, could easily match with the freely available ideology of the West.

Fight For My Rights But Where?

When there is no definite ‘home’, there is no point fighting for a queer person’s rights in a particular country – in which country would I fight? This encapsulates the misery that a lot of born-and-bred NRIs are conditioned to live with: a constant struggle of having to choose and identify what really is home. The country I was born in or the country whose passport I rightly have? Forget sexuality, this itself constitutes for a conflicted identity by itself (please don’t forget sexuality).

GayInDubai - Edwin Thomas - Article Image 1
Image Credit: Nakul Sridhar

And no, there was no ‘imaginary homeland’ in my mind, as a lot of diaspora theorists would like to pin on us. For a lot of people born and bred in the Middle East, this is home because this is what we have come to know and love. For our generation, there is no looking back, like there possibly is for my parents, who came solely in search of jobs. But at the same time, we are constantly reminded that we don’t belong: by means of not granting us citizenship, or having to pay taxes in the form of non-taxes, or preferential treatment for everyone except those who look like me.

Should I fight in India where the problems of caste, class, gender, post-colonialism, communalism and more make it difficult to identify a place where I am culturally rooted?

Or should I fight in Dubai where the vigilantism of strict Sharia law makes life for an ‘out’ person a matter of great risk? It’s not as easy as “Islamic nation = No gays and their likes”, because queerness does exist and operate, and may even be stronger in Dubai because it’s underground, but that is solely because some people are above the law.

Hell, it’s not easy being gay, neither is it easy to live up to a sexy title like ‘sexile’ but hey, it sounds cool enough to at least try. After having completed my higher education in Bengaluru, I am now happily based in Noida. And no, I never thought I would be working in UTTAR PRADESH of all places. As I wait and discover to see how India pans out, I use this time to look into myself.

Banner Image Credit: Liyah Mariam George

The original article was published here on Cake

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  1. Tanya Saxena

    I don’t even know you, yet i’m soo proud of you !

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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