A Gay Man in Benghazi: My Untold Story
-By Maad El Gali
Although LGBTQ+ individuals have acquired certain rights in the United Sates, including the right to marry their loved ones, in many other countries they suffer immense persecution and frequent harassment by the state and at the hands of their fellow citizens. Often denied the most basic of human rights, in some places, they even face torture, rape, and the death penalty. Such is the case in Libya, where I was born.
Born and raised in the city of Benghazi, I experienced many struggles as a result of my sexual identity. I knew that I was “different” at an early age, around five or six years old, and by the time I was seven, I had developed feelings for another boy. We were classmates, and our “relationship” mimicked what is often referred to as “platonic love.” While neither of us had the language to describe what existed between us, our feelings were so genuine that we continued with the “relationship” for two years following his family’s move to another city.
When a child is queer, or perceived as gay, his or her otherwise-carefree existence disappears; this change is especially marked when the child lives in a homophobic community, like that which characterized the Libyan society in which I was raised. My own struggle began at the age of nine, when another student at my school sexually assaulted me, and tried to rape me because he knew I was gay. I barely survived the horrors of that experience, and was left with emotional scars that I will likely have for the rest of my life.
From that time on, my life was an emotional rollercoaster; I endured years of anti-gay harassment from both my community and broader-Libyan culture. Though I experienced love with another young man when I was in high school, it remained a secret because we feared our safety and lives. We were afraid of being associated with the stigma that came with identifying or being identified as gay in Libya, a country where many believe that gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals should die because of their perceived “abnormality.”
Today, I enjoy the privilege of living as an openly gay man in the United States, without fear of persecution. It is a privilege that I am thankful for every day, because for most of my life, I was unable to be honest about my identity with myself nor with the outside world. Of course, my story is not as short, nor as simple, as what you have just read; it is filled with countless other instances of emotional and physical harassment and assault. Today, however, I am sharing my story because I want you to know that, if you are gay, lesbian, or transgender living in Libya or any other country in the Middle East and North Africa, I know what you are going through. We have lived the same horrors; we have known the same pain. Stay strong and have faith in yourself. Do not give up, and always be yourself. Do not let society limit you to a box of what it thinks you “should” be, and do not let it tell you that you are something you are not.
This is my story: the story of a gay man who made it out of Libya to live a free existence beyond the confines of a country with strict cultural and religious interpretations of what it means to be a “man.” Hopefully by reading my story, you, and other LGBTQ+ individuals in the MENA region, will be encouraged to be stronger and more patient when confronting every-day struggles. No matter what happens, keep faith that one day, you will be able to be truthful with yourself and with others about who you are. And on that day, you will shout it loud: “I am gay and proud.”
To learn more about LGBTQ+ rights in Libya, visit Equaldex.